Duke’s problem with women, real or make believe?

Writer Caitlin Flanagan has a somewhat controversial article on the Atlantic about the Karen Owen Duke Powerpoint controversy, months after it happened and then faded quickly from the news. Flanagan’s article has several flaws: there is virtually no reporting (e.g. “But it’s not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college.” Why not try to find this out?); Owen, is used as more representative of college women today than she probably is statistically (Flanagan’s defense of this is, at least implicitly, embodied by this line: “[I]t’s a university whose thoughtful students are overshadowed by its voraciously self-centered ones.”); and Flanagan’s own past is speckled with some disingenuousness (she wrote a book that champions her inner housewife, than came out blazing against all of the supposed Democratic attacks she sustained for it, all the while acting as if a book written about this subject could be apolitical. And  in actuality, she is a working woman who had a nanny).

Nonetheless, much of what she says rings true:

For all the attention Owen has received as a boundary-breaking, sexually empowered new woman, there has been almost no discussion of the fact that the kind of sex she most enjoyed was rough to the point of brutalizing.

[S]he seems to have been willing to do absolutely anything to please the men, which often meant hanging out with their boorish roommates until it was her time to perform.

These louts [the guys Owen hooked up with] did not operate on the fringes of polite society at the university, but existed—were lionized—at its epicenter.

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.

I think in part because of these uncomfortable truths, the article elicits a whole lot of objections — that it is unfair because Owen is not representative of most women, that the real Duke is unrecognizable from what Flanagan describes (though Flanagan is mostly describing it from Owen’s recorded sexual encounters), or that Owen is a person with agency and not a victim — how Flanagan portrays her.

But let’s remember that before Flanagan’s article, some feminists were congratulating Owen for being empowered, because she was aping what men do. (It should be said that other feminists also feel very uncomfortable about it). So whether or not Owen represents women, her situation is certainly a flashpoint that raises questions about feminism and male power. And I think, much more than Jezebel’s congratulations, Flanagan’s hypothesis about why Owen made the Powerpoint rings true:

But in the sheer amount of anecdotal detail, and in particular in her relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners, she reveals that the thesis is motivated by the same force that has prompted women through the ages to describe with savage precision their liaisons with men who discarded them: revenge.

A feminist Owen defender’s rejoinder might be, well, why can guys do what Owen does and not have people question their motives, but once a woman does it, she is questioned? My answer: let’s question guys’ motives. Let’s wonder why some guys as much as some women (by all means, not the majority, but certainly enough) see women as merely sexual creatures who are not worthy of respect. And let’s wonder why women go along with this. Let’s raise what it all means psychologically, because I think it is both very interesting and very psychologically-driven.

As to the criticism from Duke students and alumni that Flanagan is painting the school with a broad and inaccurate brush, I bet everyone, especially Duke students, know what Flanagan is talking about and is being frankly disingenuous by pretending not to.

For instance, Flanagan refers to the “the predictable angry letter to the school newspaper about the episode, written by a group of ‘female Greek leaders on campus’” after the Owen incident. The same things used to happen at my alma mater, Northwestern after embarrassing sorority or fraternity (usually fraternity) incidents. Greek leaders would write in scolding the reporting of the incident and describing in their defense philanthropic endeavors and high grade point averages, as if (1) good deeds and scholarship are the reasons people join Greek houses and (2) that participating in social service and earning high marks renders criticism of crude acts beyond the pale.

Having gone to a school similar to Duke in many ways, I recognize Owen’s social milieu — one of weeknights that begin with binge drinking at the campus dive bar or a frat house and that can end in drunken hook-ups — even though it wasn’t my social milieu.

As to the criticism of the media coverage: there is more coverage of the Duke lacrosse team incident and Owen’s Powerpoint than there is of say, the engineering school or the black student groups on campus because the media writes about what is news. It is news when people who are the face of a campus that values athletics, who often enough went to excellent high schools, and who are poised to be future leaders in society so crudely debase others. I imagine most people know these people do not represent all of Duke.

As I said, I went to a university that has many similarities to Duke — a variegated student body, but one in which athletes — and to an even greater extent — Greeks, have a pretty prominent campus role, lots of binge drinking (probably, that is most colleges), and a lot of other things going on that have nothing to do with drinking and Greeks and sexual exploits.

But the fact is, many do, and they stand out, because they often set the tone. The loudest, crudest people, in voice or behavior, tend to dominate, and so that is why the media focuses on them. They, not the quietly studious, have a much greater influence, one which people should have every reason to want to address.This slice of Duke stands out precisely because our default expectation of of an elite university is of great athletics and academic programs.

It is not wrong for adults to drink, or party, or have protected sex with semi-strangers. What is wrong is when these activities legitimize a social order that undercuts advancements women or minorities or others have made, and I believe that is what makes Owen’s story uncomfortable to read about.


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