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Friday, October 08, 2010

Everything Duke and lacrosse is not "Duke Lacrosse"

By now, everyone has heard about the "senior thesis" in "horizontal academics" that a 2010 Duke grad wrote as joke, a spoof thesis presentation describing the performance of thirteen Duke student-athletes (seven of them happened to be lacrosse players) with whom she had sex during her time in school. The New York Times got in on the story today, talking about embarrassed and weary the campus is over another scandal.

I have Duke lacrosse on the brain right now. So I was disappointed, although not surprised, that The Times mentioned the now-almost-five-year-old scandal involving false sexual-assault accusations against the lacrosse players. Much as I was not surprised that everyone talked about the Duke lacrosse scandal in covering the murder of Yeardley Love, a UVa lacrosse player, allegedly by her UVa lacrosse-player former boyfriend.

Will Duke lacrosse ever cease to be a reference point for salacious behavior (I cannot call this 'bad' behavior, because having consensual sex with a number of different people is not implicitly bad behavior and, frankly, neither is talking about it) involving Duke University and/or lacrosse? The seven lacrosse players mentioned in the "thesis" certainly did nothing close to bad or even inappropriate (I'm shocked, shocked, to find that male college students have consensual sex with women, often after an evening of drinking). Why would the paper even mention, in connection with them, an old scandal (none of the current players even were on campus in 2006) involving false accusations of criminal misconduct by a corrupt prosecutor and angry faculty? Even if you believe (as some do) that the lacrosse players five years ago were in the wrong for hiring a stripper, the current still situation still does not come close to that.

Interestingly, according to The Times, this is not the first time such an "academic" study has gone public. In 1977, two female M.I.T. students published "The Consumer Guide to M.I.T. Men," a "study" of the performance of 36 male M.I.T. students, in an alternative campus paper; the women were placed on academic probation for ten months. Naturally, The Times draws the wrong lesson from that. It concludes that this is all so much worse in the internet age ("Information, of course, has warped to a new dimension since then"), rather than that we have come a long enough way such that women no longer are punished (at least not formally, although one female student broached the subject of the school stripping the woman's degree) for asserting sexual freedom.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 8, 2010 at 10:09 AM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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One player used a racial epithet, in response to a racial/sexual-orientation epithet from Mangum. Not right or defensible, but explicable in context. One player sent one grotesque e-mail. And neither of these were the three players wrongly prosecuted. So to tar the entire group seems unfair. In any event, even accepting the characterization as "fairly horrific character", in what way is remotely relevant to this woman's sexual exploits and her reporting on them?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 9, 2010 7:32:18 PM

For the record, the Duke lacrosse players in 2006 engaged in far more boorish behavior than simply "hiring a stripper." No, they did not rape the stripper. But it's undisputed that they shouted racial slurs at her ("thank your grandaddy for my fine cotton shirt," as I recall) and sent grotesque emails amongst themselves fantasizing about mutilating her. These were not good kids blowing off steam at a party -- rather, they were (and presumably still are) fairly horrific characters.

Posted by: Cardinal | Oct 9, 2010 7:23:54 PM

Howard, I don't profess to have watched the story on Today, but let's be clear about what distinguishes this case in principle. She did have sex with over a dozen people, and she did tell people about it, as you emphasize. She also: (1) identified herself and sent the slide show around, and in so doing, made this like locker-room bragging rather than simple exercise of freedom; (2) she dressed it up as a purposeful campaign with academic pretensions, suggesting that frequency and variety of partners was purposeful rather than a byproduct of exploration; (3) she identified her partners with pictures, descriptions, and names. I have seen all three of these elements emphasized, and I'd be genuinely interested if you could identify any instance in which the young woman was criticized in which the critics were evidently unaware of these aspects.

These same details are why I was struck by your suggestion that "I cannot call this 'bad' behavior, because having consensual sex with a number of different people is not implicitly bad behavior and, frankly, neither is talking about it." The "this" is simply different in fact from your description. I *can* call what actually occurred bad behavior without any difficulty, and imagine that the decided majority would -- and that a substantial portion of those critics, like me, would have had no objection whatsoever if she had just as many or more partners but obeyed a stricter etiquette as to revealing the identifying details. Ignoring this puts you completely on the wrong track in assessing the public reaction.

Thanks for engaging in the comments, and sorry to have posted so much.

Posted by: Ani | Oct 9, 2010 12:59:40 PM

Joe: The point about publicizing depends on how you understand what one scholar called "autobiographical speech" and I think it remains an open question as to the level of protection that should be accorded, even if it means giving details about the other people involved in the autobiography.

But more fundamentally, this is about sexual freedom and not the disclosure. This would not be any less of a story had Owens used pseudonyms (at least so long as it remained clear that the men were athletes). The story (as discussed in detail on, for example, 'Today' yesterday) has become much more about the psychology and sociology of a young girl celebrating having multiple sexual partners. The notion (espoused by some--again, not me) that she "disgraced Duke" is not because she named names, but because she had lots of sex with lots of partners and told people about it.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 9, 2010 7:32:48 AM

I think you're jumping to "asserting sexual freedom" here, Howard. As Ani pointed out, we're talking about a person publicizing highly intimate details about that person's sexual partners, presumably without their consent. Conceptualizing this as an issue only of someone having consensual sex with a number of partners misses the boat.

Posted by: joe (accidental blogger) | Oct 9, 2010 1:19:50 AM

I do believe you're exaggerating the link to Duke lacrosse -- as you said originally, the main linkage is that the campus is "embarrassed and weary . . . over another scandal," and the precise link to lacrosse (or more broadly to athletes) is secondary. The media transitions between stories like this all the time, to the point where it would be odd if they did *not* connect the faint dots.

Anyway, in what I have seen, the woman rather than the men is being criticized . . . and again, not for consensual sex, but rather for identifying her sexual partners in excruciating detail. I think the link between *this* scandalous behavior and the scandalous behavior in the lacrosse scandal is stronger than you credit, if ultimately of marginal relevance.

Posted by: Ani | Oct 8, 2010 9:26:08 PM

Tom: But even if McFadyen was tangentially involved, the events involving Owens have nothing to do with the Duke debacle--students partying and having consensual sex has nothing to do with the false rape accusation. So the coincidental overlap of one person (unless maybe it was one of the 3 accused players) is not enough to warrant the possible comparison.

FXKLM: I do not believe the players were wrong for hiring a stripper and didn't say I did. In any event, even if one believes (and I assure you I don't believe this) that hiring a stripper (like watching pornography) is wrong because it objectifies women, having consensual sex with a fellow adult is not even in the same league.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 8, 2010 7:39:44 PM

I'm curious why you think the lacrosse players were in the wrong for hiring a stripper, but you refuse to identify casual sex as bad behavior. I don't see much distinction between the two.

Posted by: FXKLM | Oct 8, 2010 6:49:24 PM

Why would the paper even mention, in connection with [the lacrosse players], an old scandal (none of the current players even were on campus in 2006)...

Ahh, well. Careful readers of the thesis will note a cameo appearance by Ryan McFadyen; he was not one of Owen's Thirteen, but appeared somewhere on scene in her stories.

And since her stories span 2006 to 2010, one might expect some overlap between the roster of her tales and the Duke Lacrosse debacle.

Posted by: Tom Maguire | Oct 8, 2010 4:25:01 PM

Not my field, but doesn't the NYT have it exactly right? The MIT students deliberately published in a newspaper; here, publication was smaller scale but went viral, such that small-scale disclosure seems to have outstripped the author's original intentions, and Deadspin said it published names and all because it thought the information was already irretrievably public. (No mention is made as to whether the MIT story named names.) So the lesson seems to be that similar problems arose pre-Internet, but it's more dangerous now.

In contrast, the tendentious lesson you draw -- that now women are no longer punished for asserting sexual freedom -- is in all likelihood no lesson at all, insofar as the woman involved has escaped apparent university sanction solely because she graduated, and will in all likelihood be tracked down and villified via the Internet. I have to say that equating publishing this kind of thing with "sexual freedom," as though the right to sexual liberation necessarily entails the right to write sophomorically about highly intimate details without regard to your partners' interests, strikes me as dubious at best.

Posted by: Ani | Oct 8, 2010 1:27:42 PM

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