Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Defend Them from Sexual Assault Allegations

Lena Dunham faced an increasingly common dilemma: to believe her friend's accuser meant not believing her friend. And she reacted in exactly the wrong way

Lena Dunham Defends Friend: Lena Dunham in a patterned summer dress at the Tribeca Film Festival

Friendship can be beautiful and complicated and contradictory—something we saw over and over again on Lena Dunham’s critically acclaimed but often problematic show, Girls. But, as Dunham proved when she and fellow showrunner Jenni Konner defended Girls producer and writer Murray Miller (who has been accused of sexually assaulting actress Aurora Perrineau), friendship can also colour our reality. In the same way that a threat to our lives provides a certain clarity regarding our priorities, a threat to friendship relieves it of all nuance—it becomes black and white, us vs. them.

Dunham received an onslaught of criticism for not only failing to believe a woman, but also a woman of colour, which prompted her to tweet an apology admitting it was, “absolutely the wrong time” to weigh in on her “friend’s situation.” Absent from the statement, however, was her belief in Perrineau. Because, despite the subtlety of Dunham’s work, reality does not lend itself as easily to reflection. In a pinch, a threat to Miller is a threat to their friendship. To believe Perrineau would mean not believing her friend. And as Dunham tweeted, “the first tenet of my politics is to hold up the people who have held me up, who have filled my world with love.” How could a man who held her up could have held others down? This is the dilemma that many people have faced, post-Weinstein, as more and more men (and some women) have been accused of sexually predatory behaviour—that their experience of their friends is not the universal experience.

“You know, you give your friends the benefit of the doubt,” Jon Stewart said on The Today Show last week in response to the Louis C.K. allegations. He recalled his fumbling response to a query about the “rumours” a year prior, to which he had responded, “He’s always been a gentleman—to me.” In retrospect, Stewart admitted that this, “speaks to the blindness that I think a man has, which is like, ‘Hey, he’s a good guy, what are you talking about?’” When he confronted Louis C.K., he, like Marc Maron, believed his friend’s denials. Maron added that the women’s anonymity made those denials easier to accept. “I didn’t know their names until Friday,” Maron said on his podcast. “So, I believed my friend.”

But it’s particularly jarring when Dunham, who has admitted to never thinking she would publicly support someone accused of sexual assault, does just that. Even the less conspicuously feminist female comedians who were friends with Louis C.K. are grappling more profoundly with their contradictory feelings—personal history allies them with their friend, gender with the women accusing him. Sarah Silverman, who has been friends with C.K. for decades, addressed this quandary on her show, I Love You, America. “I love Louis. But Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true,” she said. “So, I just keep asking myself, can you love someone who did bad things?” C.K.’s long-time collaborator, Pamela Adlon, released a brief statement mourning over the accusers but also her own loss. “I feel deep sorrow and empathy for the women who have come forward,” she wrote, adding, “I am processing and grieving and hope to say more as soon as I am able.”

But, in this case anyway, not all women. Like Dunham, both Barbara Walters and Diane Keaton have publicly defended one of their friends against the allegations he has faced since the ‘90s. They continue to support Woody Allen, despite his daughter Dylan Farrow penning an op-ed in The New York Times in 2014 alleging her father sexually assaulted her as a child. “He is a loving, caring father,” was Walters’ response  on The View that year, failing to realize that both this and Farrow’s experience could be true at once. (The same goes for the women of Saturday Night Live, who released a statement today expressing support for Al Franken. “[A]fter years of working with him, we would like to acknowledge that not one of us experienced any inappropriate behaviour,” they wrote.)

Diane Keaton was more explicit. In an interview with The Guardian, she admitted that she had few friends, implying a fierce loyalty to the friendships she had formed. “A friend—that’s a commitment. It’s as close as you can get to family, and sometimes it’s even closer. Friendship requires a lot of time,” she said. Of the Farrow allegations, she added, “I have nothing to say about that. Except: I believe my friend.”

Beliefs can change over time, of course. Just ask Dunham, who, less than four months ago, tweeted, “Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don’t lie about: rape.”

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