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Karen Owen's powerpoint: sex and autobiography

Millions of people have read this writer's work. You can find it everywhere, being discussed in all kinds of major news outlets. And it's all over the blogosphere, generating volumes of discussion, flames, trolls, and even pieces of cogent criticism. I urge you to read it at once! You won't be able to put it down, and its highs and lows say so much about modern life.

So who is this writer? Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa?

Please. I'm talking about Karen Owen, Duke University grad and author of a "senior thesis" sex list. Those forty-two powerpoint slides of photos, detailed descriptions of encounters, text message exchanges, and graphs really changed my life! It was like reading the Wikipedia page for Sex and the City, but with fewer characters and more visits to a bar called Shooters. This is a family newspaper, so all I can say about the list is that it's very, well, detailed, and it contains a lot of unprintable activities, some taking place in locations like stairwells, couches, and libraries.

I sense that I am expected to use the phrase "indictment of our society's attitude towards sexual behavior" at this point.

If it's just a personal powerpoint that someone spent far too much time on and made the mistake of e-mailing to friends, how can I justify writing a full-length piece on it? So I think this list is a real indictment of our society's attitude towards sexual behavior.

But what attitude, exactly?

When a group of Landon boys did something similar, creating a ranking of the girls in their circle and inviting them over to what they optimistically described as a "sex party," a hullabaloo broke out. This was objectification of women! This was a horrifying indictment of our society's attitude towards sexual behavior!

But in my opinion, the biggest mistake either Karen or the Landon boys made was transmitting their musings online.

There's a device called Gmail Goggles that you can install, to be activated whenever you drink, get on Gmail, and decide you want to send your ex-boyfriend copies of your semi-autobiographical novel about the American Civil War. If you worry your mentis is more compost than compos, it makes you perform some simple math problems. Fail, and you can't e-mail.

Instead of this, I think Gmail should sense whenever you're sending an attachment to friends and present an error message that says, "I hope this isn't a detailed powerpoint about your sex life. You sure you want to put this in their hands? Remember, with great powerpoints comes great responsibility."

Now, Karen says she regrets it with all her heart. But should she? The "thesis" is well-written, humorously self-deprecating. Redact a few more of the names and shirtless photos, and you could publish it in any number of magazines or Web sites dedicated to this sort of thing -- and Cosmo springs to mind. Why not? Chelsea Handler has a best-seller with a very similar premise! Karen's real crime is behaving chagrined, almost as though she didn't want it noised abroad! What is this, the 1830s?

We live in the age of the chronic overshare. We went from journals to LiveJournals. Everyone is telling everyone else everything at all times -- on Twitter, via Facebook statuses, and posting it on MySpace where those three people who still use MySpace can read it. "We can't all be heroes," Will Rogers once noted, "because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by." In our personal narratives, we're increasingly forgetting this. To do something on this scale for an audience of just three people -- well, you can see why it had to happen like this. This is like writing Moby Dick and telling Nathaniel Hawthorne it's for his eyes only.

But it's increasingly pronounced these days. The potent cocktail of hormones, the fact that our prefrontal cortexes aren't quite developed, and the instant publicity the Internet can provide have all contributed to an unprecedented era of sex blogging. Some of them seem too busy blogging to go out and do any research. "I have heard," they write, "that sex is bad for one but good for two."

Maybe I can blame this on Carrie Bradshaw. Sure, Miranda and Samantha and Charlotte are all running around like those women on Sex and the City, but Carrie Bradshaw, sex columnist, is the show's linchpin. And she has spawned more real-world counterparts than you can wag a disapproving finger at. Diablo Cody? All those people who send entries to Modern Love? That woman in Britain who slept with 1,000 guys? Lena Chen, who first sprang onto the scene with her now-infamous Sex and the Ivy blog?

Sometimes you almost want them to stop. "Please," you murmur. "Shouldn't we at least have dinner before you tell me where your erogenous zones are located?" But if they're comfortable writing about this sort of information -- and, increasingly, who isn't? -- it's a good way to titillate your audience and build a following.

And minus a few confessions from people like Rousseau or St. Augustine -- or the distinctly masculine Casanova biopic subgenre of someone like Tucker Max -- it's largely the bailiwick of women.

After reading about all of Karen's entries, it's easy to see why. The universal human impulse to autobiography stems, in large part, from the desire to be the protagonists of our own lives. Find this incident with the drunk Canadian who leaves your earrings outside his building a bit humiliating? Don't worry -- it'll be perfect for the memoir! All events can be sorted into those that are immediately funny and those that will make good stories. That's what the list does. Karen Owen's wry, often witty, self-deprecating, self-aware voice takes control of her "raucous life." It's what we all do, on our own scale. "And then," we tell our friends, "he pushed me into the LAKE! Can you believe it?" By recounting the story, you claim agency! You craft your own narrative and become the wry, ironic storyteller, rather than the drunk girl doing shots in the corner with Name Redacted, ignoring the whispers as she walks out of Shooters with another guy.

Karen is single-handedly giving that girl stumbling down the steps of your dormitory at noon with someone else's socks on a better name. "That's not a [redacted]," we cheer. "She's a writer." Apparently moviemakers are approaching her already for the rights to her life. I wish they would do that to me, but I think it might be too gritty for their target demographic.

All I can say is, if more powerpoints were like this, the military wouldn't hate them so much. They wouldn't say things like "Powerpoint is making us stupid" and "It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control."

Well, they might, actually, but they would mean something different.

By Alexandra Petri  | October 7, 2010; 3:52 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  Karen Owen, powerpoint, sex  
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