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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
Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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Wow, Alexandra Petri, you're definitely someone who should be offering advice and commentary to people. Apparently, you think Karen Owen's self-destructive behavior is perfectly great. And clearly she shouldn't feel badly about taking the hours and hours to construct a 42-slide presentation that really degrades and defames a number of guys BY NAME. If your argument is "they asked for it" by bedding down with her, take a moment and think about exactly what you are saying with that.

I love how woman want to be respected, but then champion a woman who clearly has no respect for herself, or the privacy of other people. Is Karen Owen the feminist panacea? Seems like, to you, she is. Wow - you are just as shallow as she is. And if you think her behavior is OK, you should go get yourself checked for STDs right away.

Posted by: ElJefe22 | October 7, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

Ok, I have to admit that I really cannot determine if Ms. Petri is tongue in cheek or not. I'll assume not.

Besides assuming that Karen's parents must be so very proud of their daughter. The one that they just spent $200K on for her education. This has been done for years, as stated previously, but, do you really want to be known as the woman (or man) that can't keep their pants on? That sex with an almost complete stranger is good sex? It might actually be, for a night, but is that the purpose of her life? The two woman that did this back in the '80's at Boston University are still talked about, and not as feminists.

It really seems sad that an educated woman, supposedly, would think that this is a normal activity to do with her life. Anybody else not wondering any longer why there's such a problem with genital herpes?

Posted by: Battlelion | October 7, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Just wait until guys use the "Karen Owen defense". "Hey, that girl, just like Karen Owen, clearly wanted it - if she didn't want it, she wouldn't be in a bar drinking and wearing skimpy clothes, right?"

You're a genius, Alexandra Petri.

Posted by: ElJefe22 | October 7, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I should have asked this question before, sorry:

"This crap now passes for news in the Washington Post?"

Katharine Graham is rolling in her grave.

Posted by: Battlelion | October 7, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

She could become somebody's Mom someday...that kid will be so proud. I do like a woman occassionally with questionable morals and a hot body though.

Posted by: tuttlegroup | October 7, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

This powerpoint may be characterized as many things by various people, e.g, offensive, comical, waste of time, gossip intended for friends, but it is definitely NOT well written as Ms Petri suggests. Several of my family members and friends had more than a passing interest in the "thesis" but each of us got bored with the tedium.

Posted by: Pupsy | October 7, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure she did it for the "sisterhood". Empowering and all that. Thank God for 'ho's.

Posted by: luca_20009 | October 8, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

a chick put a few notches on her bedpost in college. big whoop. paris hilton got famous for having a sex tape and they gave her a network reality show. she did so well that her friend Kim followed suit and is now what 3-4 years into a reality show that has made her entire family rich and landed her unattractive sister a multi-millionaire nba player.

this isn't just a powerpoint presentation, it's a business plan with lame watered down movie and book deal to follow.

and she didn't have to show any skin so it's not like one of her kids is going to see pictures of mommy in her birthday suit with someone other than daddy.

Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | October 8, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Insofar as she used names, this woman may have crossed a line. However the life study she conducted is (a) interesting and (b) useful. The powerpoint, if as humorous as described, sounds tacky but impressive and empowering. I wish that, like her, I could have "owned" some of my more confusing and embarrassing sexual encounters in college. Maybe having a friend like Karen Owen would have helped. In the end, I hope she makes a lot of money. When she's a successful writer, I have no doubt her parents will be enormously proud of her.

Posted by: Somepplsay | October 8, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I've spoken to a number of women friends about this, and what I've heard is that this is the way many women share gossip about their lives with their friends.
For the past couple of decades with Sex Ed and media from movies to tv to books, sex has been moved from the moral to a recreational social past time, a healthy natural thing to do. The idea that she was willing to do a tongue in cheek study is not that strange. As to those who scold her for casual sex, in a recently released report in the Journal of Sexual Health, it pointed out that 50% of women reach orgasm more quickly with a stranger than their long term partner, and found the sex more enjoyable.

Posted by: reflections9 | October 8, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Ok, what degree did Karen Owen graduate from Duke with? Is her "reputation" as woman damaged or enhanced? Is she promiscuous or just another social scientist? Does this push the envelope on social expectations of female/male behavior especially at college age? Will women now secretly keep "sex evaluation criteria" on their sex partners? Will men now worry about it?

Posted by: JBParks | October 8, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

In so many ways beyond listing, Ms. Petri's taste is, like Ms. Owens, all in her mouth.

Posted by: vanderleun | October 8, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

This is not really that newsy. About 10 yrs ago, there was a female student at a Boston college who chronicled her sex exploits with about 100 men. Women’s lib was NEVER about liberation of women, it was about bamboozling young females into thinking that aborting their unborn babies is empowering, that premarital sex makes you equal, that you can do whatever you want sexually. The libbers running the show are all old ladies now, and no doubt, regret many of their stances back 30 yrs ago. What Karen Owen did may garner her attention, some laughs, maybe a book deal, but down the road, especially if she becomes a mother, she will likely regret being so promiscuous in a society that will always view a sexually active, non-discriminating female as a tramp and not much more, a society where the double standard will never fade. It is a rare female with children that would not regret such actions.

Posted by: joanharlin | October 9, 2010 2:58 AM | Report abuse

I finally saw all uncensored photos of Karen Owen on this site:
warning, some pics are NSFW

Posted by: Brocke | October 10, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I think the whole thing is hilarious. And suspect (as everything on the internet is, these days).

I like the parodies that are coming out. I tend to enjoy them more than the originals.

This Elmo Thesis one (on Youtube) is my favorite:

Posted by: jmc47 | October 10, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

No matter you or I like it or not, Karen Owen's thesis is original in presentation as well as in first-hand experience accounts and belief-based evaluation (with a set of scoring criteria). It lifts the level of gossip and gives gossip an art form to be shared, viewed, evaluated and criticized.

Why shall Karen Owen make her parents or children feel shamed ? She is a product of the present culture and she stands out. She did many other 22-year-old were doing, and she came up with the original idea many others did not have. She is going to see a lot of followers, like that claimed to be by Elmo. Her thesis is going into the archive of American lives in Washington D.C..

Yes, there are may other 22-year old doing things making their parents and children proud. Fine. Show their fine theses.

Posted by: baocisun | October 10, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

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