The XX Factor

Caitlin Flanagan Takes on Duke

In this month’s Atlantic Caitlin Flanagan – in a story very cleverly titled “The Hazards of Duke” -  has a very Flanagan take on the Duke fuck list, the lewd Power Point presentation by Duke University graduate Karen Owen in which she detailed her sexual exploits with 13 athletes. In the most interesting part of her story Flanagan recasts Owen not as a ruthless cheerleader type but as a striving outsider, something like the heroine of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep . Owen, Flanagan recounts, spent her freshman year gazing at “frat stars” who would grow up to the heartless Wall Street douches that Duke is so good at producing.  This Power Point, she writes, was Owen’s form of revenge.

As always with Flanagan, I  delight in her keen anthropological eye and her skill at building an argument. But then I am always dubious about the conclusion.  We were invited, she writes, to see Owen as something new, the first true daughter of sex positive feminism. But in fact, her Power Point tells a  “very old story about women, desire, expectation, dashed hope, and (to use the old, apt, word) ruin.” Flanagan backs this point up with a Mary McCarthy story and what she describes as a very “feminine sentiment” Owen expressed to Jezebel : “I regret it with all my heart.”

The rhetorical trick here is that you need to buy into the notion that for the modern college girl, there are only two choices. You can count on your own “good judgment” and the “mercy of men around you” to keep you safe, as sensible girls in Flanagan’s college days used to do, or you can be Karen Owen, a victim of the false promise of girls gone wild feminism. But this is of course a false choice. When it comes to sex, there is no “terrible, unchanging fact about being female,” as Flanagan describes it. There are facts that change more slowly than, say, Andrew Dworkin would want them to, but still they change. The word “ruin” may have still meant something in McCarthy’s time, maybe even in Flanagan’s, but it certainly does not hold that same power now.

Karen Owen is no role model for the modern college woman. She may even be “one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while,” as Flanagan calls her. But her sexual exploits are a fact the culture has to accommodate in its understanding of women, in the same way the sexual exploits of Krystal Ball’s were. Read about the latest national sex survey . A woman who loves sex – even one who describes her sexual exploits as pleasantly violent – is not in a state of “ruin.” She is in control.

What Flanagan’s analysis leaves out about Owen’s Power Point is how funny and subversive it was, how it takes male porn conventions and turns them on its head. Compare it to the recent leaked e-mail exchange recounting the sexual exploits of some Princeton grads . Those were equally execrable but not at all entertaining or original – the usual tedious, joyless, retrograde list. Revenge is no small thing. And revenge on that literary a level is something that would have been unimaginable in Mary McCarthy’s day, and I imagine something she would have appreciated.