2010 Duke University faux sex thesis controversy

The 2010 Duke University faux sex thesis controversy arose from a private 42-page Powerpoint document written by a Duke University senior, Karen Owen, in the format of a thesis about her sexual experiences during her time attending the university.

The controversy

Shortly before graduating from Duke University in May 2010, Karen Owen wrote a thesis styled document about her sexual experiences during her time attending the university. She privately distributed the document to three friends. In mid-September 2010, during Homecoming weekend, one of these friends decided to forward it onward, and the document went viral.[1][2] In the faux thesis, titled "An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics", Owen ranked her partners based on her criteria for performance.

The bulk of the controversy surrounded whether she invaded her partners' rights to privacy, and whether the subjects of Owen's faux thesis have a right to sue, as was done in the case of Jessica Cutler when Cutler published details of her sex life on a blog.[3] It also raised questions as to whether double standards exist if the reaction would have been the same had the faux thesis been written by a male.[4] The faux dissertation attracted additional attention because some of the men whom Owen ranked were from the lacrosse team, and there was an unrelated sex controversy surrounding the team a few years prior.[5]


About a month after the faux thesis made headlines, the Duke University History Department held a forum about the long term implications of the faux thesis.[6] A few months after that, The Atlantic published an article discussing this incident in the context of Duke's culture as well as binge drinking by women.[7]

The author


Karen Owen, the author of the faux thesis, grew up in Branford, Connecticut and graduated from Branford High School in 2006. She won a scholarship to attend Duke and was a very avid sports fan during her time there.[8]

Following the controversy

After her faux dissertation went viral, Owen deleted, closed down, or blocked access to her social networking sites. She stated "that fraternities 'make lists like this all the time.'" She also expressed deep regret over the incident, saying that she would have "never intentionally hurt the people that [were] mentioned [in the faux thesis]."[8][9]


  1. Koti, Pradip (October 8, 2010). "Duke University Scandal "Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics"". Archived from the original on 9 October 2010. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
  2. Daulerio, A. J. (October 1, 2010). "A Glimpse Into How The Duke Fuck List Went Viral". Deadspin. Archived from the original on 4 October 2010. Retrieved 11 October 2010.
  3. Finnegan, Leah (October 7, 2010). "Karen Owen's Duke Sex-Rating PowerPoint Goes Viral (VIDEO)". Huffington Post. Archived from the original on 8 October 2010. Retrieved 9 October 2010.
  4. "Karen Owen PowerPoint: Duke University Student's Sex Thesis Poses Question Of Double Standard". Huffington Post. October 8, 2010. Archived from the original on 11 October 2010. Retrieved 9 October 2010.
  5. Inbar, Michael (October 7, 2010). "Duke coed's scandalous sex ratings are viral sensation". NBC News. Archived from the original on January 14, 2012. Retrieved 9 October 2010.
  6. Carmon, Irin (October 29, 2010). "Duke History Department Hosts "Fuck List" Forum". Jezebel.com. Retrieved 2010-11-20.
  7. Flanagan, Caitlin (January–February 2011). "The Hazards of Duke". The Atlantic. Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  8. Zaretsky, Mark (October 13, 2010). "Branford High grad's sex life 'thesis' goes viral; Online slide show rates prowess of Duke athletes". New Haven Register. Retrieved 16 January 2012.
  9. Alptraum, Lux (22 July 2018). "There Is Life After Campus Infamy". New York Times. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  10. Love, Julia (December 3, 2010). "Popular TV show airs episode inspired by Owen PowerPoint". The Chronicle (Duke University). Retrieved 2011-12-06.
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