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:
- Lena Chen starts sex blog.
- Lena deals with consequences like gross, misogynistic comments online.
- Lena deals with more consequences, such as leaked nude photos from crazy ex.
- Lena goes through “the cycle of rebellion and regret”, reconsiders blog, and takes time off from Harvard.
- 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).
- 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.