Lena Dunham is more than a voice of a generation; she is a voice of a growing number of women — 1 in 5, or 20% of the entire female population — who have been raped in their lifetime.
While Dunham has been an influential proponent of women's issues for the past few years, her new memoir Not That Kind of Girl is likely to become a seminal text in the feminist literary canon, in part for the way it has catalyzed a new conversation surrounding the definition of rape.
In "Girls & Jerks," a chapter from the book, Dunham recounts a sexual encounter with a young man she calls "Mr. Face for Radio," who took off his condom without her consent. "Mr. Face for Radio had flung the prophylactic into our tiny palm tree," she writes, "thinking I was too dumb, drunk or eager to call him on it." She calls him on it, rhetorically, in a way that shows her discomfort ("'I think...? The condom's...? In the tree?' I muttered feverishly."), but by the time he reaches for it, she's gotten up off the floor and soon tells him to leave.
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The event culminates in Dunham's realization that she has been raped. She explores it in greater detail in the following essay, "Barry," the first name of Mr. Face for Radio. The narrative is unique and universal at the same time: an attention-seeking college girl, under the influence of various substances, allows a smarmy-looking guy to take her home. But the psychological aftermath and physical toll the encounter takes on Dunham makes her realize that her night with Barry "didn't feel like a choice at all."
"[A]t no moment did I consent to being handled that way," she later told her boyfriend, Jack. "I never gave permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us. I never gave him permission. In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge of it has kept me from sinking."
Dunham's confession speaks to the way rape culture lives and thrives, particularly on college campuses. As awareness spreads, young women across America are realizing that what initially may have been construed as an aggressive sexual encounter is not consensual sex. It is, in fact, rape.
What therapy afficionado Dunham realizes and attempts is a Freudian type of "working through" of how women can be swept up in an initially "confusing situation," one that didn't feel right, at any moment, but which she went through with because "it's what grown-ups do." Sex is messy. Dunham, of all people knows, this. But Dunham's memoir encapsulates how the messiness inherent in sex, coupled with a misogynist culture, should encourage a continuing cultural discourse on the definition of rape in America.
Too often, women are taught to divorce the psychological and physical pain from sexual encounters because it is simply what occurs between "grown-ups," as Dunham so poignantly points out. Passivity is simply what women are supposed to do, especially in bed — otherwise we'll be deemed suffering from the narcissistically-induced "princess and the pea syndrome."
It is a conversation occurring on a legislative level as well, with feminists leading the initiative to popularize the concept of "affirmative consent," both in culture and also in law. California's newly passed "Yes Means Yes" legislation is just such an attempt, specifically to define sexual consent: "Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent," SB-967 states. "Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time."
Of course, while affirmative consent may clearly legislate sex in a court of law, the point that Dunham is trying to prove exists on a much larger scale. We have a lot of work ahead of us when it comes to teaching women that it's perfectly reasonable and within their power not to "go along" with sex, even if culturally they have been conditioned to believe that is just "what grown-ups do."
The law cannot legislate one's mind, which is exactly why we need a clear, society-wide definition of rape, so that no woman has to spend the next decade of her life wondering why exactly she feels so scared and ashamed.