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No, They Didn't Do the Same Thing: Why It's Dangerous to Compare Josh Duggar and Lena Dunham

06/12/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Josh Duggar. In the comments section, someone made a comparison to Lena Dunham; the author came to the conclusion that she got a pass for molesting her sister because she's a feminist liberal with a show on HBO. He claimed by society not condemning Dunham, it was perpetuating a double standard. A number of other people chimed in -- some agreed, some didn't. My friend Rhylee pointed the comment out to me, and I considered replying, but ultimately decided not to because the two incidents were so obviously dissimilar that I figured this argument would be a one-off.

Boy, was I wrong.

On June 4, 2015, Bristol Palin, famous for being the daughter of former Alaska governor and U.S. vice president candidate Sarah Palin, published a blog post catchily entitled, "Let's Get This Straight, Liberals -- What Kinds of Molestation are Acceptable?" In it, she makes the same comparison between the actions of Lena Dunham and the actions of Josh Duggar; she rails against the unfairness of the liberal media's double standards and concludes, "Liberals in today's media can do no wrong, while conservatives can do no right."

Sarah Palin then promoted her daughter's blog in a lengthy post on Facebook; she, too, espouses the Dunham/Duggar comparison, sympathizing, "I hate for anyone to go through this game liberals are allowed to play, relentlessly attacking on an uneven playing field until a conservative's career, relationships and reputation are destroyed." Her appearance on Hannity three days ago was filled with more of the same.

I can't believe we need to have this conversation, but apparently, we do. So, let's get two things straight right off the bat:

1) This is not a game. This is a serious situation about a sexual predator and children and the family that protected the former and devalued the latter.

2) This is not about politics.

Lena Dunham and Josh Duggar did different things. Lena Dunham, at the age of 7, asked her mother if her 1-year-old little sister had a vagina like hers. A few days later, she looked -- yes, in fact, her little sister did have a smaller version of the same vagina.

This is not a perversion. This is not sexual. Genitalia is not and should not be inherently sexual. This is anatomical curiosity, from a young child, that involved no sexual touching and no sexual pleasure. Developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University, told Slate, "This is clearly not a case of abuse. Children have been doing this stuff forever and ever and ever and ever, and they will do it forever and ever and ever."

Admittedly, Dunham writes about another experience with her little sister in which she tried to bribe her with candy and tried "anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl." While this is a joke in poor taste, and has been criticized as demonstrative of Dunham's privilege, it's a joke made precisely because she wasn't a sexual predator -- she was a little girl.

Josh Duggar has admitted to molesting five girls, including four of his sisters. He was 14 and 15 when he fondled the girls both while they were asleep and while they were awake and both under and over their clothes.

This is sexual. Fondling is sexual. Josh Duggar was intent on sexual pleasure when he committed these acts. That, and the respective ages of Dunham and Duggar, makes these situations very different.

The Palins have asserted the liberal media controls what is and is not publicized, and, furthermore, that these are similar incidents the media treated differently because of the politics of the people involved.

No.

No, no, no, no, no.

That position isn't only incorrect -- the incidents are not the same -- it's dangerous. It's dangerous because it minimizes and trivializes sexual assault.

We live and operate in rape culture. Now, before you start yelling that Josh Duggar didn't rape his sisters, he only molested them, let's have a conversation about what rape culture actually is -- because it's not just about rape.

Rape culture is our refusal to accept that most sexual assaults (be it penetrative rape or something else) are committed by ordinary men, not men that would otherwise seem to be violent criminals. Rape culture is women being afraid to report sexual assault because they fear backlash and victim blaming. Rape culture is women being told not to dress provocatively, to carry a rape whistle, to never let their drink out of sight, to not walk home alone at night, instead of men being told not to commit sexual assault. Rape culture is blatant disbelief when a woman says she's been assaulted.

Rape culture is a product of sexism and a patriarchal society, which is why when we talk about rape culture, we talk about men assaulting women. Please note: this should never be construed to say that women can't assault men, that women can't assault other women or that men can't assault other men. Rather, the notion of rape culture is used describe the dominant sexual assault patterns in our society, where they come from and where they lead. It's used to describe what a woman faces when she wants to come forward about an attack. It's what she will face as she attempts to regain some sense of normality in her life. If she comes forward, she will be doubted, she will potentially be publicly vilified and she will lose her privacy.

This is all very serious.

What's not serious is a normal exploration of the human body where there was no victim and no sexual gratification. In fact, such an exploration is normal and natural -- children want to explore both their own bodies and the bodies of their friends and families.

By raising Lena Dunham's actions to the level of Josh Duggar's, you provide an opportunity for people to look at what happened and say, "That's not that bad. That's not a difficult thing to admit to. Sexual assault isn't that serious, after all." Calling something sexual assault that clearly isn't helps no one; worse, it diminishes the trauma of real sexual assault and its consequences.

And that, Palins, is the real outrage.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.