How five people recovered — or vanished — after intense scrutiny at an early age.
From the earliest days of college coeducation, women on campus have been subjected to scrutiny. Only since the advent of blogs and social media, however, have average Janes been transformed into viral causes célèbres overnight.
Below, a survey of female and non-binary students who got more attention than they bargained for, and how they’ve fared since leaving school.
Age: 41. Alma Mater: Dickinson College. Major: Economics.
Controversy: In 1996, Ms. Ringley, then 19, stumbled upon a new technology known as the webcam. As she began exploring its possibilities, she accidentally innovated an entirely new genre of entertainment: one in which ordinary people broadcast their lives to a captive audience of strangers.
Although Ms. Ringley’s project, Jennicam, was low-fi by today’s standards — a still photo set in her dorm room refreshed every 15 minutes — it quickly found an international audience.
Aftermath: Ms. Ringley kept Jennicam going even after she graduated, and as the internet grew, so did her audience. By 1998 she was a full-fledged media darling, appearing on “This American Life” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
Her fan base grew, and so did commentary on her personal life. When Ms. Ringley began dating a friend’s fiancé, viewers were incensed; The Washington Post declared Ms. Ringley an “amoral man trapper.”
In 2003, she shut the site down and vanished from the internet. Although Ms. Ringley has done a few interviews in the intervening years — most notably, a 2014 interview with the podcast “Reply All” — she has largely shunned public attention, even as the personal transparency she pioneered has become more mainstream.
Age: 30. Alma Mater: Harvard University. Major: Sociology.
Controversy: Ms. Chen began blogging about her sex life at Sex and the Ivy in the summer of 2006, right before the start of her sophomore year at Harvard, intending to share her thoughts and experiences with her friends.
Ms. Chen soon found herself a celebrity, not just on the Harvard campus, but also across the broader collegiate landscape, as the defunct IvyGateBlog transformed her into a character the site’s writers often referred to as their “best frenemy.” In 2008, an ex-boyfriend published naked photos of her online, seemingly earning more spectators than sympathy.
Aftermath: After the leak, Ms. Chen took a year off from college to attend to her mental health. Years after shuttering Sex and the Ivy, she said, she was plagued by a stalker who relentlessly harassed her and other online acquaintances. In 2013, she decided to leave Boston and start a new life in Berlin, intending to research a novel.
Ms. Chen adopted the name Elle Peril and stopped telling people about her past. She abandoned her writing career and started working as a nude model for artists and photographers.
“It was really liberating in the beginning,” Ms. Chen said in an interview, but eventually a paranoia familiar from her college days returned, including a fantasy that she was being followed by government agents.
Ms. Chen eventually said goodbye to her alter ego with a Berlin art show that featured the photos and journal entries from her time as Elle Peril alongside IvyGate articles and documentations the traumas she had experienced as Lena Chen. Ms. Chen said she has been able to fully process and move on from her days as “the Harvard harlot.” She now spends her time curating art shows and events focused on helping other women heal from trauma.
Age: 32. Alma Mater: Yale University. Major: Art.
Controversy: As an undergraduate, Ms. Shvarts embarked on a monthslong performance art project during which she said she inseminated herself with semen donated by men she termed “fabricators,” then triggered menstruation (or, possibly, miscarriage) with an herbal abortifacient.
Though Ms. Shvarts intended her project to be an exploration of the female reproductive system and a commentary on the art world’s gender dynamics, not all media outlets saw the nuance. Interest in Ms. Shvarts’s “abortion art” died down shortly after the Yale administration released a statement dismissing Ms. Shvarts’s project as a “creative fiction,” a label she has always rejected.
Aftermath: Ms. Shvarts graduated from Yale a few weeks after captivating the blogosphere and believes the attention hurt her chances at finding an internship or placement in graduate school. One program administrator, she recounted, “asked me if I was sorry for what I did to Yale. I said no. Shortly after, I got the news that I was rejected.”
A daughter of immigrants who had attended college on a full scholarship, Ms. Shvarts began to fear that she’d “lost the elite world that Yale had delivered me into.” Then she was admitted to a Ph.D. program at New York University.
Still, Ms. Shvarts said in an interview, she feels routinely expected to answer for the actions of her college self — or the version of it depicted in the media. “It’s not about me, it’s not about my work, it’s not any engagement with my work,” she said.
The tension between who Ms. Shvarts is and what she is known for has been explored in much of the art that she has produced over the past 10 years. Displayed at New Haven’s ArtspaceOne this past spring, one piece in particular, “How Does It Feel to Be a Fiction?” invited viewers to consider the boundaries between real and the fake. An earlier iteration appeared in the fall of 2016 as part of an exhibition exploring the question of fake news.
While others artists explored the way “fake news” had been used to achieve large-scale political ends, Ms. Shvarts examined the way media is often used to silence and invalidate marginalized experiences. “Some of us live as fake news,” she said, noting that her experience as an object of media fascination increased her empathy for those whose stories are inaccurately depicted.
Ms. Shvarts describes her New Haven exhibition as “an act of closure.” In addition to showcasing a selection of works she has created over the past decade, it also featured elements of the unseen art piece that initially brought her attention.
Age: 30. Alma Mater: Duke University. Major: History.
Controversy: At the end of her time at Duke, Ms. Owen decided to pass on some of her accumulated wisdom in the form of a “thesis” recounting and ranking her sexual partners during her years as a student.
Although Ms. Owen intended the document, “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” to be a private joke shared with a handful of friends, it quickly traveled outside that small group, getting forwarded around campus. In the fall of 2010, Ms. Owen’s document was published on the websites Jezebel and Deadspin, appended with an obscene title.
Aftermath: Never interested in courting public attention, Ms. Owen sought to disappear entirely.
Agents and editors reached out with promises of book deals, envisioning her as a female counterpart to the vulgar essayist Tucker Max. Ms. Owen turned them down. Within days, her social media presence disappeared; commentators like Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic portrayed her as an example of everything wrong with college party culture, but she was nowhere to be found. She declined to be interviewed.
Age: 25. Alma Mater: Columbia University. Major: Art.
Controversy: In the spring of 2013, Mx. Sulkowicz, who uses non-binary honorifics and pronouns, filed a complaint with Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, accusing a fellow student, Paul Nungesser, of sexual assault.
Unsatisfied with Columbia’s response to the complaint, which found Mr. Nungesser “not responsible,” Mx. Sulkowicz expressed frustration through performance art, debuting “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” in the fall of 2014. The project, during which Mx. Sulkowicz carried a mattress identical to those found in Columbia’s dorms when on campus, was widely covered by the press (Mr. Nungusser eventually sued Columbia, which settled for an undisclosed amount).
Often referred to by the moniker “Mattress Girl,” Mx. Sulkowicz was held up as a symbol of the modern anti-sexual assault movement, alternately celebrated as a champion of survivors’ rights and denigrated as a scorned person hellbent on ruining the reputation of an ex.
Aftermath: “Mattress Performance” stirred up drama on Columbia’s campus — most notably Lee Bollinger, the president of the university, refused to shake its creator’s hand at graduation — and there was backlash from commentators, including particularly nasty missives from those who deemed Mx. Sulkowicz to be a “pretty little liar” who was just looking for attention.
After graduation, Mx. Sulkowicz struggled to carry around the new burden of an outsize reputation. Some of the artist’s first post-college work explored the tension of that particular breed of fame. “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” an eight-minute explicit video, purports to recreate the night of Mx. Sulkowicz’s assault in vivid, excruciating detail, offering up the “proof” that so many commentators seemed to be demanding as “Mattress Performance” went viral.
“The Ship Is Sinking,” performed as part of the Whitney Independent Study Program’s studio exhibition, positioned Mx. Sulkowicz as the figurehead of a ship, simultaneously assaulted and strengthened by the vicious remarks of spectators.
There were also new sources of support, including, notably, Ms. Shvarts, encountered in the midst of “Mattress Performance.” Mx. Sulkowicz credits a friendship with Ms. Shvarts as being a particularly important source of support while navigating the stress of unexpectedly becoming a national public figure. “She’s the first older sister I ever really had,” Mx. Sulkowicz said. “She just really took me under her wing and was supercool.”
Mx. Sulkowicz’s latest art piece, “The Floating World, “turns away from the question of what it means to be famous and hated, choosing instead to celebrate other women and feminist artists who’ve faced similar excoriation from the public — that has enabled them not merely to survive but to thrive.”