When I was 13, pretty much everything I knew about sex was from fan fiction. And from what I could tell, it was awesome. In my very sheltered, inexperienced mind, sex was something that happened between elves, wizards, vampires, and my favorite characters from movies and TV shows. My preferred stories always involved a lot of discussion about consent, followed by lots of whole-hearted experimentation. While my friends opened their minds to sex by debating whether this drunken teen put it in that drunken teen, I stayed focused on more intriguing questions—like what it would be like if Harry and Ron got it on.
The reality is most people born after 1980 probably got a bulk of their early sex education from the internet, but sex in the world of fan fiction was less intimidating (and less gross) than what you’d find googling, What is a rim job?Writer Isobel Beech, who like me gleaned much of her early sexual knowledge from the genre, described it as, “A bit like the teenage girl’s version of porn, if you didn’t watch porn. And I didn’t watch porn. Because I didn’t know where to find it and the little porn I did see I didn’t really like.”
During her teens, young adult author Danielle Binks was one of the people churning out the stories Isobelle and I were devouring. She estimates that over the years she was active, she wrote over 400,000 words of fanfic, involving characters from Buffy, One Tree Hill, Once and Again, Gilmore Girls, and Veronica Mars. Like me, she came to the genre as a young adolescent with an interest in sex and not a lot of information. For her, reading and later writing these stories was a way to engage with the shows she loved on a deeper level, connect with other fans, and navigate her own understanding of gender and sexuality.
She remembers feeling like she wasn’t getting the information she needed about sex from school or her parents. When asked why she thought the movement is so fixated on sex she replied, simply, “Because there are a lot of teenagers reading and writing it.” And for those kids, they’re just creating the content they can’t find elsewhere.
“It should come as a surprise for no one that we have a diversity problem around gender and sexuality, in everything from books to TV to film,” says Danielle. She suggests that when kids encounter sex for the first time in the mainstream media and find it lacking they turn inwards. Fan fiction is a welcoming avenue for self-exploration and working out what you like.
“It didn’t weird me out, it didn’t scare me—it enlightened me”, she said. “I figured out more about the whos, whats, hows of what tantalized me from reading FF than I did from watching late-night SBS (public television in Australia) as a kid.” For Danielle, these stories placed an emphasis on mutual attraction, respect, friendship, mutual pleasure, and counteracted the stereotypes that spread through porn.
Last year, Joseph Brennan from the University of Sydney completed his PhD in slash, a subgenre of fan fiction. Slash is the trend of taking heterosexual characters and placing them in gay or lesbian story lines. During his research he found most fan fiction writers tended to be women in their 20s, but the readership skewed younger, and was made up of largely teenage girls between 14 and 16.
During his PhD preparation Joseph also spent time thinking about what makes fan fiction unique in its ability to draw such a dedicated teen audience. “Fan fiction operates as a space where participants can experience sexuality and gender performance in the characters and in themselves,” he said. “It’s a way to explore the sexuality of the characters they’re familiar with, but also explore their own sexuality.”
It’s this ability of fan fiction to push against broad presentations of sex and gender that makes it such a popular educational source. “The nature of it means there is then the opportunity to view sexuality as fluid, rather than static,” says Joseph.
The influence the genre holds isn’t exclusive to teenagers. And many of the young writers who got their start there carry parts of the experience into their adult lives. When asked how those early encounters echo in her life now, Danielle said: “It’s a safe space to delve into your own imagination to see what appeals to you. Writing is largely about figuring yourself out—it’s putting your heart on the page, and FF was definitely a ways and means to do that by writing about sex and sexuality.”
For Isobelle it was also a practical resource when she started having sex, “I was pretty knowledgeable for someone who’d only ever pashed (kissed) a person. Because it’s all so descriptive, it definitely did help with actual sex.”
Years later, I often wonder how much of my own approach to sex was built on that online foundation. The ways you can educate yourself about sex are usually limited to porn or biology textbooks. But for me, fan fiction explored the emotions and nuances behind sexuality in a way that wasn’t vulgar or patronizing. It showed that sex isn’t always about making another person come, but it also wasn’t a sacred act that had to be framed by true love.
When you’re 13, it’s hard to talk to friends and parents about what kind of sexual being you think you’re becoming. But you can probably get Katniss Everdeen to act it out, post it online, and discuss it at length with a bunch of other teenagers you’ll never meet. Credit should be paid to what a powerful resource erotica curated by teens is. Writing, fiction, and sex are all about freedom and exploration. And coming together in this strange part of the internet, they’re doing a lot of good.