exploitive sex?

Karen Owen, the recent Duke University grad who graphically documented her college sexploits in a mock honor's thesis (An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling In The Realm Of Horizontal Academics) is being applauded by some as an empowered woman who is trouncing the sexual double standard and giving men a run for their money with good sexual game. Others are trashing her for objectifying herself and her partners, being a slut, invading privacy and getting herself into potentially unsafe situations.

Owen ranked her "subjects" on physical attractiveness, penis size, talent, creativity, aggressiveness (which was a positive for her), entertainment and athletic ability and added photos and commentary like "that gorgeous, perfect body of his was supporting a penile structure so disproportionately small that I had to take several deep breaths and force a smile before commencing the hookup session". Her "F*** List" went viral after she sent it to a few friends, so of course producers and publishers are flocking to the smell of green.

That's nothing new, and neither are women who embrace casual sex with gusto, but something a HarperCollins editor said to Jezebel.com in an effort to get Owen's contact info inspired my post today: "I'm wondering if she has any interest in writing a book. She's like the female equivalent of Tucker Max, and I admire his sense of self-empowerment!"

Whoa. Wait a minute. Tucker Max, whose book, Assholes Finish First, just came out?  Self-empowered?  

Let's not confuse the sheer commodity power of exploiting crude, rude, drunken sexual encounters with self-empowerment.  Tucker Max is a fellow Duke grad (JD) who certainly knows how to brand himself and make big bucks off of his sexploits - he sold over a million copies of his first book, which also became a hit movie.  Owen actually compared herself to Max in her exposé after a particularly scandalous ride. But does gossiping about the size of a guy's junk or "high-fiving him while giving him a blow job in the library because ‘this is f***ing awesome!" make her self-empowered?  In my book self-empowerment doesn't involve making fun of, exploiting or objectifying others. It's more about adding value to your world and others with assertiveness, empathy, resolve and resilience.

Having Casual Sex Isn't Inherently Evil or Self-Empowering.

Some people do have fun, satisfying uncommitted sex without hurting themselves or others. Regardless of gender, what I've gleaned from working with college students on sex and relationship issues for years and from the social science research on hooking up is that the ones who come out unscathed tend have some things in common.

  1. They are happily single or in mutually agreed upon open relationships.
  2. They don't confuse purely sexual desires with desire for attachment or commitment. 
  3. They like and are honest with their sex partners, view them as equals, and treat them with respect, warmth and empathy.
  4. They don't just go along with conservative or liberal peer pressure. They know their own values and follow them.
  5. They identify and screen out potential sex partners who are exploitive, don't treat them as equals or disrespect them.
  6. They consistently use protection. 
  7. They don't make sexual decisions when their judgment is clouded by alcohol or drugs

People who are hurt by or hurt others with casual sex have one or more of the following in common.

  1. They seek no-strings sex specifically to avoid intimacy. They really want a close, committed relationship but fear or recoil from the idea. They may have been badly hurt in love, suffered abuse or have become jaded by poor examples around them. They may fear losing control over themselves if they become too attached. For these people, casual sex becomes a temporary fix, a defensive shield that stalls personal growth.
  2. They feel lonely, unimportant, unattractive or insubstantial unless they are getting sexual attention.
  3. The ones that hurt others are often narcissistic and/or Machiavellian - self-aggrandizing, dominating, lacking empathy, emotionally cool, seeking admiration and status at the expense of others, and impulsive thrill seekers. Some social scientists call this social style the "dark triad" and these personalities do have significantly more casual sex than other personalities1.

karen owen

Karen Owen

I'm not going to analyze Owen's motives or speculate about her future. That's not my place. In today's post I just want to invite you to examine how you think about, judge, embrace or reject uncommitted sex a little more closely.

1.  Jonason, P.K., Li, N.P., Webster, G.D, & Schmitt, D.P. (2009). The Dark Triad: Facilitating a Short-Term Mating Strategy in Men.  European Journal of Personality 23, p. 5–18

    Copyright 2010, Linda R. Young, Ph.D.  All rights reserved

    About the Author

    Linda Young

    Linda Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach whose work has appeared on or in CNN, NPR, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today, among others.

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