October 13, 2010
A little over a year ago, a document rating the attractiveness of members of a certain sex began winding though the twisted hallways of the Yale Pantheon system, forwarded from team to team, club to club. Outrage spouted at the explicit objectification and sexual harassment. When authorities refused to act, students fought the decision.
This week, a similar e-mail has been circulating, but the response has been humor, perhaps a little finger wagging disapproval. The chain started at Duke, and has been picked up by the media, but no one knows quite who to condemn.
This time, the culprit is a woman. The objectified are male.
Karen Owens, Duke ’10, has made the news recently for her PowerPoint presentation of the athletes she slept with. Stylized as a “Senior Honors Thesis” titled “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics,” the document provides far more than pictures and names. Owens goes into explicit detail of the strengths and weaknesses, sizes and fetishes, of her “subjects,” rating them on a scale of one to 10. After she sent the document to a few friends, the PowerPoint made its way through other college campuses and was picked up by multiple media outlets.
Were the genders reversed, there would certainly be controversy, and still be those who would refuse to recognize the damaging nature of such objectification. Although the cruel misogyny of 2009’s “Preseason Scouting Report,” mentioned earlier, was clear to most of the Yale campus, the administration still refused to act against the authors. Yet in this case, no one seems particularly concerned at all. This ambiguity is clear from the preface to the attached Power Point, sent by a Yale fraternity, that was forwarded to Broad Recognition ; the author writes “This is a must read. It is also awesome. And horrifying.”
The media is equally slow to condemn Owens. Feminist blog Jezebel.com has trained its eye to look out for sexual harassment and objectifying speech, but sends a mixed message on this account in Irin Carmon’s article:
We’re not condoning putting any of these sorts of things in writing or within range of the Internet, especially when using the real names of your partners. But you know what? Here’s another reminder that women can be as flip, aggressive, or acquisitive about sex as men can. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as all parties are consenting. (Of course, these guys didn’t consent to have their performances publicly evaluated, but there you go. Again, people, do not put it in writing.)
It is unclear what, exactly, the value of women acting “as flip, aggressive, or acquisitive about sex as men” is. The requisite nod to consent is a farce; it is hard to imagine a situation in which such information, often quite deprecating, could be released with the full support of the men. Further, than an act would be conscionable if consent had been gained is irrelevant when it clearly has not. Consent is a defining characteristic in sexual relations—separating intercourse from rape, flirting from harassment, a sex tape from criminal exploitation—not a secondary concern. It is surprising to see Jezebel playing the role of the apologist.
Carmon similarly disappoints when she notes of the victims, “There are lots of athletes on the list, including many players from Duke’s lacrosse team, whose behavior has come under scrutiny in the past, though they were cleared of wrongdoing,” referring to Crystal Gail Mangum’s false allegations of rape in 2006. Bringing up a wrongly sullied reputation, as though a sexual history disallows vulnerability, reeks of the common “slut-blaming” levied against sexual violence victims. The comment is absurd given the innocence of the Duke lacrosse team and lack of evidence any of these men were involved, but would be inappropriate even if some athletes had been found guilty. The freshmen on the 2009 Report were all equally wronged regardless of their sexual histories.
Given Jezebel’s disappointing approach, it is unsurprising that other news sources with no focus on gender have failed to paint Owens as the villain of the story. She is, rather, spectacle. The Bleacher Report has closely followed her “slutty attempt at humor” and Forbes has turned Owens’ subsequent actions into a lesson in dealing with embarrassment on the Internet, as though all Americans are at risk for accidentally creating 42-slide PowerPoints on the “subjects” with whom they have slept.
The Karen Owens story does not fit the traditional narrative of sexism, exploitation, and violation of privacy. Yet to dismiss Owens as a silly girl who made a “slutty” mistake, or as evidence that women are just as bad as men, is decidedly anti-feminist. This tactic ignores the urgent issues of disrespect that similarly underlie both the 2009 Roster and Owens’ “thesis,” instead favoring familiar tropes and sensationalist gossip. If publications like Jezebel care about progressive gender politics, they must move from defending a team to changing the game. Owens actions were despicable. Why is it so hard for us to say this?
Alexandra Brodsky is a junior in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.