Karen Owen, and the Difficulty of Facing Sexual Desire Head-On (Soberly)

“I was but a shot away from what is referred to as a “black-out state.” —Karen Owen

By now, many of you have probably heard of Duke graduate Karen Owen’s Powerpoint Presentation, in which she described in salacious detail thirteen hookups with top athletes at her alma mater. She said it was meant for three friends, but the document quickly went viral.

While some have hailed her as a feminist role model (of the “Do Me” feminist sort, since she initiated the hookups), others have vilified her as a party girl gone wrong.

In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan has another take on Karen Owen—while she comes on with swagger, if you read between the lines of her presentation and her subsequent comments, there’s regret, sadness, and ultimately, the sour aftertaste of rejection.

Irin Carmon, who interviewed Karen Owen for Jezebel.com, takes issue with Flanagan’s portrayal of Owen as a “sad, slutty, drunk girl”:

The decade-long hysteria over a “hookup culture,” imperiling young women who have been brainwashed into binge-drinking away their ingrained biological desires for cuddling and babies, doesn’t match any reality I’ve seen or heard of beyond pseudo-concerned trend stories. There are some people who are more interested in casual sex, sometimes; some of them are women, and some of them are drunk at the time, and it’s not a death knell for a committed relationship somewhere along the way if that’s what you want. It’s not that gender inequality doesn’t inform the power dynamics of casual sex, on campus or elsewhere. It’s that it’s hard to believe these handwringers are interested, in good faith, in creating a better environment of safe, enthusiastic consent when they’re so busy ignoring the fact that women like sex too. Or judging us for it.

Whether you see Karen Owen as a feminist icon, a sad woman, scorned, or as a lightning rod for debate about women’s sexuality, there’s still the fact of the booze.

Almost all of her hookups started at a campus bar called Shooters. Most of the time, Karen was drinking. All judgment aside, it’s interesting to speculate what would happen if she never had a sip of booze. Would she still have pursued these hookups sober? Would they have been the same? (Rachel Kramer Bussell wrote a great essay for Drinking Diaries, called “Drunk Sex, How I Miss You (Sometimes, Anyway”).

About the culture college women face, Flanagan writes:

We’ve made a culture for our college women in which they have been liberated from the curfews and parietals that were once the bane of co-eds, but one in which they have also shaken off the general suspicion of male sexuality that was the hallmark of Andrea Dworkin–style campus activism; they prefer bikini waxes and spray tans to overalls and invective. So they have ended up with the protections of neither the patriarchy nor those old-school, man-hating radical feminists.

Maybe they’re all the better for it. Or maybe an awful lot of these young women at our very best colleges are being traumatized by what takes place during so much of this mindless, drunken partying when they’re steeped in alcohol, which brings out the least engaging aspects of their young selves.

I’m not sure I would describe a young woman’s sexuality as the “least engaging aspect” of her young self. Truth is, if you view the Powerpoint Presentation, it seems like most of the time, Karen Owen had fun. She was bursting with desire for these “fine male specimens,” and she fulfilled that desire. Maybe the only way many young women can feel comfortable claiming their desires is by getting drunk. Why is that?

Maybe that’s where the change begins—not with banning alcohol or using Karen Owen’s notoriety as a cautionary tale—don’t kiss and tell. Her story just points to the fact that, when it comes to owning their sexuality without shame, young women still have a long, long way to go.

Then again, most of the guys she hooked up with were drunk, too.