Misunderestimating Duke’s Hookup Culture

Editor’s note: The links to Karen Owen’s PowerPoint slides and to Tucker Max’s blog contain extremely colorful language, to say the least.

If the National Enquirer were to rank colleges as U.S. News & World Report does, Duke University would be number one. The school was made synonymous with tales of drunken debauchery in 2006, when the infamous lacrosse team scandal became front page and gossip column fodder. In that incident, a stripper hired by team members accused three players of rape. By the time her allegations were proven false, the reputation was set.

This fall, a rash of embarrassing incidents that have further solidified the school’s “rich kids gone wild” image prompted Duke president Richard Brodhead to send an email to the student body, essentially pleading with them to behave better. 

His missive lamented a “series of incidents that, at least to a distant public, made the most boorish student conduct seem typical of Duke,” and that “these episodes create a wildly distorted image of Duke.” He hoped that students “face up” to “features of student culture that strike you as less than ideal,” and added that “the administration will cooperate with you fully.”

The email does not convey a deep concern by Brodhead for the students’ self-destructive behavior, but rather his irritation that their antics are getting in the way of the school’s image. Nor is there any outraged call for serious culture change on campus—just a timid suggestion that students change their ways. And it demonstrated a lack of leadership; his administration should be out in front on this issue, not merely willing to “cooperate with you [the student body] fully.”

Duke didn’t always have an image problem. The only bad behavior associated with the school in the past was the courtside antics of its deliberately annoying basketball fans, until the lacrosse scandal emerged. It was followed quickly by a Rolling Stone article chronicling the school’s licentious “hook-up” culture, which in turn seemed to corroborate suspicions about the many coincidences between Duke and author Tom Wolfe’s libidinous DuPont University in his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe denied that the two schools were one, although his daughter attended Duke and he interviewed Duke students as background for the novel.

Since then, Duke has suffered under the spotlight, especially in the most recent term. In November of this year, the school banned “tailgating” parties outside of the stadium before home football games, after the fifteen-year-old brother of a student was discovered drunkenly passed out in a port-a-potty. Before that, some fraternities’ emailed disparaging invitations to female students, suggesting that they come dressed “slutty” to their Halloween parties. Neither of these incidents would seem particularly shocking on most campuses, but because of Duke’s longstanding image problem, they drew snickers nationwide.

The really damning event, however, was a faux-thesis by student Karen Owen, who chronicled her sexual encounters with male Duke athletes in excruciating detail. Her series of PowerPoint slides (supposedly not intended for the public) became an overnight Internet sensation, and even inspired the script for an episode of the television show “Law and Order SVU” (Special Victims Unit).

Owen became a national object of scorn and humiliation. And Duke’s reputation for decadence—whether deserved or not—became hammered in stone.

To be fair, the “hookup” culture behind the scandals is hardly limited to Duke’s campus; it is a national phenomenon with any number of causes. Many students adopt their wild ways in high school or even junior high, long before they arrive on campus. Yet activities under Brodhead’s control exacerbate the situation. One key factor is the steady stream of events that vigorously encourage students—particularly female students—to have active sex lives without commitment.

On December 10, a few weeks after Brodhead sent his message, “professionally certified sex educator” Jay Friedman gave a campus performance entitled “The J Spot: A Sex Educator Tells All.” Attended by perhaps 200 students, most of them women, he laid out some rules for having sex.

The “right time to have sex,” Friedman told the audience, is when several criteria are met. This includes knowing the other person’s name, taking precautions for disease and pregnancy, and when you’re pretty sure the other person will try to give you pleasure as well as getting their own. The most stringent criterion is being able to “gaze longingly into each others’ eyes.”

Hooking up with strangers at a bar or party is okay: “You have to decide on your own value system,” he said. “People can have successful polyamorous relations” too, although there are “more challenges to having more than one partner.” He added that “if sex out of marriage equals ‘selfish hedonism,’ then sign me up.”

According to Maggie Quan, a graduate student in biomedical engineering who coordinated the event, the Women’s Center paid $2,500 to Friedman to appear. She said the center has been seeking similar lecturers to bring to campus, and it is at least the fourth such event in 2010. Other comparable shows included “I Heart Female Orgasm,” a lecture by a pair of “professional sex educators,” Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, a talk by famed TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth, and an appearance by writer Jessica Valenti, the author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women.

But the most cringe-worthy act to appear on the Duke campus was infamous “Sex Workers Art Show.” That performance, in February of 2008, featured, among other equally twisted acts, a nearly naked male prostitute kneeling on all fours in a sandbox with a lit sparkler protruding from his posterior as the sound system boomed “America the Beautiful.” 

Even after an outcry was raised about the Sex Workers’ show, Brodhead’s administration supported its Duke appearance. Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, penned an ardent defense of the Sex Workers Duke performance in a letter to the Raleigh News & Observer, saying that the controversy was “exaggerated” and that  “we make sure students can host events that are provocative and that create conversation and exploration.”

Which certainly raises the question, what are Duke students expected to explore after witnessing a display that mocked religion, morality, and patriotism and exalted deviance and prostitution?

Nor is the push against traditional morality a matter of a few visiting performers. Students can not only major in Women’s Studies but even get a certificate in Study of Sexualities. Both of these advance radical views of female sexuality. The social science and humanities curricula are littered with courses that do the same, including Sex and Money (Cultural Anthropology 191N); Women, Gender, and Sexuality (History 169A); and Queer Theory (Study of Sexualities 141S).

It should surprise no one that all this activity coincides with a scandal-prone hookup culture. The women who participate in it are merely behaving the way the faculty and the “experts” brought to the campus suggest that they do, and the male students, quite predictably, take advantage of it.

Brodhead has shown himself willing, or rather eager, to take on one element of the school’s party culture—the drunken loutishness surrounding the male athletic programs. He joined in the immediate condemnation of the lacrosse players (wrongfully, since they were proven to be innocent). His administration quickly ended the practice of tailgating parties after the underage visitor was found passed out.

But the other side of the equation—the politically motivated assault on women’s traditional moral standards by radical feminists—he will not address. Most young women, at Duke and elsewhere, have enough sense to pay these enticements little mind. But college is an impressionable age; many students can be easily swayed by the pressure to unleash their inhibitions, particularly when the pressure is endorsed and funded by the university itself.

Karen Owen is obviously somebody who listened to the wrong messages. Perhaps nobody understands the psychology of the promiscuous college girl better than the predatory sex blogger Tucker Max (Duke Law School, Class of 2001). After all, his understanding of such women permits him to manipulate them into his bedroom—or backseat, or tavern bathroom, or in the bushes, or wherever. He described her with uncharacteristic sympathy, as “a lonely little girl” who “wants affection and connection from her sex, except she doesn’t even realize it.”

Possibly, if the school had provided Owen with different, more uplifting messages, she might not have fallen so hard and so far. And if the school did not encourage young women to make themselves available for casual hookups, many of the young men on campus might be less inclined toward uncouth ways.

There is considerable disagreement about academia’s role regarding the teaching of moral behavior. Some say universities should mold young people‘s morals—many private schools, including Duke, began as religious institutions. Others say that academia is ideally amoral, that it should merely provide students with information and let them sort their personal morality out for themselves.

Few, on either side of the issue, would agree that it is the business of a university to deliberately make students less moral, but Duke, in choosing to promote a “selfish hedonism,” is doing just that. Rather than attempting to pass off all the blame onto the students, Brodhead should “man up” by taking a serious look in the mirror—and at his campus—and ask “What exactly are we doing to these young women?”

Perhaps then he would realize that you cannot simultaneously ask students to be both more and less circumspect in their social lives and expect positive results. He also could realize that the philosophy of selfish hedonism needs to be fought with whatever means he has at his disposal—personnel changes, funding cuts, or his president’s bully pulpit. Otherwise, he is, and has been, complicit in the school’s moral decay.

Sadly, it is a question he may never ask. His email revealed that he just wants the big problem to go away without any big actions or responsibility on his part. Party on, Dukies!