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?
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.”