In her latest article for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan develops her ongoing theme of examining contemporary sexual life by reading Karen Owens’ infamous (non-academic) thesis on her sexual conquests of several Duke athletes. “Hell hath no fury,” William Congreve once told us, and Flanagan’s hypothesis is that Owens’ “relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners” is the latest bit of evidence that he was right.
In typical Flanagan fashion, the piece meanders through the social factors beneath the sordid episode itself and its cultural reception. Her analysis hinges on this reductio: “If what we are seeing in Karen Owens is the realization of female sexual power, then we must at least admit that the first pancake off the griddle is a bit of a flop.” Owens is a cheap imitation (if such a thing were possible) of Tucker Max, the quintessential “player” who has become a cult legend within fraternities.
But Owen’s imitation doesn’t spring up from nowhere. Rather, her sexual notetaking is the product of an alcoholic explosion among college women and the antiquation of traditional male/female sexual morality. Flanagan’s analysis of the hookup culture is by no means new, but she does have a way of crystallizing the problem in ways that draw feminists’ ire: “In those days, [women] relied on our own good judgment to keep us safe, but also—and this is the terrible, unchanging fact about being female—on the mercy of the men around us.” Now women have neither the protections of the “patriarchy nor those old-school, man-hating radical feminists.”
Whether Flanagan’s historicism is overly romantic is an open question. That it provides solid fodder for another round of discussion about whether the kids are all right has already been answered. It is not clear whether or not Owens represents a broader phenomenon, or if Flanagan represents her accurately (her reading of Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly’s warning to young women to not sleep around was inventive). Ross Douthat has dubbed Flanagan an “instinctive social conservative,” but instincts need facts—and when it comes to Owens, I’m not sure they’re on Flanagan’s side.
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. In her analysis of the story, Flanagan writes:
Stephenie Meyer has re-created the sort of middle-class American youth in which it was unheard-of for a nice girl to be a sexual aggressor, and when the only coin of the realm for a boy who wanted to get lucky was romance and a carefully waged campaign intended to convince the girl that he was consumed by love for her.
For Flanagan, adolescent women first encounter this desire in secret. A girl enters her kingdoms to read books, which Flanagan suggests meet her “most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others.”
Flanagan’s Owens stands against all that. Yet while Flanagan’s Owens is clearly an anti-Bella, Flanagan maintains an undercurrent of hope that Owens hasn’t been entirely separated from what were doubtlessly her adolescent desires for romance. From the suggestion that Owens is motivated by revenge, to Flanagan’s closing suggestion that Owens has kept alive part of her that befits “the heartbroken heroine of a Jane Austen novel,” she clearly wants Owens to keep the storybook sexuality of Twilight alive. And for good reason. But in this case, I fear the reading says more about Flanagan’s presuppositions than Owens herself—as journalist Irin Carmon points out, the line that Flanagan cites as evidence of Owens’ regret is almost certainly a misreading.
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.
Yet at the same time, the uproar and continuing discussion of Owens’ mock thesis reveals just how deeply Flanagan’s narrative about the nature of sexuality still resonates. While the nation was simultaneously horrified and fascinated, like the fellow in Plato’s Republic who can’t quit looking at the corpses, its irreverently clinical attitude is precisely the sort response we might expect from a world that has attempted to disenchant sexual pleasure by industrializing it. If nothing is sacred, nothing can be profaned, and the reverberations from Owens’ “work” may provide a little hope that the total disenchantment of sex is not yet complete.
Matthew Lee Anderson writes at Mere Orthodoxy and is the author of Earthen Vessels: Breathing New Life into a Broken Faith. You can follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.
Caitlin Flanagan’s The Hazards of Duke.
Ray Gustini’s Does Duke Sex List Really Tell Us About Feminist Failures?
Ross Douthat’s Caitlin Flanagan’s 1970s Nostalgia
Caitlin Flanagans’s What Girls Want
Irin Carmon’s The Atlantic Weeps For The Sad, Slutty Drunk Girls