This article in The New York Times over the latest sex scandal at Duke University is a good example of how conversation tends to focus on the fly on the wall when there’s an elephant in the room. Apparently, this is not really a sex scandal but a crisis of the Internet Age and its infringements on privacy. There is no elephant, only an itsy-bitsy fly.
For those who are new to the issue, a recent female graduate of Duke wrote a long, witty, obscene “thesis” in PowerPoint format on the men she had slept with during her undergraduate years, appraising their anatomy, rating their performance and detailing the sadomasochistic sext-ing messages they exchanged during the day. I have read the report,which was written for the amusement of friends, and it’s too vulgar to post. The woman, whose parents presumably paid $200,000 for her four-year adventure in collegiate hedonism, combines the sensibility of a cool, articulate corporate or academic speaker with the bestiality and avarice of a dog in heat. In the initial version of her research report, the names of the men she had slept with were included. It soon spread over the Internet and was posted on various sites. She was also contacted by a major book publisher, an agent and a movie producer.
How did Duke react to such a scandalous glimpse into life on campus? Perhaps with a major bout of soul-searching, perhaps discussion panels on sexual liberation and socially-approved sadism, hysterical meetings by parents demanding tuition refunds, or, as one student in this article suggested, perhaps the school let this woman know that she has disgraced its good name? No, the university has instead mused over the dynamics of Internet communications. As the Times reports:
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that the education of students about their online presence was continuing, and that it was part of the orientation process for student athletes. “One wonders in the Duke situation if the individuals were not athletes, would it have attracted as much attention?” Mr. Schoenfeld said.
Yes, well, one wonders many things. A female student suggests if it had been a male graduate who had written this presentation, it would not have received any attention at all. But given its witty, insouciant embrace of sexual nihilism surely it would. Look at the popularity of Roissy. Stay tuned for the future work of this bright grad.
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The take of the mainstream media on this is quite telling, I agree. Not a peep about the propriety of the underlying behavior, but instead a focus on issues so tangential to the main story as to make one seriously wonder how long it took the speaker to come up with them as a talking point in response to this. And even leaving aside the sexual behavior itself, no words, either, about the tone and content of her documentation of her exploits, and the way she textually treats her various paramours. I can assure you that had the sexes been reversed here, the focus would be precisely on the dehumanizing, objectifying and utterly soul-less descriptions of the lovers as being indicative of “how far we still need to go in terms of equality” and so on. But, as I say, the reaction to this is quite telling and reflective of where Duke is on these issues, and even of the broader society. I think most people, seeing this, realize viscerally that it’s “wrong”, but when the more obvious reasons as to why this is so come to mind, they simultaneously run away from them as fast as they can, because these ideas are not currently politically correct. Sadly, this is the culture we live in today — one that is so at odds with our basic, visceral morality that even when this is awakened by something like this, we’re still too uncomfortable to express what we are really thinking and feeling about it.
As a correspondent has pointed out to me, Duke was one of the models for Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel on contemporary collegiate hedonism I am Charlotte Simmons. Karen Owen, the author of the Internet thesis, seems remarkably similar to descriptions of one of Wolfe’s main characters, Beverly, the daughter of a wealthy executive who seeks out sex with Duke athletes.
What should Duke have done in response to this if it at all cared for the welfare of its students and its future integrity? It’s important to remember that Miss Owen has graduated and is no longer a student there. Nevertheless, the school should have made it known that it was looking into the possibility of legal action against her for her defamation of its students. Even if there are no grounds for such action, the school should have considered it. Second, the school president or a vice president should have issued some kind of public statement criticizing Miss Owen for her cruelty and for her disgraceful behavior not just in writing her report but in turning her academic career into a sexual adventure unworthy of an institution of higher learning. The school’s highest officials should announce that this sort of behavior and Owen’s disregard for other human beings undermine the very foundations of academic life. What are those foundations? Trust, loyalty, and virtue. Miss Owens has brought dishonor to the school’s name. Third, school officials should write a letter to all parents outlining measures to discourage promiscuity on campus and expressing their concern for the reign of hedonism. Most importantly, they should admit that the school itself has allowed and even encouraged the growth of the culture of promiscuity on campus, that Miss Owen’s document reveals the vile and destructive consequences of that culture, and that this is going to change. They should make this letter public and call for a period of soul-searching.
The fact that Duke hasn’t done any of this exposes the university for what it is: an institution of higher marketing.