The Right's Rape Trolls vs. Lena Dunham

Breitbart forced her to correct a small part of her story, but witch hunts like these will leave every victim cowering.

12.10.14 4:00 PM ET

I can picture the champagne popping among Breitbart’s self-congratulatory clique after Lena Dunham acknowledged that a critique of her essay on college sexual assault had some validity. To her and her publisher's complete credit, they are dealing with the criticism head-on, but the manner in which Breitbart went about exposing, no stoking, fears of Dunham rape hoax is far more problematic.

In “Barry,” an essay in Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham describes being sexually assaulted. Actually, sexually assaulted is the term she uses now, but Dunham doesn't directly describe it as such in the book. Instead, she says other people she has shared the story with described the sexual encounter as rape. Ultimately, reflecting other people's reaction was highly effective. In a collection of essays that left a lot to be desired, “Barry” captured the array of ambivalent emotions one can feel after a negative, unwanted, confusing sexual experience, sex that, as Dunham puts it, “didn't feel like a choice at all.” She describes laughing when her friend tells her she's been raped and how confused she is when the writers room at Girls concluded she was assaulted. Her own muddled feelings of confusion, shame, and fear are what make the essay great and what make the essay her story. It is neither a civil nor criminal indictment of “Barry.” In fact, in the context of the essay, “Barry” is secondary. It’s an essay that's more about coping with feelings and making sense of an upsetting, confusing situation than the person who caused those feelings.

The decision to add the disclaimer that “Barry” isn’t the guy’s real name came after a Breitbart reporter exhausted himself trying to hunt down Dunham's alleged Republican rapist—and yes, the Republican part is stressed so often in the Breitbart report that one wonders if the genuinely commendable concern for an innocent man would have been expended if he was described as a Democrat or if no political affiliation had been noted. After different right-wing media sites tried their darnedest to take sections of Not That Kind of Girl out of context and paint her as a child molester, Breitbart found a new aspect of her book to use as fodder for skewering Dunham -- and they ran with it. 

John Nolte dramatically described a “month-long investigation that included more than a dozen interviews, a trip to the Oberlin campus, and hours spent poring through the Oberlin College archives” to identify "Barry." Nolte could not locate a “Barry” that fit the details listed in Dunham's essay. Ergo if the finest minds at Breitbart can't find him, Dunham's story must be fabricated.

One of the most enraging sections in Nolte's investigation declares: “One of the Most Powerful Women in America Cries 'Rape.'” While we may debate the frequency of victim-blaming, nothing better illustrates our national problem than seeing a reporter gleefully declare that a woman must have falsified her sexual assault. 

Random House decided to clarify that “Barry” wasn't the name of the man in question, which explained why Nolte's intrepid reporting didn't uncover a precise match to Dunham's description. Random House is also covering the legal fees of an innocent man called Barry who was caught up in the storm. I look forward to reading that Rolling Stone or Charles C. Johnson has offered to cover the cost of the lawyers that “Jackie” has had to hire due to the former's poor reporting and spineless initial victim-blaming and the latter's reprehensible lack of morals and judgment. 

No doubt, it was an oversight on Dunham and Random House's part not to note that “Barry” wasn't the name of the mustachioed Republican super senior with “white Reeboks last seen in an '80s exercise video.” Random House agreed that all future editions of the book will state that “Barry” was a pseudonym.

It has to be said that Dunham includes characteristics that do make “Barry” potentially identifiable. Even worse, they could result in the wrong “Barry” being accused of sexual assault. 

This latter risk is highly disturbing and, unfortunately, very real, since a fervent cohort of online journalists appear determined to prove stories of sexual assault are hoaxes. When it comes to cases of sexual assault, ethical investigations are necessary before publication, just look at the mess at Rolling Stone, but these inquiries have been twisted into ways to shame victims and hurt them for speaking about assault.  

Unlike Sabrina Rubin Erdely's now-infamous Rolling Stone article on UVA's response to sexual assault, Dunham is not claiming to uncover faults of a higher institutions or hold others legally responsible. That doesn't give Dunham a free pass but ignoring the different context and aims of her piece is as careless as the reporting errors Rolling Stone made. 

Nolte's Breitbart report on Dunham's "Barry" reeks of obliviousness. He seems not to care about what it is like to be a victim of sexual assault or even what it is like to be a person who wants to share an upsetting experience for the sake of catharsis and empathizing with others. “Whatever her motives, rather than cooperate with campus and local authorities (who are taking her charges seriously) to get a brutal man off the street before he hurts another woman, Dunham has decided to hurl suspicions,” writes Nolte. He can't wrap his head around the idea that people may want to talk about painful events. He claims that her decision not to report “Barry” to authorities is further proof that she fabricated her story; this logic is utterly bonkers, and it reflects a total lack of knowledge in regards to the logistical, let alone emotional, difficulties of reporting assault.

It also completely misses the reason Dunham wrote “Barry” in the first place. Following the announced clarification, Dunham wrote that: “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.” Nolte is quick to slam Dunham as a hypocrite for not punishing her alleged accuser to the fullest extent of the law, but she has every right to make her own decision. Choosing not to pursue a perpetrator is not admittance of lies or false motives.

Greater scrutiny of facts and a desire to protect the innocent should be praised and elevated in story-telling, but let's be real here: it doesn't take a genius to see that Breitbart's intention is to berate a person for claiming she was assaulted by a Republican. It should be obvious that there is a clear line between fact-checking and berating, but I predict that will continue to get blurred to the point where sexual assault victims will choose not to share their stories at all.