New York Magazine‘s weekly Sex Diaries are frequently nausea-inducing, if only for the sickening nicknames writers give their sex partners and/or body parts. This week’s diary is thankfully devoid of terrible nicknames, but full of exactly the kind of desperation, low self-esteem and insecurity that The Atlantic has recently and incorrectly attributed to Duke Fuck List author Karen Owen (whose leaked PowerPoint listing sexual conquests earned her internet notoriety and a public shaming straight out of Salem).
In her factually incorrect and woefully overwrought account of the Duke scandal, The Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan projects an oozing mess of dated stereotypes and moral judgments onto Owen. Jezebel’s Irin Carmon wrote an absolutely spot-on critique of the ridiculous article, in which she points out many of the worst-offending comments in the patently offensive, oversimplifed, overreaching account. Jezebel points out, “The central thesis of Flanagan’s piece is that Karen Owen really wanted love and affection, like all women do, but she was confused by the alleged feminist mandate to get wasted and have random sex with callous dudes.” Gross. At no point did Owen say or imply that what she was looking for was anything other than what she was (successfully) pursuing… casual sex.
And then we have this week’s sex diarist, a whiny 21-year-old “writer/student” (yeah, okay, whatever). She’s in love with a platonic male friend named J, “Fantasize about J proposing to me at our graduation and actually get teary. I can really see this happening; it feels so real.” And yet, when J doesn’t text her back, the diarist writes, “Still no reply from J. Time to call in the J Replacements, a string of hookup buddies I have in constant rotation to keep myself occupied and feel less pathetic. Who will it be today?” Sad, right?
This is the kind of young woman that Caitlin Flanagan is describing in her misguided attempt to dissect the Karen Owen scandal. This woman wants a serious relationship, wants commitment, intimacy and all of the life-partnership stuff that such a relationship might entail. In the absence of that, she has sex (often fueled by alcohol and drugs) with a string of casual partners. I was struck, reading her weekly diary, by how little enthusiasm she had for any of her sexual encounters. She doesn’t initiate with her partners, always relying on her partners to make the move. She fakes orgasms, and is frequently disappointed by the sex she ends up having. And all the while, she is thinking of J and a fantasy relationship that probably will never exist.
The biggest disservice that Caitlin Flanagan’s article does to an entire generation of young women is conflating the story of the sex diarist with Karen Owen. While many of their actions fit the same oversexed, tech-heavy bill (drunken encounters, sexting, etc) their motives are far from identical. Diarist wants a relationship, and in the struggle to find one and to assuage lagging self-esteem, fucks anybody who shows interest. Karen Owen makes no mention of wanting commitment, and enjoys the pursuit of sex and derives satisfaction from the act itself.
Some of us want relationships, and when we can’t find them, take temporary comfort or a short-term ego boost in casual sex. This is probably not the healthiest response. BUT, some of us don’t want relationships (or not right now), or are thrilled, not reluctant, to have casual sex as we wait for said relationship to come along. We are not all the same. We do not all want the same things. Attributing to every young woman who has unattached sex a pathetic desperation or fairy tale dreams of commitment is an absurd overgeneralization.