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.
I’m posting some old notes (all anonymous) that I’ve received over the past year regarding the ongoing cyber harassment against my friends, family, readers, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and well, anyone even vaguely associated with me. At the time this first started happening, I was not dealing with it very well. I’m still not. I’m hardly on the Internet nowadays, purposely avoiding social networks for the most part, despite the fact that my work used to kind of depend on it. I just can’t do journalism anymore. The money I get isn’t worth it and the shit I deal with isn’t worth it, and everyday, whether or not I blog, I am negotiating between the public and the private, and it’s exhausting given that most of my work has consisted of personal writing up until this year. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I am spending more and more time on fiction these days. My own little sister’s name has been dragged into this, so has my mother’s. I don’t want to deal with this kind of scrutiny for the rest of my life. I don’t want anyone else to deal with this scrutiny either.
Anyway, if you or someone you know wrote the above, I truly hope things have improved since. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs over the past 12 months, and I wish I could have been more understanding and supportive, more engaged with those affected by this harassment campaign. I’ve never written so much and shared so little during such a long period of time. And while I do miss engaging in discussions with my readers, I also realize that this has become less and less possible as people fear retaliation. After all, what’s the point of having a comments section when I am simultaneously advising people to not post comments lest they attract the attention of my stalker? What’s the point of having a blog?
Thanks for suggesting this. I don’t want to rehash the past for those who already know it, so if you don’t know the backstory, refer to these links:
For whatever reason, this blog attracts some rather malicious characters, so if you don’t want your name to be tainted by association, you should 1) leave comments under a pseudonym and 2) only “like” my posts if you’re not logged in on an account traceable to your real identity. Exercising caution is in YOUR best interest! The only stuff I control is on my site. I can’t do anything about anonymous trolls ruining your online reputation elsewhere, nor do I know who these people are or how to stop them.
I’ve added a link to this disclaimer on my sidebar, too.
More burning questions or comments? Submit them here.
I’m astounded by all the kind emails, tweets, Tumblr notes, and Facebook messages sent my way. Thanks, guys. Indeed, as many of y’all have noted, the comments to my Salon piece are mighty scary. But I’m surprisingly unfazed by them … even though I think I would have been pretty bothered just a year ago. Maybe this means that I’ve sort of begun to make peace with the past.
Writing that essay took a great deal of emotional energy. What got printed looks absolutely nothing like the initial draft, which was far more feminist-y and deconstruct-y, but not at all what a personal essay should look like. It was not, in other words, actually about me. My editor (the awesome Sarah Hepola) told me after I turned in the first version the following:
Instead of talking about it in academic terms, instead of using the words “society” or “dichotomy,” I want you to put it in personal terms, tell me what *you’re* scared of.
And I thought, fuck, what the hell am I supposed to do now? I’ve never had to do a rewrite of a personal essay before. I’ve had to do this for various reported articles, but never for anything first-person. I don’t think that’s because I’m such an awesome writer, but rather because I have an intuition for what is needed for a story to feel complete. There’s an element of honesty to personal writing that is totally unrelated to the quality of the writing itself, if that makes sense, and good editors can tell when it’s missing. I haven’t done personal writing in years (which is probably why it’s been so damn hard to get my memoir proposal off the ground), and I knew when I turned in that first draft that I was holding back something. I guess I sort of hoped that no one would call me on my bullshit. That I wouldn’t actually have to be honest after all and instead could hide behind intellectual arguments that I knew to be true. True or not, nothing exists solely in the abstract. What do double standards actually look like in real life? What does a so-called “slut” look like? And how does said slut deal with harassment?
Not by hiding behind textbooks, that’s for sure. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple years. I write about sex, sure, but not about my own experiences. I write about reproductive access, healthcare, abortion, contraception, all things I’m passionate about. But what I really, really want to do is not possible anymore. At least not online. And this is an explanation of why.
A lot of the commenters over at Salon seem to think that I was either faking my naivety in not expecting consequences for writing about sex (which, okay, you don’t have to believe me, but if you’re not going to take my word for it, then there’s no point in engaging in a discussion at all) or that I am merely whining because there are people who judge me. I’ve heard this before. I’ve been told at various points in my blogging career that I’m essentially “asking for it” by sharing personal details about my life. And when it was just me and a laptop and random insults about my sure-to-be-single-and-lonely future, I took the criticism mostly in stride. Sure, no one likes being made fun of, but it’s something that I learned to live with and ignore. And I don’t expect everyone to agree with all my opinions! That’s why I have a comments section, after all. (And by the way, I don’t even moderate it unless someone says something truly horrifying and racist or attacks another commenter.)
But that’s not all that happened to me. It’s not just about hurt feelings; it’s about the fact that there were and still are people absolutely obsessed with ruining my life for no reason other than the fact that they couldn’t stand to see someone — especially an Asian woman! — fuck and write about fucking without being punished for it. It’s not “whining” or naivety to express shock and dismay at my family and friends being outed on the Internet. A few questions:
And last but not least, as recently as this spring, my readers — that is, the folks leaving comments here and “liking” my posts — were being outed and falsely accused of being reprimanded by their educational institutions and fired by their employers. Not for writing about sex themselves but for reading about it on my blog. I have at least 50 emails sitting in my inbox from people who are completely freaked out about how their names and emails and various affiliations were discovered and printed on the Internet and I have no answers for them beyond, “Folks are fucked up! I’m so sorry!” I haven’t blogged anything intimate about my relationship since 2008. It’s been THREE YEARS. I stopped sex blogging because of this shit, but that’s not good enough! They want me to stop writing altogether, I suppose, because they are not only STILL going at it, but they are intent on turning as many people into collateral damage as possible. I now write about feminist dating etiquette for god’s sake! This would ALMOST be funny, ALMOST, but if you think about it a little harder, it’s mostly just weird and scary. Because think about it: my various stalkers through the years have spent inordinate amounts of time tracking down individuals who know me personally or follow my writing, and then they try to ruin their reputations. They obsess about Lena Chen even more frequently than Lena Chen herself. (And trust me, that is hard to top.) I mentioned all of this in the Salon piece, but I guess it’s really easy to just skip over those parts. ‘Cause then I wouldn’t be a whiny slut anymore. I’d be a woman concerned for her personal safety and the well-being of her loved ones. That’s slightly more complex-sounding and harder to stereotype.
I’ve written about all of this before, and to be frank, I was and am afraid of writing about it again. Sometimes, readers ask, “Why do you pay so much attention to this stuff?” Answer: because it astounds me! Doesn’t it astound you? I can deal with people calling me names on the Internet. But what I have never been prepared for? The twisted, sadistic attacks on people I care about and on people I don’t even know (like my readers). I guess my stalkers thought that if they couldn’t hurt me anymore, they’d just start aiming for the closest targets. And that was something I never once anticipated. Each and every single time it happened (and the attacks became progressively worse over the years), I was deeply surprised. I didn’t even know that people were capable of this kind of malice. This is not criticism. This is not disapproval. This isn’t even bullying. This is harassment and intimidation. How does one get over the fact that this is the consequence of writing about sex? That another human being who doesn’t even know you in real life can hate you this deeply?
That’s the reason I stopped SexAndTheIvy.com. Because I didn’t have any recourse or protection (legal or otherwise) and I was sick of being constantly afraid for myself and those around me. So I adjusted accordingly and made myself as non-controversial as possible in order to not attract this type of attention anymore. And even that didn’t drive them all away. The haters won. If you were expecting a happy ending to this entry, I’m afraid there isn’t one. I wake up everyday hoping they haven’t decided to target someone new. When I turned in the second, more honest draft of my essay to Sarah, I was scared, not just of the reactions from readers but of the potential backlash. Because I know the second I start to feel safe, the moment I start to believe that I’m flying under the radar, that’s when it’ll happen again. This is what slut-shaming looks like. It’s not just a slur, a curse word, something uttered and forgotten. It’s about breaking your faith in humankind. It’s about reminding you of the depths of people’s malevolence. It’s about instilling fear so that even if you have a voice, you shut yourself right up because you know what happens when you use it. And at some point, you become so paranoid and terrified that they don’t even need to police you anymore because you start to police yourself.
OH YAY, an opportunity to cite Foucault! It’s not everyday that one can use biopower to explain slut-shaming ;)
First of all, THANK YOU FOR THE FLATTERY but I must correct you! I am afraid I am quite unremarkable in real life. For example, I have been known to make fashion blunders, and none of my readers (to my knowledge) have tried my cooking, so for all you know, my food just might LOOK really good but taste craptastic. In fact, I burn things! I just don’t blog about those kitchen disasters (so as to preserve my image as the perfect homemaker, of course). In any case, even if one were an unfashionable, anti-social, shitty writer who couldn’t cook, does that make one deserving of the vitriol I’ve received? Not really! It really speaks to how deeply entrenched sexual morality is in our society that I feel the need to lead as “perfect” a life as possible in order to reduce the amount of hate spewed.
So, why do I get so much criticism? This is one of those rare instances when citing Foucault actually makes sense (and doesn’t just serve as an essay-fluffing device). Lesley Kinzel, who writes about body politics on her blog, Two Whole Cakes, sums up Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon in laymen’s terms much better than I can:
“Culture, according to Foucault, [uses] disciplinary systems … in which each body may be observed and assessed at any time. This has a controlling and normalizing effect, in which bodies are encouraged to meet expected standards at all times. Think CCTV systems, or Big Brother. If one is never sure if one is being watched, it makes one less likely to openly transgress the rules. I’m also inclined to argue that this arrangement ultimately results not only in the self-policing of one’s own behavior, but in a broader social system that expects and rewards the individual policing of others’ bodies and behaviors. Those who subvert social norms are, ostensibly, people who have forgotten that they can be seen, publicly, at any time. Therefore, when they transgress social norms—by expressing physical affection for a person not visibly coded as the opposite sex, for example, or by being fat and rejecting social and bodily invisibility—they need to be reminded of this omniscient social gaze, and in the absence of institutional discipline, must be punished so they do not transgress again. This is the mechanism by which a dude who sees me in a vividly-colored dress, walking alone as though I either don’t know or don’t care that I am defying bodily norms, feels compelled to scream “UGLY FAT BITCH” at me. He is applying social discipline and teaching me a lesson: Everyone can see you, and your body and/or behavior are unacceptable.”
Kinzel is talking primarily about societal reactions to and antipathy toward fatness, but this is just as applicable to transgressive sexual behavior (the stuff Foucault originally wrote about). There has been a long, long history of the state policing the sexuality of its population. Forced sterilization of “undesirables” (prisoners, women of color, people with mental illness). Implicit and explicit population control (such as China’s one-child policy). Miscegenation laws against interracial marriage. Sodomy laws against homosexuality. These are all forms of social control that have occurred within the last century, and Westerners are so gosh-darn sold on our “freedom” and our superiority to supposedly backward societies that a lot of folks believe that they are somehow exempt from being policed. Reality check: just because we’ve enjoyed a few decades of increased personal freedom does not mean that we’ve reached sexual liberation. Because you want to know the scary flip-side of freedom? The government doesn’t have to police its citizens when its citizens happily do that to each other.
People hate me because I behave in a manner that has historically been punishable by community standards or by law. That doesn’t happen so easily nowadays but it doesn’t mean that haters aren’t going to hate and try their damndest to fuck shit up for me. I realized recently when I was looking back on my sex blogging days that the most transgressive thing I’ve done is not even writing a sex blog but rather, refusing to be ashamed for writing a sex blog. Because shame is the true root of sexual morality’s power in modern “free” society. As I wrote in my Salon piece:
“If I’m honest, I never did feel bad for writing Sex And The Ivy and I never once felt the need to apologize. Shame wasn’t something that came naturally to me. It was something that I learned against my will, and now that I know it inside and out, I don’t know how one can possibly unlearn it. Sexual freedom is a sham. Over my blogging years, I’ve become acquainted with enough erstwhile sexual radicals to realize that my story is not an isolated incident. I am just one data point, and what happened to me at Harvard is one example of the consequences faced by those who do not fall in line with sexual morality.”
Call it naivety, but my 19-year-old self didn’t think there’d be consequences to writing about my sex life. Therefore, other people — that is, concerned members of society — took it upon themselves to teach me to be frightened of judgment. And fuck yeah, I’ve learned my lesson well.
As I mentioned, I’m doing some catch-up blogging at the moment! Here’s a much belated copy of the February/March issue of BUST Magazine, which featured me in a story by Emily McCombs about sex bloggers who have been outed or subjected to harassment as a result of their writing. I’ve already blogged quite a bit about the vicious attacks that my friends and family have suffered over the years, but when interviewed for this piece last fall, I had no idea that some of my online stalkers would also be soon going after my readers. (I’m glad that this bullying has dwindled down the past few weeks, and I’m grateful for all the support that you guys have expressed!)
Next to some of the ladies in the above piece, I feel downright lucky. Melissa Petro was fired from her job as a teacher when she was outed as a sex worker. Zoe Margolis was relentlessly pursued by a tabloid that outed her. Most recently, Kendra Holliday is being sued by her ex-husband for full custody of her children because of her sexuality. Since I’ve always been self-employed, childless, and public with my identity, I haven’t had to deal with these problems (though I’m not sure “At least I’m not being canned!” is much of an upside to the situation). Nonetheless, it’s hard to explain to people why I continue doing what I’m doing. Isn’t writing about sex just attracting negative attention and bad publicity after all? This is actually the precise topic about which I’m writing a personal essay right now … perhaps, I’ll share some of those thoughts on the blog when I’m feeling less vulnerable to misinterpretation.
In the meantime, you can read the full story from BUST. (Hint: you won’t be able to click through to the hi-res images on the Tumblr dashboard, so refer to TheChicktionary.com if you’re interested in reading):
My hate blog calls me a “lying skank” because I supposedly claimed my dad isn’t a restaurant owner. Except I never said that. I said that he isn’t this “LA restauranteer [sic]” named George Chen who seems to be pretty successful and who my stalkers believe is related to me. (My dad, for the record, did have three restaurants at one point, though two have since gone out of business.) I also denied their accusation that my parents are actually rich and that I’ve been lying all this time about getting financial aid from Harvard and feeling out-of-place among much-wealthier classmates. (I know I offered this before, but seriously, do you need to see screenshots of my tuition statements?) Any of my close friends can testify to the fact that I come from a pretty humble background. My and my sister’s Expected Family Contribution to college tuition and expenses would not have been 0 otherwise. And that’s what the U.S. government determined. With our tax forms. (And no, my parents are not committing tax fraud, if that’s your next question. We are actually just not able to pay for higher education without financial assistance.)
All that said, I think it’s a little ridiculous that anyone would believe what’s written about me on a site that calls my readers “cumslurpers”, “psychopathic”, and “braindead”. I think it’s pretty clear that these people are biased and have an agenda. If you have any other questions regarding what they write, just email me personally. I’m not going to clutter up my blog with clarifications to false accusations.