OnlyBans’ hot pink homepage illuminates the dark square of my dorm room. Smooth techno music streams out of my laptop speakers: sort of sci-fi, sort of catwalk. I navigate to the sidebar menu, where I click a link that brings me to the game’s instructions. The words on the webpage are white and tiny like bleached teeth. It reads:
“Make money by:
Posting photos that attract new paying fans
Having your identity stolen or revealed
Having your account shut down
Stalkers and harassment”
Although I have the option to choose my own screen name, I opt for the alias assigned to me: @QTPieslice. A text pop-up explains that my goal is to make $200 in six weeks to pay my gas and water bills. I earn $10 per fan, plus extra from tips.
From there, I am brought to a grid of nine photos and asked to choose one to post on my page. There are some models posing in miniskirts and thigh-highs, others lifting their muscle tanks and pulling at their boxers, faceless bodies in bright bikini underwear. I go for a photo of a topless figure with a Teletubby in their lap. In the sidebar menu, my balance climbs.
As I move through the game — posting pictures, dodging censors, and connecting with other sex workers — I notice a recurring figure. Behind my pop-ups and chat logs, I see short, looped clips of the same woman: rifling through her wallet, applying sparkly lipgloss, posing in front of her webcam.
This is Lena Chen ’09: the performance artist who spearheaded the creation of OnlyBans in collaboration with computer scientist Maggie Oates. According to Chen’s website, the purpose of the project is to “empathetically teach people about digital surveillance and discrimination faced by sex workers.”
Chen argues that sex workers helped popularize the internet through chatrooms and pornography. Once the internet went mainstream, however, tech corporations turned on them. Despite facing policing and censorship, sex workers continue to play an integral role in the internet’s development. As Chen put it in an interview, “the internet was essentially built by sex and desire,” paraphrasing writer Gabriella Garcia.
The complicated, ever-changing relationship between sex and the internet has been one of the most influential forces of Chen’s career. She first came to national attention in 2006 through her blog Sex and the Ivy, which documented her sex life as a Harvard undergraduate. In 2007, an ex-boyfriend leaked Chen’s nudes, leading to years of stalking, doxxing, and online harassment. Struggling to cope with the trauma of the incident, Chen moved to Berlin in 2012. There, she worked as a nude model and began exploring performance art. Now, Chen is a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and her artwork continues to engage with the nexus of desire and the digital world.
I am 19 years old: the same age as Chen when she started Sex and the Ivy. I know that my online experience — characterized by curated Instagram carousels and choppy thoughts on Twitter — is different from Chen’s late-2000s landscape of long-form blogs.
Still, I can’t help but feel that Chen’s work is quasi-prophetic. In the candid, conversational tone of Sex and the Ivy, I see early traces of the casually confessional behavior that pervades social media today. In the intimacy of Chen’s performance art, I see the nascent question of what desire, care, and closeness can look like in an increasingly online world. Chen is an artist who speaks into the future: the future of sex, the future of technology, the future that implicates everyone interacting on the internet.
After its inception, Sex and the Ivy quickly gained attention from the media. In an op-ed published in The Crimson, Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 decried Chen’s lifestyle as “morally reprehensible.” Gawker included Chen on a list of “compulsive oversharers.” The Boston Phoenix described Chen as an “intellectualized Carrie Bradshaw,” while Newsweek preferred to think of her as the poster girl for “brainy girls gone wild.”
Despite the controversy she garnered, Chen does not think of Sex and the Ivy as something that was particularly novel. Instead, she thinks of her blog as one work in an extensive canon of confessional writing.
“This specific style of women’s memoir has been around for a really long time,” she says. “I think perhaps because it is speaking about women's experiences, it's often not taken very seriously. It’s not considered a source of literary merit or cultural value.”
She admits that not many confessional blogs discussed sex as openly as hers, but she insists that she was not alone; at the time, she says, many other young college-aged women were writing about sex in college paper columns, or, like Chen, on their own online platforms.
“It was exciting to see other women writing about very personal experiences and very taboo topics,” she says.
Although I was too young to read the blogs of Chen and her contemporaries when they were active, personal essays by women were some of the first writings that I connected with as a preteen. I remember poring over the “Live Through This” section of Rookie Magazine, bookmarking pieces about first periods, secret boyfriends, and burgeoning sexuality. At that age, my changing body felt frightening and uncontrollable, and the vulnerability I found in those essays reminded me that I was not alone.
For all of the empathy inspired by confessional essays, some argue that the popularity of personal writing profits off of women’s pain. “There is a danger of veering into the area of trauma porn, right? Where it's like, ‘What is the worst thing that ever happened to you? Write about that, commodify it,’” Chen says.
She mentions xoJane, the now-defunct women’s magazine from the early 2010s that was known for its revealing first-person narratives. The infamous “It Happened to Me” section included essays like “My Friend Joined ISIS,” “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” and “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina.” xoJane was often accused of running intimate yet inflammatory articles for the sake of clicks and page views.
Chen had to weigh the costs and benefits of writing about her story in magazines in the aftermath of her experience with revenge porn.
“On one hand, it was good that I was able to have a chance to represent my own point of view because so much had been said about me without my involvement,” Chen says. “But on the other hand, I was making maybe a few hundred dollars. If you write one of the most popular articles for some site, and you’re getting paid a few hundred dollars, is that really a fair amount when you're also having to deal with a lot of emotional stuff?”
“What else are you doing to take care of yourself? Because that can’t be it,” she adds.
Chen’s confessional writing speaks to the way we present ourselves on social media today. The content of Sex and the Ivy, which was considered scandalous in the late 2000s, now strikes me as commonplace. Chen’s comments on her sex life and struggles with depression seem like lengthier versions of the candid one-liners that punctuate my Twitter feed. On Instagram, I scroll past thirsty selfies and unhinged captions without pause. Private and public life commingle on my touchscreen: the “morally reprehensible” has become the mundane.
“At the time, it wasn’t common for people to have a social media presence the way that we do now, right? It was very weird for a lot of my friends to see that I could get recognized on the street because I was writing a blog,” Chen explains.
“A really common criticism at the time was also like, ‘Lena, or these women, are just doing this for attention. Why are you putting so much of your life online?’” Chen says. “You wouldn’t hear those criticisms today, because it’s so ubiquitous, the way that people document their lives. And also what was considered oversharing back then — you know, the standards have changed.”
After graduating from Harvard, Chen settled in Boston, writing and organizing around the issues of sex education and feminist activism. During this time, she was approached by several literary agents for her work on Sex and the Ivy. “There were opportunities that were open to me,” she recalls.
Still, the fallout from Chen’s experience with revenge porn followed her into her new life.
“I was still super traumatized. I didn’t know how to handle being a public figure. And I was still being continually stalked by all these crazy people on the internet, who were not just making my life difficult, but making it difficult for my friends and my partner at the time to live their lives,” Chen says. “I never felt physically endangered, but I certainly didn't feel safe.”
“I was in a constant state of being worried that I was going to be attacked,” remembers Chen. “I had horrible sleep hygiene. I never felt like I could truly rest or let my guard down. When that happens over a longer period of time, like years, you start to break down. You’re just not able to function anymore.”
Chen discovered a means of escape when she visited Berlin in the summer of 2010. “I loved it. It felt like a really open city — like, creatively open,” she says.
“I don’t want to make Berlin into some ideal utopia, because I think a lot of people end up there and then fall into a ketamine hole from which they never recover,” Chen says. “It can be a dark place with a lot of lost souls. But, you know, me at the time, being a lost soul at the time, I felt this kind of kinship.”
Three years later, Chen and her partner moved to the city. There, Chen adopted the identity of “Elle Peril.” On one hand, Chen’s decision to abandon her identity was spurred by desperation. “It was very much an escape from the life that I was living,” she says.
At the same time, living as Elle Peril was an exercise in agency. After her experience with revenge porn, Chen felt powerless. “I didn’t have any control over how the other images had been distributed,” she says.
Nowadays, revenge porn is more commonly recognized as a deeply violating practice, especially in the context of a series of celebrity nude leaks and high-profile suicides. However, when Chen’s nudes were exposed in 2008, she lacked the language to describe the way she had been harmed. Elle Peril was her way of coming to terms with what had happened to her, her way of recovering from a heinous, nameless crime.
Nude modeling as Elle Peril provided a structured environment in which Chen could face her fears. “That was my way of creating a scenario, a very defined scenario in which I could interact with men, be super vulnerable in a certain way, and then leave,” she says.
I saw this paradox of vulnerability and autonomy play out in “The Life and Death of Elle Peril” — a performative reading based on Chen’s experiences as a nude model. In the video recording, Chen wears a black mini-dress, standing before a small audience on a quiet, tree-lined street. She reads from a stack of copy paper, chronicling her flight from the United States and her years spent in Berlin. Every few minutes, Chen pauses to remove a piece of clothing. By the end of the video, she is completely naked.
“The Life and Death of Elle Peril” isn’t just confessional: it’s creative. Each line is carefully crafted, and Chen delivers them in a clear, commanding tone. I am watching a woman strip as she tells her life story. I am also watching an artist take control of her work.
Vulnerability continues to play an important role in Chen’s performance art. “I'm interested in how the framework of performance art can actually act as a way for us to access something very real, something that’s very hidden. Sometimes, something hidden just beneath the surface for which we don’t access in our everyday lives,” she says.
In one piece, entitled “Nurture,” Chen breastfed members of the public while inviting them to talk about their experiences with motherhood. One man confessed that he had not been held by anyone since the death of his grandmother. One woman — a mother herself — admitted that she never felt cared for, even though she was constantly taking care of other people.
“These moments are taking place in the context of a performance, right?” Chen says. “But there’s still very real emotions that are surfacing.”
As she developed her artistic practice, Chen found a way to deal with the dizzying bursts of intimacy inspired by her performances. “To prevent yourself from taking on other people’s trauma, and let’s say emotional residue, you kind of have to be another person when you’re performing than who you are in real life,” she says. She separates Performance Lena from Real Lena: her detachment facilitates closeness.
Chen says that the use of personas — of alternate names, alternate identities — is something that performance art and sex work have in common. “Every sex worker I know has a different professional alias,” she says.
She acknowledges that many sex workers use aliases because of the stigma and criminalization of their profession. At the same time, Chen argues that an alias can help both artists and sex workers find agency. “By taking on this other persona, it can give you power, I think,” Chen says. “It’s not that you're a different person, because it’s still you. We all contain multitudes, right? We are just drawing upon a different aspect of ourselves, a different archetype. An image of who we want to be or could be. And we’re using that to empower ourselves.”
I think about @QTPieslice and OnlyBans, about the contradiction of posting intimate photos under a made-up name. In a way, this contradiction underlies my online life. In middle school, I posted angsty short stories to online forums under a cheesy screen name. Bored out of my mind during quarantine, I drifted into anonymous chatrooms, making up an identity for the men that tried to talk to me, listening to their perverted fantasies and leaving when they asked me to play along. Some of my friends indulge in r/AmItheAsshole, a subreddit where users admit their sins under usernames like u/jimothyisyouruncle and u/AnonymousMeese. Others run inscrutable spam accounts with celebrity profile pictures. In this way, the internet acts as a confessional: your identity is obscured, but your personal revelations ring clear.
This paradoxical nature of online intimacy has informed Chen’s work as well as her personal life. Revenge porn, at least in its current form, would not exist without technology. Yet Chen first found her audience on blogs and online magazines. Healing and harm coexist with one another, forming the double helix of Chen’s digital world.
Through OnlyBans and her upcoming projects, Chen will continue to make art “about how all of us experience intimacy in this particular technological age.”
In the process of developing OnlyBans, Chen ran workshops where she asked people to conceptualize an internet where “your presence on the internet was welcomed, and it felt like a safe place for you, and you had control over the ways in which you express yourself.”
Chen tells me that her utopian internet is a value-neutral space.
“For me, the ideal internet is less about the internet itself. It’s about how we use it,” she says. “How can we be more present in the moment itself? And how can technology facilitate that presence, rather than distract us from it?”
— Magazine writer Yasmeen A. Khan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @yazzywriting