the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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irregular features
Ask Lena: Reader Questions Answered
Anatomy of an Outfit
Bad Feminist Confessions
Freelance Friday: Career Advice for Young Writers
Hate Mail
Gratuitous Photos Of My Bulldog
Notes & Snapshots from Abroad
Recent Tweets @lenachen

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.

  1. lenachen posted this