The Duke 'thesis': Karen Owen's discovery
A couple days ago, cyberspace started to vibrate with chatter about a provocative research project undertaken by a recent graduate of Duke University. In a PowerPoint presentation, the student details her interactions with various research "subjects." The presentation had ethnographic detail, visual aids, and assessment rubrics.
Of course, what I'm talking about is Karen Owen's mock thesis that surveys her sexual encounters with a number of male classmates. Reportedly, Owen's PowerPoint was never supposed to be made public but, now that it has gone viral, commentators are trying to figure out something to say about it. There was morally vapid commentary on the Today Show about legal and psychological issues. Thankfully, those interested more intelligent commentary could reflect upon a provocative blog posting by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post. Others will surely weigh-in on "hook-up" culture and provide commentary, both sage and stern, sometimes hypocritical and hysterical, about the digitally enhanced licentiousness that seems to characterize the age in which we live.
Few people are willing to praise Karen Owen for her disclosure of the names and faces of her sexual partners. So commentary has focused on how her PowerPoint presentation represents something new--either for gender relations or for the cyberspatiality of our lives. Another possible view is that what Karen Owen did could have been empowering if she had simply redacted the names.
But I really don't think that Karen Owen's PowerPoint represents something fundamentally new. Nor do I think that her thesis send-up would have been empowering if she had adhered to standard research protocol and maintained the anonymity of her "subjects." Instead, I would submit, the PowerPoint reflects something very old and quite dis-empowering--although Karen Owen did have one significant research finding.
But what is perhaps most unsettling about the whole situation is that all of us are not as different from Karen Owen as we would like to think--at least when seen from the religious perspective from which I am inclined to view things.
Some might consider Karen Owen's research to be new precisely because it demonstrates that women are now free to do what men have always done. But I challenge any one to seriously maintain that "lists" and "rankings" have been taxonomic systems used only by men to classify various high school and collegiate "experiences." Still, it certainly has been the case that male "researchers" of this kind have had more ready access to peer review and publication.
With talk about imminent book contracts for Owen, we can now safely say that the commodification of male sexuality is proceeding apace and may soon become as profitable as retailing the sexuality of women. Along these lines, I was particularly struck by a comment made on the Today Show in which an expert speculated that some of the men mentioned by Owen would be disinclined to sue precisely because they had been demeaned. I took this as an inadvertent admission of the radical proposition that men have feelings too.
Trying to find a teachable moment in the midst of all of this, Duke University issued a statement warning students about the risks of cyberspace. Clearly, cyberspace has created a new dimension of human experience--information, identity, and invention all interact in complex and changing configurations. But I do not necessarily see that the Owen "thesis" really shows us this. Having gone to high school and college, not to mention having managed a homeless shelter and lived in a North Indian village, I learned quickly that gossip is daily fare. Cyberspace has just turned the entire world into the equivalent of a frat or sorority.
But it is in this aspect of revealing intimacies--whether sexual or not--that we find where we are all uncomfortably similar to Karen Owen. When I read news-reports about Karen Owen's PowerPoint, I immediately thought of what Catholics call the "sin of detraction." To simplify a complex moral concept, "detraction" means harming someone's good name by revealing something damaging but nonetheless true. It might seem rather strange to talk about the "good names" of people who celebrate casual sexual encounters and thus presumably would not feel that embarrassed if they were mentioned. But we often change our perceptions of ourselves quite radically as we go through life--something that may give us no moral pause at one point might very well bring us consternation at another. In cases where we do know something true about someone's intimate life, we should think very carefully before we reveal it.
More to the point, however, if we take a moral calculus that includes not just deeds but words and thoughts, we inevitably realize that probably none of us merits a good name. The typical response to Karen Owen's PowerPoint is something like: "Well, I would never put information like that on the web." But the point is that we all broadcast or upload the secrets of others--it's just that not all of us do it on the internet and the secrets do not necessarily concern sex. Our fascination with secrets, our pleasure in unmasking what is hidden, and our own tendency to elevate ourselves by devaluing others drive Owen's mock thesis and our fascination with it. We may not all be our "neighbor's keeper" but we all certainly are our "neighbor's detractor."
Of course, if Owen had just concealed the names--as many websites have done--then the PowerPoint probably does not meet the classical definition of "detraction." But that doesn't solve the problem, even for those inclined to think that sex is simply another form of recreation and should not be a source of archaic sentiments like "shame."
In an interesting and perceptive blog entry, Alexandra Petri reflects on how Karen Owen's "witty, self-deprecating, self-aware voice takes control of her 'raucous life.'" Of course, this is what narrative does--or tries to do. But as Petri points out, in a suggestive and open-ended conclusion, PowerPoint often gives only the illusion of control.
For many religious traditions, Catholicism included, sex really can never be "casual" even when partners intend it to be so. This is because sex is sacred--it brings into play hidden and powerful forces that lie within but also beyond all of us. While attention has been devoted to how no one can control cyberspace, what Karen Owen's thesis shows is that we are rarely in control of ourselves. Maybe Karen Owen's real research discovery is how cyberspace has paradoxically revealed the combustible sacrality of sexuality precisely by making it all seem so casual.
Mathew N. Schmalz
October 9, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
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