Sex and the Ivy

Slate: Why Is a Former Sex Blogger “Rethinking Virginity”?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Elle May 11, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

So, I am currently typing away from Currier House, my junior year dwellings, to which I’ve returned to retrieve some boxes from storage. I finished my final final yesterday (yes!) and woke up astonishingly late today, and thus, have only NOW even checked my email to find various frantic notes related to this article, which I did not read until an hour ago. It’s written by Jessica Grose, the managing director of Double X, Slate’s website for women and feminist-y issues. Though it looks like this article was largely about my various college misadventures, Grose and I only spoke briefly over the phone and I was initially under the impression that the piece was going to be about the event and not about my somewhat sordid past. (She did come in from New York to attend the conference, but I was so busy during the event that I literally shook her hand and ran off. The only in-person interview I did was with The Crimson.)

So I read the article, which is subtitled “’sex positive’ young women reconsider abstinence”, and to be honest, I kind of feel like how Jaclyn Friedman must’ve felt after her CNN interview. Jaclyn, who is the executive director of Women, Action, and the Media, the Cambridge-based non-profit I interned at this semester, wrote recently about “how CNN turned [her] into a sex scold” by using selective quotes that did not at all reflect what she was trying to say about sexual assault. And despite being a women’s rights advocates, she came off looking like a victim blamer (and I can personally attest that she is absolutely not).

If you look up “Lena Chen” and “abstinence”, you will see a long history of me being critical of the abstinence movement. So first off, before I launch into dissecting this baby, here are some huge disclaimers about the conference itself:

  • “Rethinking Virginity” does NOT mean “reconsidering virginity”. Not. At. All. I was/am not preaching sexual abstinence (or ANYTHING for that matter). Just, no. Off the bat, let’s get that straight.
  • In part, I was inspired to host this conference because of my senior thesis, which I wrote on the evolution of virginity norms. I was extremely critical of the way contemporary ideas about premarital sex have evolved, arguing both in my thesis and at this conference that virginity is a social construct encouraged only because of its historical and economic importance toward the sociolegal institution of marriage.
  • This was not a solo effort, a vanity project, or an attempt at personal redemption. I organized the conference on behalf of the Harvard College Queer Students & Allies, which was not mentioned in the article at all. If you have followed the Sex/Abstinence Wars at Harvard, Harvard has a very visible student abstinence group called True Love Revolution, which used to be somewhat queer-inclusive. (I debated the then-president two years ago, and it was a fruitful discussion inclusive of all genders and sexualities.) However,TLR has since released platform statements stating that queer relationships are inferior and that “true feminism” requires saving yourself for marriage. By holding this conference, the QSA wanted to represent the faction of students here who feel completely excluded and alienated from the often heteronormative (and often moralistic) discourse about abstinence.

I’m glad that Grose stated that I don’t “apologize” for my past, but I wish she refrained from listing every single horrible thing that happened to me as part of the backlash against my blog and then insinuating that I really did regret it after all. Maybe I’m just overreacting but the article, to me, reads like this:

  1. Lena Chen starts sex blog.
  2. Lena deals with consequences like gross, misogynistic comments online.
  3. Lena deals with more consequences, such as leaked nude photos from crazy ex.
  4. Lena goes through “the cycle of rebellion and regret”, reconsiders blog, and takes time off from Harvard.
  5. Lena becomes  domesticated and revamps herself as a “third wave radical Marxist feminist”  (yes, accurate) who writes “serious articles” (c’mon, ONE article for The American Prospect versus countless entries referencing Hello Kitty vibrators).
  6. Lena plans Rethinking Virginity Conference using her newfound wisdom only to shame women who act like the way she used to!

This is just NOT AT ALL what happened. If you read the entry I wrote about the events of the spring of my junior year (when everything more or less blew up in my face), I make it very clear that I stopped blogging about my sex life not because of fear over employment prospects but because I realized that I go to school with some incredibly fucked-up people who have absolutely no qualms about making my existence at Harvard miserable. Amanda Hess, who writes the column The Sexist, has interviewed me extensively about the subject of the public slut-shaming that I endured at Harvard. I planned the Rethinking Virginity Conference for a lot of reasons, but not because I was “dedicated to making sure no one else goes through what [I] had to endure”.  I can’t speak for Emily Gould or Meghan McCain, who are referenced in this same article as fellow regretful oversharers, but I can speak for myself and assure you that the following does not at all accurately describe me:

  • “part of a handful of women bloggers who are sobering up quickly after their youthful indiscretions”
  • “bow[ing] to [my] professional future”
  • “[calling] for a government-mandated safe area to save a hypothetical virgin from the risks—and the joys—of youthful trial and error.”

Especially not regarding that last point! First, the attitude I had going into this conference was that we needed to create an inclusive and safe space for people who might ordinarily feel left out of the discussion about sexual abstinence. I also wanted to be sensitive to those who had not yet engaged in intercourse, many of whom had encountered shaming and ridicule as well. In the last panel of the conference, “Toward A Sex-Positive Vision Of Abstinence”, I wanted people to take away a more inclusive view of sexuality and realize that being sex-positive and being abstinent are not mutually exclusive. And obviously, it is really, really hard for older virgins who could be abstaining for a variety of reasons but may actually be really comfortable with their sexuality. The discourse on sex needs to include those viewpoints instead of just writing them off as not truly sex-positive. Bullshit! But beyond that — and this was really the key theme to the entire event –, we shouldn’t judge others for their sexual behavior, especially given how nebulous the concept of “real sex” is and how much individual preferences vary. I wouldn’t judge my friends who haven’t “done it”, because who am I to decide whether they’re ready? And that goes both ways.

Second, I will readily admit that even feminists and queer activists and sexual educators can and do “slut shame” and “virgin shame” but all of the panelists at the conference took great pains to not be judgmental of any sexual practices, except in the case of “having nonmonogamous unprotected sex”. Grose quoted the panelist as stating, “They’re doing something damaging, and careless, and it’s not a choice I personally approve of.” Which, yeah, sounds an awful lot like “SHAME SHAME ON YOU!!!” but if you were actually at the panel, this particular panelist was speaking specifically about the public health consequences and not wagging her finger at promiscuity. And for the record, if you were my friend having unprotected, non-monogamous sex, I would have NO QUALMS telling you that I really hope you’re at least using the freakin’ WITHDRAWAL METHOD. Because seriously, that is idiotic.

Third, the Rethinking Virginity Conference aimed to critically examine what we consider to be “virginity” (which, as it turns out, is a whole lot of baloney that really only applies to a hypothetical straight woman with a perfectly intact hymen), question why we place such a high value on sexual purity — especially female sexual purity, and finally offer a place for QUEER PEOPLE to join the discussion because sex positivity requires inclusivity and not just sex blogging figureheads who are all of 22 years old and living lives not representative at all of your average morally conflicted, possibly gay virgin. And that kid in the closet who is trying to make sense of their sexuality and the teenagers who are playing Just The Tip in order to “save it” — they’re really what this conference was supposed to be about.

SO, I think that just about covers it. Don’t hate me. I don’t care what you do in your bedroom. Really. I have no regrets about what I’ve done in mine.

An Update On Harvard, Blogging, & Rethinking Virginity

Filed under: Harvard — Elle May 5, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

It has been a bajillion years (by which I mean approximately half a semester) since I’ve last updated this blog. In between, as some of you may know, I completed a senior thesis in sociology on the evolution of the virginity ideal and and planned a conference based on said thesis. My thesis was turned in last month; the conference was Monday. Given that I kind of thought of the Rethinking Virginity Conference as a final hurrah, I’ve been really happy about how well it’s been received:

Harvard Virginity Conference Pops Its Cherry, The Boston Phoenix

Slut Panel Postmortem: Shame, Shame, Go Away, Feministing

Educators Challenge Virginity Connotations, The Harvard Crimson

Rethinking Virginity—And Examining Our Assumptions About Sex, Jezebel

“Queer Sex Doesn’t Count” And Nine Other Myths Uncovered- And Debunked- at the Harvard “Rethinking Virginity” Conference, Feministing

Sexist Beatdown: Rethinking Virginity Edition, The Washington City Paper

Virginity Around The World, The American Prospect’s TAPPED blog

Now, all that stands in the way of me and my diploma are two 20-page papers and a final exam in German.

For the meantime, you can find me blogging daily at The Chicktionary, but I promise in the near future that something will happen with Sex and the Ivy. I may no longer blog about my sexual proclivities (at least not the way I used to) and I may no longer be having sex in the Ivy, since I moved off-campus, but I do hope to return to the writing I used to do: all that memoir-y, sometimes indulgent stream-of-consciousness that people thought was so profoundly transgressive and relatable back in 2008. (I know, it’s been ages, and sex blogs are so 2000s now, don’t you think?)

I don’t know how relatable I am anymore, but I do know that I’m glad — in so many ways — about moving forward from that über sensationalized sexual persona to become a somewhat legitimate voice on gender and sexuality. In a sense, this blog was both a blessing and a curse: instant attention, hard-won respect. I still feel like I’m proving myself nowadays, but I also feel a kind of ease that I never did at 19.

Stick around. There are only better things to come.

Sex and the Spiegel

Filed under: Press — Elle February 23, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

Evil Daystar, a German blog, concurs with my argument that Der Spiegel was sexist in their depiction of me. The recap: the German newsmagazine, which is considered progressive, described me in a mini-skirt, which 1) did not exist, and 2) served only to distinguish me from my sexually chaste counterpart.

Granted, the male writer of the article definitely found True Love Revolution, Harvard’s abstinence club, a little silly and had no qualms about poking fun at co-president Rachel Wagley. German commenters have pointed out all week that perhaps my criticism is unwarranted in light of the fact that the article is more on my side than on TLR’s. (And despite my very basic German knowledge, I did realize that much.)  But you know what the writer should’ve done in that case? Lay off the sexist remarks. If there are substantive arguments against preaching no-sex-until-marriage as the golden standard, then one doesn’t need to resort to sensationalism to get the point across.

I have no idea if the rest of the content on Evil Daystar is this progressive, but I found this commentary incredibly refreshing. If you understand German, check it out.

Woo-hoo, it’s my sexist German debut!

Filed under: Abstinence, Feminism, Press — Elle February 9, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

Der Spiegel hat einen Artikel über mich veröffentlicht! Aber nicht so schnell …

Der Spiegel, one of the largest European newsmagazines, published an article about the American abstinence movement and feminist reaction to it. I’m pretty excited that I scored a mention/photo in a German publication, because all things German have become awesome since I’ve begun learning the language.

Unfortunately, my German abilities remain pretty rudimentary, so I’ve had a hard time translating … but they’re not so rudimentary that I didn’t realize that the piece is actually somewhat reactionary. Yeah, what a disappointment.

I was reading along happily until I got to the paragraph about me, which includes a reference to my “ultrakurzen Minirock” that excites the boys on campus. That means “ultra-short miniskirt”. Wait … why are they talking about my clothing choices? And where are these ultra-short miniskirts, because Cambridge, Massachusetts is sure as hell not the ideal place to wear them. (I may have been deluded about this my freshman year, but I — and my hemlines — have long since grown up.)

This is kind of like that time when The New York Times wrote a piece that featured me alongside the then-president of Harvard’s abstinence club. While the writer refrained from physically describing the other girl, the main subject of the article, this was what he wrote about me:

Chen was a small Asian woman in a miniskirt and stilettos…

This is after I already corrected the fact-checker prior to publication, telling him specifically that I was not actually wearing a miniskirt and stilettos. But whatever,I have sex so naturally, I also walk around naked in impractical footwear! Let’s just gloss over the fact that I was actually wearing a dress and shoes with a wide heel. The truth would detract from reinforcing the image of the sexually available woman. And while we’re at it, why not exoticize me a bit? I’m small! I’m compact! I fit in your handbag! It doesn’t matter what the other girl looks like; let’s check out the chick who’ll let dudes bang her.

Anyway, it gets better:

[Chen] ate every crumb of everything, including a ginger cake with cream-cheese frosting and raspberry compote. Fredell, when the dessert menu came, paused at the prospect of a “chocolate explosion,” said, “I may as well — I mean, carpe diem, right?” And then reconsidered — she really wasn’t that hungry.

I’m amazed at what passes for news. The fact that this food-sex analogy is so contrived is a testament to how stupid the virgin-whore dichotomy really is.

But I guess the German liberal media is just like the American liberal media: not incredibly progressive after all. While articles like the ones above approach sex more positively than Fox News, they still can’t help but think of female sexuality as a binary, something that can be neatly categorized in boxes labeled “virgin” and “whore”. I may have sex and openly write and talk about it, but that doesn’t make me representative of all sexually active women any more than it makes me conform to some tired vixen trope. And while I do hope that these types of stereotypical depictions decrease, I’m not terribly optimistic. After all, this is the explanation I received from the writer when I complained to The New York Times:

Lena is right that i described her outfit to draw a distinction from [the other girl], and it is also true that her outfit was distinct from [the other girl's]. Whether her dress was short or not is subject to interpretation, she is right, but I think almost everyone would agree that indeed it was very short and that her high heels were very high.

Which is why I’m not even going to both fact-checking Der Spiegel.

When I Was 20

Filed under: All About Elle, Blogging, Dating/Relationships, Depression, Harvard, Mental Health — Elle January 11, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

My friends have a tendency to categorize my college experience as pre- and post-Patrick (or pre- and post-domestication-of-formerly-unruly-sex-blogger), but I think the split really occurs not when I met the current roomie, but two Christmases ago. I’m referring to those infamous nude photos, whose surfacing and aftermath have been neatly summarized in a recent piece in a Canadian paper. It felt strange to comment on the incident for the article, given how much time has passed and how young I was then (not that I’m much older now). But though many things have changed since, I don’t know if I’d handle it any differently today, which is probably why I seemed “remarkably blase” in the interview. I think I did the best I could at the time.

In the winter of 2007, I was single and living alone in Currier House, still blogging primarily on Sex and the Ivy, and seriously considering writing a memoir (which has long been shelved in favor of my senior thesis). At 20 years old, I was completely unprepared to deal with such a deep invasion of privacy, though I wonder if that’s the sort of thing one is ever prepared to handle gracefully. It wasn’t about the fact that I was naked on the Internet nor was it about the sociopathic ex who I’d long written off. I was never ashamed of my body or of people seeing it, but rather, I felt victimized because I had been exposed without consent and doubly victimized by those who wrote salaciously about the incident. The initial IvyGate post was how most of my classmates found out about the photos, and the subsequent coverage on Fleshbot, Bostonist, who knows where else, informed the world beyond Cambridge.

In the weeks after, I encountered little sympathy and plenty of mockery. It was easy for strangers online to say that I was “asking for it” when they weren’t in my shoes, freaking the fuck out (quite literally, in the form of panic attacks), and very much certain that I didn’t ask for this shit. However, I was mostly appalled by the way I was treated by other Harvard students, who had no moral qualms about Googling the photos and sending them to one another. It wasn’t the first or last time I felt totally alienated, isolated, and violated by the campus at large, but it was easily the worst time because I was going at it alone. Unlike romantic troubles or an uncalled-for rude encounter, this was a situation that literally no one in my life could understand or empathize with.

So how did I get over it? By leaving Harvard. I made the best of finals and submitted multiple late papers thanks to a note from my therapist. I got a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication I never ended up taking. I went to Switzerland for nine days with two girlfriends, hiked uphill in snow to reach the peak of the world’s longest sled run, and had a lot of sex with someone who was not a sociopath. Thankfully, I emerged from my depressive haze without the least bit of generalized hatred toward men, since I met Patrick, a.k.a. “the Guy”, shortly thereafter. In the subsequent months of my junior year, I transitioned slowly away from my old blog and into this one. Mid-semester, sleuthing e-stalkers unmasked and defamed “the Guy”, pretty much cementing my belief that I could never return to writing openly about my own sex life. I also moved, for all intents and purposes, into Patrick’s then-apartment and never once looked back at the option of living on campus. By the time I got Ad Boarded for not turning in two final papers, I was just completely done with Harvard. Everyone was telling me to finish the damn papers — which were completely doable — and I was thinking, “What’s so bad about having to take a year off, anyway? I freaking hate this place.” When I left Harvard at the end of May, I had already long checked out emotionally. I hadn’t even slept in Currier for months and only showed up to move-out in order to shove things into boxes. Two months later, I turned 21 halfway around the world from Cambridge. I went back to Boston a few weeks later and moved in with Patrick, with whom I lived during my year off. Harvard has never felt like home again, not even after I returned as a student this fall.

This is all to say that even if I appeared “remarkably blase about the incident” in my interview for the aforementioned article, it was hardly an insignificant event in my life. I’ve said most, though not all, of the above before, and often, it feels like I’m repeating myself when I discuss this topic. Maybe that’s because I’m still grappling with what happened. The reaction to those photos simultaneously defined and epitomized my college experience, which often felt like a circus act performed before sadistic spectators. Someday, I’ll have to post the “reflective” essay I submitted to get readmitted to Harvard. It was more a condemnation of my classmates than it was an expression of remorse, and if the administration ever had doubts about how cruel Ivy League students can be … well, now they know. Back then, I was also very much of the mindset that the bloggers and reporters who wrote about the photos were simply doing their job: writing about the news. Only in the year afterward did I realize that having a sex blog hardly makes one newsworthy and that furthermore, gossip is not news. It would have saved my sanity had a few individuals simply thought twice about clicking “Post Entry”. In retrospect, I regret that I wasn’t more critical of the writers who exploited the source of my personal anguish for page views.

In a few short months, I’ll have a Harvard degree in addition to hundreds of unfavorable Google search results to show for all this trouble, yet I’ve never quite forgiven or forgotten the on- and off-line masses who judged, dissected, and mocked my younger self. In a coming-of-age film, the above drama might be characterized as the experience necessary for eventual personal growth or finding Mr. Right or whatever. Winding up with a bulldog-owning Yalie is kind of the perfect happy ending to the Ivy League version of Sex And The City. But outside of HBO world, no one needs to nearly get their life ruined in order to emerge triumphant. The reality is that people are often mean without justification, you may or may not learn from this stuff, and the guy you end up with in the aftermath is not necessarily the pay-off for putting up with bullshit. Though I survived my ordeal more or less intact, with a boyfriend and a puppy dog to boot, I have never regained my former faith in others’ inherent goodness. Which is good, because I was really just being naive. The crazy ex who posted those photos could have easily been written off as a psychotic exception to the generally sane population at large, but what happened in the aftermath demonstrated to me how thoughtless, judgmental, and unkind normal individuals can be and that this tends to be the rule, not the exception, and that Harvard kids with all their privilege are not exempt from moral failings despite being in a position where they should theoretically “know better”.

And that realization, not Patrick, is what really prompted some rather radical changes in my life. Harvard has a knack for fooling its students into becoming incredibly invested in their peers. The cult of the Ivy and all that. The belief that your success is mine and vice versa. Even at its rawest, my blog up until that point reflected a painful desire to be liked. I was well-aware that my subject matter was slightly edgy and my reputation slightly soiled, but hardly unsalvageable, nothing a book deal couldn’t fix. It wasn’t until the ugly aftermath of the photos that I started to question what I was trying to prove and who I was trying to prove it to. It was then that I stopped participating in superficial social interactions, ceased going to anonymous parties, and completely disengaged from communal college life. In other words, I no longer viewed my classmates as flawless individuals who I should be grateful to know.

Up until then, my go-to future plan had always been Move To New York, Write A Memoir, Become Carrie 2.0. Now that graduation is actually on the horizon, I don’t find any of the above particularly appealing. I will almost certainly stay in Boston, at least in the short-term, and perhaps I will still publish a book, but not because I feel the need to apologize for my sordid past by seeking redemption via commercial literary success. As for Carrie 2.0, I’d rather aspire to be Jessica Valenti. But the truth is that I don’t even have New Year’s resolutions, not to speak of a multi-year life plan. I don’t have any idea how 2010 will turn out, since I didn’t do corporate recruiting in the fall, haven’t looked for a job, failed to apply to grad schools or take the GRE, and have no real intention to think about post-graduation life until I actually graduate (or at least until I finish my thesis). Two years ago, this would’ve struck me as terribly complacent, perhaps even boring, but right now,it just feels liberating.

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