Lena Chen

is a reluctant sexpert, a feminist and queer advocate, and a walking case study on bad publicity. As a Harvard undergrad, she authored the blog Sex and the Ivy about her college sexcapades and misadventures. Her reputation has never quite recovered. Want to give her a book deal, send her hate mail, or misquote her in an article? Read her daily musings at The Ch!cktionary and check out her full bio.

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a·mok   [uh-muhk, uh-mok] noun
(among members of certain Southeast Asian cultures) a psychic disturbance characterized by depression followed by a manic urge to murder, a state of murderous frenzy.It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer an orange-haired joker gunned down the fourth wall of a Colorado cinema, and I didn’t know what I was still doing in Boston. I’m weird about shootings. The idea of killing people makes me sick, but when confronted with the rampages, the national tragedies, my impulse is to empathize not with mourning families or fallen victims, but with the perpetrator. He’s usually one of the losers or freaks, a social outcast, the kind of role I had always been assigned no matter my environment. What happened in Aurora had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering who I would’ve become if luck hadn’t intervened, if it would’ve been me pulling the trigger instead, only in a different place at a different time.Frank said it was the most morbid thought in the world. (But of course, how could he relate to the character of the underdog?)Boston was bad enough. The sun rose at 6 in the morning, warming the black-tarred streets and mansard-roofed homes of a noiseless city. By the time I woke hours later, the temperature in our centrally air-conditioned penthouse unit had risen above 80 degrees, a result of leaving the windows open overnight for fresh air. A heatwave was sweeping through the country, its rays as indiscriminate as the aim of the joker, ravaging residents of coast and country alike. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, least of all to write…
            –Excerpt from “REAL ESTATE CURES FOR WRITER’S BLOCK”

I haven’t read The Bell Jar from cover to cover in years. This fall, I’m going to take a page from Hunter S. Thompson and retype the entire thing by hand. I figure I might learn a thing or two given a few years of distance, and either way, it’ll be better than pitching thinly disguised stories about a writing professional who hates the professionalization of writing. All of my writer friends feel the same about their jobs, but none of them are passive-aggressive or ironic enough to actually approach their editors with such a story idea. I guess I should say “most” and not “all”, especially since I sleep beside a German academic with an appreciation for specificity, but come to think of it, all of my writer friends really do share my rapidly dwindling faith in the media and publishing industry.
Earlier this August, the Hound and I were in Fire Island for ten days with ten books. The only one that got cracked open was The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath was my sole like-minded companion in the darkest hours of my adolescence. She was the author who defined my girlhood by defying hers, and after I discovered her memoir at the age of 15, I had an annual habit of revisiting its pages. I don’t know why I ever stopped. Plath makes me think about a part of myself that I haven’t had opportunity to consider anymore, especially as the topics of my writing have become more professional, legitimate, closer to the mainstream. Look at my portfolio; I never really wanted any of this for myself. I wanted to write, yes, and I like “networking” if what you mean is finger food and compliments from strangers, but the travel, events, business cards, etc.? I spend more time on my Twitter stream than I do on stream-of-consciousness.
I knew by the time I graduated college in 2010 that I didn’t want any of the things I thought I wanted all through my undergraduate years at Harvard. The only reason I pursued any sort of career in the traditional sense was because I needed to insulate myself from cyber bullies who couldn’t get over the fact that I wrote a sex blog when I was 19. Why should I have to encourage people to forget that I ever appeared naked on the Internet in order to have them take my writing seriously? Moreover, my genius plot didn’t even fucking work. I’m 25 now, and they are still not bored of stalking and defaming me or my friends or my boyfriend or my family. And last year, they moved on to stalking my readers by outing anyone who commented on, reblogged, or liked my posts. I felt like I gave up a part of myself for nothing. Ever since the harassment has escalated, I have lost any desire to blog most days - and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm showed in less frequent and less substantial updates this year. I felt the walls creeping up and the confines of my career closing in every time I signed another contract for another gig I didn’t really want to take.
I burned out. I put away my unfinished memoir. I started a novel. I decided I needed to get the hell out of America. I wanted to break up with my life. I read the first page of The Bell Jar.
On Fire Island, I spent the first half of my vacation being mildly irritated that there was no Internet or cell phone reception, despite the fact that I specifically wanted to visit Fire Island to escape Internet and cell phone reception. I was generally displeased by my then-unresolved housing situation, my two-week separation from Patrick (who was obtaining a visa in Germany to stay in the U.S.), and my utter inability to make progress on my novel and the three or four creative writing pieces I’ve been working on since the beginning of 2012.
Then Patrick arrived (by ferry) and brought with him foodstuffs, supplies, and the best birthday present ever. But I cannot reveal the latter for fear that it will not come to past! So, instead on this 25th year of life, I am belatedly sharing the above photograph (taken by Patrick) and the excerpt (written by me). The latter comes from an unfinished short story about six people trying to find a home during an unusually hot summer. It’s my first adult attempt at writing fiction, and I’ll think about trying to get it published somewhere when it’s complete, but mostly, I’m just curious to see how the writing process plays out. I’m writing this one for me, and the mere notion of trying to price something like this, to figure out its market value - well, it’s absurd, but so is the rest of capitalism.
I know now for certain that my writer’s block is over, because I know that I can and I will and I want to finish writing this story. I need to, because it not only tells the tale of this summer, but the story of my young adulthood, the story of this entire year and my entire life, the story of The Bell Jar and what it means to me. If I can finish this, I can finish my book. There are things I want to accomplish here, things I want to say about literature in general, and things I have wanted to say about myself but have always been too scared to reveal. Writing this short story is both personal challenge and tribute. How better else to thank the poet whose single novel saved my life countless times over than by proving with text the suspicion that she must have always nursed, the contradiction that marked her career - that in the end, genre is just a state of mind, and the truth - or what it is we call “the truth” - lies not in words but in the spaces between the lines.

a·mok   [uh-muhk, uh-mok] noun

(among members of certain Southeast Asian cultures) a psychic disturbance characterized by depression followed by a manic urge to murder, a state of murderous frenzy.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer an orange-haired joker gunned down the fourth wall of a Colorado cinema, and I didn’t know what I was still doing in Boston. I’m weird about shootings. The idea of killing people makes me sick, but when confronted with the rampages, the national tragedies, my impulse is to empathize not with mourning families or fallen victims, but with the perpetrator. He’s usually one of the losers or freaks, a social outcast, the kind of role I had always been assigned no matter my environment. What happened in Aurora had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering who I would’ve become if luck hadn’t intervened, if it would’ve been me pulling the trigger instead, only in a different place at a different time.

Frank said it was the most morbid thought in the world. (But of course, how could he relate to the character of the underdog?)

Boston was bad enough. The sun rose at 6 in the morning, warming the black-tarred streets and mansard-roofed homes of a noiseless city. By the time I woke hours later, the temperature in our centrally air-conditioned penthouse unit had risen above 80 degrees, a result of leaving the windows open overnight for fresh air. A heatwave was sweeping through the country, its rays as indiscriminate as the aim of the joker, ravaging residents of coast and country alike. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, least of all to write…

            –Excerpt from “REAL ESTATE CURES FOR WRITER’S BLOCK

I haven’t read The Bell Jar from cover to cover in years. This fall, I’m going to take a page from Hunter S. Thompson and retype the entire thing by hand. I figure I might learn a thing or two given a few years of distance, and either way, it’ll be better than pitching thinly disguised stories about a writing professional who hates the professionalization of writing. All of my writer friends feel the same about their jobs, but none of them are passive-aggressive or ironic enough to actually approach their editors with such a story idea. I guess I should say “most” and not “all”, especially since I sleep beside a German academic with an appreciation for specificity, but come to think of it, all of my writer friends really do share my rapidly dwindling faith in the media and publishing industry.

Earlier this August, the Hound and I were in Fire Island for ten days with ten books. The only one that got cracked open was The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath was my sole like-minded companion in the darkest hours of my adolescence. She was the author who defined my girlhood by defying hers, and after I discovered her memoir at the age of 15, I had an annual habit of revisiting its pages. I don’t know why I ever stopped. Plath makes me think about a part of myself that I haven’t had opportunity to consider anymore, especially as the topics of my writing have become more professional, legitimate, closer to the mainstream. Look at my portfolio; I never really wanted any of this for myself. I wanted to write, yes, and I like “networking” if what you mean is finger food and compliments from strangers, but the travel, events, business cards, etc.? I spend more time on my Twitter stream than I do on stream-of-consciousness.

I knew by the time I graduated college in 2010 that I didn’t want any of the things I thought I wanted all through my undergraduate years at Harvard. The only reason I pursued any sort of career in the traditional sense was because I needed to insulate myself from cyber bullies who couldn’t get over the fact that I wrote a sex blog when I was 19. Why should I have to encourage people to forget that I ever appeared naked on the Internet in order to have them take my writing seriously? Moreover, my genius plot didn’t even fucking work. I’m 25 now, and they are still not bored of stalking and defaming me or my friends or my boyfriend or my family. And last year, they moved on to stalking my readers by outing anyone who commented on, reblogged, or liked my posts. I felt like I gave up a part of myself for nothing. Ever since the harassment has escalated, I have lost any desire to blog most days - and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm showed in less frequent and less substantial updates this year. I felt the walls creeping up and the confines of my career closing in every time I signed another contract for another gig I didn’t really want to take.

I burned out. I put away my unfinished memoir. I started a novel. I decided I needed to get the hell out of America. I wanted to break up with my life. I read the first page of The Bell Jar.

On Fire Island, I spent the first half of my vacation being mildly irritated that there was no Internet or cell phone reception, despite the fact that I specifically wanted to visit Fire Island to escape Internet and cell phone reception. I was generally displeased by my then-unresolved housing situation, my two-week separation from Patrick (who was obtaining a visa in Germany to stay in the U.S.), and my utter inability to make progress on my novel and the three or four creative writing pieces I’ve been working on since the beginning of 2012.

Then Patrick arrived (by ferry) and brought with him foodstuffs, supplies, and the best birthday present ever. But I cannot reveal the latter for fear that it will not come to past! So, instead on this 25th year of life, I am belatedly sharing the above photograph (taken by Patrick) and the excerpt (written by me). The latter comes from an unfinished short story about six people trying to find a home during an unusually hot summer. It’s my first adult attempt at writing fiction, and I’ll think about trying to get it published somewhere when it’s complete, but mostly, I’m just curious to see how the writing process plays out. I’m writing this one for me, and the mere notion of trying to price something like this, to figure out its market value - well, it’s absurd, but so is the rest of capitalism.

I know now for certain that my writer’s block is over, because I know that I can and I will and I want to finish writing this story. I need to, because it not only tells the tale of this summer, but the story of my young adulthood, the story of this entire year and my entire life, the story of The Bell Jar and what it means to me. If I can finish this, I can finish my book. There are things I want to accomplish here, things I want to say about literature in general, and things I have wanted to say about myself but have always been too scared to reveal. Writing this short story is both personal challenge and tribute. How better else to thank the poet whose single novel saved my life countless times over than by proving with text the suspicion that she must have always nursed, the contradiction that marked her career - that in the end, genre is just a state of mind, and the truth - or what it is we call “the truth” - lies not in words but in the spaces between the lines.

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I'm Not A Spokesgal For My Generation (& Other Lies By The Media)

Finally, someone gets it right. Tracy Clark-Flory’s piece in Salon today clears up some of the misconceptions about the Rethinking Virginity Conference. She refers to my characterization in Slate as that of a “wild mare [being] tamed”, which is a) highly amusing, and b) more or less the way they way they (inaccurately) portrayed me.

Clark-Flory writes:

What’s often lost in the never-ending stream of stories about the latest trend in female sexual culture is the nuance and diversity of individual experience; young women are treated as symbols of the culture at large and spokespeople for their entire generation. Not only does that tend to cheat others of their unique voice, but women like Chen inevitably end up feeling terribly misrepresented and misunderstood.

Right on. I’ve never claimed to speak for my entire generation, yet Slate used my personal experience of post-sex-blog monogamy as proof that everyone born within a decade of me is regretting their youthful indiscretions and becoming a curmudgeonly abstinence pusher. And as Clark-Flory suggests, it wasn’t just the misrepresentation of the conference that made me upset; it was the assumption that I act and speak for all young women, when I am — let’s face it — dripping with privilege and bourgeois concerns and frankly not at all representative of anyone but me. This happens a lot in media, and frankly, I’m sick of it. Two years ago, The New York Times decided that “no one at Harvard represents the hook-up culture better than Lena Chen”, because I wrote a blog about sex. Um, since when did writing about casual fucking make me emblematic of the casual fucking enjoyed by young Americans far and wide? Let’s not even get into the fact that these are respected publications, which, despite all their respectability, cannot be bothered to fact-check.

Also? If you’re going to do a story on how I so regret my ways, a good start might be to ask me pointblank: do you have any regrets? As opposed to, say, just assuming regret and insinuating it based on your own prejudices. I point this out because “Do you have any regrets?” is the number one question I am asked by reporters and I always have the same answer. I don’t remember if Jessica Grose asked me this question, during my phone interview with her for the Slate piece, but if she did, my answer would have been no. And it is safe to assume that my answer will always be no. (Muckrakers, take note!)

Besides the importance of not conflating anecdote with widespread phenomena, trend stories, especially the ones about generational trends, are by and large bogus. I realized this firsthand when I did my senior thesis research and went through primary source materials from the 50s and 60s. Papers have been printing the same morally panicked trend stories about youth sexuality for decades. There’s nothing that makes this “generation” distinct from ones prior, especially not in terms of nonmarital sexual activity which has been happening pretty much all of history and became commonplace among nearly all Americans by the mid twentieth century. The difference is that sex is simply more visible nowadays, but unmarried Americans have been having it for years. This isn’t exactly a secret either. (Hell, even The New York Times has conceded this.) Anyone can find this information out with a trip to the sociology section of the library or a search on Google Scholar through the archives of academic journals. If you actually want to figure out if there’s some societal trend going on, then become a sociologist and conduct a survey using a representative sample. Or talk to sociologists who have. Do not become a journalist who considers three anecdotes sufficient proof of a social phenomenon. Seriously, guys. This is not rocket science.

But I only wish I could chalk this up to incompetence. I used to want my byline on trend stories like this when I was 18 or 19, when I comped The Harvard Crimson, when I dreamed of attending Northwestern. Nowadays, I am so disillusioned after both working in and being a subject of the media that I am pretty much only willing to write on my own terms as a freelancers. I went from believing in the power of the written word to realizing that the majority of words written are bullshit. But that’s just the nature of journalism-for-profit: sex sells, and truth doesn’t. Is it possible within capitalism to run a publication based on reporting the objective truth? Sure, but it’s damn hard, and writers, editors, publishers, etc. all have their own profit agendas, and who can really blame them? The publications that have covered me most fairly are all independently owned (think: The Boston Phoenix, The Washington City Paper, etc.). I don’t think that’s just a coincidence.

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Thanks For The Shout-Out, Andrew Sullivan

But let’s not further promote the inaccuracy that I’m embracing abstinence because of the “oversharing backlash”. As I wrote yesterday, I didn’t decide to rethink virginity because I regretted my youth, but because the categories of “virgin” and “non-virgin” are actually really heteronormative, limited ways of viewing sexuality.

Also, I would like to state for the record that I embrace the backlash. Really. If you hate me, I will give you a free hug. Just leave a comment with your name and your geographic coordinates.

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Slate.com | Why Is a Former Sex Blogger "Rethinking Virginity"?

So, I am currently typing away from Currier House, my junior year dwellings, to which I’ve returned to retrieve some boxes from storage. I finished my final final yesterday (yes!) and woke up astonishingly late today, and thus, have only NOW even checked my email to find various frantic notes related to this article, which I did not read until an hour ago. It’s written by Jessica Grose, the managing director of Double X, Slate’s website for women and feminist-y issues. Though it looks like this article was largely about my various college misadventures, Grose and I only spoke briefly over the phone and I was initially under the impression that the piece was going to be about the event and not about my somewhat sordid past. (She did come in from New York to attend the conference, but I was so busy during the event that I literally shook her hand and ran off. The only in-person interview I did was with The Crimson.)

So I read the article, which is subtitled “‘sex positive’ young women reconsider abstinence”, and to be honest, I kind of feel like how Jaclyn Friedman must’ve felt after her CNN interview. Jaclyn, who is the executive director of Women, Action, and the Media, the Cambridge-based non-profit I interned at this semester, wrote recently about “how CNN turned [her] into a sex scold” by using selective quotes that did not at all reflect what she was trying to say about sexual assault. And despite being a women’s rights advocates, she came off looking like a victim blamer (and I can personally attest that she is absolutely not).

If you look up “Lena Chen” and “abstinence”, you will see a long history of me being critical of the abstinence movement. So first off, before I launch into dissecting this baby, here are some huge disclaimers about the conference itself:

  • “Rethinking Virginity” does NOT mean “reconsidering virginity”. Not. At. All. I was/am not preaching sexual abstinence (or ANYTHING for that matter). Just, no. Off the bat, let’s get that straight.
  • In part, I was inspired to host this conference because of my senior thesis, which I wrote on the evolution of virginity norms. I was extremely critical of the way contemporary ideas about premarital sex have evolved, arguing both in my thesis and at this conference that virginity is a social construct encouraged only because of its historical and economic importance toward the sociolegal institution of marriage.
  • This was not a solo effort, a vanity project, or an attempt at personal redemption. I organized the conference on behalf of the Harvard College Queer Students & Allies, which was not mentioned in the article at all. If you have followed the Sex/Abstinence Wars at Harvard, Harvard has a very visible student abstinence group called True Love Revolution, which used to be somewhat queer-inclusive. (I debated the then-president two years ago, and it was a fruitful discussion inclusive of all genders and sexualities.) However,TLR has since released platform statements stating that queer relationships are inferior and that “true feminism” requires saving yourself for marriage. By holding this conference, the QSA wanted to represent the faction of students here who feel completely excluded and alienated from the often heteronormative (and often moralistic) discourse about abstinence.

I’m glad that Grose stated that I don’t “apologize” for my past, but I wish she refrained from listing every single horrible thing that happened to me as part of the backlash against my blog and then insinuating that I really did regret it after all. Maybe I’m just overreacting but the article, to me, reads like this:

  1. Lena Chen starts sex blog.
  2. Lena deals with consequences like gross, misogynistic comments online.
  3. Lena deals with more consequences, such as leaked nude photos from crazy ex.
  4. Lena goes through “the cycle of rebellion and regret”, reconsiders blog, and takes time off from Harvard.
  5. Lena becomes  domesticated and revamps herself as a “third wave radical Marxist feminist”  (yes, accurate) who writes “serious articles” (c’mon, ONE article for The American Prospect versus countless entries referencing Hello Kitty vibrators).
  6. Lena plans Rethinking Virginity Conference using her newfound wisdom only to shame women who act like the way she used to!

This is just NOT AT ALL what happened. If you read the entry I wrote about the events of the spring of my junior year (when everything more or less blew up in my face), I make it very clear that I stopped blogging about my sex life not because of fear over employment prospects but because I realized that I go to school with some incredibly fucked-up people who have absolutely no qualms about making my existence at Harvard miserable. Amanda Hess, who writes the column The Sexist, has interviewed me extensively about the subject of the public slut-shaming that I endured at Harvard. I planned the Rethinking Virginity Conference for a lot of reasons, but not because I was “dedicated to making sure no one else goes through what [I] had to endure”.  I can’t speak for Emily Gould or Meghan McCain, who are referenced in this same article as fellow regretful oversharers, but I can speak for myself and assure you that the following does not at all accurately describe me:

  • “part of a handful of women bloggers who are sobering up quickly after their youthful indiscretions”
  • “bow[ing] to [my] professional future”
  • “[calling] for a government-mandated safe area to save a hypothetical virgin from the risks—and the joys—of youthful trial and error.”

Especially not regarding that last point! First, the attitude I had going into this conference was that we needed to create an inclusive and safe space for people who might ordinarily feel left out of the discussion about sexual abstinence. I also wanted to be sensitive to those who had not yet engaged in intercourse, many of whom had encountered shaming and ridicule as well. In the last panel of the conference, “Toward A Sex-Positive Vision Of Abstinence”, I wanted people to take away a more inclusive view of sexuality and realize that being sex-positive and being abstinent are not mutually exclusive. And obviously, it is really, really hard for older virgins who could be abstaining for a variety of reasons but may actually be really comfortable with their sexuality. The discourse on sex needs to include those viewpoints instead of just writing them off as not truly sex-positive. Bullshit! But beyond that — and this was really the key theme to the entire event —, we shouldn’t judge others for their sexual behavior, especially given how nebulous the concept of “real sex” is and how much individual preferences vary. I wouldn’t judge my friends who haven’t “done it”, because who am I to decide whether they’re ready? And that goes both ways.

Second, I will readily admit that even feminists and queer activists and sexual educators can and do “slut shame” and “virgin shame” but all of the panelists at the conference took great pains to not be judgmental of any sexual practices, except in the case of “having nonmonogamous unprotected sex”. Grose quoted the panelist as stating, “They’re doing something damaging, and careless, and it’s not a choice I personally approve of.” Which, yeah, sounds an awful lot like “SHAME SHAME ON YOU!!!” but if you were actually at the panel, this particular panelist was speaking specifically about the public health consequences and not wagging her finger at promiscuity. And for the record, if you were my friend having unprotected, non-monogamous sex, I would have NO QUALMS telling you that I really hope you’re at least using the freakin’ WITHDRAWAL METHOD. Because seriously, that is idiotic.

Third, the Rethinking Virginity Conference aimed to critically examine what we consider to be “virginity” (which, as it turns out, is a whole lot of baloney that really only applies to a hypothetical straight woman with a perfectly intact hymen), question why we place such a high value on sexual purity — especially female sexual purity, and finally offer a place for QUEER PEOPLE to join the discussion because sex positivity requires inclusivity and not just sex blogging figureheads who are all of 22 years old and living lives not representative at all of your average morally conflicted, possibly gay virgin. And that kid in the closet who is trying to make sense of their sexuality and the teenagers who are playing Just The Tip in order to “save it” — they’re really what this conference was supposed to be about.

SO, I think that just about covers it. Don’t hate me. I don’t care what you do in your bedroom. Really. I have no regrets about what I’ve done in mine.

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the ch!cktionary: The Beginner's Guide To Secondhand Shopping

The other day, I blogged about a particularly thrifty, yet fabulous, outfit put together from various secondhand purchases. Still not convinced that you should start shopping consignment? Here’s an old receipt from one of my excursions at Boston consignment chain Second Time Around:

  • Ralph Lauren sandals: $7
  • Stuart Weitzman heels: $14
  • John Galliano shirt: $16
  • 1921 jeans: $15
  • Escada belt: $22

Even if I only get around to wearing one of the above, the entire purchase was still way cheaper than the retail price of any one item when purchased brand-new. The fact that the goods also happen to be awesome is just icing on the cake.

Consignment stores aren’t just thrift stores (though the latter have their charms as well). Unlike the Salvation Army, consignment shops have buyers and specific standards (dry cleaned merchandise, recent fashions, no holes/weird smells/etc.) And as the above receipt demonstrates, they manage to make a profit by providing a storefront for consignors’ inventory, while customers are attracted by designer labels that don’t break the bank. So as a newbie, how do you navigate the world of secondhand shopping wisely? Here are some tips… [more]

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the ch!cktionary: Christina Hoff Sommers & "The Failures of Modern Feminism"

As The Crimson reported today, “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers gave a talk on the failures of modern feminism last night. I found the discussion extremely disappointing, in part because it became abundantly clear early on that Sommers has a very limited understanding of feminist history and theory. I meant to live-blog the event, but didn’t. Now, as I go through my notes, the sheer number of inaccuracies and misconceptions astound me.

Some of Sommers’ points (everything in quotations are direct quotes transcribed during the talk):

  • “I can’t take [Judith Butler] seriously … the obscurity with what she writes … gender as performance and so forth. I wish gender studies were carried out by psychologists, not English professors. She just doesn’t seem to engage with that literature.” Butler, like Sommers, is a philosophy professor. Butler may not be a psychologist by training, but she does in fact discuss Freudian thought and psychoanalysis in her work. I was floored by Sommers’ ignorance. There’s no shame in just admitting that you aren’t familiar with a particular theorist.
  • Feminism is “victimology” and “male-bashing”. Like most of her other statements, there is nothing to back up this claim. She’s arguing against a strawman here. If you characterize feminism as victimology and male-bashing, then naturally, one would be against it. But you have to first prove that it is, in fact, a man-hating, self-victimizing movement.
  • “Fierce” women have written feminist theory. Men have always written history, so radical feminists think that now it is not women’s turn to write history but “their turn” (referring to the radical feminists). I don’t know if “fierce” was supposed to be a funny Tyra reference or if she literally meant fierce. She might as well have said feminazi, because that’s what it comes off as.
  • “I’ve never seen a women’s studies textbook treat conventional motherhood in a positive way.” To which I responded, I took an entire class on motherhood (“Myths of Motherhood” in the Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality department). Two other audience members mentioned the unit they were doing on pregnancy and childbirth as part of the methods course in WGS. These classes tend to treat motherhood and mothers in a VERY positive way, while recognizing that parenting is unfortunately not valued in our society in the same way as professional labor. I wonder when was the last time Sommers sat in on a WGS class.
  • Men and conservative feminists are not welcome in women’s studies classes. Hardly true, as one male-identified audience member pointed out. And if men weren’t welcome, I wouldn’t have brought my male thesis adviser nor would I encourage Patrick to take the WGS Graduate Proseminar.
  • “You hear so much in feminism that’s about achieving this parity, this statistical equality.” Pick up any classic feminist text and you will see that feminism does not come down to numbers, so I don’t even know what she’s referring to here.
  • “I can’t find anyone who will take seriously the view that biology plays a serious role. Most agree it’s a social construction, and if you disagree, they call you essentialist.” Perhaps that’s because there is disagreement even within evolutionary biology and psychology about the validity of the studies being conducted. It’s not like science is infallible; these are inherently imprecise sciences, a fact admitted by scientists themselves. Do I even need to go into the folly of accepting one, single discipline as complete truth?
  • “The women’s movement has been carried away a very strange agenda.” She also talks about a “feminist establishment”. A common theme in the discussion was that radical feminists have somehow hijacked the movement, but who is behind this “strange agenda” and what is the “establishment” she speaks of? NOW? The Feminist Majority? Because even I, as a feminist, cannot offer a universally agreed upon definition of feminism or its goals.
  • Sommers said she is supportive of feminists “when they turn [their efforts] against true patriarchal societies in developing world, not toward us [the U.S.].” This statement smacks of cultural superiority, as if the West is light years ahead of the Orient, into which we must channel our efforts into saving. Ethnocentrism bothers me a lot, even more so than homophobia and sexism. Has she read Said? Spivak? Probably not, given her implicit assumption that women abroad will be better off if their societies are simply Westernized.

One audience member, a Ph.D student who teaches and takes women’s studies courses, pointed out that it seems like Sommers is still stuck in 1994 when her book, Who Stole Feminism?, first came out. Her conception of feminism does not take into account third wave feminism’s emphasis on intersectionality and on the acceptance of motherhood as a valid lifestyle choice. When Sommers claims that feminists emphasize the “drudgery” of domestic work, it became clear to me that in her mind, feminism hasn’t moved beyond  Betty Friedan. Third-wavers have long since pointed out that the choice to stay at home is itself a privileged one which only middle class women get to make. Poor or single mothers don’t get the same luxury, a problem that some third-wave feminists seek to address. If anything, feminists are the biggest supporter of making it possible for women to be mothers without sacrificing social status.

Sommers made a particularly questionable series of claims about how capitalist structures have made women better off: “I think that the free market has served women well. It’s no coincidence that feminism developed in England and America at the same time as the rise of capitalism. I think the more prosperous/free we are, the more men and women will be different. This is all part of the story of freedom. Capitalism has freed women. This is the golden age of female entrepreneurship in the U.S.”

I was genuinely curious as to how it’s possible to reconcile feminism and capitalism, so when Sommers said women — if given the choice — would rather “opt in” and be stay-at-home mothers or work part-time, I told her that women within a capitalist society are in the unfortunate position of not having their domestic labor compensated. I told her that there’s a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes and asked her how she expects for those women to exercise the same economic power as their male counterparts. I also said that no one has a true choice in a society in which working is a prerequisite for social and political engagement. According to Sommers, men report that they’d rather be breadwinners, but would they necessarily need or want to work full-time if it weren’t for the fact that money wields influence? I mentioned that this line of thought has a long history within feminism and was an extremely contentious point of debate between the radical and Marxist feminists (I personally subscribe to both schools of thought). My point devolved the second she asked me if I thought Marxist Feminism made sense and I answered in the affirmative. Given that Marxism, feminism, and Marxist Feminism all sound extremely radical and scary, I can understand if audience members weren’t familiar with the ideas I espoused —- but Sommers is a philosophy professor and sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Shouldn’t she have some basic understanding of the economic structures under which we all live?

When my thesis adviser brought up the fact that women in Nordic countries score higher than American women on a range of quality of life measures (presumably because their countries — which are still capitalist economies — all have social policies that extend beyond food stamps), Sommers replied that because those countries probably have social services and high taxes, “There’s less opportunity for individual self assertion, so it’s an open question who’s better off. In the end, it’s probably a mix.”

Which is just false. It’s patently false, according to the Human Development Report from the United Nations, which is not exactly a secret study. Overall, everyone is better off (in terms of education, health, basic needs being met) but there’s also the highest gender equality and there’s more equality between the classes, which I think is a crucial and oft-forgotten component of feminism.

In conclusion, it’s possible to have reasonable discussions with people who disagree with your beliefs. But they have to be willing to educate themselves about what it is they’re arguing about. Sommers has an outdated view of feminism and a pitiful understanding of capitalism. That’s no starting point for a conversation.