Live Through This

I Was a Teenage Activist

The amazingly true stories of four young women who make teenage girls everywhere look good.

Lena Chen

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.”


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  • Tara September 15th, 2011 3:28 PM

    this is such a great article! it’s wonderful to see young women making their mark on the world in such a positive way (and by using the internet universe as a tool for their trade). all of these women are incredible. I’m immediately inspired after reading their stories. this is what needs to be shown to those silly adults who as this article states feel that youngsters today are incredibly passive in terms of activism.

  • Anna F. September 15th, 2011 3:53 PM

    I was mildly familiar and impressed with the works of Jessica Yee and Lena Chen (through Bitch Magazine and Amanda Hess’s blog, respectively), but I’m so pleased to be introduced to the works of the other three as well.

    (Now to be all annoying and switch from speaking in the third person to the second): What I love is how you all work in different venues and for different causes, yet each have inspiring and motivational statements to make. It’s been a while since I’ve been involved in any activist work and this was the kick that I needed to get off my couch. I especially loved what Jessica Yee had to say about the methods of activism is constantly changing – it makes sense that a progressive movement would be constantly improving it’s game plan.

  • Anna F. September 15th, 2011 4:03 PM

    That last commented sounded ambiguous – in the first line, I meant to indicate that I was mildly familiar, yet thoroughly impressed!

  • Catherine_CC September 15th, 2011 4:18 PM

    I love this article so much, I’m not sure I can put it into words! Last night I was facebook chatting two of my very best friends and, as always, we were talking about everything and nothing. We had previously talked about how are desires and beliefs are very different from those of our parents. One of the things we’ve been talking about is how my parents have wanted me to be a doctor my whole life, and I went along with it because I wanted their approval, I knew I would have to support them when they were older, and I genuinely love to help others. As a junior in high school, I am well into the decision making process about what career I’m headed for. With the encouragement of my friends, I told my parents that I don’t want to be a doctor and that I want to do something in international politics (my hero is Aung san suu kyi). Surprisingly, my parents were ok with that. They were a bit disappointed because they REALLY want me to go into medicine, but they said that they want me to be happy. This article just gave me more heros to add to my list, and has encouraged me to start making a difference now. (Also, I love the website. You guys are doing great!)

  • Stephanie September 15th, 2011 4:42 PM

    These girls are my freakin’ HEROINES!!!!! I was so excited and proud to learn about them. They inspire me and I know they will inspire many others.

  • bloodymessjess September 15th, 2011 4:57 PM

    It’s great to see Rookie covering such awesome activists! I actually just read a piece written by Lena Chen today about her experience with Asian fetishism which was really good. Last year, the queer group at my school and the Aboriginal Resource Centre collabed to bring Jessica Yee to talk about Two-Spirit, and Ive been following her on Twitter ever since. She goes to so many places and does such amazing work – I highly recommend trying to get her to come speak at your school.

  • Jenny September 15th, 2011 5:29 PM

    Heck yeah, ladies! I remember feeling so angry about the media response to Lena Chen’s blog. I’m so happy to read about all these kick-ass girls.

    I remember I interned one summer for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and it was the first time I had ever really considered the difference between “advocacy” and “community organizing.” The former was about speaking for a community of people and telling them what they needed to make their lives better, and the latter was about empowering that community to speak for themselves and identify for themselves what they needed to improve their lives. It was also first time I had ever really thought about the implications of “charitable work,”–the idea that there are people who need to be helped and there are people who are going to do the helping. Or the idea that it’s “saintly” and “generous” to “help” rather than it’s everyone’s duty to constantly fight for the realization of a world that is just and equal and dignified.

    These girls get it, and I only wish I had been more inspired and active as a teen!

    • garconniere September 21st, 2011 6:25 PM

      i keep thinking the same thing as i read a lot of these articles: if only i had been exposed to this at 14, 15, 16.

  • Sunshine September 15th, 2011 6:23 PM

    These ladies are so inspiring! THESE are the people we should be idealizing, not celebrities. =D GIRLS, YOU ARE MY HEROS. (Right after Tavi, of course) :}

  • Whatsername September 15th, 2011 8:00 PM

    Oh man, reading about what all these people did is making me feel lazy.

    These girls are amazing. It’s people like these that end up changing the world for the better. c:

  • Angie Bitchface September 15th, 2011 9:16 PM

    this is such a great and inspiring article! it makes me so happy to think that this is a teen magazine publishing content like this, and makes me feel hopeful for the future of the teenage girls of today.

  • AmandaLouiseHobba September 15th, 2011 10:37 PM

    I am completely inspired by Syreeta Gates, she is doing the kind of things I dream of doing in the future!

  • kelsey September 15th, 2011 11:37 PM

    Dude. This rules.

  • Syreeta The Culture Creator September 20th, 2011 3:14 PM

    Thank you ladies for taking the time out to read this amazing post! Who RUNS the world??? GIRLS

  • saranev September 20th, 2011 10:07 PM

    This is such an inspiring piece.

  • Margelo September 23rd, 2011 11:38 AM

    when i was younger- not a teenager- i went to marches and rallys in LA, to fight the thought of war in iraq.
    me and my friends would hang out with signs that read- don’t attack iraq- while we would play games and stuff.
    i’m really glad i did it now. i’m glad i stood up to war. :D