Lena Chen - Chicktionary Feminist
interview by Magda Knight
Lena Chen is an inspiration. The founder of feminist website Chicktionary talks about coming out, the pros and cons of online feminism, sex working for college tuition fees and a whole lot more.
Why do you refer to yourself as a 'reluctant' sexpert?
I've never felt entirely comfortable giving advice to others on how they should conduct their sex and love lives. In fact, I've often found the "rules" recommended by dating manuals to be sexist and overly simplistic. Relationships aren't games, but they're often framed in a rhetoric of strategy. Many of the so-called experts out there advocate behaving in a manner that could be damaging to trust and communication. That's why when I give advice, I don't generalize and I try to emphasize that what works for one person or couple might not apply to other people. I also make it clear that I speak from personal experience and from my knowledge of reproductive health, but beyond that, I can't tell people what the best decisions are in any given romantic or sexual situation.
Were you a feminist before you discovered sex? Or did sex turn you into an active feminist?
I grew up in a mostly Asian and Hispanic community where adults did not discuss sex with you and hooking up was just not something that good Chinese girls did. I definitely thought that gender roles were ridiculous from a very young age, but I didn't call myself a feminist. I came to identify myself as a feminist as a result of being involved in other progressive causes like queer rights, for which I did a lot of activism during college. I still struggle with the feminist label now because it's so contentious and divisive.
Your blog 'Sex and the Ivy' recounts your glorious sexual misadventures at college. Was it a permissive environment to explore sexuality in? Was it, basically, a good place?
Not particularly. I knew that many people held quite conservative attitudes about female sexuality but I never suspected that this was the case even in universities and coastal cities. When I got into Harvard, I was so thrilled to be going to a place that I assumed would be progressive and accepting. My feminist awakening occurred in 2006, during my sophomore year of college when I encountered harsh criticism and harassment as a result of starting Sex And The Ivy. My blog seemed terribly tame to me, so the fact that people were scandalized really acted as a wake-up call. My closer friends and other kids involved in queer/feminist activism were wonderful and supportive, but I felt ostracized and disrespected by the campus community at large. A constant point of criticism -- both vicious and well-meaning -- was the way my promiscuity would affect my market value as a potential girlfriend or wife. When I did get a boyfriend, my detractors openly wondered when he would dump me. Dealing with the backlash and judgment that followed made me realize that we have a long road ahead of us in the fight for true sexual liberation.
What do you think of the increasing trend (at least, the British media gleefully describes it as such) of people deciding to pay their way through college through lapdancing and the like?
I view sex work (which can include anything from pornography and prostitution to erotic modeling and phone sex) as a form of labour, and sex workers are as deserving of legal protection as anyone else. For the most part, people engage in it to make money, and a portion of those people might even enjoy the occupation, but the majority would probably rather be on the beach than at their day job. Some feminists argue that sex workers wouldn’t do that type of work if they had a choice. First of all, I know people who choose sex work over more socially acceptable forms of employment and not because they have to. Second, who has a real choice in the type of work they do anyway? “Choice” doesn’t mean anything in an inherently unequal society where people are stratified by class, education, race, and all kinds of privileges. Some sex workers might be students with tuition bills who work out of economic necessity, but so do we all.
You're linked with so many fantastic feminist sites on the web: Gurl.com and The Ch!cktionary, for example. Do you think the web has been a blessing for feminism and forming collectives of like minds?
I moderated a talk on this very topic back in April. In some ways, the Internet has really mobilized and amplified the voices of many marginalized people who might not have a forum for their perspective in mainstream media. That said, digital spaces can be every bit as hierarchical and oppressive as offline ones. The feminist blogosphere can replicate the same power structures that exist in mainstream feminist activism, giving a privileged few a louder voice while silencing less powerful groups. And perhaps most significantly, feminist media faces a tough Catch-22 when it comes to balancing ideals and money. Do you reject sexist advertising even when you're bleeding money? How do cultivate and promote underrepresented voices when readers are drawn to more mainstream content? There aren't easy answers to these questions, but I think it's crucial to realize that technology be used as a tool for social change as well as a weapon against it.
It's really sad that it's not just you who gets hate mail (to be expected in webland, sadly) but your stalwart readers and commenters do too. What, in your opinion, is the best way to deal with online harrassment?
There is still a lot of anger and hate directed at women who support open dialogue about sex. I try to not engage with the harassment, but that's hard when you're a blogger and random folks on the Internet are actively sabotaging your Google results and ability to retain readers. As I told my readers rather bluntly when this harassment campaign was working full-force to out everyone who participated on my blog:
"Online bullies know they’re fighting a losing battle. They’re willing to out you for what you support and believe, but they’re not willing to out themselves. They know their actions are wrong, and they know that there is no shortage of people willing to tell them that if they were to reveal themselves. So they cower behind a keyboard and fall back on the same old hackneyed sexual slurs and laugh about being so much better than all those “whores”, because as long as they can call us names anonymously and get props from their cyber-friends, they don’t have to confront the fact that no one gives a shit about what they think outside their hateful little corner of the web."
Let's take a look at your Cosmic Life CV. Wow... long list. What life achievements are you most proud of so far?
I'm pretty proud of organizing the 2010 Rethinking Virginity conference during my senior year at Harvard. The conference was a direct response to the conservative sexual abstinence movement taking root at college campuses (and at Harvard in the form of an abstinence-until-marriage club True Love Revolution). The speakers discussed the political, religious, and economic history behind the virginity ideal and explored the possibility of creating a sex-positive world in which sexual decisions are informed by our own desires rather than social expectations. We brought together a fantastic and diverse group of sexual health educators, professors, feminist activists and bloggers. We even attracted a good deal of press coverage from beyond the Harvard community, which I think is really important, since I want these discussions to extend beyond the academy.
I'm also pretty proud of starting the Feminist Coming Out Day campaign, which has since been renamed and incorporated into the Feminist Majority Foundation's campus programming.
We were really interested by something John Barrowman said recently in a Metro interview, that he felt it was totally reasonable to stay in the closet if you weren't ready to come out for personal reasons, but he hoped everyone staying in the closet for career reasons would make an effort to overcome their reticence. We're thinking of all the celebrities and politicians and religous figures out there (including the ones that might be gay but are still anti gay marriage)... Do you have an opinion on holding back from coming out?
I feel really uncomfortable with the outing of prominent people, nor do I think that anyone has an obligation to come out. Even though if someone is relatively privileged compared to the next person, sexuality is an incredibly personal thing that belongs to them and no one else. Who knows if they're keeping quiet because they don't want to upset their family or if they're afraid of being fired? Employment discrimination is a very real concern, since there's no federal law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Outing someone for political purposes -- even in the name of progress -- violates their privacy and also makes it seem like homosexuality is something to be ashamed of. Beyond that, I question whether "coming out" is really the most effective way to bring about change. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to “come out”, and queer folks who are further marginalized because of socioeconomic status, disability, geographic residence, and religion may feel particular pressure to make symbolic statements, but they’re also the ones who face the greatest repercussions for leaving the closet.
If you get a book deal, what will the book be? Or is it a big secret?
Nope, not a secret! I'm working on a memoir about my experiences writing my undergraduate sex blog, Sex And The Ivy.
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Photos: Patrick Hamm
@MagdaKnight is an author and the Co-Founder / Editor of Mookychick. Her YA and cross-genre fiction has been published in anthologies and in 2000AD. She likes you already, you know. It must be the jaunty angle of your hat. You can email her and visit her blog.