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.

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.

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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.

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