Lena Chen is a freelance writer and blogger who is in her final months of college at Harvard, where she is majoring in Sociology and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. In 2006, Chen started the blog Sex and the Ivy, where she blogged about sex and relationships. In 2007, when she was 20 years old, photos of Chen naked that had been taken privately were leaked online and were soon making the rounds in the blogosphere, in an attack that some have called a form of sexual harassment or assault. In the years since, Chen has stepped back from blogging extensively about her own sex life, but continues to blog about sex, feminism, gender and a host of other issues, at The Chicktionary.
Given her experiences with attempts to publicly shame her for being openly sexual, Chen has thought a lot about how our ideas about purity and goodness play into how our culture approaches sex. Her undergraduate thesis, which she’s hoping to turn into a book, was about sexual norms related to female virginity and how they have evolved in America and the Western over the last few centuries. “The current debate is really interesting,” she says, “because it reflects a lot of antiquated ideas about sexuality that have kind of been transformed by Women’s Lib and increasing economic equality, but are still very persistent and pervasive.”
As her parting gift to Harvard, Chen is organizing the Rethinking Virginity conference next week, at which both myself and Lori will be speaking, along with Tiger Beatdown‘s Sady Doyle and Fleshbot‘s Lux Alpatraum, along with some very impressive academics who study sex and virginity. You can learn more about the various panels and events here.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Lena Chen.
Chloe Angyal: How did you become a feminist, and what led you to sexblogging?
Lena Chen: I started my blog back in 2006 after my freshman year of college, and in the beginning it was not supposed to be a political statement – I just wanted a place to write and I shared the URL with some of my friends. Even though I definitely sympathized with a lot of feminist ideology when I was younger, it didn’t really become a part of my identity until I got to college and I started writing this blog, because it became a very big deal. I thought it was kind of blown out of proportion in the beginning, because I didn’t think that I was doing anything particularly transgressive, and I had read a lot of sex blogs before. I’d read lots of writers who had huge audiences and followings and were internet celebrities. And I think my blog got as much attention as it did because it was attached to Harvard. There’s all this allure about the Ivy League, and people are fascinated by the intersection of sexuality and elitism and privilege, but I was really quite surprised at the beginning when people were so interested in my writing, because I thought that what I was doing in college was completely commonplace and uninteresting compared to the lives of the women who I read and admired online. So Sex and the Ivy was not started with a feminist message at its core, but with the attention came a good deal of backlash. And at that point I really began to realize that despite the sexual revolution and Women’s Lib and all that jazz, lot of things have not changed when it comes to American views about sexuality, and especially female sexuality. That’s when I started to identify more explicitly as a feminist, and when I started to look at how gender affects not just people’s sexual expectations of themselves and of each other, but people’s life choices in general.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
LC: I grew up reading The Bell Jar all the time. I must have read that book twenty-five times. But I feel kind of bad saying Esther Greenwood, because Sylvia Plath did stick her head in an oven, although I will say that when I was growing up, I really did identify with the book, because it captured a lot of the anxiety I had about being a young woman in the world for the first time, independent of her parents. That was really interesting to me, and I really identified with it, because I spent a lot of my youth rebelling against my conservative Asian upbringing. Both my parents are immigrants, but I was raised primarily by my mother, who was very strict and very traditional, especially when it came to things like sex. So that was something that I had to learn about entirely on my own, and there were times in high school when I rebelled actively, and times when I just explored my sexuality because it was a perfectly natural thing for me to do. But with that came a lot of shame, first because I didn’t feel that I could be open about it with my family, and second because I knew that if I was open about it with acquaintances who were not friends, I would have experienced backlash from my peers.
In real life, my heroine is my mother, because even though she has some viewpoints that I completely disagree with, after I revealed to her that I had been keeping this blog, which she didn’t know about for a good two years, she really demonstrated to me how even someone who’s socially conservative can change their views. She’s always been a very independent woman, in the sense that her marriage was not arranged, or anything, but it definitely was not based on romantic love the way marriage is idealized in America. And despite the fact that she was not necessarily in love with my father at the end, it’s very difficult to do, and it was a decision that a lot of people in my family begrudge or judge her for. I think that had she not taken that step toward reclaiming her own personal freedom and happiness, she wouldn’t be nearly as satisfied with her life as she is today. But it was a brave move and the consequences were of course unpredictable, so I give her a lot of credit for that.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
LC: There’s a lot of stuff. There was a study that came out recently about how women prefer relationships and dating to hookups and men prefer hookups to relationships and dating. I think you could pretty much take that headline and put it in the New York Times on a four-month rotation, because it’s pretty much the same story every time: Every so often, a study like this comes out, and it’s somewhat inconclusive, and the researchers admit there are limitations, but nonetheless, some media outlet decides to grab it and create some sensational story around it because these kinds of stories move copy. Its’ not that revolutionary and I’m not sure why they keep running except that it sure does get people riled up.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
LC: I think that feminism still isn’t as inclusive as it needs to be. I intern at WAM!, and the mission of the Center for New Words is to increase representation, participation and ownership by women of color, poor women, disabled, women who are marginalized and disadvantaged not just because of their gender, but because of their race or economic background, etcetera. And I feel like that really encompasses what I think the focus of feminism should be. Unfortunately, working in a small non-profit start up, I’ve learned firsthand that it’s really difficult to serve those communities, because they’re often the communities that are the hardest to get funding for, and the hardest to elicit interest in, because it’s really hard to get women to come to our events because they don’t have the financial ability or the time to participate in the movement.
I don’t have any concrete game plan for how one can accomplish that, but I guess I would really love for feminist dialogue to focus less on things like professionalization and the higher education gap, which really affect a smaller percentage of women, and look more at the fact that yes, we have career women, but the only reason they’re able to have careers is that there are domestic workers who are also female, and are poor, and much less represented than they are. Or the fact that yes, there are more women entering college than ever before, but if you look at certain minority communities, there are a lot of immigrant women who don’t have access to any education. And that’s the kind of stuff that gets lost when you look at the way that feminism and women’s issues are discussed, especially in more mainstream media outlets. Women who are members of those groups don’t get to participate in the mainstream dialogue, and I think that we could have a much stronger movement overall if we built that kind of solidarity.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
LC: An unagi sushi roll, sparkling apple cider and Amanda Hess.