Did someone try to talk about young women's sexual politics without getting Caitlin Flanagan on board to showily weep for their bruised morality? Worry not, here she is concern-trolling Karen Owen — and distorting my interview with her.
Blame the monthly magazine's publication schedule for the fact that it has taken this long for Flanagan, fearless guardian of women's valor, to pronounce the author of the Duke Fuck List "one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while." Flanagan's several-thousand-word piece in the Atlantic is so breathtakingly offensive and condescending that it arguably sets a new bar for the genre.
Some choice passages rife with unproven gender essentialism and barely-disguised contempt for a woman with whom she purports to be empathizing:
- On the PowerPoint itself: "It's as though two impulses are at war with one another: the desire to recount her sexual experiences in a hyper-masculine way—marked by locker-room crudeness and PowerPoint efficiency—fighting against the womanly desire to luxuriate in the story of it all." Clearly, the business vernacular of PowerPoints is most unfeminine, and Karen Owen should have chosen the more appropriate Harlequin format.
- Owen told me she sent the "thesis" to three friends, which Flanagan takes to mean she had only three friends in the world. "It's not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college. 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." Had Owen really attained that human connection Flanagan believes her to be so desperately seeking, she undoubtedly would have sent the thesis to the whole school in the first place.
- "There has been almost no discussion of the fact that the kind of sex she most enjoyed was rough to the point of brutalizing." Let's not miss this opportunity to extrapolate that anyone who might enjoy rough sex with a consensual partner has low self-esteem and has been led astray by Do Me feminism (sorry).
- There is some disdain reserved here for the gentlemen — they are "louts" who play video games, watch porn, and display an "eagerness to whip out their genitals on almost any occasion." But somehow they never merit the judgey alarm Flanagan and her ilk reserve for the delicate female flowers.
There's more — the apparently unironic use of "those old-school, man-hating radical feminists," the bizarre conflation of a sexual assault case with Owen's chronicle of consensual sex — but we can't go on forever. Let's get to the most glaring misconception, fundamental to the article.
The central thesis of Flanagan's piece is that Karen Owen really wanted to love and affection, like all women do, but she was confused by the alleged feminist mandate to get wasted and have random sex with callous dudes. (I think I missed that memo.) The fact that there is practically no evidence for this doesn't stop Flanagan in her pursuit of the real truth. You can tell how rock solid her case is by all the proof she offers: "It's easy to imagine that the prospect of becoming his next years-long girlfriend was enticing..." and "Imagine having been so young and so hopeful, being used sexually and then held in such contempt" and "It's not difficult to imagine what the days and weeks following the encounter were like: the expectation that he would call again, the anxious and depressing realization that he was done with her." (Emphasis added.)
Might as well employ our imaginations, because there's nothing in the documentary proof to show that Karen Owen wanted to be anyone's "years-long girlfriend," or that she wanted to do anything else but what she was doing, at least at the time. (There is proof that these guys disappointed her when they were selfish in bed, or when they had bad manners, or were Canadian. There is proof that she liked eye-contact during sex.)
In service of this myth, Flanagan also utterly mischaracterizes — willfully, by the looks of it — what Karen Owen told me back in September:
Even in the words of Karen Owen herself, we can find evidence that the balls-out composer of the Fuck List may have a very different, if little-explored, side of her personality, one that befits less the bard of the blow job than the heartbroken heroine of a Jane Austen novel. Asked by a reporter from Jezebel for her thoughts on everything that had happened, she responded with a fully human and entirely feminine sentiment. "I regret it," she said, "with all my heart."
And now we know. Except... let's go back to the original post with the interview for a moment.
She pointed out, as did our original tipster, that frats make lists like this all the time. Still, she said repeatedly, "I regret it with all my heart. I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that."
So, as is rather plain here from the part of the quote that got truncated, she regrets violating the privacy of her partners by putting this in writing and subjecting them to ridicule for their penis sizes and poor performance. She regrets naively thinking that sending the PowerPoint to three friends would end there.
During a brief discussion of the double standard she was conceivably about to face, she brushed that aside and said, "What I care about is that the other people got hurt." I didn't end up using that quote, but I was very clear about characterizing her feelings as they were communicated to me in a Today show segment:
"I spoke to Karen. She feels badly that she unintentionally violated the privacy of her partners, but does not feel badly about actually having had sex with them.... Plenty of women want just what men want, which is to have fun."
Okay, so maybe Flanagan missed that segment — except she quotes from another part of it in her piece. (For the record, "to have fun," was the morning-television-acceptable euphemism for "casual sex.")
But honestly, it doesn't take any additional context to make it clear that there's no evidence to paint Owen as (seriously?) the "heartbroken heroine of a Jane Austen novel" because she had sex with some guys she wasn't seriously involved with. Unless you believe that Caitlin Flanagan has more authority to define one young woman's experience than the young woman herself does.
Let's get something straight while we're on the topic: I never argued that Owen was a feminist hero (though others tried to); I never bemoaned that she was a sad slut with low-self esteem. In truth, as much as television producers begged me to give her credit for singlehandedly reinterpreting campus female sexuality (and I weakly acquiesced, at least in part) I still find her PowerPoint or personal choices less interesting than the manic frenzy they inspired. (Her PowerPoint is the most-read Jezebel post of all time.) The drive to define young women's sexual experiences rarely seems to match how we ourselves read them.
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.