The nonconsensual posting of my photos was a terrorizing invasion of privacy that altered my reality and irrevocably changed the way I live, think and write
In 2008, there were no words for what happened to me. Today we call what happened to Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities—the public nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit photos—revenge porn or cyber bullying or online harassment. I wasn’t naive. I’d been slut-shamed before. But I never considered that people would think my willingness to talk about sexuality precluded me from the expectation of privacy.
I was in my third year at Harvard, when an ex-boyfriend posted a gallery of nude photos he had taken of me eight months earlier. IvyGate, “an Ivy League blog covering news, gossip, sex, and sports,” picked up the story first, which would later become one of the site’s most popular posts. At the time, I was already in the press for writing what some described as a “sex blog” and it made me well known enough within a certain community—overachieving teenage girls, other Ivy Leaguers and sexually adventurous young women—that media outlets picked up the “story” of my nude photos. Now celebrities such as Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and others whose photos were allegedly hacked and leaked to the Internet, are being subjected to the same thing.
The public response was harder to stomach than the publication of the photos themselves. I was 20 and not actually in any position of power to protect myself. Unlike actual celebrities, I didn’t have public defenders or managers or lawyers with an interest in defending my reputation. The Harvard administration was not going to stop my peers from passing around my photos, and my classmates couldn’t be expected to be respectful. Because of the violation’s anonymous nature, I felt intensely socially ostracized, isolated and suspicious. There were entire forum threads discussing my body and appearance, and I could never know who had seen or disseminated the photos, so I lived with a constant feeling of being under surveillance. There was not even yet a vocabulary to describe the situation. I knew absolutely no one else that this had happened to.
I stopped living on campus. I stopped blogging about sex and started a Tumblr dedicated to discussing broader feminist/gender issues. Within six months, I picked up a particularly determined online stalker, who, I believe, wouldn’t have fixated on me had my nude photos not been published. The stalker (I never found out who it was, whether it was man or woman or possibly even multiple people) set up countless mirror blogs to harass my readers, posted my new boyfriend’s name, commented on articles I wrote with links to the photos and sent emails to Harvard faculty and administrators about my personal life. Both the stalker and the ex-boyfriend were fueled by the public reaction they received and motivated by the same urge to humiliate a strong, opinionated and otherwise unattainable woman. Eventually, because I didn’t turn in a final paper and therefore didn’t pass a required class, Harvard required that I go on a year-long academic leave.
When I returned, I wrote a senior thesis about sex education and the abstinence movement. I organized a conference reframing the notion of virginity, which received minor press coverage. I started to speak and write about sexual health and empowerment, gaining visibility in the feminist community. Perhaps because of my persistence, my stalker redoubled his efforts to sabotage my career and relationships by posting the names and personal details of my friends, family members, colleagues and readers on smear blogs and forums. He didn’t just want me to suffer; he wanted to discredit the work and reputation of anyone associated with me. By 2012, I had significantly scaled back my involvement in feminism, despite being offered increasingly lucrative opportunities, because the harassment had escalated to such an extent that I simply couldn’t be effective as an activist anymore.
I found myself unable to write, sleep, eat or socialize outside my home. I was not simply having an emotional breakdown but a physical one. I moved to Berlin in 2013, essentially because I lived in constant terror and couldn’t keep up the pretense of being healthy in front of friends, family, colleagues or the readers who had been following my work since I was 20. It felt inauthentic to be espousing sexual and gender liberation when I felt trapped in my own home.
I have experienced the full spectrum of online misogyny: the vengeful violation by someone I once trusted and the invasion of privacy by an obsessed but unknown stalker. In both cases, the perpetrators solicited the approval and attention of strangers and could not have succeeded if their efforts weren’t legitimized by mainstream media and public opinion. It is only now, with a public discussion about cyber harassment and online misogyny, that everyone else is learning what I realized six years ago: that we live in a sick society and the sick people are not young women like me. I was just collateral damage, and so is any woman whose freedom to exist is threatened because she happened to trust or get targeted by someone who couldn’t stand to let her live her life.
I am not the person I used to be before this ordeal. It left me mentally unstable, physically debilitated and socially isolated. I still get extremely anxious in particular social situations. Despite the outward facade of a busy and active social life, I am actually distrustful of others and fearful of intimacy. I interpret benign gestures and comments as hostile, make excuses to not go out and wonder too often what my neighbors think of me. I haven’t been able to keep up with email, and my social media presence has dwindled down to the sporadic Facebook photo of my dogs.
When I turn on my old cell phone the few months a year I am in the U.S., I get phone calls from publicists and producers, and I wonder fleetingly at the life I am missing. But to be honest, I don’t want to be on TV explaining why young men today can be driven by romantic rejection to kill, why women are afraid to use the Internet, why I no longer feel safe in America. What happened to me was not an occupational hazard of feminism. It’s an occupational hazard of being a woman. Men’s bodies are not used as weapons against them, and shame is a language that women have learned from birth. We are told that sex is something that can hurt us, that we have to constantly be on the defensive lest we attract negative attention. If we are criticized or attacked, we are asked what we did to deserve it.
What does it mean that we live in a world where this kind of thing not only happens to people, but also that there is no shortage of spectators happy to gawk and cheer on the perpetrators? Neither the law nor public opinion has been on our side. Women like me, who try to fight back, only turn themselves into bigger targets. We are blamed for not silencing ourselves and not learning our lesson the first time around.
This was a terrorizing invasion of privacy that altered my reality and irrevocably changed the way I live, think and write. It’s hard not to be resentful, but I have found a certain peace in censoring myself, leaving the country and reassessing my relationships. I have noticed also that times are changing. People are beginning to recognize the ugliness around us and the hatred that we carry inside ourselves.
I don’t feel the problem is me anymore, and despite how much this experience has made me and those I love suffer, I now have a far better sense of who I am than when I first started on this path. I can only hope the same for all those who watched me walk it.
Lena Chen is the activist and writer who authored Sex and the Ivy as an undergraduate at Harvard.