One of first known victims of revenge porn reveals how stalking and abuse forced her to change her identity

 

One of the first known victims of revenge porn, Lena Chen, has had most of her adult life overshadowed by abuse both online and in person.

Intimate photographs posted on the internet by her ex-partner sparked five years of harassment, eventually forcing her to leave the country and change her name.

Now the artist has set up an initiative to bring together women who have been victims of violence and trauma.

It was on Christmas Eve 2007, while she was studying at Harvard University, that Chen became aware her ex-boyfriend had posted intimate photos of her.

“I felt very numb but I had to function. I was at home for the Christmas holidays so I had to act normal because I did not want anyone to find out anything was wrong,” Chen tells The Independent.

Chen, who grew up in Los Angeles but was born in San Francisco, had only been dating her boyfriend for a few months but decided to end the relationship after learning he had been sleeping with someone else.

“When me and this other woman figured this out, I decided to break it off with him without responding to anything,” she says. “For seven or eight months, he was calling and messaging me without any response from this end. I think what he did was his spiteful way to get back with me – knowing I had this huge platform and a public profile and was very visible.”

Chen was writing a popular blog called “Sex and the Ivy” alongside studying sociology and doing a minor in studies of women, gender and sexuality at the time. The blog, which she started in 2006, included her first-person accounts of sexual experiences, depression and undergraduate life at the exalted Ivy League institution.

“The more I was writing my blog, the more I realised there were more people like me and that what I was writing resonated with them,” she recalls. “People were commenting and it really blew up. I think it was initially a selling point someone from Harvard was writing about sex but it was also about more than that.”

The blog, which sparked media attention, was read by students and alumni who identified with someone offering an uncensored take on their frustrations with America’s oldest higher learning institution.

But life for Chen changed dramatically once the photos had been leaked.

“I think he knew it would be a lot worse for me than if he had done it to someone who was private and anonymous. It would not have been as successful an attack if no one gave a sh*t,” she says. “I think he was probably quite strategic and clever in how he went about it. The first place he put the link to the photos was on a blog called ‘IvyDate’, which is similar to Gawker, but for Ivy League students.”

While this practice now has the label of revenge porn and a number of countries – including the UK and slightly more than half of US states – have passed legislation to outlaw it, back then it had no name.

“I don’t think I was the first ever victim. Porn and the internet had existed years before, but I think he used tactics that had not been used before, like he was spamming message boards,” she says.

Despite going to the police and lawyers, Chen says she was told there was nothing that could be done about the photos being leaked.

“What happened to me then might be considered a misdemeanour now. If that was the case then maybe there would have been more recourse,” she says. “I would have had to spend thousands of dollars and even then it would not have been certain with the outcome.”

She kept the ordeal a secret from her family and ended up blaming herself for what had happened – feeling like she was at fault for trusting him.

“I did blame myself. I felt like if I had not been so public with my sex life in terms of writing, I would have probably been less of a target,” she says. “Women are socialised to think we are gate-keepers so if something goes wrong it’s ‘I should have known better than to trust that person or let that person in’.”

The revenge porn led to being stalked online, she says, which in turn sparked feelings of paranoia that her movements were being perpetually traced.

“I was being stalked on the internet. Every time I posted anything about where I was or who I was with – things you take for granted like tagging your friends when you go to a concert – they would look up the people I was with online and post everything they found online. So anyone who associated with me was at risk of being harassed on the internet,” she recalls.

“That was what really caused the sense of paranoia and feeling I was being watched all the time. There were a couple of instances where I received a package in my dorm room. People would recognise me and come up to me or whisper at me. It was like I was being treated like a celebrity even though I was just a college student. And that really made me paranoid.”

She continued to be subject to stalking and harassment after leaving Harvard and choosing to stop writing about her sex life.

“I graduated in 2010 and the harassment continued into 2013 when I had left the country. But at that point, I was really not on my social media anymore so they didn’t have anything else to write about me. They had essentially kicked me off the internet,” she says.

Left mentally drained, Chen moved to Berlin where she changed her name so she could not be looked up and sought to overhaul her identity. She rechristened herself Elle Peril.

“I still felt like I was being followed, which is why I moved and changed my name, so the harassment would not follow me. It did not feel psychologically safe to be Lena. In America I could not exist as myself anymore,” she reflects.

Chen spent several years modelling there which she found to be therapeutic as she was able to use her body to help people with their creative projects rather than as something which had caused others to shame her.

But the struggle of maintaining the veneer of a false identity eventually became too much; she reached tipping point and had a breakdown.

“In 2016 I had a huge nervous breakdown. I think it was to do with the two identities and no longer being able to separate the two. I had this nervous breakdown on a conspiracy level of delusions and paranoia,” she says.

“I thought I was being followed. Before, I had felt psychological unease about being stalked on the internet but when I was in Germany under a new identity I literally thought I was being followed by the government. I had a total psychotic break. I was not dealing with my trauma and that bubbled up to the surface.”

This was not the first time you could say Chen lived something of a double life. Her parents emigrated from China in the 1980s and she had a sheltered upbringing in the LA suburbs but remained secretly permissive and rebellious growing up – dating but without her mother’s permission.

“I grew up almost in two worlds of conflict – with traditional parents that were quite oppressive sexually because of expectations like you don’t date, you don’t have sex and you don’t date without the intent of marriage,” she recalls. “And then as well as that was a huge emphasis on academic achievement.”

After having the breakdown, she went back to America and started her recovery process. This was profoundly helped by setting up Heal Her – an initiative designed to create a space for women to come together to talk about about surviving violence and trauma.

She started the support network after being contacted by other people who had endured revenge porn, and finding it deeply helpful to speak to others who had survived similar experiences.

“Heal Her uses the ancient concept of the talking circle as a platform for participants to share survival stories, coping strategies, and experiences related to sexual and gender-based violence,” explains Chen’s website.

While Chen says she now feels radically better, she is hesitant about referencing her own sexuality or personal life in her work.

“It is not even anger towards men. It is more complicated than that. It is paranoia and the feeling of protecting yourself from this war,” she says. “This is an unfortunate but an understandable reaction to this. People often kill themselves over things like this, even in the most privileged societies, and no amount of therapy stops you feeling alone which is why support groups are so important.”

“I think what happened to me was foreboding of times to come as I was one of the first victims who was well known,” she concludes.

Earlier in June, new figures revealed one in three allegations of revenge porn are withdrawn by the complainant in the UK. Since it was made a criminal offence in 2015 victims have chosen not to support charges in 2,813 of 7,806 incidents.

While some alleged victims say it is because they are not granted anonymity, others attribute it to a lack of police support.

The North Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Julia Mulligan, has set up a petition – which has garnered over 15,000 signatures – to change the law to give victims anonymity as is the case for complainants in sexual offence cases.

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