No matter what your opinion of the now notorious online “thesis” of the recent Duke graduate Karen Owen—a comprehensive and often pornographic report on her sexual encounters with 13 athletes, most of them lacrosse players—you have to admit that it was a terrible PowerPoint. That program is intended for creating a visual accompaniment to a lecture, keeping audience and speaker on track by reducing the essential ideas of a complex presentation to a series of bullet-pointed phrases and concepts, the irreducible takeaway. But the 42 slides of Owen’s report on her “horizontal academics” are so dense with narrative detail, bits of dialogue, descriptions of people and places, and reproduced text-message conversations that they are a chore to read. It’s as though two impulses are at war with one another: the desire to recount her sexual experiences in a hyper-masculine way—marked by locker-room crudeness and PowerPoint efficiency—fighting against the womanly desire to luxuriate in the story of it all.
Clearly the very last thing Karen Owen would want is for a reader of her thesis to perceive her as a vulnerable creature whose desire for sex with campus big shots was at least partly motivated by a powerful and unmet desire for affection. But in the sheer amount of anecdotal detail, and in particular in her relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners, she reveals that the thesis is motivated by the same force that has prompted women through the ages to describe with savage precision their liaisons with men who discarded them: revenge.
In 2009, GQ magazine named Duke America’s second-douchiest college, a distinction that came with a caveat: “They’re probably number one. But we’d rather not rank Duke number one at anything.” It’s difficult to argue with GQ’s thinking on either score; something ugly is going on at the university—a mercenary intensity that has been gathering strength for the past two decades, as the institution made the calculated decision to wrench itself into elite status by dint of its fortune in tobacco money and its sheer ambition. It lured academic luminaries—many of them longer on star power than on intellectual substance—built a fearsome sports program, and turned its admissions department into the collegiate version of a head-hunting firm. (I was a college counselor at a prep school in the ’90s, and the zeal with which Duke gunned for our top students was unseemly.)
In some respects Duke has never moved on from the values of the 1980s, when droves of ambitious college students felt no moral ambivalence about preparing themselves for a life centered largely on the getting and spending of money. With a social scene dominated by fraternities and sororities (a way of life consisting of ardent partying and hooking up, offset by spurts of busywork composing angry letters to campus newspapers and taking online alcohol-education classes), with its large share of rich students displaying their money in the form of expensive cars and clothing, and with an attitude toward campus athletics that is at once deeply southern (this is a part of the world where even high-school athletes can be treated with awestruck deference by adults) and profoundly anti-intellectual, it’s a university whose thoughtful students are overshadowed by its voraciously self-centered ones.
It was from both within this world and outside it that Karen Owen emanated. She reports that she had spent her freshman year gazing at “frat stars” (frat star and sorostitute are terms of art at Duke and at other similarly composed schools), but the predictable angry letter to the school newspaper about the episode, written by a group of “female Greek leaders on campus,” was quick to point out that Owen was not herself a member of any sorority. It was not only an attempt to distance sorority life from the antics of someone like Karen Owen, it served to underscore the disdain that the actual Karen Owen seems to have engendered in her fellow students, whose closed social system offered her no safe harbor.
One of the many implausible aspects of the entire incident is the notion, which Owen has forcefully asserted in her brief communications with the press, that she sent the PowerPoint to only three friends, and then was shocked when it was sent onward, ultimately reaching a huge audience, including the men whom she describes. It’s absurd to believe that she was innocent enough to think that such an incendiary document, transmitted by email, would not quickly enjoy a large audience. But it’s not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college. The overwhelming sense one gets from the thesis is of a young woman who was desperate for human connection, and who had no idea how to obtain it.
The thesis, which was prompted into being when one of Owen’s partners asked her where he stood on her “Fuck List,” includes a section for each of the 13 athletes, containing a slide of flattering photographs of the young man, and then an evaluation of each sexual encounter she had with him. She rates each of these experiences on several criteria, among them physical attractiveness, penis size, sexual talent, and—tellingly—aggressiveness. For all the attention Owen has received as a boundary-breaking, sexually empowered new woman, there has been almost no discussion of the fact that the kind of sex she most enjoyed was rough to the point of brutalizing. One encounter that occurred during an alcoholic blackout was still, as Karen Owen would say, “baller,” because in the shower the next day she found bruises on her body; another was great because it was so “violent”—and she means that “in a good way.” He was “throwing me around like I weighed nothing.” Her modus operandi for initiating these assignations seems to have been hanging out at bars frequented by Duke athletes, getting hammered, letting a “subject” know she was open for business, and then grabbing a cab back to his apartment; she seems to have been willing to do absolutely anything to please the men, which often meant hanging out with their boorish roommates until it was her time to perform.
What a glittering social world came along with these athletes. With their king-size beds, their huge television sets, their love of porn and Mario Kart, their apparent unconcern for matters cerebral (one of the 13 was suspended from play for academic violations; another dropped out when he got drafted into a Major League Baseball team), their eagerness to whip out their genitals on almost any occasion, and their casual racism, they offer any parent ample reason to think twice before sending a beloved child to Duke. These louts did not operate on the fringes of polite society at the university, but existed—were lionized—at its epicenter.
We have been invited, by both Karen Owen’s supporters and her detractors, to view her as the arrival of something new: either as the embodiment of women’s complete victory over the old double standard, or as proof positive that our culture has finally run aground. She is a puzzling character, because she seems on the one hand to have been invented by a committee of frat boys. In a way, she more closely resembles them than she does the sorority girls who spurn her. She’s like a fraternity’s ideal pledge: she races around to deliver hot breakfasts to the brothers, drives them to practices, hangs out loyally on cold streets while they work out potential DUI hassles with the cops, listens to them chew over their buddies’ girlfriend problems, tells them—with apparent sincerity—that they’re awesome at spitting Biggie raps, never demands her own turn at Mario Kart. Even her attitude toward (and during) sex seems to have been dreamed up during a Sigma Nu smoker: she’s certainly not the first young woman to perform fellatio in a crowded college library, but surely there aren’t many others who in the middle of this act earned an appreciative—and robustly returned—high five.
If what we are seeing in Karen Owen is the realization of female sexual power, then we must at least admit that the first pancake off the griddle is a bit of a flop. What rotten luck that the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her. There is every reason, in fact, to believe that Owen’s sense of herself, both as a sexual being and as a raconteur of outrageous sexual exploits, was shaped not by her own desires but by a particular male sensibility, in fact by a particular male: Tucker Max, whom she specifically mentions as a rival in the art of the scandalous and ridiculous hookup. The notion of becoming his female counterpart is clearly not far from her mind in each of her lurid descriptions and ratings of her sexual encounters.
Max, a brainy and reasonably attractive kid from a troubled family, attended the University of Chicago, graduating in three years and earning a scholarship to Duke law school, where his life changed. He ascertained quickly that sexual aggression—not just in the act of sex, but in the way a man can choose to treat women, verbally and emotionally—is a force to which a huge number of educated, liberated young women are deeply attracted. Combining this aggression with a Howard Stern–style vulgarity, he quickly became the unofficial king of Duke. He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a compendium of anecdotes that was a best seller for several years; it has made him a legendary figure to fraternity members across the country, who treat him—and his simple system of playing directly on women’s insecurities to get them in bed immediately—as a messiah.
Crucial to his technique is the titanic amount of alcohol he and his potential partners consume before the hookup, a transaction that often includes not just having sex, but also vomiting copiously and then passing out near or sometimes in the effulgence. Today’s typical middle-aged man (the father of a teenage daughter, perhaps) may hear about college drinking and shrug his shoulders: he remembers similar antics from his own days. But the best book about the current state of girls and young women in America, Girls on the Edge, by a physician and psychologist named Leonard Sax, offers astonishing and troubling new insight into the role and consequences of binge drinking in so many girls’ lives. While the rate at which boys abuse alcohol has remained relatively constant over the past 40 years, for girls the rate has “roughly quadrupled.” Among college students who meet the clinical criteria for alcohol abuse, women now outnumber men, and drinking affects the women in a different and more pernicious way than it does men. Sax writes,
Drink per drink, alcohol is more dangerous to young women than it is to young men, even after adjusting for differences in height and weight. Alcohol abuse appears to damage girls’ brains differently and more severely than the same degree of alcohol abuse affects same-age boys.
If you’ve been on a college campus recently—or merely followed a college newspaper online—you know the toll that this kind of drinking is taking on students, particularly on young women. The institutions have it within their power to change the situation, but only by exerting the long-dead patriarchal approach, with parietals and curfews—something that no elite institution will touch, because the old system was inherently sexist. Instead, many university presidents—including Duke’s own president, Richard Brodhead—have signed on to something called the Amethyst Initiative, a perplexing document that essentially absolves them of any responsibility for what is taking place. Apparently, the current legal drinking age of 21 is bad for young people because the need for fake IDs forces students to “make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.” How much would you have to hate yourself to sign a document that made that assertion?
A positive spin on the current state of young women and alcohol was offered two years ago in a New York magazine story that asked “Should Gender Equality Extend to Drinking?” Reporting on the number of young professional women who drink regularly and in great quantity, the article suggested that
a woman exerting her power by making herself incapacitated does not read as a disjunction Control over her life—and the decision of when and how to lose that control—seems to be the point.
Two young women who were interviewed described the role that getting drunk played in their sexual conquesting:
“Drinking gives you an excuse to do something you wouldn’t want to believe you would normally do,” one young woman told me. “You can be on a mission because you’re not self-conscious.”
“For me, it’s not about getting up the guts to seduce someone,” added her friend, “It’s about getting up the guts to allow myself to be seduced.”
That female sexual desire is deeply enmeshed in the desire to be seduced, taken, treated—as Karen Owen herself puts it so forthrightly—with a measure of aggression is one reason there will never really be a female Tucker Max. We know from far greater figures than these two that many women’s sexual appetites include (even center on) men who are in most ways beneath them, in terms of intellect, sensibility, social refinement. Mary McCarthy, in her brilliant and clearly autobiographical short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” describes a young woman traveling across country by train. She is sitting in the club car when a well-dressed man enters, a kind of man who is entirely “Out of the Question”—“He looked, she decided, like a middle-aged baby, like a young pig, like something in a seed catalogue.” How like the Duke lacrosse boys, with their porn and their Mario Kart, is this description. The two talk, and he makes a bold move, inviting her into his compartment to drink some whiskey with him, and she feels the old self-loathing begin to rise:
She felt bitterly angry with the man for having exposed her—so early—to this supreme test of femininity, a test she was bound to fail, since she would either go into the compartment, not wanting to (and he would know this and feel contempt for her malleability), or she would stay out of the compartment, wanting to have gone in (and he would know this, too, and feel contempt for her timidity).
But she goes with him, alone, into the compartment, and they drink together.
She liked him. Why, it was impossible to say. The attraction was not sexual, for, as the whisky went down in the bottle, his face took on a more and more porcine look that became so distasteful to her that she could hardly meet his gaze.
They talk, and she feels a desperate need to explain herself, to atone for how many lovers she has had in her past, to lay the blame for her promiscuity on them, not her: “It was as if she had been a prosecuting attorney drawing up a brief against each of her lovers.” In other words, she presents to him her own 42-slide PowerPoint of rejection and disappointment, but it doesn’t really make her feel better; it just marks the time until the whiskey has gone down enough in the bottle for her to do the thing she wants to do. When she wakes up, she thinks for a moment that she has not allowed herself to be seduced, but then the memory of the fulfilling, humiliating encounter comes back to her: “Oh my God,” she says, finding herself lying next to the naked pig: “get me out of this and I will do anything you want.”
Penelope Trunk, the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, wrote on a CBS business Web site that she just loves Karen Owen:
I, for one, am fascinated that Owen has so much self-knowledge. I wish I had had Owen’s self-confidence, pluck, and earning power when I was her age. I wish I had been taking control of male tools when I was that young. I wish I had been so good at getting the guy. I am twenty years older than Owen, but she inspires me to be brave, take risks, and let my creativity get the best of me.
A young female student at Duke told a reporter for the Today show who asked her about the PowerPoint: “I guess, like, the inner feminist in me was pretty excited when I saw it. I was like, ‘Yeah, good for her—this is awesome.’”
The notion that Karen Owen is good at getting the guy, that she represents something awesome for the future of feminism, is an assertion that cannot withstand a careful reading of the actual PowerPoint, a package that—far more than Owen could ever have intended—constitutes a story, one with a beginning, middle, and very sad end, and reveals her to be one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while. Her assignations are arranged chronologically in the thesis, and in the arc of experience that led her from Subject 1 to Subject 13, there is a very old story about women, desire, expectation, dashed hope, and (to use the old, apt, word) ruin.
After a freshman year spent in the thrall of the school’s handsome white athletes, something exciting happened: on the night of her 19th birthday, in September of her junior year, one handsome lacrosse player, recently broken up from his girlfriend of three years, bought her “many, many beers” at a Durham club called Shooters, and then asked her to go back to his house to “hang out.” The invitation was thrilling; it’s easy to imagine that the prospect of becoming his next years-long girlfriend was enticing, and even if the night began with some strange twists and turns—such as the man inviting his pals to admire her breasts outside the bar—wasn’t that the way it had probably begun for the last girlfriend? But once they went to his house, and then to his bed, things weren’t quite what she had hoped for: “It was over too quickly. I was probably a little awkward and didn’t really know how to move or what to do. And it was a tad bit painful …”
She never slept with him again—apparently he had no interest in seeing her again—and she was chastened enough by the events not to risk a repeat of them for several months. It’s not difficult to imagine what the days and weeks following the encounter were like: the expectation that he would call again, the anxious and depressing realization that he was done with her. But the following March, she was ready to try again. After many “long looks” exchanged with a campus tennis star on her way to and from the gym, the young man approached her at Shooters and asked her to dance; on the dance floor, he asked her to go home with him. What followed was the kind of one-night stand that changes a woman. He was rude to her in the cab, and things only got worse once they were in bed: “He was terrible, did not even bother to kiss me more than a few seconds, and finished in about five minutes, after which he simply walked out of the room and did not return.” She reports that “absolutely everything,” except for the fact that he was a successful athlete, was terrible about him, that the whole situation was terrible: “I accidentally left my favorite pair of earrings from South Africa. When I texted him this fact, he responded with ‘I will leave them outside of the building for you.’”
The story of Karen Owen is the story of those forgotten earrings. Imagine the moment in which she paused to take them off—her favorite earrings, the ones that came all the way from South Africa and that she took care to remove before going to bed, because that’s what you do if you’re a responsible girl with a nice pair of earrings. You keep them safe. At the very least, she must have imagined that Subject 2 was inviting her to do what Subject 1 had done—not just to have sex with him, but to hang out with him. And then to be turfed out so rudely, so quickly, to be treated with such ugliness afterward. Imagine having been so young and so hopeful, being used sexually and then held in such contempt that rather than see you again, a young man leaves your jewelry outside his building, where anyone could come along and take it.
Subject 2, who was rated a 1 out of a possible 10, is the impetus for the entire thesis. In fact, at the very end of the whole ugly mess of it, after she has become so good at oral sex that she is repeatedly praised for having no gag reflex, after she has learned to crave sex so rough that she’s left battered, after she’s been cast aside over and over again, the final line of the thesis—before her jaunty “Acknowledgements” slide— is another angry remark about Subject 2. Being rejected by Subject 1 was hurtful and embarrassing, but being treated like a whore by Subject 2 is what broke her heart and her spirit, and if you are the kind of person whose heart and spirit can be broken by a one-night stand, then you may not be the brave new face of anything at all.
When everything went to hell, when the thesis was splashed across the Internet, there weren’t any young men by her side to protect or defend Karen Owen. It was a man’s job, though, and the man it fell to (goodbye, bold new face of feminism) was her father. He’s the one who told the New York Times reporter who called the house looking for Karen that his daughter did not have anything to say about the situation. What a moment that must have been at the Owen family home, how much it recalls the ending of “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” In that story, years after the affair on the train, the narrator’s father dies; the seducer reads the obituary, and he sends her a telegram: YOU’VE LOST THE BEST FRIEND YOU WILL EVER HAVE.
In the week after the scandal broke, a very pretty, golden-haired Fox News anchor named Megyn Kelly interviewed a couple of equally beautiful female attorneys about the incident, and ended the segment warning other young women not to follow in Owen’s footsteps. She had special knowledge on this subject, she told the audience, because she herself had “dated the captain of the lacrosse team at Syracuse.”
What a fantastic little nugget of information this was, about the person and character of Megyn Kelly! Syracuse University, whose famous department of television communications had clearly set her on the path to the golden hair and the job at Fox; the fact that all these years later she was still proud of the boy’s having been not just a member of the team, but its captain; the clear authority that she derived from having actually dated him, having been his girlfriend, not his Karen Owen. “Men do not respect women who do this,” she said. “You may sleep with half the lacrosse team—they don’t think that’s a great thing.”
She became more adamant, the words tumbling out faster and faster. “They don’t talk about how great you are,” she said, and now she was actually looking angry. I realized she was no longer warning young women away from unwise behavior. She was now defending the righteous tradition of Division I Men’s Lacrosse and all of the excellent guys who play it, and she was punishing the woman who had dared to come forward and make the sport and its players look bad. “They don’t talk about how great you are,” she said scornfully; “they talk about what a joke you are.”
It’s impossible to read Karen Owen’s encomium to the “glorious, alpha-male dominated world of Duke lacrosse hookups” without thinking back to the events of 2006, when the Duke lacrosse team threw a private party that became infamous. Three of the teammates were eventually accused of raping a stripper, and although the charges proved false and the investigation a travesty, few people would suggest the night represented any kind of high-water mark for the team or the university that it represented. Hiring strippers—two desperately poor women, one of them a mother of two, both with lives shaped around more sorrow and misery than the average Duke lacrosse player could begin to imagine—becoming angry when they turned out not to be white, suggesting the women use a broomstick as a sex toy, and then hurling racial slurs at them as they stumbled back into their car falls so far outside the realm of what anyone can call decent behavior that the accused players’ improbable turn as victimized solid citizens was the most unpleasant result of the D.A.’s bungled case.
In fact, the man identified as Subject 1 in Owen’s PowerPoint was a member of that very team, present and accounted for at the ugly party and named in several of the police reports garnered about the night. Player Dan Flannery said that when he “tried to apologize and reason with” one of the strippers in a bedroom of the house, Subject 1 may have been with him, and David Evans told police that Subject 1 at one point followed the women out into the street.
Ironically, it was his role in that awful scene that put Subject 1 in Durham in time to spend his ill-fated night with Karen Owen. Although he had already graduated with his bachelor’s degree, the NCAA had offered him a rare extra year of eligibility as a compensation for the season he’d lost to the scandal. All he’d had to do was enroll in graduate school, and before you knew it he was back on the field, as an M.B.A. student.
How many college athletes, especially those on successful teams, would dream of one more year of glory? But Subject 1’s experiences off the field prove that you really can stay too long at the fair, especially if you’re a sexually voracious white male on an American college campus. The poor bastard caught the tail end of Take Back the Night and then the first draft of Sexual Empowerment Through PowerPoint. In the space of two and a half years, his blandly handsome face and powerfully built body had taken on the cast of a thug rapist and then of a hapless sex partner who couldn’t even keep it up long enough to satisfy an inexperienced co-ed.
This past fall, just a couple of weeks before the students and administration at Duke were faced with the chagrin and bad press of the Karen Owen situation, an unrelated but—to my mind—far more significant occurrence was reported, albeit far more briefly, in the student newspaper. A sophomore returning to campus for the new term was arrested and charged with two very serious crimes: the kidnapping and second-degree rape of a fellow student. He’d been freed from jail on a $75,000 bond, had withdrawn from school, and was awaiting trial. This astonishing bit of news seemed to be of relatively little interest to the readers and editors of The Chroniclean interesting fact all on its own.
Apparently one night last spring, according to the statement she gave campus police, a young woman started drinking with some friends, beginning at around five o’clock and continuing into the night. At 11 o’clock they went to a party at a crowded on-campus apartment, where she continued drinking, and where a young man introduced himself to her. They talked, and then, she told the police, he put a hand on the small of her back, led her to a bathroom, locked the door, and “sexually assaulted her.” Later, a friend found her passed out and took her home. When she woke up, the details of the experience in the bathroom came swimming back to her, and she decided to report it. The young man admitted to having had sexual contact with her, but denied that the contact had been in the form of vaginal intercourse—a critical distinction, legally, as in North Carolina only that act can lead to a rape charge. He requested to have a DNA test to prove his innocence but for some reason the police refused. And the case lay fallow through the summer, but in September, with the return of classes, he was charged with the crimes. The police then collected DNA samples from the young man.
Reading the woman’s statement, what struck me was how adamant she was about the extent of her drunkenness, how central this fact was to the narrative she gave the police. She had been “very intoxicated,” she told them; she’d had “a few more drinks” when she got to the party. “Witnesses” had corroborated her level of intoxication, and it’s not difficult to imagine these witnesses including the friends who’d been partying with her and were eager to attest to just how wasted she had been.
From a legal standpoint, the case will rest on the evolving notions of “consent,” and on the fact that intoxication can render null even a verbal consent to sex. It also falls into the body of case law that has emerged from the once revolutionary but now increasingly meaningless concept of date rape; reasonable people can disagree as to whether this encounter constituted a rape, but surely no one would suggest it was a date.
As I read the woman’s report, and imagined the tones of outrage and hurt and violation in which it was surely given, and as I lingered on her account of how drunk she’d been, a very old-fashioned phrase suddenly floated through my mind. It was a phrase I hadn’t thought of in years, a simple formulation that carried within it a world of assumptions and beliefs. “She’s angry,” I thought to myself, “because he took advantage of her.”
It was a phrase that they taught you to keep you safe, and it was predicated on the facts of the double standard: men were always after you for sex; you had to be on your guard against them; and at the very least, you had to make sure you kept your wits about you whenever you were in mixed company. It was built on the premise that the dubious pleasures of what is today called the drunken hookup were not for you to sample. A man who had done what the accused admits to having done—made a beeline to a really drunk girl and then led her somewhere private for sex—probably wouldn’t have faced legal consequences, but would at the very least have been considered a cad. Such a thing was known not to be the right, or the proper, or the gentlemanly thing to do.
In those days, we relied on our own good judgment to keep us safe, but also—and this is the terrible, unchanging fact about being female—on the mercy of the men around us. So, too, the young women of today, including this Duke student. She may have a world of legal recourse that my friends and I didn’t have a quarter century ago, but when it came to that moment in that bathroom, how much did that recourse really help her? Not at all.
We’ve made a culture for our college women in which they have been liberated from the curfews and parietals that were once the bane of co-eds, but one in which they have also shaken off the general suspicion of male sexuality that was the hallmark of Andrea Dworkin–style campus activism; they prefer bikini waxes and spray tans to overalls and invective. So they have ended up with the protections of neither the patriarchy nor those old-school, man-hating radical feminists.
Maybe they’re all the better for it. Or maybe an awful lot of these young women at our very best colleges are being traumatized by what takes place during so much of this mindless, drunken partying when they’re steeped in alcohol, which brings out the least engaging aspects of their young selves.
Inebriate of air—am I— And debauchee of dew —Emily Dickinson
I was but a shot away from what is referred to as a “black-out state”. —Karen Owen
There’s every reason to believe the latter. Take a look, for instance, at the stories collected in the three-volume campus publication Saturday Night: Untold Stories of Sexual Assault at Duke. Even in the words of Karen Owen herself, we can find evidence that the balls-out composer of the Fuck List may have a very different, if little-explored, side of her personality, one that befits less the bard of the blow job than the heartbroken heroine of a Jane Austen novel. Asked by a reporter from Jezebel for her thoughts on everything that had happened, she responded with a fully human and entirely feminine sentiment. “I regret it,” she said, “with all my heart.”