Does Duke Sex List Really Tell Us About Feminist Failures?

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Whether she's writing about organic gardening, nannies, or vampires, The Atlantic's Caitlan Flanagan knows how to rile people up. It should come as no surprise then that Flanagan's new piece in the January/February issue of The Atlantic about Karen Owen--the Duke student whose infamous PowerPoint "Fuck List", evaluating men she had slept with, went viral last fall--is already provoking strong reactions.

Flanangan's argument is that Owen is the collateral damage of a generation taught to be unserious and cynical towards courtship, sex, and the capacity to love and be loved in return. This is a recurring theme in Flanagan's work, one she complicates this time by suggesting the culture of Duke University specifically, and the excesses of big-time college athletics in general, are responsible for encouraging a mercenary approach to casual sex.

It's an interpretation that hasn't gone over well with some voices from around the Web:

  • Flawed Reading  Jezebel's Irin Carmon, who first broke the Owen story back in September, faults Flanagan for framing Owen's story as that of a young woman who "really wanted love and affection, like all women do, but was confused by the alleged feminist mandate to get wasted and have random sex with callous dudes." Unfortunately, Carmon writes, "there's nothing in the documentary proof to show that Karen Owen wanted to be anyone's 'years-long girlfriend,' or that she wanted to do anything else but what she was doing, at least at the time."
  • Reductionist  Duke Chronicle editor Kevin Lincoln objects to the article's assertion that the paper barely covered the case of a Duke sophomore charged with kidnapping and rape of a fellow student last semester. "The paper ran three front-page stories about the incident," notes Lincoln, "two as the day's lead pieces." Lincoln faults the piece for treating Owen--and by extension, the social scene at Duke--as a "text to be studied, reducing her completely to the stuff of the 'F*** List.'"
  • In With The Old  Owen is the ideal subject for a meditation on the state of boy-girl couplings, concedes The Boston Globe's Jesse Singal, but the article never seems convinced "things can fit into categories other than 'good' and 'bad.'" By staking out such a strong position against the campus hook up culture at every turn, Flanagan seems to be advocating a "return to bygone mores and approaches to gender and innocence."
  • Empire Still Stands  At Forbes, Kashmir Hill says efforts to portray the scandal as a "new low for American feminism" fail to persuade. "It’s amazing," she writes, "that a PowerPoint written by one senior for a few of her friends has come to symbolize Duke’s culture and the state of feminism among 20-somethings." If Owen is still a viable subject, it is as a cultural curiosity. The "tragic Jane Austen heroine version of Owen that Flanagan [depicts]" overstates the degree to which Owen is representative of her peers.

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