Sex and the Ivy

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.

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.

Christina Hoff Sommers & “The Failures of Modern Feminism”

Filed under: Feminism, Harvard — Elle November 20, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

As The Crimson reported today, “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers gave a talk on the failures of modern feminism last night. I found the discussion extremely disappointing, in part because it became abundantly clear early on that Sommers has a very limited understanding of feminist history and theory. I meant to live-blog the event, but didn’t. Now, as I go through my notes, the sheer number of inaccuracies and misconceptions astound me.

Some of Sommers’ points (everything in quotations are direct quotes transcribed during the talk):

  • “I can’t take [Judith Butler] seriously … the obscurity with what she writes … gender as performance and so forth. I wish gender studies were carried out by psychologists, not English professors. She just doesn’t seem to engage with that literature.” Butler, like Sommers, is a philosophy professor. Butler may not be a psychologist by training, but she does in fact discuss Freudian thought and psychoanalysis in her work. I was floored by Sommers’ ignorance. There’s no shame in just admitting that you aren’t familiar with a particular theorist.
  • Feminism is “victimology” and “male-bashing”. Like most of her other statements, there is nothing to back up this claim. She’s arguing against a strawman here. If you characterize feminism as victimology and male-bashing, then naturally, one would be against it. But you have to first prove that it is, in fact, a man-hating, self-victimizing movement.
  • “Fierce” women have written feminist theory. Men have always written history, so radical feminists think that now it is not women’s turn to write history but “their turn” (referring to the radical feminists). I don’t know if “fierce” was supposed to be a funny Tyra reference or if she literally meant fierce. She might as well have said feminazi, because that’s what it comes off as.
  • “I’ve never seen a women’s studies textbook treat conventional motherhood in a positive way.” To which I responded, I took an entire class on motherhood (”Myths of Motherhood” in the Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality department). Two other audience members mentioned the unit they were doing on pregnancy and childbirth as part of the methods course in WGS. These classes tend to treat motherhood and mothers in a VERY positive way, while recognizing that parenting is unfortunately not valued in our society in the same way as professional labor. I wonder when was the last time Sommers sat in on a WGS class.
  • Men and conservative feminists are not welcome in women’s studies classes. Hardly true, as one male-identified audience member pointed out. And if men weren’t welcome, I wouldn’t have brought my male thesis adviser nor would I encourage Patrick to take the WGS Graduate Proseminar.
  • “You hear so much in feminism that’s about achieving this parity, this statistical equality.” Pick up any classic feminist text and you will see that feminism does not come down to numbers, so I don’t even know what she’s referring to here.
  • “I can’t find anyone who will take seriously the view that biology plays a serious role. Most agree it’s a social construction, and if you disagree, they call you essentialist.” Perhaps that’s because there is disagreement even within evolutionary biology and psychology about the validity of the studies being conducted. It’s not like science is infallible; these are inherently imprecise sciences, a fact admitted by scientists themselves. Do I even need to go into the folly of accepting one, single discipline as complete truth?
  • “The women’s movement has been carried away a very strange agenda.” She also talks about a “feminist establishment”. A common theme in the discussion was that radical feminists have somehow hijacked the movement, but who is behind this “strange agenda” and what is the “establishment” she speaks of? NOW? The Feminist Majority? Because even I, as a feminist, cannot offer a universally agreed upon definition of feminism or its goals.
  • Sommers said she is supportive of feminists “when they turn [their efforts] against true patriarchal societies in developing world, not toward us [the U.S.].” This statement smacks of cultural superiority, as if the West is light years ahead of the Orient, into which we must channel our efforts into saving. Ethnocentrism bothers me a lot, even more so than homophobia and sexism. Has she read Said? Spivak? Probably not, given her implicit assumption that women abroad will be better off if their societies are simply Westernized.

One audience member, a Ph.D student who teaches and takes women’s studies courses, pointed out that it seems like Sommers is still stuck in 1994 when her book, Who Stole Feminism?, first came out. Her conception of feminism does not take into account third wave feminism’s emphasis on intersectionality and on the acceptance of motherhood as a valid lifestyle choice. When Sommers claims that feminists emphasize the “drudgery” of domestic work, it became clear to me that in her mind, feminism hasn’t moved beyond  Betty Friedan. Third-wavers have long since pointed out that the choice to stay at home is itself a privileged one which only middle class women get to make. Poor or single mothers don’t get the same luxury, a problem that some third-wave feminists seek to address. If anything, feminists are the biggest supporter of making it possible for women to be mothers without sacrificing social status.

Sommers made a particularly questionable series of claims about how capitalist structures have made women better off: “I think that the free market has served women well. It’s no coincidence that feminism developed in England and America at the same time as the rise of capitalism. I think the more prosperous/free we are, the more men and women will be different. This is all part of the story of freedom. Capitalism has freed women. This is the golden age of female entrepreneurship in the U.S.”

I was genuinely curious as to how it’s possible to reconcile feminism and capitalism, so when Sommers said women — if given the choice — would rather “opt in” and be stay-at-home mothers or work part-time, I told her that women within a capitalist society are in the unfortunate position of not having their domestic labor compensated. I told her that there’s a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes and asked her how she expects for those women to exercise the same economic power as their male counterparts. I also said that no one has a true choice in a society in which working is a prerequisite for social and political engagement. According to Sommers, men report that they’d rather be breadwinners, but would they necessarily need or want to work full-time if it weren’t for the fact that money wields influence? I mentioned that this line of thought has a long history within feminism and was an extremely contentious point of debate between the radical and Marxist feminists (I personally subscribe to both schools of thought). My point devolved the second she asked me if I thought Marxist Feminism made sense and I answered in the affirmative. Given that Marxism, feminism, and Marxist Feminism all sound extremely radical and scary, I can understand if audience members weren’t familiar with the ideas I espoused — but Sommers is a philosophy professor and sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Shouldn’t she have some basic understanding of the economic structures under which we all live?

When my thesis adviser brought up the fact that women in Nordic countries score higher than American women on a range of quality of life measures (presumably because their countries — which are still capitalist economies –  all have social policies that extend beyond food stamps), Sommers replied that because those countries probably have social services and high taxes, “There’s less opportunity for individual self assertion, so it’s an open question who’s better off. In the end, it’s probably a mix.”

Which is just false. It’s patently false, according to the Human Development Report from the United Nations, which is not exactly a secret study. Overall, everyone is better off (in terms of education, health, basic needs being met) but there’s also the highest gender equality and there’s more equality between the classes, which I think is a crucial and oft-forgotten component of feminism.

In conclusion, it’s possible to have reasonable discussions with people who disagree with your beliefs. But they have to be willing to educate themselves about what it is they’re arguing about. Sommers has an outdated view of feminism and a pitiful understanding of capitalism. That’s no starting point for a conversation.

The Harvard Crimson: “The Abstinence Mystique”

Filed under: Abstinence, Harvard — Elle October 27, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

My op-ed in tomorrow’s edition of The Harvard Crimson discusses how the campus organization, True Love Revolution, lacks a consistent mission and misapplies feminism in defending abstinence and the “traditional family”.

I had a lot of fun writing this piece, in part because it was an opportunity to debunk a common misinterpretation of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs as a treatise on the consequences of feminism. Levy, who identifies as a feminist herself, does not blame second-wave feminism for vulgar music videos and crude lad mags emblematic of modern “raunch culture”. Rather, she argues that women who express their sexuality in a manner obviously conforming to the male gaze (straight women kissing in night clubs, for example) are falsely invoking feminism in justifying their decisions.

Levy herself has gone on the record as stating in an interview with sex-positive feminist Susie Bright:

OF COURSE I don’t think [sex radicals] are responsible for this…the whole point of sex radicals is to explore new and different and more creative ways to represent— and to have— sex. I’m all for creativity. I’m all for exploration. I’m just not for the incessant reiteration of this one incredibly dull shorthand for sexiness… Wet t-shirt contests! Implants! Brazilian bikini waxes!


You have always been about encouraging women to investigate what they really and truly want from sex. Raunch culture, on the other hand, is about performance, not pleasure. That’s my objection … As I say in my book, the women for whom this is *genuine* — the women who authentically get their kicks from flashing for GGW or stripping or whatever— have my best wishes.

It’s a shame that Levy’s work has been so often misinterpreted as it offers a rare, nuanced examination of how the male-dominated entertainment and pornography industry have hijacked “sexual liberation” for profit. This isn’t because feminism went too far; it’s because it didn’t go far enough.

On Privilege & The Ivy League

Filed under: Harvard — Elle September 23, 2009 @ 12:14 am

[Original post and full discussion on The Chicktionary]

what a spoiled little life you lead. how DO you pay for all your globe trotting and partying? you must have rich parents or a sugar daddy. or maybe you moonlight in addition to your ‘writing career’? anyway, enjoy your life of privilege while it lasts. someday you may find yourself scrubbing floors or pots and pans or caring for the sick or elderly. life is not a beach, as the saying goes. -comment by joe

The bottom line you Ivy league snob, is that you throw all of your globetrotting in the face of the 99% of readers who are less fortunate than your spoiled ass. Most college students are eating ramen noodles 5 nights a week, and living in a piece of shit apartment with second hand furninture you ungrateful twit. Maybe you should get some common sense. I can’t wait until you graduate and are unemployed. Maybe then you will learn some humility.comment by Satsuya

I never cease to be amazed by the amount of vitriol spewed my way. Most of it is along the lines of “whore whore slut”, but occasionally, my blog also attracts bitter members of the underclass*. For example, I was heavily criticized last year when I chronicled the time I spent in Europe. Most of that summer was spent squatting in a dorm room where I shared a bed with my best friend (I was literally squatting, as in, I was not allowed to be there and did not pay rent, nor was my presence accounted for in any official way), and most of those nights, she slept on the floor in a sleeping bag. Glamorous it was not.

But some of my more ignorant critics nonetheless view any traveling as jetsetting and Europe/anywhere outside of North America as some shiny place inaccessible to all but the wealthy. That’s just patently untrue. I don’t deny that Harvard offers certain advantages, such as well-connected friends who can offer free lodging or entertainment (see: my entire Ibiza trip). I know plenty of college students who eat ramen, live in small apartments, and are on full financial aid (like me) who also find affordable ways to travel and have fun, often on their school’s dime. Going abroad doesn’t automatically make a person overprivileged or mean that they come from money (or even if they do, it doesn’t mean they don’t pay for it on their own) just as going to an Ivy League school doesn’t automatically make me a snob. (And besides, what would be wrong with parents paying for vacations? I’d want to do that for my kids!)

Do I think I have it better than most college students? Yes and no. I probably have it better than most college students whose mothers are hotel maids. But that’s only because the children of hotel maids don’t usually attend Harvard, an institution as valuable for its social network as it is for its education. If I’d gone to UC Berkeley, I probably wouldn’t receive invitations to the South of France, but maybe I would’ve been invited to Napa instead. That being said, it’s not as if every Harvard student has a recognizable last name and comes from a family who owns second or third homes (most don’t). Those who do are usually humble about it, or at least, they’ve been taught to not talk about it.

Maybe instead of calling me spoiled, ungrateful, and lacking common sense, these commenters should be asking themselves why they’re so resentful. When I first got to Harvard, I very much felt like an odd girl out because of my background and I’ve always been acutely aware of the school’s air of privilege. I’m sure I know better than these guys what it’s like to be poor in the face of extreme wealth. But while I don’t doubt that there are plenty of douchebag Harvard alums stealing your jobs and girlfriends, I’m not one of them and it’s incredibly ignorant to assume that’s what every Ivy Leaguer is like.

The fact that these commenters think it’s impossible for a Harvard student to come from a lower middle class background (i.e. less than $30,000/year for a family of three) just demonstrates how little they know about socioeconomic diversity here. Besides its diversity recruitment efforts, the school also attempts to make money a non-issue one students are on campus by randomizing the housing lottery (so that everyone has a shot at the most desirable dorms) and offering a single all-you-can-eat dining plan (so that everyone can eat as much as they want without having to worry about paying more for it). So sure, you could say that most students who came from a similar background to mine are probably “less fortunate” but that’s because most schools don’t make it a priority to create the illusion of class equality.

I’m perfectly aware that Harvard offers certain privileges, but I’m not going to apologize for taking advantage of them.

* I jest.

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