Lena Chen built OnlyBans to liberate sex workers
THERE ARE MANY THINGS YOU ARE TOLD A WOMAN SHOULDN’T BE, AND LENA CHEN IS NOT AFRAID OF BEING ALL OF THEM.
“Outspoken women are generally not just critiqued on the content of their ideas, but also on how they look. And people make assumptions about why you think the way you think based on the way you look.” Lena Chen knows this, intimately.
Before she was a multimedia and performance artist, she was a sex blogger and an early victim of revenge-porn, where a former lover leaked naked photos of her online. “There was a lot of victim blaming back then,” she says, as well as sexist and racialized comments made towards this outspoken women. Over a decade on, this experience still has an impact on her work.
“I’m kind of a hoarder,” Lena Chen points out nonchalantly while passing me some driftwood that has been sitting in a storage center in a city she hasn’t lived in for 5 years.
Standing in a corridor of identical bright orange doors, the chaos of people’s lives is crammed and locked away into a regimented 4-meter cubed space and left to fester. Lena has turned life’s chaos into an art form. “I don’t even think I’m the same person every hour” she giggles.
Though the comment is directed at the consistency demanded by the social media algorithms that govern the lives of so many of us, it could clearly be about Lena’s life and career.
Once a Harvard sociology student, and now an artist whose work spans from video games about sex work to ceremonies thanking abortion providers to a forthcoming memoire written by her alter ego, she was a woman writing about sex back at a time when that was still controversial.
People would drag her name through the mud on autoadmit.com, a low-res messageboard for edgy college students. Implausibly, it still exists. One of the top posts asks “what is the most prestigious age for a girlfriend/wife?”
Her identity was “doxxed” online with personal details being revealed to everyone with a dial-up connection. She and her partner were then “Google bombed,” their names linked with “unsavoury” results on Google using search-engine-optimization.
So what did Lena do to escape this backlash as an early niche-internet-micro-celebrity? She changed her name and ran away to Berlin, starting a five-year experiment on trauma and persona where she lived under the assumed name Elle Peril and worked as a nude model, dominatrix and foot fetishist. “I didn’t feel in control of my life and my identity anymore. It was all an attempt to take back control. I changed my name in part because my name was associated with a lot of not-so-favourable things.”
It’s here where we meet, with Lena picking up the pieces from a lifetime ago lived under a different name. Things have changed since then, and Lena is now known for a dizzying range of contemporary and experimental art, albeit with a lingering fascination with sex and the female body.
Now this fascination is perhaps political more than corporeal, presciently approaching topics like online censorship, abortion, and anti-Asian hate crime with a curiosity about how best to tell each story – Lena is first and foremost a storyteller, but one who would be frustrated sticking to just one medium, or either of the two vintage typewriters jammed into her storage closet. “I like challenging myself” she says, cagey about admitting to her own restlessness.
Her most technically ambitious project yet is OnlyBans, an immersive game that shows players the unglamorous reality of what it’s like to be an online sexworker and to run an OnlyFans account. Written in response to the FOSTA-SESTA legislation, which made advertising sex online a guessing-game played with an anonymous algorithm. Every photo you share contains a risk of being censored and getting you blocked from your source of income. The twist: every still image in the game was crowd sourced from real sex-workers and has actually been censored online.
“The nude image has been a part of art for centuries but then you have these algorithms. They’re programmed to identify a nipple and then censor the nipple. But there’s no context, right? A nipple breastfeeding versus a nipple in a pornographic context are very different.” She points out that there are many things that creep through the filters much more easily – hate speech, for example.
But overzealous censorship of sex doesn’t just take place online. A collaboration of Lena’s with dominatrix & artist Stephanie Ballantine was censored in the offline world. Play4UsNow, an older sibling of OnlyBans where you experience online sex-work from the customer’s perspective, was displayed in a Dusseldorf metro station and then hastily taken down by security guards.
Created by a crew of programmers and designers and written and directed by Lena, behind all the challenges of the immensely playable game, OnlyBans gives a message that goes further than censorship too. “It’s about community. There are a lot of people who depend on advice and guidance from their peers.”
OnlyBans isn’t finished yet. They’re gradually incorporating more audio-visual elements for the online game, and Lena and her team have exhibited it in galleries, creating an installation that puts you in a sex-worker’s bedroom, in their physical space while you occupy their digital identity and face the same challenges they do.
“Seeing how difficult it is to actually make money, all the different privacy violations, worrying about being outed. These are all really invisible experiences that unless you’ve been in the industry you don’t really find out about.” So is this a game for activists more than gamers?
“First and foremost it’s for other sex-workers so they feel their stories are represented. No one has asked for their opinion on FOSTA-CESTA. It’s really common that sex workers are not consulted on decisions that affect their lives.”
Scattered between the towers of cardboard boxes, neatly packed and labelled and yet still overwhelming in number, there are plenty of things that surprise her. “I’m sure this isn’t mine…” she mutters, perplexed as to who half this stuff could belong to. “And like now I’m having a dissociative episode in front of you” she laughs in her California drawl, “This nice man came to interview me as I discovered a third personality.”
Alongside old fetish wear and underwear from her modeling days she methodically opens up a box, shrieking with excitement as she inspects the content. “I found my favourite sex toy!” she exclaims, brandishing a giant double-ended metallic monstrosity. “I wanted to give it to a friend.” That friend has now changed their name as well. Another sex-worker or artist, the categories seem fluid to Lena, whose controlling mother wasn’t particularly keen that she stray from the Harvard-track she had initially been on. But it was inevitable.
“I found myself doing performance art, which is probably the least well paid, most marginal discipline in the visual arts, and also doing poetry, which is probably the least paid, most marginal discipline in writing. And of course, you’re not going to be able to fully support yourself through those fields. So that’s partly why I got involved with sex work, because it was one of the few ways I could imagine, you know, making a living.”
Alongside the typewriters, party-dresses and sex toys, Lena also found a large quantity of Fenugreek. It turns out that’s from another art project, Spilled Milk, where she tried to induce lactation in herself so that she could breastfeed strangers, a comment on how women under neoliberal capitalism are supposed to have-it-all with their careers and then care for others too without being paid. Now, rather than strangers, she nurses her firstborn child, and she enjoys it. It’s a new act, but then again she’s had a lot of acts already.
This project had a mirror-image, a ritual giving in the form of wreathes to abortion providers and healthcare workers. This gained renewed poignancy, as Roe vs Wade was recently overturned in the US. “Folks [working in the clinics] felt stigmatized doing their job. They’re overworked. There’s not a lot of opportunity for them to share their frustrations. They might not be open about their jobs with their families. In some ways it’s like sex work.”
But out of her bigger bodies of work, one of the main things she hadn’t really addressed till recently is race, even though that clearly played a role in the comments that people made about her body when her nudes were leaked. Why?
“I’ve never really felt strongly that I’m a minority. And the reason for that is because I grew up in a city called Monterey Park in Southern California. It’s one of the most Asian cities in the country. So I was not, in the literal sense, a minority in the context of how I grew up.”
But in the time of China-obsessed Trump, Lena’s awareness of her own ethnicity rose, as did the number of hate-crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States and indeed worldwide. Fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were also attacks on Asian sex-workers at massage parlours.
For Bodies Unbound, a performance and film that involved fruit being eaten off Lena’s naked body, she researched in historical archives and portrayed how migrant sex-workers in Europe were historically subject to discriminatory policing from legal structures supposed to protect them.
Having argued for the virtues of promiscuity at the Oxford Union, Lena still has something of the academic in her, and after unpacking her things from her Berlin locker, Lena is returning to her native California with child and husband in tow, to start a PhD in Performing Arts at Berkeley. Her project doesn’t stray far home either: she’ll be writing about Asian dominatrixes, and how the demand for them has changed since the pandemic.
With such a dizzying array of projects and topics, does she actually finish things? “Elle Peril remains very unfinished” she laughs cheekily.