In the world outside of the Ivy League, Harvard senior Lena Chen is best known as a popular sex blogger who posted salacious photos of herself in a move Gawker called the “worst overshare anywhere ever.” Two years ago, the New York Times Magazine called her Harvard’s best representative of the hook-up culture. Given that she once termed herself a “bleeding-heart nympho,” it might seem surprising that she organized and hosted a conference last Monday at Harvard called Rethinking Virginity, which aimed to explore, among other things, “what the future of abstinence should look like.” (Read Chen’s take on the conference here.)
But if you have been following Chen since that explicit photo seen round the Web, her role as virginity conference organizer makes perfect sense. Chen is part of a handful of women bloggers who are sobering up quickly after their youthful indiscretions, and lately, the sober seems far more prominent than the indiscreet. Former Gawker editor Emily Gould (a friend) wrote poignantly about the highs and lows of her post-breakup life a few years ago but has since pulled back and started a much less personal blog where she writes mostly about cooking and eating. Meghan McCain, who blogs about politics but used to delve into her dating life, threatened to quit the Internet altogether after getting major flak for posting a busty photograph of herself to her Twitter account. The pics she posts now are notably cleavage-free.
It’s as if young women are going through the cycle of rebellion and regret much faster than other generations—because it’s all being publicly chronicled as it unfolds. Lena Chen, all of 22 years old, is already sounding like a buttoned-up version of her earlier self. Where she used to write for Hustler and contribute to New York’s sex diaries, she’s now writing serious articles for the American Prospect about the chastity movement and trying to stamp out “slut shaming.”
Have teenagers observed what happened to people like Chen, Gould, and McCain and decided to keep their personal lives off the internet? It’s possible. People just a micro-generation younger than Chen are wise to the downside of overexposure and already seem less inclined to reveal themselves. According to a recent Pew study on Internet habits, only 14 percent of teens now blog, down from 28 percent in 2006. Even on social networking sites like Facebook, millennials are becoming protective of their privacy: Most have put privacy boundaries on their online profiles, and a New York Times article from last month discussed the lengths to which striving high schoolers go to keep their Facebook activity hidden from college admissions officers. Just this past weekend in an article called “The Tell-All Generation Learns to Keep Things Off-Line,” the Times discussed the myriad ways in which teens are keeping their online profiles squeaky clean.
This new circumspection—on the part of both chastened twentysomethings and some forward-looking teens—may in part be a bow to their professional futures. Young adults these days know that no employer or university admissions gatekeeper wants to see a picture of you with a beer bong. (The Times piece quotes a 21-year-old named Min Liu who asked her friend to take down a Facebook picture of her drinking in a tight dress, because she is worried about her career prospects.) But young people are also spooked by the public shaming that the oversharers have encountered, and they don’t want to go down that road. People in this cohort tend to meet instances of oversharing with mockery and scorn, rather than sympathy or commiseration. Chen’s fellow students had no patience for her plight: “With a name like Sex and the Ivy, what did you expect?” her so-called friends at Harvard said. This judgmental attitude is typical of a group I’ve called “generation scold.” If you behave with abandon—either on the Web or in the bedroom—they believe you only have yourself to blame.
Chen started “Sex and the Ivy” in 2006, at the beginning of her sophomore year. She read Sylvia Plath, drank too much, and had some ill-advised romances—pretty typical collegiate melodrama. Her blog posts read like a saner version of fellow Crimson-scribe (and DoubleX contributor) Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. The initial response to Chen was positive, and she felt exhilarated by the experience—freshman girls looked up to her, lots of people were reading her posts, and she was getting some freelance work out of it. At the time, she thought, “I was well-aware that my subject matter was slightly edgy and my reputation slightly soiled, but hardly unsalvageable, nothing a book deal couldn’t fix.”
Soon there was an awful backlash, which included a deranged ex-boyfriend leaking nude photos of Chen on the Internet and many deeply cruel jabs from her pals at Harvard in the comments section of her blog and on the Ivy League blog IvyGate. “I always thought that people here are more progressive, but I think sexuality is an exception,” Chen told me. “They were saying I was a slut, I was a whore, but only behind my back. … [Ambitious Harvard types] would not ever call me a whore out loud because they know they wouldn’t become President.”
The resulting trauma gave Chen panic attacks and led her to take time off from Harvard. She stopped blogging about her sex life in explicit detail on Sex and the Ivy. She got into a serious relationship with a grad student and embraced cohabitation, even adopting a bulldog with her new love. She started a new blog—the ch!cktionary—and instead of referring to herself as a “bleeding heart nympho,” Chen now goes by the label “third wave radical Marxist feminist.”
Chen doesn’t apologize for her old blog, but she acknowledges that the early posts “reflected a painful desire to be liked” and that she’s lost a lot because of it. Her experience echoes that of other female bloggers who have written about their intimate lives. Emily Gould also does not apologize for her former antics in her new book, And the Heart Says Whatever.In a New York Times Magazine article, she wrote about the panic attacks she experienced as a result of the public vitriol she received after an unfortunate appearance on Larry King Live. Chen admits that she didn’t understand the potential repercussions when she started blogging.
Now, Chen seems dedicated to making sure no one else goes through what she had to endure. In theory, the Rethinking Virginity conference was supposed to create a utopian space in which no one is judged for any kind of sexual behavior—whether it be Jesse James’ mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee or someone who chooses to be abstinent. But the conference-goers didn’t exhibit much tolerance for unusual or hedonistic behavior. I asked the panel called “The Feminist Response to Slut-Shaming & Sexual Scare Tactics” what they thought of adults having nonmonogamous unprotected sex, and the response was uniformly, well, shaming. “They’re doing something damaging, and careless, and it’s not a choice I personally approve of,” said one panelist.
The final panel of the day, moderated by Chen, was called “Toward a Sex Positive Vision of Abstinence.” The panelists all concurred that abstinence should be taught to high schoolers as part of an arsenal of ways to prevent pregnancy and STDs. (While Chen did not offer her own opinion during the panel, she has been a critic of the abstinence movement.) The only real debate seemed to be about whether the government should continue to push the abstinence message past high school and make sure that adults knew it was an option as well, by, for example, mandating that abstinence be discussed as part of comprehensive sex education programs in colleges across the country.
While the one middle-aged sex educator on the panel seemed horrified by that idea (“I wouldn’t presume to teach abstinence to adults,” she said), Chen was intrigued. “What if an 18-year-old virgin needs to learn how to talk to his partner about how he’s never had sex before?” Chen inquired. It was striking to hear the young adults in the audience call for a government-mandated safe area to save a hypothetical virgin from the risks—and the joys—of youthful trial and error. That abstinence was even being considered as a solution to the young adult sexual minefield is a surprisingly conservative shift.