Duke sex joke goes public

DURHAM, N.C. — For nearly two weeks, many here on the Duke University campus had been aware of a certain senior “thesis” that a recent graduate wrote, intended as a joke, about her sexual exploits with 13 student-athletes.

Then the Internet seized on it. The thesis, written as a 42-page PowerPoint presentation, went viral. And students here again found their school in the middle of a sex-related scandal and annoyed at the power of the murky, borderless world of the Internet to wreak havoc and tarnish images.

“It makes me ashamed that the Duke name is attached to what she’s done,” Nicole Queathem, 22, a senior from St. Louis, said as she sat in the student union. “And it’s the age-old double standard: People are more critical of what she did because she’s a girl.”

The woman in question, Karen Owen, 22, who graduated this year from Duke, evaluated what she said were her sexual liaisons with 13 student-athletes during her years at the school, and she prepared a slide presentation, complete with pictures of her subjects and graphs ranking their performance.

She forwarded this mock thesis in “horizontal academics” to a few friends, who forwarded it to their friends. After percolating within the Duke community for nearly a week, with e-mails reaching alumni overseas and message boards buzzing, the report was published online by two related websites, Jezebel and Deadspin. From there, it exploded onto the blogosphere, where as of Thursday it was still being shared via Twitter with the frenzied speed of the Indianapolis 500.

The fake thesis made its splash just as concern was raised anew about the power of the Internet to invade privacy and, sometimes, destroy lives. Last month, at Rutgers University, a student surreptitiously recorded his male roommate’s encounter with another man; days later, the roommate killed himself, unleashing a national fury about cyberbullying.

“All the world’s a stage in the Internet age,” said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “This is just the latest of a long list of examples of how things that are often meant for small, private audiences have innumerable opportunities to become public events, because once they have left the creators’ screen, they can be shared, forwarded and posted.”

Owen did not respond to repeated calls to explain what happened. A man who said he was her father answered the phone in Connecticut and said his daughter did not want to comment.

On campus, students were abashed, if not a bit fatigued by the notoriety.

Four years ago, the Duke men’s lacrosse team was embroiled in scandal when a woman falsely accused three Blue Devils players of having raped her at a party where she was to perform as a stripper. One year later, the charges against the players were dropped and the prosecutor in the case, Michael B. Nifong, was disbarred.

Seven of the 13 athletes Owen wrote about were — or still are — on the lacrosse team. This incident has angered many of those who are already sensitive to their image, according to students and alumni who know them. None of the lacrosse players contacted would comment.

Mike Lefevre, a 21-year-old senior and the president of the student body, said that people were not sure whom to be more concerned about.

“Should we be more worried about the young woman’s privacy or worry about the individuals who were named?” he said. “It’s not so clear to us who was the victim and who we should reach out to.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the education of students about their online presence was continuing, and that it was part of the orientation process for student-athletes.

“One wonders in the Duke situation if the individuals were not athletes, would it have attracted as much attention?” Schoenfeld said.

Having grown up in the Internet age, students said they were well aware of the dangers.

“Everyone knows how the Internet works,” Queathem said as she closed her laptop in the student union. “I’ve always been worried about what I put on Facebook. I’m very conscious of future employers looking at it. It’s easy to forget, but important to remember.”