Sex, Duke and Karen Owen
The recent Duke controversy concerning 2010 graduate Karen Owen has drawn the attention of national media outlets and sparked a debate about the implications of her actions. Owen composed a 42-slide PowerPoint presentation titled “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” in which she ranked 13 men with whom she had been sexually involved according to their physiques and relative degrees of prowess in the bedroom. She sent the presentation to a few close friends, at least one of whom posted the sex “thesis” online and sparked this controversy.
We believe that the extensive media attention given to this story highlights two disparities present on campuses across America, including our own: gender and socioeconomic class.
We maintain that the frenzy of attention and controversy surrounding this event would not have happened if the author of the thesis had been male. In some circles, Karen Owen can be seen as a kind of feminista, a symbol of authority who proves that women can be just as promiscuous as men (and proud of it). It is worth noting that Owen was comfortable distributing rankings of her sexual partners to her friends—an activity often performed by males our age. In a weird way, Owen’s distribution demonstrates that a gender gap has been alleviated in terms of openness and sexual freedom.
Additionally, the fact that the event occured at Duke, a private university that oozes elitism, adds to the controversy. Duke attracts some of the country’s best students, and the price tag for a Duke education—just like that for a Washington University education—tops $200,000. We feel that the amount of media attention focused on this issue has, in some ways been a result of this elitism. Perhaps a national audience is perplexed by the peculiar combination of intelligence and money with sexual exploit, and perhaps there is a shock value associated with the idea that those students predicted to be future leaders in business, academia and public service can and do engage in social actions that could be perceived as controversial or immature.
Ultimately, we believe that the controversy surrounding this incident speaks to far more than one college student’s promiscuity. Rather, the specific circumstances surrounding the incident, both in terms of gender and in terms of social class, have turned a small issue into a national discussion, one very relevant to our own campus.
It is interesting to consider the broader implications of Owen’s actions in a world where the mass media moves with a degree of relative immediacy. Owen’s list of sexual exploits, though perhaps oddly presented, was not unlike those circulated frequently on fraternity listservs and among other social groups. And as students whose cultural situation to some degree mirrors Owen’s, it makes sense for us to pay attention.
We feel that media coverage of Owen has been overblown, primarily due to class and gender. However, there is no avoiding the fact that we live in a world of increased transparency, and, for better or for worse, we should take the media’s treatment of Owen as a lesson.