Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hazardous for Women

Did anyone check Caitlyn Flanagan's knowledge of female sexuality before asking her to write a report on Karen Owen and her now infamous Duke Fucklist? Apparently not, because just about every feminist publication rails against her. It is very clear from reading her article "The Hazards of Duke" published in The Atlantic, that though she may claim a feminist approach, she is steeped in patriarchal expectations (like all of us) and has never bothered to evaluate the biases she has toward her gender.

Karen Owen is portrayed as a sad, lonely girl who was having sex with random men because she needed affection. Subject 1 is described by Owens herself very briefly, only mentioning that she was rather inexperienced and that she was flattered that he liked her body. Flanagan insists that because it is implied that she lost her virginity to this fellow, she is wounded by his disinterest in pursuing a relationship. So what if the rest of this world puts this premium on virginity? Lots of people who don't have any interest in "saving themselves" find themselves at an age where everyone else is gaining sexual experiences, they hear good things about it, and decide to get the show on the road. Her standard was someone who was attractive and appreciated the same in her. If that’s not what one would expect of a Duke lady, who gives a shit. That doesn't mean they have some sort of condition.

Over and over again Flanagan projects these expectations on Owens. She calls her naïve for sending a personal email to three people and being surprised that it later went viral. Doesn't everyone send personal emails? She calls her sad because she could only share that information with three people. Can you name more than three people that you explicitly discuss your sex life with? She laments that, "the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her." She says this because Owens put up with banal conversations and activities. Dealing with dullards is a part of life, and if you believe in Darwin a little bit, you agree that putting up with bullshit is required to have sex. That doesn't make her any less of a woman, its not like she is dealing with men who are beating her or humiliating her, she's just picking at her nails when she's bored to tears watching someone play video games. When they don't meet her expectations for proper treatment, she stops having sex with them. She doesn't absorb their behavior as something malignant in herself, by fixing her hair, losing weight, or going to the tanning salon so that they might like her more. Flanagan shames her sexual appetites. She paints these wide strokes, thinking that a woman who likes rough sex clearly has a deep seated desire to be abused and a woman who takes pride in their exhibitionistic practices doesn't have real pride in herself.

The most irritating part, is that nearly every word about Owen wreaks of pure meanness. She makes Owens sound unpopular, spineless, and slutty. For all her efforts to shed feminist light on the topic; she lacks one of the most famous feminine qualities: gentleness. Flanagan is a violent offender of shaming women about their sexuality. There is very little discussion of women's reactions to the story. The most notable one is some prude on Fox News who repeated the adage, "men do not respect women who do this." There is a lot of talk about what the daddies might think, about what Tucker Max would think, about what the athletes she sleeps with might think, but no one who understands the college sexual culture as it pertains to women is quoted. Her conclusion is that, "there is a very old story about women, desire, expectation, dashed hope, and (to use the old, apt, word) ruin." Indeed, this is a very old story, not the new story framed by feminine power. She implicitly shames her openness about sex by refusing to acknowledge that lots of women have sex with people they don't have deep emotional connections with and they are respected, contributing members of society.

My own conclusion on The Fuck List is this: it’s sad. It’s not profoundly sad. Her wounds from the experiences themselves (not withstanding the very public outlash) will not leave any significant scars. She'll get back on her feet and be better for it. It’s sad that women who desire to be in control of their own sexual lives have absolutely no one to learn this from. Shame abounds. There is fear from men that the arena that they have claimed dominance in will be shared with the other gender. There is fear from women that men won't respect them. They'll be called sluts, hos, cunts, whores, their illigetimate children will be called bastards, and when they get the courage to stand up to the asshole who called her those things, she'll be a bitch. This fear is so profound that there can be no accountability for your own sexual behavior because the potential shame is so great. So the college culture has built itself on liquor, so that the women will be comfortable doing what they are ashamed of. Of course, college women know that’s not as delightful as it sounds. [By the way, I think colleges have failed to promote change in this culture, but that’s another post]. It’s scary to be so out of control, to not know where you have woken up, to lose those precious earrings from South Africa (as Karen did), to do the things that were wanted, but not named. Its scary when something serious happens and no one knows what the terms of it were. It leaves a lot of women experiencing rape without the actual event of rape because they had very little control of their behavior or environment during sex.

So, in light of all this shame, this loss of self-control, this frightening discovery of something powerful, I think she had to do something that would make her experiences quantifiable. To attach numbers, statistics, graphs, and bullets because even if it took her forty-two slides, it was easier to manage. At the end of the day the only thing she had to fall back on was a hyper-masculine rationalization of her experiences, rather than feminine guidance to help her navigate the chaos. There aren't sufficient resources to help college women experience their sexuality as their own. For heaven's sake, the only person she saw who verbalized their experiences with real ownership was Tucker Max.

Ultimately, The Hazards of Duke is a much better case study on the masculine approach to sex, rather than the feminine because Flanagan doesn't even know there is an alternative. She doesn't know that a woman who has sex without being in the throws of love can be equally symptomatic of a happy woman than as a sad one.

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