Rape apologists generally claim their motive is not to excuse rape but to protect the innocent who are falsely accused. But what happens when they are forced to choose between protecting an innocent man and trying to shame and silence a woman out of telling her story? You will not be surprised, dear readers, to learn that even if it means making life hell for some random guy who didn’t do anything wrong, rape apologists will choose to shame and silence rape victims, every single time.
That’s what is happening in the case of Lena Dunham, who has outraged conservatives by writing a memoir in which she says that she was sexually assaulted. Since the right is increasingly wed to the claim that rape isn’t a real thing that really happens— except maybe once in a blue moon and only by strangers climbing through windows (and sometimes not even then)—a bunch of idiots have been trying to prove Dunham is lying about it, through the strategy of pretending that if you can’t remember what color the wallpaper was from this thing that happened 10 years ago, you must be lying. Dunham, being a non-idiot who understands brains are biological organs and not video cameras, has been upfront about the fact that some of her memories are hazy and that the details are more memoiristic than a court-ready testimony. But no matter, rape apologists were determined to poke holes in the story as if it were court testimony, because the goal here is to scare women out of speaking up about rape.
In her book, Dunham tells the story of being assaulted by a man she calls “Barry,” which is not his real name, which should tell you a lot about the lack of integrity of conservative media regarding what happened next. She shares some details about him, which I have no doubt are punched up in the traditional memoir fashion. Again, memoirs are not journalism and, outside of when a bunch of rape apologists are throwing feces and screaming, they are not usually taken to be journalism. The point of this exercise was to tell a story readers can relate to, not to get some form of justice. This is screamingly obvious to anyone who isn’t an obsessive misogynist.
But rape apologists needed to “prove” Dunham lied about being raped and so they went on a manhunt to find “Barry.” And sure enough, they found a guy who has that name but is probably not the guy in Dunham’s story. And they’ve been making his life pretty damn unpleasant. Kevin Williamson talked about bothering this poor guy at work:
It takes me about two minutes to discover a Republican named Barry whose time at Oberlin coincided with Dunham’s. A few minutes later, I know a great deal about him: Where he works, where he lives, what he majored in, his high-school-prom plans, people we know in common, and other surprising intersections between our lives. When I call him at his office, I get the distinct impression that I am not the first reporter to have done so. “I don’t have anything to say about what I know you’re calling about,” he says. We speak very briefly, and he is concerned that I will use his name.
No doubt. A quick Google search shows that the right wing press is obsessed with figuring out who “Barry” is. You will have to wash yourself off in a bleach shower after reading this lengthy attempt at investigating this question at Breitbart, which is many thousands of words based on the false premise that if Dunham changed some details of her encounter to protect against just this sort of investigation, it must mean she’s lying. Of course, if she hadn’t taken pains to protect the guy’s identity and instead just told everyone who it was, they’d also be screaming about that, too. No matter how you tell your rape story, just telling it means you are wrong. That much is clear—you are meant to suffer in silence, or you will be forced to pay. Or, in this case, some random dude who went to Oberlin will be forced to pay. They will keep shooting hostages until you swear you weren’t raped, it appears.
It’s easy to blame Dunham and her editors for not being more careful in landing on a pseudonym for this story, of course. They could have called him “Fartknocker” and hopefully stopped some of this nonsense, though the fear that people might actually believe rape is a thing that happens is such that I don’t know that these right wing nuts can be stopped. They very well could have picked some other random dude to call all the time and hint heavily that they know who he is in the press about.
Eugene Volokh, in a pathetic effort to justify harassing some innocent guy in order to intimidate Dunham over this, writes: “The copyright page, which I suspect few people read, does say that ‘Some names and identifying details have been changed,’ but it certainly doesn’t tell people which ones.” Perhaps, then, it would have been better not to speculate and go bother some random Oberlin graduate over this, but alas, sacrifices need to be made when it comes to intimidating rape victims into not speaking out.
Random House has responded to all this the best they can, tweaking new editions of the book to make it clear that duh, “Barry” was not his real name and offering to pay restitution to the man in question over this. Dunham has published a piece at Buzzfeed apologizing to the real life Barry, something I suspect that the conservative “journalists” who keep bothering him will likely not do. From her statement:
I was not naïve enough to believe the essay in my book would be met with pure empathy or wild applause. The topic of sexual assault is far more inflammatory and divisive than it should be, with tension building around definitions of consent, and fear ruling the dialogue. But 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 this did not prove to be the case. I have had my character and credibility questioned at every turn. I have been attacked online with violent and misogynistic language. Reporters have attempted to uncover the identity of my attacker despite my sincerest attempts to protect this information. My work has been torn apart in an attempt to prove I am a liar, or worse, a deviant myself. My friends and family have been contacted. Articles have heralded “Lena Dunham’s shocking confession.” I have been made to feel, on multiple occasions, as though I am to blame for what happened.
I think she’s right. All of this is an effort to make the price of speaking out our life experiences so high that other women won’t do it, and the illusion that rape isn’t a thing that happens can be maintained. Which, in turn, means that rapists can rape in peace, unafraid that their victims will speak out. Is that what the people who did this hope happens? At a certain point, you have to wonder why.