Today’s first “On The Square” essay comes in from Matthew Lee Anderson, who looks into social critic Caitlin Flanagan’s take on Karen Owen, the Duke senior who seduced thirteen Duke athletes as “research” for her undergraduate thesis. Owen’s misspent thesis, Anderson suggests, proves a source of both horror and of hope.
Flanagan seems to fit Owens into her pre-determined template of female desire gone awry. For Flanagan, female sexual desire “is deeply enmeshed in the desire to be seduced, taken, treated….with a measure of aggression,” which explains why Tucker Max is (thank God) inimitable by the female sex, despite their best efforts. Flanagan’s Owens—noting the questionable relationship to the real Karen Owens—is the antithesis of Bella, the heroine of the extraordinarily successful adolescent novel Twilight.
I appreciate Flanagan’s optimism that Owens feels regret for doing what seems so obviously destructive, but interpreting Owens’ behavior through the lens of Twilight is also the easy way out for social conservatives. Treating Owens as motivated by revenge may implicitly reinforce the traditional sexual morality of Twilight, but in doing so also allows us to avoid accounting for the more difficult prospect that Owens is, if not happy, at least not particularly concerned about her choices or motivated by a sense of animus. While an instinctive social conservatism might be okay, we need to ensure the facts fit.