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.

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?

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  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.

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