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."
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