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
Posts tagged "feminism"

After seven years in New England, I’m leaving Boston for good on Wednesday and moving to Germany in March.* Before I bid adieu to the East Coast, I’m making a pitstop at the Barnard Center For Research On Women in New York City to participate on a panel about young feminist activism.

I’ve spent the last few months writing less publicly to reflect privately on whether and how I can better serve the causes, communities, and people I’ve come to love during my time at Harvard and in Boston. What this means in practice: less time spent on the Internet, tweeting, Facebooking - and in its place: listening, thinking, journaling, surprisingly learning things I never thought I’d need or want to learn. Taking a break has helped me reflect on the work I’ve done (as part of a movement, as an individual) and the work I hope to do in the future.

Naturally, I thought this conversation at Barnard would be a lovely way to end my time in America, and I also liked the idea of being able to see friends and readers before my departure. I’m planning to spend February on the road in California, Lunar New Year with my mother, while the contents of my apartment/life got shipped to Berlin. So, when a bureaucratic error almost forced Patrick to leave the country last week, I cursed immigration laws, sort of freaked out, and almost cancelled everything in order to fly the coop literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, I’m glad that didn’t happen and that Harvard worked it all out. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to all these lovely people :) Whether you’re a real-life friend or an online acquaintance or first-time reader, details are below - please, please, please come and say hello to me and spread the word and invite your friends.

FEMINISM AND BEYOND: Young Feminists Take on Activism and Organizing
with Lena Chen, Jessica Danforth, Dior Vargas, Sydnie Mosley ’07, Julie Zeilinger ’15, and Dina Tyson ’13

January 30, 2013 | 6:30PM
Event Oval, The Diana Center | 3009 Broadway, New York, NY

Young feminists have long battled invisibility. Countless media articles bemoan young women’s lack of activism or suggest that movements that “go viral,” like SlutWalk or Occupy Wall Street, have come out of nowhere. In fact, feminism among young people is as active as ever, constantly pushing boundaries both inside and outside feminist communities and engaging with issues new (privacy in the digital age, universal healthcare) and old (racism, rape). Young feminists today are consistently building coalitions and questioning narrow interpretations of what makes a feminist issue. This activism is local and transnational; in the street, in the classroom, online. It frequently engages with multi-layered identities and challenges itself as much as it shakes up the wider culture.

In this panel, moderated by Dina Tyson ’13, five feminist activists discuss their areas of interest, what they see as the major challenges for feminist movements, how organizing today compares to that by previous generations, intersections between feminism and other approaches to social justice, and how to build coalitions that can enact structural change.

This event is free and open to the public. Venue is wheelchair accessible.

Image courtesy Ennuipoet on Flickr, BY-NC-SA.

Getting ready to show my apartment today - so bizarre, but I’m just five weeks from moving out. New York is one of my last stops before I go onward to California (where I’m visiting family as my stuff gets shipped to Germany). In late January, I’ll be in NYC to say goodbye to friends and talk to people about book stuff. A final opportunity to get face-to-face time with so many people - it’s all a little overwhelming. I’ll also be speaking at Barnard College on the 30th - probably my last event for a while. I’d love it if any readers would like to attend. Please let your NYC-area friends know that this is happening :)

Young Feminist Activism Today

A panel with Lena Chen, Jessica Danforth, Sydnie Mosley ’07, Dior Vargas, and Julie Zeilinger ’15

Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 6:30 PM
Event Oval, The Diana Center

As long as there has been feminism, there have been young feminists. On the street, on college campuses, and online, young people have worked to break down oppressive systems and nourish creative communities that honor the worth and dignity of all involved. Young feminists continue to labor on a daily basis to change policies and perceptions around reproductive justice, policing and the prison system, popular culture, gender-based harassment and violence, sexuality education, and much more. With this panel, BCRW continues a decades long tradition of examining the forefront of young feminist activism with this group of dedicated activists under 30.

Just did a segment on HuffPost Live about the United Nations declaring contraception a human right. You can check it out above :)

Virginity at Harvard | The Harvard Crimson

The Harvard Crimson's magazine quoted me in this week's cover story on student perceptions of virginity and the state of campus sexual politics. Sadly, I think that there’s still a tendency to think of sexuality in terms of an all-or-nothing/virgin-whore dichotomy, which is exactly how people end up being shamed no matter what their sexual practices actually consist of.

My stance has always been that these misconceptions and prejudices arise out of a collective unwillingness to talk about sex and our own desires (as well as our inner conflicts). In hyper-competitive environments, the self-consciousness and fear of failure that students feel toward academic achievement is totally reflected in how they negotiate their interpersonal relationships as well. It’s easier to judge others when we aren’t comfortable with our own sexuality. And in the end, that lack of transparency is what breeds insecurity in everyone, regardless of whether they’ve decided to stay abstinent or hook up,

Check out the whole piece for a sense of what sexual activity is actually like at Harvard today.

This website is a really fantastic resource and speaks to the difficulty of doing good (via research, awareness, etc.) even in a “not-for-profit” context.

The commercialization of the pink ribbon is hard to defend, especially when many of the companies behind these supposedly philanthropic efforts are more concerned with public image and profit than with actual research:

Think Before You Pink™, a project of Breast Cancer Action, launched in 2002 in response to the growing concern about the number of pink ribbon products on the market. The campaign calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising, and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions.

Breast Cancer Action is the watchdog of the breast cancer movement. We are able to tell the truth about the epidemic because we are the only national breast cancer organization that does not accept funding from entities that profit from or contribute to cancer, including the pharmaceutical industry.

P.S. For those interested in reading more on this topic, you may want to check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay Welcome to Cancerland (a great recommendation from a reader). Enjoy!

I’m speaking tonight at Pomona College and will be in Los Angeles until Wednesday. If you’re in the Claremont area, come check this out :)

Faith and First Times: Sex, Society and Religion
Thursday, October 4th, 7:00-8:30pm
Rose Hills Theatre, Pomona College

In today’s modern age, female sexuality has become less taboo to discuss. Whether through Cosmopolitan Magazine or Victoria’s Secret, society is beginning to explore a certain brand of female sexuality. Yet many women of faith are faced with the dilemma of embracing their sexuality while still maintaining religious traditions that value virginity and purity, while secular women often feel these cultural representations are not a true expression of their experiences. Come join the Pomona Student Union at Faith and First Times, an event aimed at exploring the influences of religion on virginity and how it effects women in today’s society.

This is why the work is important. Its power doesn’t lie in the me that lives in the words as much as in the heart’s blood pumping behind the eye that is reading, the muscle behind the desire that is sparked by the word - hope as a living state that propels us, open-eyed and fearful, into all the battles of our lives. And some of those battles we do not win. But some of them we do.
Audre Lorde

In other words, this is what feminist burnout looks like:

Lena, I’ve read you for several years ago and I have to agree with some of the other comments (like those on the Mitt Romney post). The constant sarcasm, criticism, ‘so-over-this’ I don’t need to engage tone of your posts is getting really really old. You are essentially your own boss, frequently travel, appear to have a healthy relationship and connections to many leading feminist/social justice activists and yet all of your posts lately have been dripping with, if not outright disdain, a sense of forced offhand indifference. To be frank, it comes off as immature and almost comically narcissistic.

I get being critical of social movements, because I think everyone involved in them is, and I get feeling disillusioned. What I dislike is feeling that I am being talked down to and the sense that you believe no one else is doing enough, or at least not doing it exactly the way you would. I know you are still involved in movements and activism - why not blog about that? Unless, I guess you afraid that it will open you up to the type of criticism you have begin casually lobbying at others?

I want to preface this by saying that I really respect readers’ willingness to be honest with me about their feelings toward my writing. I’m a bit dismayed that so much of my discontent with feminism and the political system has been interpreted as “holier-than-thou” and all those other adjectives on the subject line above. I’m not here to tell anyone how to engage with feminism or social justice, and I don’t judge anyone for their decisions unless their name is Mitt Romney. Different people have different resources, lifestyles, needs, etc. and it’s because of dramatic changes in my own life that I’ve been forced to reassess how I do my activism. My stance on politics is pretty identical to my stance on sexuality. Just because I have certain experiences or beliefs does not mean that I’m trying to get everyone else to think or act the same way. In other words, who or what I do in my life is not a judgment on who or what you do in yours.

First, if you’re really involved in this election and are campaigning on behalf of candidates or causes, then that’s your prerogative and I’m honestly glad you’re engaged. Among my own friends, there are many who are involved in political campaigns and have donated their money or time to Elizabeth Warren, others who have been climbing the ranks of different non-profits for years and who are more concerned with issues than with specific candidates, but regardless of how any of us identify politically, it’s undeniable that we’re all working toward the same general goals. We’re just going about it in different ways. I’ve never implied that I think “no one else is doing enough”, because I don’t actually think that. In fact, I see a lot of people doing way more than they should, and I think we need to recognize that some will burn out while others don’t. I burnt out last year and this year and despite appearances, it’s been a long time coming. Lots of people burn out and no one has the same reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’m going around telling my friends that they’re wasting their time with what they do. I think many of them are engaged in valuable, irreplaceable work and I envy them because I lack the emotional strength to do the same. For me, realizing that I needed to take a step back has been really humbling and it’s made me realize that my time is better spent on different projects. When I share my disillusionment with a particular movement, it should not be interpreted as me telling you what to do with your vote or trying to get everyone else to “give up” on social change at large. I’m simply trying to make sense of where my own activism is at.

Second, I think there’s a bit of a double standard here and a lot of assumptions being made about what I think. The Internet isn’t fantastic at conveying emotions, and the original post that seemed to attract so much ire really wasn’t trying to be combative in the first place. I actually thought the quote I chose was a hilarious satire, which was why I felt totally blindsided when people found it offensive. When I’m getting comments like “Do you really need to keep rubbing it in everyone’s faces as if your disengagement makes you somehow better than those of us that are still trying to give a damn?” … I can’t help but think that something I wrote was wildly misinterpreted. Shouldn’t I be able to voice my discontent with the two-party system without being called “arrogant” or “so superior to everyone else”? Or being told that I think “99% of the world are suckers”? Whereas I really haven’t directly addressed my readers at all, these are actual things that readers have said to me about me, and beyond the fact that they’re all ad hominem, they’re just kind of, uh, mean? Of course, I’m happy to apologize if there’s a specific statement I’ve published that is offensive, but even if such a statement existed, I would like to note that I don’t actually think I am better than anyone, so this seems to be largely a matter of misinterpretation and it would be great if I could get the benefit of the doubt.

Third, I’ve always maintained, even way back when I was writing Sex And The Ivy, that I keep a blog for myself first and for my readers second. That doesn’t mean that I don’t value the opinions of my readers. I very much appreciate it whenever you guys give me feedback, positive or negative (as long as it’s not, you know, stalker-y and libelous). But I can’t write or work or live simply for other people - it would make me go crazy (and that’s more or less what happened over the past year). As I’ve become more and more stressed out and overcommitted and worn down in my personal life, I’ve engaged less and less with the Internet. Offline, I still spend the majority of my time working on stuff that most people would put in the category of “feminist” or “radical” or “total hippie shit”, but I don’t write about it, and I don’t want to publicly write about it unless it feels safe to. I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t publicly write about their activism, but are they being accused of being “apathetic”? Probably not. Anyone familiar with this blog must surely realize that any silence on my end is NOT due to fear that “it will open [me] up to the type of criticism [I] have begun casually lobbying at others”. I’ve never been afraid of people disagreeing with me nor have I been personally attacking anyone. I have, however, become very concerned about the escalating harassment directed toward everyone in my life. If I make public any projects or even relationships, my very obsessed stalker will likely try to sabotage them, so please don’t mistake a lack of blog posts for a lack of engagement. I’m just trying to protect people from unnecessary attacks, and ultimately, I can’t share everything that you may want me to share.

Last, a cause doesn’t have to be perfect for me to support it, but if this is how criticism of feminism is treated, it makes me seriously second-guess whether there’s a place for me within this movement. Having been on the receiving end of some of the nastiest things that have ever been done to anyone on or off the Internet, I am kind of surprised that it can still hurt to be called “immature” and “narcissistic” by readers. I’ve been called much, much worse, but to be fair, I care a lot more what my readers think than some random troll. Because of my personal experiences confronting bullying and having my personal life dissected and regurgitated for public consumption, I think I’m much more aware of how I speak to others, and as such, I take great pains to never “talk down” to anyone. I certainly don’t “casually lobby” criticism at random people without just cause.  I keep rereading the offending post but I just don’t see where I disparage anyone, except for Mitt Romney, who - let’s face it - has no defenders left anyway. If there is something I’ve written that you feel is an attack on your person, please call me out. I don’t consider myself a bully and I never want to turn into one.

Please don’t think that the purpose of this post is to shut anyone up. Whether or not I feel unjustly attacked is not even the point, and I would rather people be honest when they’re offended, because my pride is less important to me than my ability to write in a way that is understood. Just know that in the weeks to come, I may share opinions or beliefs that contradict things you have previously thought about me. Originally, I wasn’t planning on sharing any of these opinions, precisely because I didn’t want to deal with having to explain things that happened in my private life over the past year. But how am I supposed to make peace with the person I used to be if I can’t be honest about who I am now? Multiple readers have pointed out the privilege inherent in my position, and indeed, I am really lucky to be my own boss, to have the opportunity to travel, to have been able to establish good relationships, etc. as a feminist activist, but that doesn’t mean that I should turn a blind eye to the many problems that I see within the feminist movement and that doesn’t mean that I should pretend to have a perfect life because I don’t. In fact, that illusion of perfection is likely the reason why so much of what I’ve shared recently has come as a shock to readers, and for that, I do apologize. I should have written about all of these things far earlier. I am not trying to speak for anyone but myself. I am trying to do what I think is right, and that involves telling the truth about the injustices I witness and telling the truth about myself. Particularly since this movement has accepted and benefited and protected me, I think I have an even greater responsibility to be honest about its shortcomings and its failure to do the same for those with less privilege. Maybe this honesty is coming way too late in the game, maybe this isn’t credible because of who I am, but part of the reason why I’m attempting this at all - when I have nothing to gain from it and everything to lose - is because I know that I’m not going to keep this website up forever, but before I’m finished with blogging and public life, I want to write this blog the way I should have been writing it all along.

Chen said she does not aspire toward a career in writing about sex. In recent posts, she has moved away from the controversial topic. “It’s really hard to keep the separation between my online life and my real life,” she said. “It’s good to have a certain distance. I don’t want what I start writing about to start impacting my personal life.”

Harvard Split on Campus Sex Scene | The Daily Free Press

This is an article that appeared in a Boston University student newspaper back in 2007. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I can’t believe I ever thought it was possible to move away from writing about sex once I’d been pigeonholed as a sex writer. And even back then, I never wanted to be a Carrie Bradshaw. I thought the fact that I was writing about my sex life was just so secondary compared to everything else I was confronting as a not-wealthy, not-white odd girl out at Harvard. (Feel free to count the number of sex scenes that appeared on Sex and the Ivy over the course of its two-year run. I assure you that you’ll be disappointed.) But the sex part has always been what people want to concentrate on.

The 2007 version of me who was interviewed for the above article was still optimistic. The 2007 version of me didn’t think that the slurs I occasionally got in my comments section could ever escalate to a full-fledged campaign to destroy not only my reputation but the reputation of anyone who ever demonstrated any sort of support for any of my work, sex-related or not. I have spent the last three years advocating for comprehensive sex education and contraceptive access and fighting against the marginalization of women and queer people. I have tried to write less and less about myself. I’ve been actively distancing myself from Sex and the Ivy. I haven’t even reread the old blog since I stopped updating it. I haven’t finished an entire piece of personal writing in over a year.

I hate this. I hate the constant worry that someone new has been slandered today. I hate the guilt I feel for fucking up god knows how many people’s Google results. I hate that I can’t blog anything anymore, not even anonymous things from anonymous readers, without worrying about the implications. I hate that no one can do anything about this. And I hate the writer’s block, I hate that this entire ordeal, which has been going on for years and years and years, has completely eliminated my ability to examine my past or the person I used to be. I don’t want to read writing that reminds me of trauma when that trauma is on-going and exhausting and impeding my ability to produce writing today.

I love writing and I love my readers and I love my friends, but my god, I do not love blogging or the Internet anymore.

So here I ask, to no one in particular, when do I get to have my peace of mind? What am I supposed to do to convince everyone who hates me and pursues my loved ones relentlessly that it’s enough now, that I get it? What do you want me to say? That I am, in fact, a slut? That I am wrong? That the way I conduct my life is morally reprehensible? Because if that’s what it takes, if that’s all you wanted to hear - a hallow and resigned acceptance of your judgment of me - well, I could’ve given you that years ago if you’d just asked.

The most profound betrayal of feminist issues has been the lack of mass-based feminist protest challenging the government’s assault on single mothers and the dismantling of the welfare system. Privileged women, many of whom call themselves feminists, have simply turned away from the “feminization of poverty.”
bell hooks

This is part of the reason why I find it harder and harder to identify with “feminism” by the day. Because feminism today is not merely an idea, it’s an institution, and just like in a political party, those in power might very well have good intentions, but good intentions don’t feed hungry children. In other words, I am tired of debating things like work-life balance with other educated women when the people who concern me most can’t even find work in the first place.

(via blackamazon)