Actress and author Lena Dunham opened up on Tuesday about why she initially held back from reporting her own experience with sexual assault, and what made her finally come forward.
The star and creator of the HBO hit series Girls said in an Op-Ed for Buzzfeed that feelings of personal shame prevented her from going to the police.
“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,” she said. “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 column comes on the heels of backlash from Rolling Stone’s seemingly flawed investigation into an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA). The article, which described a graphic and brutal encounter, sparked national discussions about rape culture across college campuses. Details of the account have now been called into question, and the magazine has walked back the story citing “discrepancies.”
While Dunham doesn’t reference the Rolling Stone article or the alleged incidents at UVA, she discussed sexual assault on college campuses, noting that prevention and responsiveness are good, if small, ways to begin tackling the issue.
The actress also weighed in on how the public treats rape victims, suggesting they’re held to unrealistic standards of perfection. “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,” she continued. “Their most intimate experiences are made public property.”
Dunham noted that she had been drunk and high at the time of the incident, which contributed to her feelings of self-doubt at the time. But she said felt inspired by the “brave women” who had shared their darkest hours with the world. To her, the decision to come forward was about letting her shame “dry out in the sun.”
The actress first publicly recounted her alleged attack as an undergrad at Oberlin College in her new book, Not That Kind of Girl. While she didn’t expect “pure empathy or wild applause,” Dunham said her choice to come forward has been met with character assassination.
“I hoped beyond hope that the sensitive nature of the event would be honored, and that no one would attempt to reopen these wounds or deepen my trauma.” But that didn’t happen, she said. “I have had my character and credibility questioned at every turn … I have been made to feel, on multiple occasions, as though I am to blame for what happened.”
Dunham added, “This reaction, which ranges from skepticism to condemnation to threats of violence, is something I have been subject to as a woman in a position of extraordinary privilege. So let us then imagine the trauma experienced by low-income families, women of color, the trans community, survivors with disabilities, students on financial aid, sex workers, inmates, foster children, those who do not have my visibility, my access to medical and mental health care, or my financial and legal resources.”
In an unexpected twist, Dunham’s book publisher may be paying the legal bills for one former Oberlin student, according to the Hollywood Reporter. In her book, Dunham described her attacker as a mustached conservative guy named “Barry.” That was a pseudonym, but it seems there’s a former Oberlin student named “Barry” who reportedly fits this description a little too closely. His lawyer says he’s been fending off accusations since the publication of the book that he attacked Dunham.
In addition to footing “Barry’s” legal bills, Random House reportedly agreed to alter that passage to more clearly indicate that a pseudonym was used.