Lacrosse, Frats, and Women

Don’t have a good song for this one… maybe some generic frat rock song?

I read this article on the exploits of Karen Owen, who wrote a slide show dedicated to chronicling her encounter with various Duke athletes. I then read the slide show and have subsequently thought more about it. I’ve also talked with friends who went to Duke, friends who were in fraternities at dukes, and friends who were just in fraternities (though to be honest this article doesn’t really talk about fraternities that much). In this post, I want to try and show how the obvious things to think and the obvious judgments to make are all pretty unsatisfactory. In short, I just want to bring out the complexity and seriousness of this issue.

In the article, the writer makes a few points. That duke is turning into an especially sexist or predatory campus, that Karen Owen is a pathetic victim, and that our large campus culture is preparing kids to practice repressive and exclusionary social roles out in the real world.

The truth on all these issues is more complex.

First, on the Duke score, I confess that I’m sympathetic to the point that there’s something seriously wrong going on there, but when I look harder, and when I listen to the protestations of my buddies, I admit its hard to pin down. I mean, the lacrosse scandal turned out to be a total nothing, but as this writer points out, it was a nothing in a pretty disturbing way. A lot of abusive and racist incidents were documented during the course of showing that the most egregious acts were not committed. Then there’s this Karen Owen thing, and I hear anecdotal stories about an atmosphere that makes me cringe.

It’s probably not profitable though to make this about Duke, because I wonder how special its problems would look when contrasted with a detailed map of college campuses nation-wide. I didn’t find an easy way to get reported statistics from various colleges, probably for the obvious reason that they don’t want instances of abuse floating out in the public domain for people to pick their colleges. Kind of shameful behavior actually…

So looking at things from a national level, you hear that one in four college women are raped, but this gets qualified in a variety of ways and there are huge arguments about over and underreporting. Both sides in this shrill contest make me pretty sick. There are those that the claim that women throw rape accusations around like they didn’t have consequences, and to me this is a short-sighted way to approach the issue, but I try to avoid ad hominem attacks.

Then you have women advocacy groups who are trying to accomplish the noble goal of reducing abuse and rapes, but end up claiming that 80% of girls are raped (exaggeration). Trying to boost the statistics is silly to me because first, if its wrong then its just deceptive, and second, it doesn’t really do that much good. If 10% of college girls are raped, THAT’S A BIG PROBLEM and we should be caring about solutions. If that number is 50%, I’m not sure that anyone who wasn’t concerned before will now become concerned. The reason is that rapes aren’t like budget deficits. If a state government is a little in debt, people might be concerned, but many more people will be concerned as the deficit increases. With sexual abuse, a very low number should be sufficient to get members of a moral community at least concerned.

And of course, let’s be clear. Karen Owen was never the victim of a rape, or was she? I mean, she clearly had sex while extremely drunk which qualifies her for being raped. Many people think this is unfair and that it puts a lot an unfair burden on men. I don’t really agree because laws are meant to deter and regulate paradigm cases and to match up with known trends and expectations.

Think of statutory rape, which is a legal category that was created with idea that its very had to determine consent when someone is very young, therefore, the baseline should be that sex between someone old and someone young should cast aspersions on the old person. It’s not that there couldn’t be loving, honest sex between a 16 year old and a 32 year old, but it is the case that the risk for abuse in that situation is high, so that the burden required for legal sex is put higher.

Same thing with rape among people of the same age. Men are, for better or worse, sexual aggressors, and they are also physically stronger than women. Also, as rampant cultural beliefs about deceptive female rape victims prove, women are often treated as being less credible than men. So, the burden is placed on men to engage in sex under conditions favorable to the choice and welfare of those they engage in it with. This rules out sex with drunk girls.

Still though, things are very tricky though because some girls want to have sex while sober but feel self-conscious or discourage. As sexual roles equalize (and that’s in its early stages) then women, just like men do already, may want liquid courage to help them make advances and to abandon inhibitions. Also, though male culture forbids thinking about certain sexual situations as examples of rape (and so using that word), there have been undoubtedly men who have, under the influence of alcohol, slept with girls that they would not have slept with sober. Why is the man here not “taken advantage of” in the same way that drunk girls are?

The answer of course, as everyone knows on one level, but always refuses to acknowledge, is that men and women are treated different in our society. I’m not yet saying that one is treated better than the other, but just making the point that if you are honest with yourself, you can create all sorts of situations where something is ok for women and not for men, and then you start to wonder, where do these invisible chains of custom and social regulation come from? It’s not hard, from that realization, to see how things could be unequal.

Back to Karen though. She had sex while drunk with many men, but was she raped? As I said, if you think that because someone had sex while drunk, they were raped, then she was raped, but I think most people have abandoned this is doctrine (judging from anecdotes I know about, not a single person believes in the equivalence between having drunken sex and being raped.)

But that’s why her case is so interesting, because it raises the issue of a place and a culture and an ideal, and the invisible regulators of behavior that philosophers, sociologists, and social psychologists make it their business to study. Did alcohol mix with an authoritarian social environment, did it mix with scheming and conniving men who used threats or status to exploitatively win sex from unthinking Karen Owen?

I don’t really think so, but again, I’m very open to new thoughts on this.

The reason I don’t think so is that if you read her powerpoint, she really did seem to know what she was doing, and the men, quite frankly, didn’t really seem very coercive or tricky (or even capable of much trickery). I mean, I think in one case, one of the guys just asked her to go back to his place, and she said yes because she really liked the sex with him. You get the sense she was “on a mission” to experience sex with the supposed “gods” of the Duke undergraduate scene.

I guess one could be suspicious about whether she genuinely wanted to have sex with these people or if an aura of power and control that the campus bestowed on them led her to them like moths to a flame, but as I often caution on this blog, that sort of analysis is very cynical and very hard to substantiate. I think what is more likely is that she wanted to see what it was all about (“it” being athlete-frat world), and why think that’s so weird? Lots of athletes and frat guys are cool, smart, honest, and all sorts positive things. We can’t forget that, no matter if you’re a frat skeptic or what.

In the process of finding out about these men, she revealed some truths about this world, and I think dispelled part of the mystique surrounding this group of people (e.g., the guy with the weird domination fantasy…I forget the ridiculous details), or the guy who plays mario kart. I get the sense, in reading her powerpoint, that she took some satisfaction in demystifying the male-athlete world, and perhaps that’s the reason she shared it to some good friends.

Some think it was naivete for her to expect it not to be shared everywhere, but perhaps she wasn’t being naive at all, but knew all along where her experiences would go.




2 Responses to “Lacrosse, Frats, and Women”

  1. February 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    As sexual roles equalize (and that’s in its early stages) …

    Do you really believe this will happen? While it’s not a perfect science by any means, the fundamental insight of evolutionary psychology — men (sperm) are not as valuable as women (eggs) — is undeniably true. By nature of their biology, men and women are not the same and will never have the same sexual roles.

    Or to put it another way, I don’t think you will find many men who would be happy with their daughter being sexually promiscuous.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      February 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      Hmm, true true. Evolution is a powerful headwind for some kinds of social change. However, I would say this. 1000 years ago when the Catholic church was very powerful in Europe, no one thought that sex before marriage or homosexuality would enjoy the relative tolerance they do today. Also, look at how strikingly attitudes toward homosexuality have changed in JUST the last 100 years.

      So, I say “equalization” is coming in the way that I think homosexuality will become more widely tolerated. It’s a ways off, but look at the way history is tilting and the direction its heading.

      Maybe in the end we won’t come to full equalization between the sexes (and I’m not even sure what that equality would look like if we got there), but my guess is we’ll move much further before things are over.

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