Why create a “sex list”?

A Duke grad is making headlines for extensively cataloging her exploits, but the basic impulse isn't unusual

Topics: Sex, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Why create a "sex list"?

If you turned on cable news at all today, you’ve likely heard about recent Duke graduate Karen Owen. She created a 42-page PowerPoint presentation ranking her sexual conquests as an undergrad and framed it as a mock senior thesis titled, “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.” Funny! That is, until it went viral.

The story broke last week, but it’s been all over TV news today, starting with “The Today Show.” Now everyone seems to be debating whether we should celebrate her as a feminist hero — a Robin Hood of sexual objectification, if you will — or castigate her as a misandrist jerk. That’s a fine question, and let me say for the record that I definitely don’t see the public sexual humiliation of these thirteen men — all Duke athletes — as any kind of victory for womankind. What I’m more interested in, though, is the question of why someone would keep such a list in the first place — and, of course, when I say “someone,” I mean “a woman,” because we tend to expect this sort of thing from men.

Owen says the list — which refers to the men as numbered “subjects” and evaluates everything from their penis size to the creativity they exhibited in the bedroom (and, point being, elsewhere) — was never intended for public viewing. She sent it to three friends, one of them forwarded it along and the rest is history. Put simply, Owen foolishly let it slip out of her control and it went viral; such is the story of our time. Beyond the fact of these jocks being virtually pantsed on a national stage, there is plenty to be said about the “thesis” as it was intended: a gossipy joke among close friends. I haven’t known any women to create actual PowerPoint presentations about their sex lives, but her frank, and sometimes flippant, talk is very familiar. Come to think of it, the document is rather tame in comparison to the details I’ve heard from, and shared with, my female friends. And who hasn’t created some version of this list — whether it’s a mere mental tally, scribbled details in a journal or a vividly detailed Word document?

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Many are quick to characterize this pseudo-scandal as a troubling representation of the current “pornified” generation. An Internet safety expert called upon by “The Today Show” to talk about the case — and how to teach kids to safely “use this Internet” — was baffled: “Even the girls are out there doing things that … our generation couldn’t even imagine talking about these kinds of things with our closest girlfriends, much less putting something like this out.” It’s certainly true that my generation is more comfortable with sex talk, but that isn’t inherently a bad thing. Anecdotally, there is boasting and sometimes dehumanizing nicknames along the lines of Owen’s numbered “subjects” are used — but these things strike me as the sort of defensive posturing that older, wiser people should well expect from us youngsters. We’re anxious, insecure and still figuring it all out! I suspect that Owen catalogued each of her conquests because she saw them as trophies, favorable reflections of her worth and desirability.

Of course, this sort of between-friends dishing isn’t just about showing off or petting our own egos (although there is plenty of that). We learn a lot by rehashing the night before with friends — I don’t mean in the way of hot new Cosmo-esque moves, but rather how our experiences compare and whether we’re, gulp, “normal” (a looming fear for many when it comes to sex). The short of it is that we think and write and talk about sex so much because it matters so much — just like any sort of intimate interaction we have with other human beings. And, as with most “intimate” things, it’s wise to never let it meet the Internet.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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