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What Caitlin Flanagan got wrong about Karen Owen and sex

Posted by Jesse Singal  January 12, 2011 12:15 PM

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Caitlin Flanagan's piece in The Atlantic about Karen Owen, the undergraduate who slept with a bunch of men at Duke — many of them athletes — and wrote a very detailed "thesis" about the experiences that got leaked, has sparked a huge amount of discussion on the Internet.

I thought that it was a very sloppy piece of work, overall. Flanagan hugely overgeneralizes complicated issues related to sex, feminism, alcohol, and Duke's rather diseased-seeming campus culture, and shoves aside the story's nuances to help promote her own agenda.

Owen's list consisted of 13 detailed accounts of men she slept with, from when they first started flirting to how they acted afterwards. The stories included lots of drinking, lots of extremely aggressive Duke athletes, and lots of humiliating details about the less impressive encounters. So when the list first leaked, it spawned a range of responses. "Karen Owen is NOT a tramp," wrote Drew Magary on the very dude-oriented sports blog Deadspin. "She's a giant white shining beacon of HOPE!" Commentators used the scandal to trot out familiar old arguments about the Internet. Book editors started sniffing around. Substantive feminist writers grappled with some of the details.

It was a complicated story that elicited a complicated set of responses. But not so to Flanagan. To her, Owen is simply a victim. Flanagan seems unable to wrap her mind around the concept that Owen — gasp! — enjoyed casual sex.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea that at times, Owen wasn't quite treated like a person by the men she encountered at Duke — there are parts of her stories in which it certainly appears, to an outsider, that she was used, in the sense that she got very little out of the experiences and wasn't treated well. But it's also clear that she enjoyed some of the dalliances.

So for Flanagan to paint Owen as simply and incontrovertibly a victim is to strip away much of what makes this episode so interesting. And when Flanagan says things like this, it gets even harder to take her seriously:

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.

Really? Those are the only approaches? This is a very opportunistic premise for Flanagan, who is in a sense calling for a return to bygone mores and approaches to gender and innocence: "Well, we could solve this problem buy simply going back to The Old Ways, but all these progressive types would never allow that, so I guess the problem will go unsolved!" You can of course agree that binge drinking on campus is an issue — which it is — without thinking that parietals and curfews are the solution. But not to Flanagan, who seeks to oversimplify at every step.

Flanagan also writes, "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." Okay, but it's also not an assertion that very many people made. Flanagan leads into her claim by citing two people who spoke positively of Owen — one an author who is 20 years her elder, and the other a random Duke student interviewed by the "Today" show. For the most part, the discussion among actual feminist bloggers and writers was far more complicated and nuanced — not very many acted as completely pro-Owen cheerleaders. That attitude was mostly found among book agents, lightweight pundits, and others who had something to gain from Owen's exploits. Flanagan seems to sometimes have trouble understanding that things can fit into categories other than "good" and "bad" — a problematic deficiency for a magazine writer.

There's tons of fodder here, and Owen is a fascinating subject for further discussion of feminism, alcohol on campus, and various other hot-button issues. But Flanagan brings such glibness to the endeavor that it's just hard to extract much of worth from her piece.

Perhaps the best example of her carelessness comes at the very end:

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.”

Here's the full context from the Jezebel post:

The author told us this morning that she never intended for the presentation to go beyond the three friends she sent it to in May, but that recently one friend (who has since admitted to it) forwarded it to another, and it went viral. It has since been sent to multiple listservs, including fraternity listservs.

She pointed out, as did our original tipster, that frats make lists like this all the time. Still, she said repeatedly, "I regret it with all my heart. I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that."

Maybe Owen does regret sleeping around, but it's quite clear that in this interview her regret stems from the fact that the list was leaked and embarrassed some of the men she slept with. But it makes sense that Flanagan would distort this quote, because in her world the only logical outcome of Owen's exploits is complete ruin and utter sadness. In the real world, though, things are a bit more complicated.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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