Professionally speaking, I’m what some people call a “sexpert” (and probably what your granny might call a “harlot”). By the ripe age of 20, I’d already written an explicit sex blog, moonlighted as a dating columnist, and had college classmates trade naked photos of me like baseball cards. Since I’ve graduated, I’ve made a living speaking about and reporting on sex. So when Marie Claire approached me (along with four other women) about a story on my sexual history and number of partners last fall, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about double standards. There was only one glaring problem: It brought me back to a person I tried mightily not to be anymore, and the “fearless” sexual provocateur they were hoping to interview was now terrified what others might think.
Despite having a rather risque CV as a sex and gender journalist, I’ve never actually publicly disclosed my precise “number.” My friends know it and my boyfriend knows it, but unlike every other aspect of my life up to date, the Internet did not know about it. Now 23, I had successfully distanced myself from my checkered past as poster girl for the supposed college hookup culture, a move I made for reasons of practicality: I was tired of dealing with the repercussions. As a result, though I got older, I didn’t necessarily get wiser, but instead, merely learned to become as frightened of judgment as the next gal.
It was my time at Harvard that first taught me to beware of the consequences of speaking up, especially if what I said had anything to do with sex. I came from a family of Chinese immigrants, grew up lower-middle-class, and wouldn’t have even dreamed of applying to Harvard had the offer of a full ride (for kids with financial need) not attracted me. When I got in, I thought I’d finally gotten my Golden Ticket out of my conservative Asian town, but when I actually got to school, I felt like the odd girl out and never quite got over the fear that I didn’t actually deserve to be there.
During my sophomore year, a long-simmering discontentment with this academic pressure cooker led me to start SexAndTheIvy.com, a blog about my undergraduate misadventures and the lessons that I learned from screwing and screwing up. I wrote about navigating hookups, self-medicating with alcohol, and feeling like a misfit at an elite school where everyone else seemed so much more self-assured. But unlike your typical diary of a disenchanted youth, these thoughts were published on the Web for all to see. Little did I know that the website would find its way into the browser windows of sympathetic students across the country. For the next two and a half years in college, in between attending queer and feminist rallies and talking friends out of careers in finance, I confessed insecurities and gave graphic accounts of sexcapades to an audience of thousands, many of them my own peers. Though the response was overwhelmingly supportive — at times, even empathetic — I also managed to attract my fair share of detractors. The New York Times had no problem dismissing me as a “small, Asian woman” (no one else’s ethnicity was discussed in that article, funny enough) and when an ex-boyfriend put nude photos of me online during my junior year, there were plenty who reacted with unmitigated glee that the campus jezebel had received her proper comeuppance. Meanwhile, there was little I could do to control the more unhinged reactions to my blog. Someone posted the cellphone numbers of my roommates. Others found out where my mother lived and where my sister went to high school. You could say that my college years were something of a crash course in the worst parts of human nature.
The obvious question is why? Why did I ever think it was a good idea to reveal anything about my life, especially my sex life, and why did I continue doing it despite the havoc it was wreaking in my life? It’s a question I’ve been asked and have asked myself plenty of times. Given all the flak I got both online and off, it seemed the easiest solution would have been for me to shut my mouth when confronted with backlash, but I didn’t do that, at least not immediately. Critics wrote me off as attention-seeking or emotionally damaged or some combination of both.
The less masochistic truth is that I started writing about sex because I didn’t really think that it would be that big a deal, and once I realized that it was actually a topic most people did not view with much honesty or maturity, I felt all the more compelled to continue writing as an act of defiance, not fully understanding at the time what I was getting myself into. I anticipated criticism, but I didn’t anticipate sheer hatred or the profound impact it would have on those around me. At the naive age of 19, it never occurred to me to censor myself, because I didn’t think that there’d be people — especially at Harvard — who would treat me so callously that I’d eventually self-censor. I also believed that if I stopped writing openly, then I would be letting the haters “win.”
The most infuriating part, though, was the implication from many people — both well-meaning and not — that I had actually done something to deserve these things. I knew even then that this type of thinking was victim-blaming and slut-shaming and simply wrong. Still, that didn’t change the fact that people I cared for were getting hurt as a result. I’d already thought I’d seen the worst of it by the time my nude photos were being disseminated by my peers in the winter break of my junior year, and when that happened, it felt like I’d reached a breaking point. I have a distinct memory of the morning I arrived back on campus, when I did my makeup and put on an all-pink and newly ironed seersucker ensemble before boarding the shuttle to the therapy appointment I’d frantically scheduled over email while home over Christmas. Just a few hours prior, I was having nightmares on a plane and woke up hyperventilating. Yet despite the feeling that the situation had escalated beyond my control, I thought that I could will things into being OK by appearance, even if I was literally having a nervous breakdown in the waiting room of Harvard Mental Health Services.
In the weeks that followed, I holed up off-campus and determined, not entirely consciously, that my strategy would be to put on a brave face. I didn’t want to admit how much the bullying had gotten to me, though it changed quite irrevocably the way I looked at other people. I was tired of being insecure, tired of living by principle, and tired of handing ammunition over to my critics. I socially withdrew from Harvard, and shortly thereafter, I met my now-current boyfriend only to see him outed as my partner before the school year ended.
That was the final straw. I had no reservations about retiring from sex blogging in the interest of our relationship. Here was a chance at happiness, fate seemed to say, and who was I to squander it after so much unrelenting despair? By the time I graduated Harvard in 2010, I had stopped updating Sex And The Ivy and never looked back.
I thought at the time that ending my blog might very well mean the end to my writing aspirations, but a completely unexpected thing happened: My career blossomed. I began writing about gender and sexuality in more political and less personal terms. I made friends with feminist writers who liked and linked to my writing. I spoke on panels and at colleges. And the haters, for the most part, stopped bothering me. Trolling my blog isn’t interesting anymore now that I’m not habitually liquored-up and bed-hopping. I got my shit together, gained the respect of others in my field, and now I play house with my boyfriend. I share recaps of events I’ve spoken at and update readers with travel announcements. I post pictures of my extremely photogenic dog and the home-cooked dinner I made from scratch. I’ve built a persona and a brand. I’m Lena Chen, the Harvard girl who went wild, then went Betty Homemaker, and retained her feminist street cred to boot. For the most part, these aren’t just superficial changes. My close friends remark that I’m more stable than I’ve ever been. My readers — including those who have been reading me for years — marvel at my seemingly perfect relationship and ask me how I make it seem so effortless. In three short years, I transitioned from divulging every secret worry to refraining from revealing any vulnerabilities at all.
I have never admitted this aloud, but I suspect that people continue to read my blog and find my story compelling because it now looks like a tale of redemption. But what happens when the heroine starts to question why she had to be redeemed in the first place? I frequently mention the importance of truth-telling as consciousness-raising in my feminist work, while ignoring the fact that I hold back from telling my own truth every day. I talk of gender liberation and social justice, things I truly believe in, but I don’t talk about what I don’t believe in: myself.
What about Lena Chen, not the brand, but the girl who continues to fail, the girl who remains deeply afraid what people think of her, the girl who most definitely feels more like a girl than a woman on any given day? That person is not on the Internet or on the newsstand, and by the time Marie Claire asked to speak to me about my number of sexual partners, my work bore little resemblance to the raw prose of my sex blogging days. I still use first person, but what I write is anything but personal.
I don’t write about my fear that I am not good enough for the man I love or my concerns about what his family thinks of me or my suspicion that I am not, after all, a good writer despite my chosen career path. In reality, I’m actually kind of emotionally fragile and insecure. But because I’m not interested in spending more of my young adulthood deflecting misogynistic slurs and shielding loved ones from incrimination by association, I’ve simply stopped writing about the many things that continue to scare and confuse me. I’ve long believed that there is nothing embarrassing about admitting human frailty, but when I try to write about college nowadays, I catch myself pulling back from every little unflattering anecdote, rewriting the circumstances and characters, and wanting to put forth a more attractive version of who I am. Though I am never overtly disingenuous, I occasionally feel like I’m living a lie of omission by not owning up to being constantly plagued by the same doubts that haunted me at Harvard: that I am not merely unworthy of a school but that I am too damaged to be worthy of love.
Among the arsenal of insults flung at me, that particular put-down has always been the most hurtful, and it was that put-down that I anticipated when I told Marie Claire that I slept with 30 men and that, yes, they could put that in print, along with my name and my photo. Given all that I’d previously shared, this particular fact seemed rather innocuous, even downright trivial, in comparison to tales of lost condoms and the morning-after pill. Still, I couldn’t help feeling queasy that this would be the final nail in the coffin of my sexual allure. At the same time, by participating in the interview and shoot, I was afraid of threatening the entire image I worked to build over the past three years: one of a confident broad who’d been around the block and had a few things to teach the world about sticking it to the Man. So I found myself in a situation that was oddly foreign: I felt self-protective.
This instinctive desire was oddly missing through most of college. I learned it slowly as a result of being gawked at and bullied online. My 19-year-old self would have scoffed at my hesitation to tell it like it is. The same person who now questions her tendency to share too much was once surprised that her writing was put in the category of “confessional.” Because doesn’t that suggest that I felt like I was doing something dirty or wrong? It’s not confessional, after all, if you don’t feel a tad guilty about what or whom you’ve done. And 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.
The one thing for which I do feel remorse, the thing for which I am writing this confession, is the loss of the clarity of my youth and the inheritance of self-doubt. In the years since I stopped sex blogging, I’ve become more emotionally stable and even professionally successful, but I wish I still had the defiant spirit of my misspent youth. I wish I still laughed at my mistakes. The girl I used to be insisted on acceptance, not because she thought her lifestyle and sexual decisions were always the best choices, but because she believed that coming of age and making sense of her sexuality was as much about the journey as it was about the final tally. That girl is not, I hope, merely a girl of the past, but a standard to whom I can still aspire.