Lena Dunham, Mythmaking, and the Left

The self-absorbed writer, actress and Obama Left icon Lena Dunham, along with her publisher Random House, have admitted the falsity of a kinda-sorta “rape” accusation she irresponsibly made against a man identified as “Barry” in her bestselling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.”

I have no interest in Ms. Dunham and haven’t read her book, although I was fascinated by Kevin D. Williamson’s piece about it in National Review. What her celebrity says about the culture is far more interesting to me than whatever she thinks she has learned about life at the ripe old age of 28, and after a privileged and -- to put it mildly -- eccentric existence.

My general apathy extended to her highly qualified claim that she was raped while a 19-year-old undergrad at Oberlin College. Of course rape is extremely serious business … when it really happens. The rapist should be prosecuted and do serious jail time -- something I say not just as a member of civilized society but also as a former prosecutor who dealt closely with violent crime victims and the lasting trauma they suffer.

Still, like many parents, I’ve closely followed the slide of American universities into bazaars of regulated licentiousness (the work Heather Mac Donald has done on the subject is especially important -- see, e.g., her recent feature essay in the Weekly Standard). It is thus difficult to take all rape claims in that setting at face value.

That is not to say rape does not happen on campus. But a certain skepticism about rape reports is inevitable once there is no longer a common understanding of what the word means. Much of what is portrayed as “rape” -- indeed, as a campus “epidemic of rape” -- turns out not to be sexual assault at all. It is consensual sex about which at least one of the participants  post facto regrets. Shrieks that equate such relations with rape are the sounds of reality colliding with Sixties-sculpted fictions: that traditional sex roles are mere social constructs, that when non-intimates copulate there should be no more complication or consequence than there is when they shake hands, etc.

Ms. Dunham’s account of being “raped” is a good example. “Barry” is depicted as “our campus’s resident conservative.” The depiction has arguably created legal exposure for Ms. Dunham because there really was a Barry during her time at Oberlin, and he really was openly and notoriously conservative at the small, heavily Left-leaning school. This Barry, who is easily identifiable, denies ever having met or having any kind of personal relationship with Dunham, let alone having been intimate with her, much less sexually assaulting her.

As best I can make sense of it, Dunham’s story does not involve rape. She describes it as a consensual sexual encounter -- after drinking and drug use, and after she took “Barry” back to her room even though he had groped her intrusively. Sometime during intercourse, she says she discovered that “Barry” had, without permission, removed his condom. She thus tells him to stop; he complies and leaves. The next day, he callously ignores her upon passing her by.

It trivializes real rape to describe this as rape. To analogize, it exaggerates what, at the very most, is a minor embezzlement into a violent armed robbery. Whether there was some degree of fraud involved depends on the understandings, if any, of the parties … but forcible sexual assault? The suggestion seems ridiculous.

That, perhaps, is why -- or at least part of why -- Ms. Dunham could not bring herself to do more than float the suggestion of rape, at least in the book. She there describes the encounter twice, eventually claiming not to have consented -- more, it seems, to the way the sex happened than that the sex happened. (As Breitbart’s John Nolte quotes her, “[A]t no moment did I consent to being handled that way. I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us. I never gave him permission.”) Then, Kevin Williamson observes, “she has other people describe the event as ‘rape,’ thereby dodging any intellectual or moral responsibility for making the claim herself.”

But eventually, she crossed that line -- at least arguably -- in making the post-publication rounds. As John Nolte reports, she answers “yes” when Howard Stern inquisitively says, “You were raped by a guy.”

For good measure, the book also includes Dunham’s hearsay account of the same “Barry” having a rough but apparently consensual sexual episode with another woman. The aftermath is said to resemble a blood-spattered crime scene, but Ms. Dunham is happy to report that Barry accompanied the woman to get morning-after pills at the campus clinic the next day. (Translation: the campus conservative is a hypocrite.)

From the standpoint of “Barry,” Ms. Dunham’s story could very well be actionable as libel or as the intentional (or at least negligent) infliction of emotional distress. There is a significant factual question about whether she really accused him of rape, but there is no doubt that she accused him of disreputable behavior.

The more significant question is whether she truly accused the real Barry. In a characteristically sharp legal analysis, Eugene Volokh explains that one need not identify a person fully by name to libel him; there can be a case if enough descriptive information is provided that it is reasonably clear whom the writer was referring to. Here, while the defining attribute Dunham seems to have emphasized -- campus conservative -- points to the real Barry, several other features (mustache, deep voice, his job on campus) do not. Add to this the publisher’s explanation of a caveat on the book’s copyright page: it alerts readers that some names and identifying details have been changed – although, as Powerline’s John Hinderaker notes, this qualifier is undercut by Dunham’s writing: With respect to some characters, she takes pains to tell the reader she is using a pseudonym, but she pointedly did not do this with “Barry” despite relating the “rape” story twice.

Patently, Ms. Dunham and Random House are sufficiently worried about legal liability that they’ve issued a disclaimer. They now acknowledge that “the name ‘Barry’ referenced in the book is a pseudonym,” and -- though “We’re sorry” is not uttered -- they do say they “regret ... the confusion” that prompted the real Barry to retain counsel to explore a potential lawsuit.

But the larger point here is not whether the real Barry has a legally sufficient claim. It is the continuing subordination of reality to myth. This progressive strategy has gone mainstream, as I discussed in a recent column about two African-American suspects killed when they resisted arrest, and as we’ve recently seen in the collapse of Rolling Stone’s fictitious reporting of a vicious gang rape at the University of Virginia.

We are thus told that there remains “institutional racism” in our society to which “white privilege” has blinded the ruling class even as white police purportedly target and kill black men … just as there is a “war on women” being waged by conservative that has led to, among other travesties, an “epidemic of rape” on campus. Facts do not matter: they are inflated, contorted, or omitted as needed to fit the narrative that advances the myth. It is the myth that dominates the reporting, the classroom lectures, and the political campaigns.

I have no idea whether Ms. Dunham’s “rape” story is a complete fabrication. But I have a hard time believing her decision to connect the “rape” to “Barry the campus conservative” was anything but intentional.