The first time I watched porn, I was 16. My friends are always surprised when I tell them. They ask, “How did you survive puberty without porn?” Of course, apart from my asexual best friend, who by this point in the conversation will be scrolling through Tumblr while us allosexuals talk about Horny Brain. “Muslim restraint and self-respect,” I joke, “both of which used to be skills of mine before I went to university and turned into a fag.”
My statement is misleading. The first time I watched porn, I was 16. The first time I engaged with porn, I was much younger. It was through the website Archive Of Our Own. Most people in society have never heard of it, but the Venn diagram of people who read literary magazines and people who read fanfiction is damn near a single circle. For the three people reading this that may not know, Archive Of Our Own (or Ao3) is an online fanfiction website. If you don’t know what fanfiction is, I suggest you quit reading this and head back to the rock you’ve been living under. Or, if you decide to stay, then here is the quick and dirty of it: fanfiction is, as the name suggests, fiction written by fans. Any fandom, from Star Trek to that one obscure anime your one annoying cousin insists is too underground for anyone to know, most likely has fanfiction written about it. It’s rarely canon (fitting the actual plot of the media), but even when it is, elements of the relationships are usually changed. Despite what the opening of this essay may suggest, it’s not just changing it to add in genitals and desperate wanking. Fanfic is actually much more than just porn.
I was first introduced to fanfiction through Wattpad via a cheesy straight romance. While it certainly wouldn’t be compelling for me nowadays, as a child raised with the “you can date in college” mindset. I was gripped by the idea of boys sneaking into my bedroom to steal my bra for a prank. No, we don’t need to delve into how problematic that is right now. I could picture it: I was so incredibly desirable in my owl bra and cupcake panties at age 12 that teenage boys would be, in a completely non-creepy way, obsessed with me. They’d want me. People would want me. I would be wanted. ME!!!! Thankfully, my self-insert fanfic days of generic-brunette-white-girl and generic-pretty-white-boy didn’t last long. To clarify, a self-insert is a character who is basically an idealized version of yourself inserted into the story, with one single likable flaw, like being too pretty or slightly clumsy, things which are definitely sure to make you unbearable to be around despite how funny and smart and gorgeous and kind and perfect you are.
I soon discovered that Wattpad also had stories about my favorite celebrities and books, and so began my nosedive into fandom madness. Now, it wasn’t just generic-pretty-white-boy in love with me, now it was my favorite YouTuber (remaining anonymous out of sheer cringe of memory) completely in love with me. Wait. No. That didn’t feel right. Not because writing about real people was completely inappropriate (that realization wouldn’t hit me until my later teens once the obsessive parasocial relationships had faded). No, it was wrong because I didn’t want him to be in love with me. Or rather, even I couldn’t believe he was in love with me. But what other option was there? He wasn’t exactly good friends with any single women, he couldn’t have any YouTuber crushes, and I was not about to delve into crossover territory. Obviously, there was no other option for him to be in love with anyone except for a generic-brunette-white-girl, right? A dangerous thought snuck into my mind, inspired by fics that I had glanced over but had never dared to read. Maybe he was in love with one of his other YouTube friends: generic-brunette-white-boy? Nope. Nope, nope, nope, absolutely not. I dropped the idea, and decided to read about a different YouTuber— one who already had a girlfriend.
After months of reading, I gathered up my courage. Not for any of that gay stuff (I wasn’t ready for that yet). I started small. The first fic I wrote was about a celebrity, his girlfriend, and his best friend. There was very little conflict, the grammar wasn’t perfect, and it followed the pattern of “and then they went bowling and then they played video games and then they hung out.” There was no logical reason why anyone would read it, but then again, it was my personal favorite type of fic to read. My fic garnered over 10,000 views. I got plenty of positive comments, encouragement to continue writing, and helpful suggestions (when requested) on ways to improve. This was a stark contrast to my real life, where my dad laughed at the suggestion that I should ever sell my art and my teachers scolded me for embroidering during class and my classmate snapped the ears off of my clay rabbit. I hadn’t posted much online before, only a little on Tumblr, and I had never gotten many responses. Wattpad, however, noticed me, encouraged me, understood me.
This established two things for me:
- The idea of being able to have a community, entirely online.
- That being a bad writer was better than not writing at all.
I had always been my own harshest critic. I didn’t draw because I was bad at drawing. I didn’t write because I was bad at writing. I didn’t make friends because I was bad at making friends. I think back now, to the comic strips I made, to the diaries I filled up, to the book I wrote with friends in fifth grade, to the letters and notes to my friends, to the daydreaming nonstop about being away, away, far away from here. I think back to garbage cans with torn up paper, to scribbled over art, to letters never delivered. It wasn’t perfect, so, as far as I was concerned, it was basically worthless, it wasn’t worth remembering. God, how I wish I remembered them now, if only for when my therapist asks.
Fanfiction created a space where, for the first time, embarrassment was thrown to the wind. Creating something good wasn’t the goal — creating something fun was the goal. It didn’t follow the formula of published books. They didn’t need plots. They didn’t need arcs and new characters. They weren’t difficult. I knew the characters, I didn’t need to learn about them. I didn’t need to deal with the stress of a story with tension. Most importantly, nothing was written for the sake of a paycheck. As an aspiring novelist now, I get it, books need to be marketable and there’s no shame in being an author who wants to get paid. However, fanfiction was special. Nobody was getting paid, people wrote because they loved it. Many stories had view counts in the double or single digits, but it didn’t matter because they were writing for the sheer joy of writing. Or for the sheer joy of letting their self-insert marry the celebrity crush they’d never be able to meet. Same difference.
My story sucks? For once, I didn’t care. It wasn’t for a grade, it was a story I was putting up online for free, and people could choose not to read it if they didn’t want to. A revolution: the value of a hobby exists not in how well received the final product is, but in the joy of creating it, and in the beauty of finding a community in the people who enjoy it too. As a writer now, I can confidently admit that without fanfiction, I would never have learnt to write with courage, and I would have quit after the first rejection.
Of course, my next step after learning the beauty of community was to abandon ship, move over to Ao3, and loudly state that I wasn’t one of those Wattpad normie losers anymore, as any normal teenager would do. We all make mistakes.
Ao3 changed the game. It brought forth a filtering system that would make data scientists drool. It was now easier than ever to find anything I was looking for: fandoms, spice levels, ships, characters, completion status – you name it, you can filter for it. For the first time, I could filter for a tag rather than have to look up fanfictions by fandom or ship name, which exposed me to many more ships from fandoms I’d never even heard of. For someone who had only ever read cishet fiction about a white girl crushing on a white boy, it shook me to discover that on Ao3, queerness wasn’t only common, it was by and large the norm.
I won’t go into the nuances and the issues of queer representation in fanfiction (justice for my Sapphics!!!!) but back then I was a closeted (even to myself) bisexual living in Saudi Arabia, where queer literature was banned and gay “sodomites” were murdered. It may seem silly and insensitive to bring up fanfiction when talking about lethal homophobia, but frankly, fanfiction saved me in so many ways.
I think back to how I had my queer crisis then. My first instinct had been to look up queer fanfiction to validate my own confusing feelings. It humanized the queer community to me, created a space where queerness was something so natural that homophobia was almost nonexistent. I recall the sudden bursts of courage I had after getting into Ao3. I smuggled David Leviathan’s Two Boys Kissing into the country with a homemade dust jacket and pirated Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I brought up bisexuality as a concept to my mother, who was horrified that I was aware of such things.
Of course, it hurt to think that she was so disgusted, but I knew solidly then that she was wrong to feel that way. After all, Will Solace had homophobic parents in my favorite fic, and they were definitely wrong. Stiles Stilinski was bisexual, and that was just how he was, nothing wrong about it. How could it be wrong to be like Stiles, to be like Will? I was in love with a girl, and I wasn’t conflicted – I was angry with the world, and insanely comfortable with myself.
I came out to my best friend, and she accepted me. I added “pansexual” to my Tumblr bio (I’d come to identify as bisexual in later years), I went to the online Phandom Prom with a girl, I humiliatingly DMed a nonbinary mutual confessing that I thought they were gorgeous, I told the girl I was in love with that if we hadn’t been moving away, I’d ask her out. Was I miserable at that time? Sure, but more so out of hating school and hating the country and dealing with the consequences of finally finding my voice at home. Big shocker, it turns out that parents typically don’t like knowing that their kids disagree with just about everything they believe in.
Yet, I wasn’t miserable because of my queerness. Rather, my queerness was one of the constants I could believe in. I liked guys, I liked girls, I liked nonbinary people, and dear God, I liked liking them. Teen Wolf, a retrospectively terrible show, was a secret joy of mine: Danny was gay, Ethan was gay, Mason was gay, Corey was gay, Caitlin was bisexual, and let’s be real, Stiles was bisexual too. My father would have had an aneurysm if he knew what I was watching. I laughed then, as I laugh while I type this, at that idea. I wrote graphic queer smut, and I thought it was the hottest thing anyone could possibly come up with. I filled notebooks with drawings of stolen kisses and lingering glances and hands touching just a moment too long. In a homophobic world, in a homophobic country, in a homophobic room, I learnt what queer joy was.
I often wonder about if I hadn’t had fanfiction: would I have never come out? Would I have ended up homophobic? Would I have killed myself? With how close I was to all of those options, I can’t say those are impossibilities.
The world continually mocks fanfiction, teases the bad writing, teases the endless porn, teases the fact that it’s written by kids, teases the tropes. Don’t get me wrong — I get it. It’s inherently hilarious to read about a crack fic like Tony the Tiger’s homoerotic romance with The Grinch, but to use it to tease fanfiction as a whole is to ignore the millions of people who discovered through fanfiction that it was okay to be bad at a hobby, that you could find a community online when you feel completely alone, that queerness was normal —that it could be sexy, that it could be soft, that it could be romantic, that it could be okay.
If you’re considering writing fanfiction but are refraining because it’s embarrassing – do it. Would you rather be embarrassed, or would you rather spend the rest of your life wondering what if? It’s only once we overcome the debilitating fear of embarrassment that we find the true ecstasy of doing what we really want to do, and what better way to discover freedom from societal expectations than with gay werewolves talking about feminism?