The Duke Sex List: What She Didn’t Say “Tells All”

Two studies, of sorts, made headlines last week.

The first, by Australian researchers, says that personal choices, reflected in our priorities and goals, have the greatest impact on our long-term happiness. People who prioritize God, family and altruistic goals (e.g. helping the homeless, being generous, or volunteering) are more likely to find happiness than those who pursue self-centered or material goals. And personal choices that result in healthy living, strong friendships, stable marriages, and the right balance of work and leisure all have a significant effect on long-term happiness.

The second “study” that grabbed the headlines last week was the work of

Karen Owen, a 2010 graduate of Duke University. Karen created a tongue-in-cheek senior “thesis” on “Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” a.k.a. random, frequent, mostly-drunken sex. In great detail (and no one disputes the truth of her account), she lists and evaluates her too-many-to-count sexual hookups with 13 “subjects,” mostly members of Duke’s lacrosse and baseball teams, during her four years at Duke.

Karen’s PowerPoint presentation, stuffed with details, images, analogies, and explicit dialogue, was a time-intensive effort. She included descriptions of her partners’ attractiveness, physical “hardware,” and performance (ranked on a ten-point scale—actual scores range from a humiliating “1” to an over-the-top “12”).  Her ratings also factored in athletic skills, creativity, and “entertainment” value, including “dirty talk.” She named names and included photos of each “contestant.” Finished, she emailed it to three lucky friends; it was a guidebook for future fun with these “top dogs”—the guys that “everyone wants to be or be with.”

Karen Owen names names

But one friend forwarded it on to another and, within hours, Karen’s PowerPoint went viral, reaching millions on the Internet.

In a hasty quasi-apology, Karen says she originally created the slides to amuse her friends—not to expose the guys to worldwide public humiliation. She claims that she “would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned.”  Still, she backpedals, arguing that it’s really nothing different from the standard frat house practice of ranking coeds on their sex appeal.  The notoriety prompted her to shut down all her social network profiles—the Gen Y method of disappearing—but book deals reportedly are in the offing.

Public reactions to Karen’s “study” have focused mostly on the privacy issue– her publication of explicit details, with names and photos, without the consent of the young men involved.  Several commentators also chastised her for making snide remarks about Asians and Canadians.

But Karen’s promiscuity—the source of her problem–elicits a ho-hum reaction in most quarters. Chalk it up to college-as-usual. (And if the comments ricocheting around the Internet are any indication, her hookups reflect a disturbing college norm for many young women.)

A few writers admit that her drunken bed-hopping is “sad” or “immature,” but the chattering media typically characterize her as sexually self-confident, empowered, and even admirable.  The Duke student newspaper calls her “a funny, actually intelligent lady who likes to show people a good time. And she has nothing to be ashamed about.” And one feminist blogger hailed her as “another reminder that women can be as flip, aggressive, or acquisitive about sex as men can. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as all parties are consenting.”

That’s the Cosmo line, after all.  Strip sex of any meaning beyond selfish pleasure—and women are free to be equally as aggressive, detached, and utilitarian as the cads of yesteryear. No wrong, no shame. Be happy, right?


Remember that other study, the Australian one? It tells us, first, that the best way to be happy is to prioritize God, family, and others over our own selfish pursuits. Karen’s tell-all reads like a chronology of self-gratification, on her part as well as her fleeting partners. Any regard for others as persons, not just anatomical parts, is completely missing: 42 PowerPoint slides devoid of compassion, caring, affection, or even basic respect for others.

The Australian study also reminds us that the choices we make about important things–like friendships, a healthy lifestyle, and choosing a marriage partner–directly affect our long-term happiness.

How do Karen’s choices stack up? Again, it’s what she didn’t say that tells the story.

Karen’s tales contain no hint of genuine friendships with any of the guys involved. She duly notes any “enjoyable” conversations, pre- or post-sex. She seems to consider it a success if it’s not “awkward” when she sees the guy later on campus, fully clothed, She derides “clingy” behavior, whether on her part or theirs, and refuses to accept Facebook “friend” requests from the guys who sleep with her.

No, Karen’s sex buddies are not friends. Friends don’t exploit each other for momentary–or even hours of–pleasure. They certainly don’t tell tales, like Karen and the guys themselves did.

On that score, her girlfriends fail the true-friend test as well. One of the girls who received Karen’s PowerPoint pressed “forward,” hoping to raise her own social status, perhaps? And what kind of girlfriends let a friend repeatedly get drunk and leave with any guy—or multiple guys–sporting two legs and an athletic scholarship? Karen betrays no sense of her own dignity and value. It’s not surprising that the others don’t either.

Without friends who really care about her, Karen receives little encouragement to make good choices in terms of her health.  Healthy living doesn’t share space with random, drunken, hook-ups.

What does her thesis tell about her prospects for a stable, enduring marriage? It’s what’s missing that matters.

Her exploits describe a young woman practiced in sexual techniques but utterly clueless about the inevitable emotional connections that sex generates. Karen ridicules the tugs on her own heart that leave her “extremely depressed” after a final hookup with one particular man. She can’t afford to be vulnerable. Caught in the inevitable contradiction of the impersonal hookup, Karen wears the emotional armor of indifference to protect against the natural intimacy of sex.

Her sexual “fun,” disconnected from personal intimacy and commitment, is really a solo ride towards unhappiness.

What’s missing from Karen Owen’s thesis—and her life? Trust. Kindness. Friendship. Self-Giving. Love.

Everything that will make her happy.

Isn’t there anyone who cares enough about Karen Owen to tell her the truth?

© 2010 Mary Rice Hasson




5 thoughts on “The Duke Sex List: What She Didn’t Say “Tells All”

  1. Hopefully, after all this, her parents will care enough to speak with her. Hopefully, her parents can make her understand what she has done to herself….unless they jump on the band wagon of her celebrity.

  2. If you don’t know her, you have no idea what makes her happy or not, study or no study. Who even were the subjects in that study? And Karen ‘s empathy obviously isn’t present because it was supposed to be funny! Not her secret safe diary. The way she lives her life and how much fufillment she has from it is no one else’s business but hers.

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