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Shock and Awe: A look into Duke women’s responses to Karen Owens’s F**k List

This piece is part of a larger series on Karen F. Owen’s “F**K List,” a leaked PowerPoint on her sexual activity, which she composed about her undergraduate experience at Duke University.

The F**k List first reached me through my older sister, a recent Duke grad. Within her email was a lengthy series of forwarded reactions from other members of her class. The responses expressed confusion, shock and disbelief, running to the effect of: What the hell happened since we left?

I am a current senior at Duke, and although the university has undoubtedly changed since my sister’s time here, the F**k List is hardly an accurate indicator of these changes. Owen’s project is not random or out-of-the-blue; it was born out of an already contentious, highly studied, and frequently discussed element of Duke life: the notorious “hook-up culture”.
 
I sent out a feeler email to a large number of Duke women to gauge their opinions on the List. Within a half hour of sending out my request, I received several lengthy personal statements and theories regarding the List and the media firestorm around it. Nearly all of the responses I received over roughly a week emphasized the List’s relationship to hook-up culture — these women did not find the creation of List or its contents particularly shocking.
 
Duke has been renowned for its hook-up culture for many years now. When I decided to go to Duke four years ago, my mother sat me down to talk about what was already an established theory on Duke social life. In brief, the theory of the hook-up culture is characterized by random sexual encounters that do not necessarily lead to any sort of relationship, platonic or romantic, implicating high levels of alcohol consumption, generalized misogyny, social pressures, and a lack of clearly defined sexual boundaries as primary culprits. It also states that women are endangered to a significant degree physically and emotionally within the culture’s bounds. An important element of hook-up culture is the means by which most sexual conquests and details are shared: “Frat-mail.” This is a fraternity email listserv in which members share with the entire fraternity anything from a tally of girls slept with to pictures of girls in less-than-flattering or compromising situations to detailed descriptions of sexual encounters.
 
The hook-up culture is thus a man’s world; women must negotiate a place within it with the knowledge that this place has the potential to dramatically affect their social position, personal life and campus identity. It is assumed that collegiate men are given free rein within the system; conquests are publicly discussed, described, celebrated, mocked, and disdained. Women are defined by their behavior within the culture; men write the dictionary.
 
I do not mean to suggest a) that all Duke students would self-identify as participants in the culture b) that all Duke students buy into the theories mentioned above and c) that all women feel victimized and all men feel comfortable within the posited system. There must be at least a grain of truth within the theory, however, as it has sparked discussion and controversy among Duke students themselves (as well as outside media sources) for years now.
 
Karen Owen’s piece is a startlingly potent and sharp response to this culture; she is, in essence, doing publicly “what the boys do” in private. What makes this so problematic? Owen should be celebrated for her bold exposé of a culture that encourages misogyny, the objectification of women and the sexual subordination of women. The F**k List is a well-composed, creative piece and should be treated as such.
 
One valid criticism of the F**k list is based on what effects the List has had on the implicated young men’s lives. Their employers, parents, colleagues, acquaintances and pure strangers now have a highly intimate, one-sided and unflattering insight into their lives. While the men may have indeed committed to sexual relations with Owen, they certainly did not sign up for this.
 
Owen herself, however, has certainly not gone unscathed. While it is true that she has been approached by publishers, most media outlets have disparaged her character, expressed horror at her lifestyle, and been horrified and disgusted with the List.
 
But there is a double standard here. Women who engage in sexual activity on campus do not sign up to be discussed and exposed, either positively or negatively, in frat-mail or public conversation. Frat-mail is, in my opinion, a F**k List created, redacted, augmented and publicly circulated on a daily basis.
 
The F**k List controversy thus becomes a question of definitions and authorship. Because Owen created her Powerpoint post-graduation, it is not directly affiliated with Duke or with any sorority or social network. Owen stands alone; frat-mail, by contrast, is a group activity in which blame cannot be ascribed to a single individual and is circumscribed within a semi-autonomous Duke-affiliated (directly or indirectly) group. Its circulation is supposedly limited to fraternity members, but its contents are never secret.
 
If frat-mail were leaked, would it gain national attention? Would a F**k List created by a post-grad Duke boy garner time on national news networks? The answer is a resounding “No”, one that I heard over and over again in the email responses I received. Duke women are highly aware of this vicious double standard; whether or not we approve of Owen’s methods, we recognize the madness she exposes. 

Abigail Howard is a senior at Duke University, majoring in English and Religion.
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