A Lesson From Lena Dunham: Why It’s Excruciatingly Hard For Rape Victims To Come Forward

A Lesson From Lena Dunham: Why It's Excruciatingly Hard For Rape Victims To Come Forward

Actress and writer Lena Dunham holding her memoir “Not That Kind of Girl.” (Photo by Getty Images)

“It has been almost a decade since I was sexually assaulted,” wrote Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s hit series “Girls”, in an essay published Tuesday evening on Buzzfeed. “It took me a long time to fully acknowledge what had happened and even longer to discuss it publicly.”

Dunham’s words are in response to criticism she’s faced after writing about the rape she said she endured as a student at Oberlin College, in her recent memoir, ”Not That Kind of Girl.”

Since the book’s publication, journalists have sought to identify and contact “Barry,” the “flamboyant Republican” fellow student at Oberlin who Dunham said sexually assaulted her. The media quickly located a man with the same name who attended the college during Dunham’s tenure there and was active in the campus’ College Republicans club. He denied having known Dunham, yet alone raping her.

Since then, Dunham has faced an onslaught of media reproach.

She’s been accused of falsifying her account entirely — since Barry vehemently denies it. And she’s also raised eyebrows for failing to be an “ideal” victim: Dunham admits in her memoir to being drunk and high on both cocaine and Xanax at the time of her assault.

In her essay for Buzzfeed, Dunham explains that not only was “Barry” a pseudonym for her assailant, but that she intentionally attempted to describe him in such a way that would prevent him from being sought out and identified. She writes, “Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather, it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun.  I did not wish to be contacted by him or to open a criminal investigation … that is my choice.”

Dunham goes on to make a confession as heart-breaking as it is startling in its unfortunate reality.

She stated that she did not discuss her rape until now because, “I was afraid. I was afraid that no one would believe me. I was afraid other potential partners would consider me damaged goods. I was afraid I was overreacting. I was afraid it was my fault. I was afraid he would be angry. Eight years later, I know just how classic these fears are. They are the reason that the majority of college women who are assaulted will never report it.”

Dunham’s experience is anything but unusual. 

Public disclosure of one’s rape — to either one’s own peer group or any set of officials or health care professionals — is the exception, not the rule.

“There is a lack of understanding of rapes that involve alcohol or drug use at the time of the assault —  it’s often voluntary use, but it may occur with a person who perceives a possibility of taking advantage of someone,” says Dr. Heidi Resnick, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

“But because the use [of substances] is most often voluntary, there might be confusion or fear that other people may not understand that,” Resnick tells Yahoo Health. “And rape victims themselves may be less likely to acknowledge that it is a rape because of the biases other people hold — it doesn’t fit the stereotypes that other people hold.”

Dunham’s words feel especially poignant given the still-developing controversy surrounding a Rolling Stone feature story on the rape of a young woman named Jackie at the University of Virginia, and the subsequent reporting around the magazine’s failures to properly fact check the story. In the past week, there has been a great deal of discussion questioning the veracity of Jackie’s story, with little distinction being drawn between bad journalism and the ability to believe a woman who said she has been raped.

We can barely talk about sex, let alone rape.

“Rape has a lot of qualities that make it particularly hard for people to report,” says Dr. Art Markham, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. ”We have a hard enough time talking openly about sex in perfectly innocuous situations.”

Even normal sexual behavior can cause feelings of shame and insecurity, and rape brings those feelings of shame and insecurity to the forefront.

Jackie’s assault, Dunham’s assault, and the assault of countless other individuals on college campuses and throughout the country have been called into question because of the inherent murkiness that exists in narrating one’s own assault. As Dunham says in her Buzzfeed piece, “Survivors are so often re-victimized by a system that demands they prove their purity and innocence. They are asked to provide an unassailable narrative when the event itself is hazy, fragmented, and unspeakable.”

Related: The UVA Rape Case — How Traumatic Events Affect Memory

Resnick echoes Dunham’s words, stating that, “Substance facilitated or incapacitated rape is also rape even if forcible rape elements are not present — broader education is needed about this issue generally within our society, not just for those who may experience such incidents — [including] service providers” and legal and college officials who handle sexual assault complaints.

There’s no one “type” of rape. 

“Very few rapes fit the stereotype that a woman is attacked forcibly by a stranger with a weapon and raped,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “Many rapes involve acquaintances. They may even arise after a date, where alcohol and drugs have been involved, and where there may have been kissing or other romantic activity.”

In these cases, it can be difficult for a victim to understand how the situation ended in unwanted sexual activity. “There is a lot of self-questioning that victims will go through,” says Markman. “In order for the victim to report the rape, she will also have to report other activity (such as alcohol use or kissing) that she may not want to have to admit to and that she may feel would undermine the claim that she was raped.”

It can be hard for a victim to realize it’s actually rape.

“It’s really difficult for survivors to process the details of their rape because they’re repeatedly told that only certain forms of violence are unacceptable,” says Alyssa Peterson, a policy organizer with Know You IX, a student sexual violence advocacy organization. “If you were drunk, knew the rapist, didn’t physically resist, had a relationship with the person, or identify as LGBTQ, our society doesn’t recognize the violence you experienced.” Survivors can internalize that and blame themselves.

Related: How One Nurse Is Changing The Way Lesbian And Bisexual Women Receive Healthcare

Dr. Heather Littleton, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at East Carolina University, concurs: “Victims may be unsure whether what happened was a rape or sexual assault, particularly if the incident does not match the “real rape” stereotype of a violent attack perpetrated most often by an unknown assailant.” Indeed, research has consistently shown that over half of victims of rape do not define what happened to them as rape or a crime — they know that something wrong or bad happened, but do not give the experience the label of rape.

“It does not match their ideas about what rape is and/or they do not want to take on the stigma and negative connotations of being labeled a rape victim,” Littleton tells Yahoo Health. 

Most women don’t seek medical care after sexual assault.

Resnick notes that her research has shown that only one in five women who have been raped seek out any form of medical care after the incident, and identify that fear of social stigma, family members blaming them for their own assault, and the failure of others to acknowledge that their assault was a rape or any kind of a crime as a prevalent factor that prevents them from coming forward.

“For a woman to report a rape, she has to put herself in a situation where for a significant time afterward she will be identifying herself as a rape victim,” notes Markman. “Initially, many victims just want the whole thing to go away, and so they may elect not to report the rape in order to avoid having to stay focused on the assault.”

Those who have been sexually assaulted are immediately confronted with the question of, “Are you sure?”

This question is difficult to answer given the psychological effects associated with sexual assault — trauma can alter our ability to recall experiences — coupled with a victim’s fear of facing judgment within their own social group.

Seeing those in the public eye receive this kind of criticism reinforces the message that rape victims are better off keeping their assaults private.

“Speaking out about the realities and complexities of sexual assault is how we begin to protect each other,” says Dunham. 

She’s moving the needle in the right direction. 

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