The Hazards of Duke

A now infamous PowerPoint presentation exposes a lot about men, women, sex, and alcohol—and about how universities are letting their female students down.
Gracia Lam

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.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). Her book Girl Land, about the emotional life of pubescent girls, will be published this spring. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In