Lena started her career as a writer with Sex and the Ivy, a blog about her own sex life as a Harvard undergraduate. She quickly picked up a national readership. But in addition to her fans, she had a gang of strangers dedicated to ruining her life. She was denounced in print—“morally reprehensible,” sniffed the Harvard Crimson; “compulsive oversharer,” said Gawker; “vapid superficial moronic cunt,” spat an anonymous hate blog—mocked and ostracized. That experience would have broken most people. Lena Chen calls it her feminist awakening.
“I didn’t explicitly call myself a feminist when I was in high school,” she says, “in part because it seemed to me like gender equality had more or less been achieved in legal terms. It wasn’t until I wrote my blog that I realized the huge impact that gender continues to have on social roles and expectations.
“None of the stuff I wrote about was ever that kinky or out there. It was tame by Sex and the City standards, yet people freaked out over the fact that I was actually talking about my sex life. People would speculate about whether I was abused as a child, whether my sluttiness would prevent me from landing a husband, if my parents were going to disown me, etc. So much of their assessment of my blog had to do with how they viewed me as a person of little worth—for doing nothing more than having sex!”
Lena now describes her politics as feminist and queer—unsurprisingly, her work focuses on undoing harmful sexual norms. In college, she was on the board of the Queer Students and Allies organization, as an ally, working to challenge GLBT-unfriendly events and policies. With QSA, she organized the Rethinking Virginity conference in May of 2010 (at which—full disclosure—I spoke), a day of passionate discussion among bloggers, sex educators and activists about “what it means to be a virgin” from a feminist, queer and sex-positive perspective.
Her activism these days mostly takes the form of writing and speaking. On her blog, The Ch!cktionary, and publications like The American Prospect, Salon and Slate, her focus is on sex education, restrictive norms around sex and dating, and reproductive justice.
“It’s always amazing to meet someone who’s a fan of my work,” she says, “but the biggest payoff is converting those who didn’t agree with me when they first read my writing. I do a mental fist-pump whenever someone leaves a comment saying that they’ve come around to a more liberated point of view.”