Lena Chen illustration on a stylized background.
Lena Chen featured on the From the Source podcast.

Meet Lena Chen, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University as well as an artist and performer. In this episode of From the Source, Lena talks about breaking into the sex-pleasure industry; the relationship between intimacy, gender and technology; and what needs to be updated in how society thinks about what is “real work.”


Jourdan: Lena Chen is a Pittsburgh-based artist whose work is shaped by her experiences in the sex industry. She’s worked as a webcam performer, fetish provider and stripper. In 2007, Lena became one of the earliest known documented survivors of revenge porn in cyberbullying. For five years, she lived under a fictional identity as a nude model to reclaim agency over her narrative. Now, Lena studies the intersections between technology, labor, gender and intimacy. In 2018, she co-founded Heal Her, which works with artists, activists and survivors globally to convene storytelling circles for collective healing from sexual violence.

I was inclined to speak with Lena to understand how she broke into this often stigmatized space and what needs to be updated in how we think about work, pleasure and power. So get your chai tea, light your candles, put your favorite pair of socks on. This is episode seven, and this is what Lena Chen knows for sure. 

Lena: I know care work to be real work, just as I know sex work to be real work. And this labor deserves recognition. It deserves compensation. Our world would not be able to function without it. 

Jourdan: One quick thing before you jump into Lena’s episode, you’re going to hear a little bit of background noise that may be somewhat of a surprise or a distraction. Think of it as just another textural element that brings our voices and this story and interview to life. Happy listening! 

Lena: When it comes to certain forms of care, the type of intimacy that one associates, for example, with sex or the physical, that is still stigmatized. And it’s equally important, right? People have been living in isolation, and if you don’t already have a partner, if you don’t have people that you can physically connect with, I mean, that’s a huge part also of our health, of our mental wellbeing. And I think that there’s a lot of care that exists within the work of sex. Having worked in the sex industry myself, people don’t necessarily understand that care is part of that service, and that sex is one aspect, but so is just being present with someone holding space for someone to talk about their feelings. And I think COVID has really highlighted just how important it is. And I think it’s also clear with the number of people who are, you know, trying to find intimate forms of connection online, whether they’re seeking out the services of a sex worker or they’re using like dating apps or what have you. This is obviously a very core human need. Just as much as you know, health care is a core need for our society. 

Jourdan: Right. It sounds so simple when you put it like that. I spoke to someone who is an advocate for early childhood education funding. Earlier on in the year, her and I were talking about this idea that child care and early childhood education is infrastructure. We can’t think of it as the responsibilities of a few. Everyone needs it. Everyone depends on it. It’s a necessity at this point. We have to treat it like such. And I think that the way that your framing care work in terms of sex is important, because we, could be because of gender, could be because of patriarchy, and other things, other social systems, that we only see the intimate care that is necessary to take care of people and for them to be healthy is limited to one thing. And then the violence, I think, that comes as a result because we only focus on the one aspect of intimate care when it comes to sex. Would you agree with that? 

Lena: I would definitely say that’s one of the reasons why so many different forms of sex work remain criminalized, that it’s not viewed as legitimate labor. You can see a lot parallels between the type of work, like that a therapist does with the client, and the type of work that a sex worker might do with their client. Right. When you think about, you know, sex work as a form of entertainment, I mean, that is also a legitimate way in which people can relieve stress. Right? It makes people really uncomfortable to think this is something that I can also pay for. But when you’re with the therapist, you’re also being extremely vulnerable with this person. It’s a stranger that you’re telling secrets to, right? And yet we would see that as something that is, you know, perhaps necessary to our mental wellbeing. Granted, there are still, you know, certain stigmas around seeking mental health care as well. But I would say, you know, no one’s going to go around saying, you should outlaw that. 

Jourdan: Do you think the social struggle for patriarchal dominance vs. feminism? How do you think that inspires this refusal to legitimize intimate care work and sex work? 

Lena: Well, when we consider the fact that, you know, for a lot of people, expressions of intimacy and sex are something that happens within the context of, you know, our relationships are not compensated. The decision, then to monetize that kind of care is very controversial. And yet is that any more or less controversial than, say, monetizing taking care of a child? That’s very intimate labor, that also happens within a family context or cooking dinner for someone, just rubbing someone’s back? I mean, all these types of care are definitely very feminized. It’s the type of care that I think has also been taken for granted for most of history. And until very recently, in the states, women were not afforded the same educational or professional opportunities as men. And so marriage really was an imbalanced situation in terms of who held power. I can see then why it would be controversial for sex to be something that predominantly women can make a living off of, because like all those other forms of care, it’s it’s considered something that should be given away for free. And yet when you look at some of the social movements around women’s liberation, around wages for housework, there’s this long Marxist feminist tradition of valuing women’s labor as very necessary to the functioning of society, because without someone to cook those meals, to take care of children, to rub your back, you know society would effectively fall apart. Capitalism would fall apart. Right? That type of labor is what makes it possible for the husband to come home, be well fed and cared for, and then get up the next day and go to work. The transition to women entering the workforce, unfortunately, it hasn’t necessarily meant that, let’s say, the more traditional forms of women’s labor, domestic labor has been any more valued. Nowadays that labor often is outsourced to immigrants, to BIPOC workers, to folks that are marginalized for a variety of reasons. I mean, my own mother, she works in housekeeping, for example, that labor is still vastly undervalued, but again, super necessary. I also think it’s important to know that, yes, I consider a lot of my work to be feminist work. While the activism around sex workers rights is absolutely informed by a long history of feminist advocacy, but also that the feminist movement is not a monolith. There are many people who identify as feminists who do not believe sex work should be decriminalized, who consider it a form of exploitation. And I think that it’s important to honor the fact that there are a lot of complexities in how people approach this subject, and also that my personal experience with it is coming from a very western viewpoint. 

Jourdan: With this being such a complex issue, care, justice, labor, where does this fit on the agenda of people who are of this city? This idea of sex work as care work, as intimate care, as legitimate work, as labor, as a women’s issue, as a social issue? How does this line up for them, would you say? From where you are, as far as an area concerned, or something that is a reality and an issue and something that’s happening in our city and a discussion point, too, 

Lena: in terms of local advocacy. I’m involved with the Sex Workers Outreach Project Pittsburgh, which is a local branch of a larger national organization, and our group does a lot of work supporting the sex worker community through hosting a support group. We started a mutual aid initiative during the pandemic, meant to kind of fill in the gaps for folks who lost the ability to make as much of an in-person income. And absolutely one of our goals is also to advocate local policymakers and educate them on the issues that are important to our community. Even though the conversation about decriminalization on a federal and even state level is so ambitious, we believe that it’s possible on a local level to effect real change. It’s been a goal of ours to create a situation in which people are no longer going to be arrested, incarcerated, and left with criminal records related to prostitution charges. Whether that means, you know, an official policy change, whether that means de facto criminalization through conversations with policymakers, the DA’s office, you know, law enforcement. We will see, but we believe that it is of utmost importance that regardless of what people think about whether or not sex work should be completely decriminalized, that we can probably agree on the fact that sex workers should not be punished for making the choice to work in the industry in order to financially survive. 

Jourdan: You laid that out so eloquently. Thank you so much. OK, so you’re not from Pittsburgh. You’re from California. Tell me something that, in terms of your work, maybe was surprising about Pittsburgh culture or the way that people do living and working here. I’m always interested in having that little tidbit in there from people who aren’t from here, since most people who live here are from here. 

Lena: I would say that one of the research interests I’ve pursued in Pittsburgh that has been very surprising to me is related to the history of Chinese migration to the city. My own ancestors migrated initially, mostly to the West Coast. The very first people in my family to come to the states from China did come for the purposes of building the transcontinental railroad. And it wasn’t until very recently, when I was doing research through the Heinz History Center and through other local archives, that I realized that there was a small community formed in Beaver Falls about forty five minutes outside of Pittsburgh, where it was a group of Chinese laborers brought in from San Francisco, brought in from New Orleans, in order to work at this cutlery factory. And the factory had previously been employing white workers that they thought were troublesome say because they were demanding better working conditions, and they assumed Chinese workers would be more compliant, easier to work with. That did not turn out to be the case. However, that small community of, I think it was a couple of hundred workers who came, they were the first Chinese community to form in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh had a Chinatown, you know, at the turn of the century. And there were, you know, predominantly male migrants because of legislation like the Page Act, which forbid the migration of Chinese women under the assumption that they were migrating for the purpose of prostitution. So we see that anti-sex work sentiment occurring very early on in the 19th century and absolutely being related to xenophobia as well at the time, right. Becoming acquainted with this history was very eye-opening to me. There’s not so many physical sites in the region that allow us to visibly recognize the history. Of course, there’s still a vibrant Asian community, and I love neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill, where there’s like a lot of great Asian food, but a lot of us who are more recent transplants to Pittsburgh, like we don’t know that history. And I’m coming for educational purposes, right? As are a lot of people of Asian descent these days were migrating under extremely different conditions than that initial group of people. But I think it’s so important to track these changes and to see how, you know, not just the Chinese, but how like different ethnic groups have ended up in this area and how much of that is, yeah, absolutely informed by the history of steel manufacturing and so forth. But yeah, coming from California, like I lived in a, you know, Asian immigrant community and it was just like very normal to me that I would have access to my culture, to food that I was familiar with growing up. It’s been different in Pittsburgh, but still, there are remnants of that history that kind of follow. And I think the same can probably be said for a lot of cities in America. You just don’t necessarily know about it. 

Jourdan: Right. OK, last question. Do people have a hard time understanding this statement and stance behind your work? And if they do, what do you, what is it that they’re not understanding? What is it that they know that they’re not getting? Or is it just like they ain’t getting it because they ain’t getting it? And that’s it. 

Lena: When it comes to my work, which is often very political. You know, I don’t need people to necessarily agree with my stance. There are going to be people out there who are like, I don’t think sex work should be decriminalized. I don’t think we should abolish prisons. You know, like there, there are people who are definitely going to push back against that. But I think what’s important to me is that the work allows them to empathize with folks who are different from them. It’s a successful artwork, not only when it convinces someone to change their mind about an issue. It’s also a successful artwork if it just allows them to see the other side. Seeing the other side doesn’t always mean change, changing your own mind or going over to the other side. Right? But I think especially these days, we live in a really culturally divided America. So creating that empathy and allowing people to respectfully disagree, I think that in itself is a victory. These are conversations that are going to require, you know, a lot of negotiation over a long period of time. So if I can contribute just like a small part to that conversation, I will feel like I’ve done my job. 

Jourdan: Season three of From the Source podcast is produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you’re curious to learn how you can share your story with us or appear in an episode of From the Source, you can get in touch with me by sending me an email to Jourdan@publicsource.org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at publicsource.org. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe and be well. 

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Jourdan is a senior community correspondent at PublicSource. Previously, Jourdan was engaged as a community-based educator in the Hazelwood section of the city. A lifelong Pittsburgh resident, she’s...