Duke sex thesis: What’s the point?

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December 17, 2013 by nooffensebut

Karen Owen, a recent graduate of Duke University, has produced what she calls her “sex thesis,” a 42-page PowerPoint presentation in which she analyzed the sexual proclivities of 13 of her fellow students. She titled it “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.”

Wow. OK. Um. Where to start? There are so many questions that arise.

Is this another example of Internet culture gone awry? Owen apparently sent her project to three friends as a private joke. They allegedly shared it and, poof, it went viral.

According to a CBS news report, some of the men involved are “furious.” When a woman’s sexuality is exposed against her will, one tends to hear words like “violated.” Is it fair that women are habitually painted as victims or that men are habitually painted as victimizers? No. Not to either party.

But here’s the question I find really interesting: Is the Duke sex thesis an example of feminist empowerment? After all, men have been analyzing women for years, right?

For context, I called upon my own former thesis advisor, Mary Zeiss Stange, professor of religion and women’s studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Oh, and for the record, my thesis did not include the same type of, shall we say, field research as Ms. Owen’s.

“The question is, do we want that kind of equality, or do we want equality on those terms?” Stange asked. Turning the tables on men might be leveling the playing field, but as she put it, is that the field we want to be playing on? In other words, do two wrongs make a right?

“I don’t feel that (Owen’s project) is the triumph of women’s rights,” said Natalie Taylor, another Skidmore professor. “I think it’s reprehensible behavior in both instances.”

Neither Taylor nor Stange is suggesting that women should be held to higher standards of decorum than men. We often are, and frankly that’s a lot of garbage. Expectations should be the same, regardless of gender.

Karen Owen isn’t actually breaking new ground. In 1977, two female students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a similar document titled “Consumer Guide to M.I.T. Men.” The intent, they said, was to give men an idea of how it feels to be objectified.

I don’t know what Owen’s intention was. The document is actually pretty entertaining to read. But interesting and entertaining don’t mean admirable.

I’m not lambasting her behavior, I’m questioning the inclination to label it some example of genius and social progression. To think that this thesis an example of empowerment underestimates the potential women, and men as well, have to do something that is really empowering and truly worthy of admiration.

After all, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton weren’t at Seneca Falls talking about all the men they let get into their pantaloons.


Originally published Oct. 15, 2010 in the Chattanooga Times Free Press


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