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.

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 He’d been freed from jail on a $75,000 bond, had withdrawn from school, and was awaiting trial.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.”

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.

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