Bridgette A. Sheridan is a historian of sexualities at Framingham State University. When Karen Owen’s PowerPoint became news–she’s the Duke student who sent her friends a faux presentation based on her “sex research” on a sample of men whom she’d slept with–Bridgette followed the story with curiosity and then dismay. I had a conversation with her today in her kitchen in Cambridge. Here’s what she said.
VR: So, tell me again what’s your problem with the Karen Owen/Duke Faux Thesis Controversy?
BAS: Yea, I don’t get it. Why is this news? A white woman at an elite college reports in a mildly witty way her sexual adventures—her “dirty sex.” The story gets attention because people are shocked! shocked! shocked! by this “role reversal.” They puzzle over whether this is “good” or “bad” and speculate about its value as a “feminist turning point.”
VR: So that’s not really news?
BAS: This is like stories we’ve been told for a long time, particularly about white middle class women and sexuality. It is an old story about gender, about sex, about race, about class. The story is that “these girls are dirty too.” And then much excitement, worry, and titillation follows. Even though being naughty has been a familiar part of the sexual landscape in America for a long time, we keep getting especially worked up about it when we hear about it from yuppy women.
VR: What is dirty sex?
BAS: Hmmm. For white elite girls it is sex without commitment. It is sex focused on her own pleasure, rather than on her emotions about the person with whom she was having sex. Blow jobs rather than intercourse. Talking dirty rather than keeping the lights out. Sexting rather than sending flowers.
I love the question “what is dirty sex” because it draws our attention to how much sex is coded through social class, not just gender.
When I first started reading about the Duke episode, what I thought of immediately was the Milton Academy sex scandal of a few years ago, and it even took me back to Katie Roiphe’s commentary on date rape in the early 1990s.
VR: What happened at Milton?
BAS: Through an expose (Restless Virgins [!]) published in 2007 by young women from Milton Academy we learned about the fabulous, terrible sexual underworld at Milton after news broke of a 15-year-old female student giving blow jobs to five male athletes in the locker room at Milton. According to Time, the charge about the book was that it read more like soft porn than sociology.
I would argue that the shocking and fascinating part for most people was “this is happening at an elite institution” – “these girls have so much to live for.”
VR: What’s the Katie Roiphe link?
BAS: Way back in the 1990s Roiphe wrote a book, The Morning After, based on her experiences at Harvard and Princeton, and her skepticism about the “campus rape crisis.” She came to the conclusion that all the (then) new dialogue on campus about date rape was overhyped and that women were full, knowing participants in the sexual dramas that unfolded on campus.
Here’s the link: For Roiphe, the story was women are just like men; for Milton, the worry was sure boys will be boys but a sexual revolution might mean that girls are like boys too. And now with the Duke story the case is, again, something about (elite, privileged) women taking on the characteristics of men.
VR: Wait, you mean the double standard isn’t being violated in these stories?
BAS: This Duke story doesn’t indicate that the double standard has gone away, or that women have more sexual privilege than men. What I mean is, really, for this to be a story at all the double standard has to be in place! That is all it is about. While there is so-called positive commentary such as “Karen Owen reaches the inner feminist in me” … ultimately the kind of shock at and condemnation of Owen and what she has done is always present, and reconfirms our sense that men’s and women’s sexual experiences are fundamentally different, and that this difference is a valuable cultural resource that ought to be protected.
Let me walk you through this: when the story broke, ever so briefly there was concern about the fact that men’s names and images were used in her “sex survey”; the concern about the humanity of those subjects was eclipsed quickly by the interest in the “role reversal.” And how was the issue of men’s names and images resolved? The concern for the men focused on how this would make them seem callous toward women. They wouldn’t be gallant men. There was no fear that they would be slutty men, because the very idea of men being “put down” for their sexual desires is unheard of.
Some online comments from readers at various sites pointed to how, if Karen rated a guy highly that he would have benefited, and that it was only harmful if he didn’t receive high ratings. Do you see how that constitutes a double standard? If you don’t, then think about what it means when someone argues that when a sixth grade boy is seduced by his (woman) school teacher that maybe he is just “luckier” than all the other boys. This is another version of that kind of thinking. This is not feminism.
VR: If this isn’t one, then what would be a feminist turning point?
BAS: I think a feminist turning point would be when this wouldn’t be a story at all. Sexual freedom will exist when there is no such thing as “role reversal” — that is, when there wouldn’t be roles of privilege or statuses of disadvantage. Sounds nice, huh?