The Sexist

Lena Chen on Assault by Photograph


When Lena Chen was a sophomore at Harvard, she started "Sex and the Ivy," a blog devoted to something that most college students do, but few are willing to talk about. On her sex blog, Chen unapologetically aired every taboo of a college student's sex life, from recovering from an eating disorder to recovering a condom from her vagina. And for that, several thousand people decided that Chen must be punished.

In 2007, when she was 19 years old, private sexual photos of Chen were planted in the comments section of Ivy League gossip blog IvyGate. From there, Chen's ex-boyfriend, her classmates at Harvard, and the greater Internet gossip world took delight in forwarding, downloading, and re-posting the images—a full-scale campaign waged to shame Chen for talking about sex. "I was never ashamed of my body or of people seeing it," Chen later wrote about the experience. "I felt victimized because I had been exposed without consent and doubly victimized by those who wrote salaciously about the incident."

Chen's legion of downloaders are on the cutting edge of public sexual harassment. The technology has changed, but the idea is the same: Find a woman who dares to have a sex life. Feel the need to exert sexual power over her. Police her by sexualizing against her will, and under your terms. On the Sexist, we've called out the inherent misogyny of publicizing something as seemingly innocent as an inadvertent "nipple slip"; at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte has suggested that the dissemination of private sexual images (like the Carrie Prejean masturbation video) ought to be considered a form of sexual assault; around the country, similar incidents of harassment have moved girls to suicide.

Chen, now 22 and writing at the Ch!cktionary, didn't  "deserve" this because she happens to be a sex writer. But her pro-sex philosophy does help to articulate why disseminating sexualized images of women without their consent is wrong.

SEXIST: Could you talk a little bit about how the dissemination of photos like these can be so damaging?

LENA CHEN: People don’t really understand when there’s a line being crossed. People will say to me, “But how can you object to this when you post very provocative photos of yourself?” When I was 18, I posed nude for a friend of mine, for an art class. The photos went up in a student art gallery. Classmates saw the photos. They were taken completely with my permission, and I knew exactly the context in which they were going to be used. The leaked photos were taken in private by someone I was dating at the time. I didn’t expect them to be publicly disseminated. They were never meant for public consumption. It felt like a major violation. . . . But the part that I think is really exploitative is that these photos were obviously being spread in a manner in which the goal was to shame me. I’m not ashamed of my body or of people seeing my body. But the people distributing these photos didn't do it as an empowering, ‘rah, rah’ thing. These people took private photos of me and knowingly distributed them in order to try to make me feel ashamed of myself. I want to clarify the difference.

Some people think that spreading photos like these is damaging because women should feel ashamed about being revealed as sexual. But really, they're damaging because they show that hundreds of other people are desperately attempting to exert control of your sexuality.

LC: In some ways, I was better prepared for this situation because I was already writing about sex. I know that slut-shaming is wrong and I'm not ashamed of being sexual. If this were to happen to someone else—a completely private individual—it would be extremely, extremely damaging to that person’s self worth. As for me, I went from being somewhat unhappy with my campus reputation to actually having panic attacks for the first time my life. I was placed under a considerable amount of scrutiny. These are real-world consequences. When slut-shaming works—and even when it doesn’t work—you end up losing a considerable amount of trust in people. And not just the person who posted them in the first place—you can’t even count all the people who helped to spread them. . . . Maybe you can predict the crazies, but you just can’t imagine the masses of people who will step up to help them. That’s what’s disheartening. And at Harvard, it wasn’t even that bad.  I think the difference is at Harvard—it’s not so possible to be a social conservative at Harvard. So everyone would be very politically correct about it to my face.

A lot of the sexual situations you wrote about on your blog weren't too out of the ordinary for a modern college student. Why do you think some of your peers were so scandalized by it? How do they just forget that they’re doing the exact same thing behind closed doors?

LC: I don’t think people forget that they also have sex. I think there’s a sense of false modesty about it. You’re not supposed to talk about it; that's the real crime. Even if you do it, you’re still less of a slut than a person who talks about it. People like to maintain the façade of sexual propriety. Think about the most embarrassing things that could happen to someone, and a lot of them will involve sexual performance. There is a great deal of anxiety about sex in our culture, and no one wants to talk about it openly and honestly. Because we’re neurotic about sex. We’re curious in a morbid way. That makes for some very ripe material for controversies like mine coming up. It’s a lurid, sensational story. Who isn’t going to be drawn into that? People project their own anxieties onto me. They want to shame me for letting someone take naked photos of me, but these people are going and downloading those images from a torrent. What does that say?

Why do you think other students at Harvard download your photos?

LC: Harvard has 6,400 undergrads. I don't think close friends of mine Googled the photos. Casual acquaintances, maybe we were close enough to be Facebook friends—they probably did. The people who are a few social networks removed from me. It’s bizarre to me, because obviously I’m a real person, even if I don’t talk to them. They see me in the dining hall, see me around school. It’s not like I was MIA. I really didn’t remove myself from Harvard campus life until after the fact [Chen took a leave of absence from school following the incident], but at the time, I was more or less a fully engaged student there. That’s why I found it really, really disheartening—the people behind it were my peers at Harvard. And maybe they didn’t think of it as some sort of huge betrayal of my trust, but it felt like a witch-hunt and felt like mass bullying.

What was your reaction to the blogs that made sensationalistic stories around the photos?

LC: The person with the photos—my ex, presumably—left a bunch of comments on IvyGate with links to the photographs. Someone contacted me from IvyGate and said, "Do you want to comment on this? We’re going to write a story on it." I was so completely shocked that I didn’t even question what I was being told. You have to understand how quickly this all happened. Now I think I would like to go back and say," Do you really need to have a story on this? I’m 19 years old. I don’t think I fall into the category of a public figure. Exes go crazy. Where is the news?" People who are deemed “web celebrities” are just considered fair game for attack. Why would Gawker [porn blog Fleshbot] be posting anything about me? . . . The whole system is under the impression that if something happens to you, you "asked for it." And it’s applied more often to women bloggers. For example: I hate Michelle Malkin. But if she were a dude, would anyone want to find out where she lived? Conservatives and liberals alike—if you’re a woman you’re going to have to put up with a lot more vitriol. Certainly when it comes to matters of sexual shame. The best thing for everyone to do would have been to just ignore it. . . . I heard it was one of the highest-trafficked stories IvyGate ever published.

Previously in Sexist interviews:

* Jaclyn Friedman on Fucking While Feminist

* Thomas MacAullay Millar on men in the feminist movement

  • PK

    "I’m not ashamed of my body or of people seeing my body. But the people distributing these photos didn’t do it as an empowering, ‘rah, rah’ thing. These people took private photos of me and knowingly distributed them in order to try to make me feel ashamed of myself."

    You should have probably thought about that.

  • Rachel Kramer Bussel

    Um, PK, did you read this piece, or is that an April Fool's Day comment? Lena, fabulous responses. I think it's so important to make the distinction that you're not ashamed of yourself or your behavior. It's funny because no one's asking if your ex is ashamed of his behavior! The idea that nudity in and of itself should be shameful to women, whether they willingly posed for the photos or not (cue Erin Andrews), is so insulting. You are right on the money about the fact that simply talking about sex brands you, forever, as a slut, and I'm glad you've kept on blogging and branding yourself and didn't back down, because then, truly, the haters would have won.

  • Megan

    Ignore PK, Lena!

    Fantastic interview. Lena seems like an amazing, intelligent, pro-sex woman! I would be happy to read anything she had to say, and it's ridiculous that people are harassing her.

    I think this says more about the people writing sensationalist stories and downloading the photos than about Lena. She seems to have dealt with this with more grace and poise than I ever could have mustered up. She rocks.

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  • Dawn.

    One of the best interviews I've ever read. Lena Chen is totally a pro-sex feminist warrior.

  • Bobbie

    this is going to be an obnoxiously long comment, I can already tell. sorry in advanced.

    when i was a freshman, i dated a youngish instructor at my college. when we first got together i was a virgin (trying to wait until marriage or at least until "love") and had barely ever had any sexual contact with anyone other than myself. within the first 3 months of us dating, he convinced me to have sex with him. he really pressured me into it by constantly telling me that if i didn't, then i was obviously too immature to have a relationship with such an older worldly man like himself, which 18-year-old-me desperately wanted, and that we would have to break up.

    after a few weeks, he told me that just "straight sex" wasn't going to cut it for him anymore. after all, older more experienced women do more interesting things to keep their men around. that was just how sex worked, he assured me. eventually, this led to me letting him take pictures of me while having sex.

    our relationship ended after i realized he was dating several other young students at my university. it got quite messy, and ended with him being fired and several other young female students getting restraining orders against him. now, he's dating a new young female student. i want nothing more than to let her know exactly what kind of creep she's dating, to take her aside and show her the restraining orders and tell her how he lied to me, threatened me, hung around outside my classes to intimate me, sexually humiliated me for kicks, etc etc etc but i live in constant fear that if i do, he'll use those pictures against me.
    of course, now i realize, those pictures were never about sex (or maybe they were a little bit) they were an insurance policy to insure that I (and the half dozen other young students he photographed) wouldn't ever think of doing anything too big in the way of retaliation. it's a total power thing: he'll always know that *i'll* always know that he has the upper hand. it's about control.

    reading this piece made me feel for Chen, she's really quite brave and i found her entire take on her pictures inspirational. i'm struggling with the idea that, yes, one day my ex might decide to use those pictures against me, but i just have to learn to be okay with that possibility. i'm not ashamed of my body or the fact that i engaged in totally standard sex acts with someone i was in a relationship with when i was in college, but that doesn't mean i want people i don't know gawking at them. i know that he wants me to be ashamed, so the best thing i can do is NOT be ashamed, just like Chen. Honestly, in those pictures I am an 18 year old college student and he is 30-something instructor at that college. he should be the one ashamed, not me.

  • Kate Black

    Lena, I second Rachel Kramer Bussel on this: Your responses are FANTASTIC.

    There's a world of difference in being naked in public for your own reasons, and in having something private and intimate exposed in public for someone else's reasons. Those who deserve to feel shame in this situation are the ex who violated your trust and the individuals who chose to view something that they knew wasn't intended for them.

  • Diane K

    Lena, maybe you can do what Erin Andrews did and copyright your photos? That way you can control when and where they are posted and put a halt to continued harassment. I don't know if that's a course you want to take, but it's a suggestion.

    Good luck with everything. You are inspiring.

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  • cindy gilchrist

    So, how can we start a movement that shifts the public momentum away from shaming/pitying/destroying the victim to shaming the men who *should* be ashamed of their misogyny?

    I think addressing that question is the next important step.

    We've been speaking about, analyzing and decrying the devaluation of women for ages, but where is the commitment to hold the actors responsible for their actions? It's another example of the need to speak out against the bullies.

  • Lena

    Thanks, guys! I appreciate your comments.

    Bobbie: thanks for your bravery in sharing your own fears of having private information used against you. I know that even if you can recognize that others are in the wrong for shaming you, it is still extremely difficult to resist the urge to feel ashamed and embarrassed. But it sounds like you've already gotten past the most difficult step, which is knowing in the first place that you are not in the wrong.

    Cindy: I'm not really sure where we go from here. I believe in freedom of expression, but these photographs (and many "sexting" incidents) obviously cross the line. I think it's time that we treat these privacy violations as the crimes they are.

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