Duke University Student Karen Owen's PowerPoint Thesis Is a Cautionary Tale for Young People

duke university karen owen duke thesis

Duke University

Duke University student Karen Owen is making headlines this week for a mock thesis she emailed to a few friends, which has since gone viral.  The PowerPoint presentation, entitled “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” details intimate encounters she had with 13 men on campus – mostly athletes – including photos and the real names of her partners.

Lemondrop reports that “Owen’s story [is] receiving interest from major entertainment agencies and book publishers.  William Morris Endeavor (WME) begged Jezebel for any contact information for Owen.  Deadspin called Owen ‘a hero.’  And an editor at Harper Collins said, ‘I admire her sense of self-empowerment.’”  The author of the post, Jessie Rosen, goes on to say, “What Karen Owen did is not self-empowerment.  She is admittedly regretful about the situation and ashamed to the point of now hiding….  If she was so self-empowered, she would stand up and say, ‘Yes, I had this sex.  Yes, I felt these ways about it.  I’m proud of what I did and what I wrote. I’m sorry the names and faces of these people were leaked, but this document is 100 percent true, and it’s just sex.’  That’s self-empowerment.”

It’s clear that Owen, who only emailed her thesis to 3 friends, had no intent of sharing such private information with the world wide web.  Unfortunately, too many of us – especially those in “Generation Google” – don’t fully comprehend the power of electronic communication.  Parents need to understand and teach their children that even a private email between two people can be forwarded and “go viral,” as in Owen’s case.  YouTube, Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only potential “bad guys” when it comes to online communication.

Ironically, as we all share this story with one another, using Owen’s example as a cautionary tale, we are of course contributing to the exposure of the young men involved.

Most websites that have published Owen’s presentation have blurred the faces of the young men involved and redacted their names.  (I won’t link the actual presentation – if you want to find it, it’s fairly easy to look up.)  Certainly this is a story worth sharing as an example of how NOT to behave online.  As Lemondrop’s Rosen writes, Owen says her slideshow is “no different than what frat boys have been doing for generations (albeit minus the PowerPoint and careless emailing).”  But, Rosen counters, “Women objectifying men with the same tactics men sometimes use to objectify women isn’t empowerment — it’s immature.”

Maybe so.  But more importantly, it’s harmful – in this case, to both Owen and her “conquests,” if you will.  I have no problem with young women taking (responsible) charge of their sex lives and even sharing the details with girlfriends – or the public.  One of my best friends has a show called 52 Man Pickup in which she regales the audience with the nitty-gritty of her sexcapades – without using last names or photos, of course.  But this story is less about sex and more about the unbridled power of the Internet.  It’s unfortunate that Owen and her partners have had so many personal details revealed unwillingly online, but Owen’s story is an astute reminder of the fact that, as parents, we have to begin to consider bullying dangers and privacy violations that we as children never had to face.

Photo: Anya Garrett

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