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Lena Dunham's Memoir Mistake Hurt an Innocent Person and the Anti-Rape Movement (Updated)

In her best-selling memoir, Lena Dunham claims she was sexually assaulted while in college by a campus conservative named Barry. Now a real campus conservative named Barry, who wasn't the person who assaulted Dunham, has won a small victory to clear his name.
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(Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Image Entertainment)

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It's been a really bad couple of weeks for rape victims and their advocates. This isn't the kind of thing anyone should take satisfaction in, but it's also something that can't reasonably be denied. What's worse is that the damage that's been done to the noble cause of lending a sympathetic ear to rape victims has come from people who themselves claim to be advocates. This whole PR disaster was for the most part an inside job.

Last week there was the Rolling Stone debacle, in which the magazine was forced to retract a bombshell story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia because the author of the piece didn't bother to dig deeper than a single source and the editors didn't bother to close holes -- perhaps understandable holes -- in that single source's story. The devastation that the Rolling Stone piece's unraveling has wrought for rape victims really can't be overstated. With one journalistic catastrophe, the push to get the public and the authorities to believe women when they say they've been raped suffers a pretty substantial setback, while the usual suspects in the MRA crowd get to openly gloat over how right they always were about those evil, duplicitous women. The article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and the editors of Rolling Stone couldn't have done the job of rape apologists and deniers better if they'd penned a full-throated takedown of their victim themselves (which the editors sort of did in their initial retraction).

But in the few weeks that the Rolling Stone piece was being methodically picked apart, there was another story about rape being met head-on by an adversarial legal team. The story came from Millennial hipster queen Lena Dunham and it was about a guy named "Barry" who she claims sexually assaulted her in college. In her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl -- which earned her a cool $3.7 million as an advance -- she recounts the story of doing Xanax and blow and then getting into bed with someone she calls Oberlin's "resident conservative," whom she identifies by the name "Barry." As she tells the story, she makes it seem like the sex is ugly and somewhat regrettable, but otherwise unremarkable (she eventually throws him out of her room). It isn't until a later chapter that she begins to come around to the idea that what "Barry" did may have constituted rape. It's easy to see how this by itself may have been the source of some controversy among readers.

Beyond that, however, is the fact that there really was a guy named Barry who really was a well-known conservative leader at Oberlin when Lena Dunham was there and now really is associated with raping her. This Barry was forced to take himself off of social media once amateur internet sleuths began making the connection and has since hired a lawyer to defend him. Oh, and did I mention that this particular Barry wasn't actually the guy who had sex with Dunham? It turns out that Dunham apparently changed the name of her alleged attacker but didn't bother to specifically state as much within the copy of the book. Hidden on the copyright page, which very few people ever read, there's a disclaimer about some names being changed, but that doesn't provide much cover -- especially not when you consider that at another point in the book she specifically states that she's changed someone's name to protect that person's identity. Having read that, a reader couldn't be blamed for thinking that "Barry" is a real name rather than a pseudonym.

As penance for the negligence that both Dunham and her publisher, Random House, exhibited in allowing something like this to go to press, that publisher announced yesterday that it would pay for Barry's legal expenses and will adjust the text of the book in future editions.

Now keep in mind that Lena Dunham has already had to fend off allegations that she sexually molested her younger sister because of how she portrayed her youthful behavior in her memoir. She also refers to herself within the copy as an "unreliable narrator," which means that while what she's written is a memoir, it could, for all we know, veer off into flights of pure fancy. She's given herself some cover here. While it may sound contemptible to question someone's account of being sexually assaulted, Dunham's book as a whole and her attitude about the stories she tells within it present a problem for even the most trusting soul. Put simply, Dunham willingness to play with the truth for the sake of dramatic or comedic effect leaves us wondering what's 100% fact as she remembers it and what isn't. This wouldn't be a problem were it not for the other "players" in Dunham's first-person dramedy who might be implicated in doing some really terrible things. People like, say, Barry.

Lena Dunham is a Third Wave feminist icon. Her book was a New York Times bestseller. When she speaks, very pretentious people listen and repeat her, word for word. Therefore, when, in her role as a feminist icon, she claims that she was sexually assaulted by a campus Republican named Barry, people are going to assume she's not kidding because she just wouldn't make an accusation like that lightly. And this is why a former campus Republican named Barry has been threatening to sue Dunham and Random House: because apparently that accusation was made either lightly or negligently. (There's a third option, maliciously, but I'll give Dunham the benefit of the doubt.) Regardless, like the Rolling Stone disaster, Dunham has unwittingly helped set the very movement she was aiming to champion back a mile, in her case by miscommunicating her own story of alleged sexual assault (rather than having a third-party do it for her). Even if it was a simple mistake, it's one that can ruin Dunham's credibility when it comes to speaking out against rape and give ammo to every asshole just looking for an excuse to claim that the anti-rape movement is full of liars and opportunists.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that a claim of rape these days needs to be as airtight as the accuser can make it, whether that accuser is speaking personally or on behalf of a victim in the pages of a magazine. There can't be any highly publicized misfires because those will be used to eviscerate the movement as a whole and countless women will suffer in the wake of it. Lena Dunham should have known this. In addition to ruining the life of what appears to be a completely innocent person, her carelessness hands the enemies of compassion a scalp they didn't deserve and shouldn't have.

Update 12.9.14 4:30PM ET: About that Rolling Stone story -- the New York Observer is reporting that the magazine's deputy editor Sean Woods tendered his resignation but that publisher Jann Wenner wouldn't accept it.

Update 12.9.14 10:42PM ET: Lena Dunham has written a lengthy response at Buzzfeed to the controversy she's stirred up with her sexual assault story.

At the risk of sounding like I'm victim-blaming, which I truly wouldn't want to do, it reads like she's grandstanding and using solidarity with those who've been raped -- she now flat-out counts herself among the ranks of "survivors" -- to make herself unassailable. She claims that she never intended to be specific with regard to who sexually assaulted her -- and again, in the very first line of the piece she calls what happened to her sexual assault -- even though in her book she was incredibly specific. Most of all, she says that because of the "sensitive nature" of what happened to her, she had hoped that no one "would attempt to reopen these wounds or deepen (her) trauma,” but, alas, people have.

What's interesting is that there aren't that many people whose opinions she'd care about criticizing her for her handling of all of this. Yes, the right-wing media has beat her up but that was going to happen regardless and it's hard to imagine Dunham caring what they had to say. There have been objective outlets reporting on the damage done to the real-life Barry and her publisher's response to it, but they're simply telling the story. In other words, if you want to be cynical you could say that the person Dunham's piece is directed toward, besides women she hopes to rally to her side, is Barry. It's designed to stop her from getting sued.