The current state of our union has generated many opportunities to share libertarian perspectives on the economy, the constitution, and civil rights; but until I picked up the January-February issue of the Atlantic, I hadn’t seen much opportunity for sharing the libertarian outlook on social and personal relations. In that issue’s book review section there was a piece (no pun intended, you’ll get it as you read along) called “The Hazards of Duke.”
The article, by Caitlin Flanagan,loosely discussing several works (Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, andThe Company She Keeps), disparages Duke University (rightly in many ways), discusses alcohol consumption by young women, and pontificates about differences between male and female perspectives on sex. But its main focus (and the lens through which it views the preceding list) is on a relatively recent internet sensation — Karen Owen’s F*** List — a graduate’s mock senior thesis about her sexual escapades with 13 Duke athletes (“officially” titled — “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics”).
Flanagan presumes a great deal about Karen Owen and her thesis, telling us much more about her own attitudes than about Owen. Shedivines Owen’s motivation — revenge on the men who discarded her — tagging it as a theme for women through the ages. She also identifies direct causes for Owen’s actions. For example, she cites a letter to Duke’s school newspaper, written in response to Owen’s thesis, and the surrounding controversy, by sorority members distancing themselves from Owen. According to Flanagan, this “served to underscore the disdain that the actual Karen Owen seems to have engendered in her fellow students, whose closed social system offered her no safe harbor.”
After reading Owen’s “brief communications with the press,” Flanagan contends that it’s hard to believe Owen’s claim that the email she sent to “only three friends” was not for public consumption, but it’s “not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college.” She then weighs in on Owen’s mental and emotional state: “The overwhelming sense one gets from the thesis is of a young woman who was desperate for human connection, and who had no idea how to obtain it.” The author further laments that poor treatment by one of her early partners “broke [Owen’s] heart and her spirit” and sent her on a self-destructive path.
That’s a lot of presumption.
The article describes a Fox News segment, hosted by Megyn Kelly, discussing Owen’s thesis. Not trusting the author for objective description, I watched the Fox News clip online. The segment included Kelly and two other female legal commentators. After discussing Owen’s possible financial motivations, Kelly said, “I gotta go off topic from the law because I have two beautiful women here who are college and law school graduates. What could she be thinking? First of all, she slept with 13 guys. . . . . I personally, reading this, was disgusted.” One commentator responded, “Disgusted, yeah. She’s dirty. Yeah, I don’t like it at all. I was like ‘Oh my God,’ this is so unbecoming.” After more banter, Kelly said, “I can tell you, having dated the captain of the lacrosse team at Syracuse, men do not respect women who do this.” She added, “You may sleep with half the lacrosse team. They don’t think that’s a great thing. They don’t talk about how great you are. They talk about what a joke you are. So that’s a word to the wise.” Thanking her guests, Kelly closed by saying, “This has nothing to do with the law, but my own unsolicited advice for young women. Don’t sleep around. Don’t be easy. It’s not empowering. It’s embarrassing. You will be the butt of men’s jokes. You will not be respected and you may be humiliated as this woman is now.”
That’s a lot of condemnation.
I looked up Owen’s “thesis” online and found what appeared to be the original power-point on YouTube. Reading it, I did not see the “little girl lost” who was discovered by Flanagan. I just saw someone who was objectively, and at times humorously, evaluating sexual partners from her college years. I was not the only one to see a discrepancy. Looking online for jezebel.com’s interview with Karen Owen, I discovered that a good number of posters, and the reporter who talked with Owen after her list went viral, took Flanagan to task for her many assumptions.
I believe I can identify several different perspectives on this.
The liberal perspective. Flanagan’s theme is clear. Karen Owen was a victim of an alpha-male, athlete-loving, cliquish, misogynist university culture. Her sexual exploits were not her own. Her desires were shaped — nay, deformed — by careless man-boys and a patriarchal system that coddled them. This is not her fault. Duke’s system failed Owen. It “offered her no safe harbor.” Owen deserves our pity. Something must be done, so other girls don’t suffer her fate.
The conservative perspective. Megyn Kelly’s commentary and advice are representative, and painfully traditional. She admits that her advice was unsolicited, yet she was compelled to give it, and keep giving it. It was advice laden with well-wornresentments and prescriptions for proper social and personal behavior for young ladies. It was imparted to viewers as if Mrs. Cunningham were having a serious talk with her daughter on “Happy Days.” Owen is not a good girl. She’s a bad girl. “She’s dirty.” What Owen did was wrong, immoral, disgusting. No self-respecting, young lady does that. It is bad, bad, BAD! SHAME!
Liberals say it’s not her fault. Conservatives say it’s all her fault. Both conclude that Owen is unfortunate. One scolds. One patronizes. Both warn: don’t act this way. It’s bad!
Now, I am no fan of Duke or its athlete-loving culture, but it’s clear from Owen’s own writing that she chose to do certain things with certain people. And she admits enjoying most of her liaisons. There is no accusation of rape or sexual assault, which are criminal acts. There is no blame to be borne here. Though I am a feminist, I do not share Flanagan's sentiments. The Duke University system did not fail Owen. It owed her little beyond an undergraduate education. As for the earnest advice from Ms. Kelly, it is paternalistic, and the shaming aspect is obnoxious. It’s what prompts so many non-Republicans to shout, “Get out of our bedrooms!” And to what purpose did Kelly cite the beauty of her guests? I graduated from college and law school and am now in the dissertation stage of a Ph.D. program. If I tell you what I look like, will that lend any more or less authority to this reflection? Moreover, Kelly’s claim of insight gained by dating the captain of the Syracuse lacrosse team is laughable. Nowhere in her thesis does Owen make any claim that what she was doing was dating. As to Kelly’s traditional invectives against Karen Owen and her exhortations not to sleep around and not be easy, that’s a decision for each individual adult woman to make for herself. Besides, there are two sides to that coin. As Mae West said, “When women go wrong, men go right after them.”
So now, a libertarian perspective. Entering college, Karen Owen was likely 18 years old — old enough to vote, old enough to go to war, and old enough to experiment in various social behaviors. Her thesis does not represent a giant step backward for women, or a giant step forward either. It is simply one individual’s description and humorous assessment of her past activities. It is nothing more, nothing less. As to the other people involved in those activities, they deserve no sympathy because of the publicity she gave them. They, as individuals, each chose to engage in sexual activity with Ms. Owen. If any of them are unhappy that Owen disclosed those activities, every choice has consequences, good or bad. If Owen wants to discuss or analyze these acts, she is free to do so. As are they. While such “postgame analysis” may be in bad taste, there is no law against it, nor should there be. It is simply an additional risk to the already risky act of the college hookup in the internet age.
Though I did not fully appreciate it in my youth, as a mature libertarian I value the advice my father always gave me about social and personal situations: “Be discreet.” He did not mean secretive. He meant that you should think about what you do, and with whom you do it, because all actions have consequences, some quite unwelcome. That’s good advice, solicited or not.