It’s time once again to talk about the kinks, fetishes, and various sexy tropes that are in fanfiction. And this week we are going to talk about something that makes me uncomfortable: underage sex in fanfiction.
When I started reading fanfiction I was young—not even in high school yet—and enjoying my first exploration into the world of Harry Potter fanfiction. Fanfiction for me as a young girl was similar to the stories men tell of being young boys looking at their first Playboy. Yeah, I read fanfics that had no sex and were completely plot-oriented, but fanfiction as a genre has a lot of sex, and a lot of variety. I learned of kinks and sexual positions I never would have imagined. And I learned a lot. I had a bit of a sexual awakening because of fanfiction; or at least my sexual awakening came at around the same time as reading fanfiction, and fanfiction just helped it along. The fact that other writers shared the same kinks and sexual preferences I did made me feel not so alone, and dare I say, helped me have the open attitude about sex I have today.
Now, I’m not saying that fanfiction is where you should go for sexual knowledge. Fanfiction, just like porn, can have a very unhealthy and negative effect on your sexuality if you don’t also educate yourself about sex. Remember, fanfiction and porn are fantasies: if you start believing that’s what real sex is like then you will never have a healthy sexual relationship with any partner. Nevertheless, as a young teen, fanfiction did help me.
Then I got a little bit older. I was a freshman in high school and still looking for awesome Harry Potter fanfiction, but I started getting… uncomfortable with certain things. I started to not be able to stomach reading about Harry or any of the characters having sex when they were younger than me. I started to refuse to read any R-rated fanfic that took place before book five. Most of the Harry Potter fanfiction didn’t have any of the characters having sex until about book four, which is when J.K. Rowling started addressing the fact that the characters had romantic feelings toward each other. So it makes sense that the sexual fanfiction would start there, but it still made me uncomfortable. Fourteen. That seemed way too young for sex. Of course, being the young teenage idiot that I was, I always assumed that whatever age I was was mature enough to have sex, but with each year that went by I would start to become uncomfortable with what I had been reading before. By the time I was in college, I refused to read any fiction where the characters were having graphic sex if they weren’t at least eighteen. Occasionally, I have read a fic where the characters are younger, but only if there isn’t really any graphic sex. Now of course there is a difference between reading romantic fanfics and straight-up smut—the young adult fiction genre makes sure of that—but sometimes these fics are just smut with no plot and featuring minors.
Another thing that made me uncomfortable was, I noticed, that many people writing these fics about teenagers and young teens having sex were adults. All that one has to do in the world of fanfiction is say, “Warning: Underage Sex”, and suddenly the entire community is okay with it. The boundaries get pushed to as young as fourteen or thirteen. And it’s not always two teenagers having sex; sometimes it’s an adult having sex with a teenager. Now I tend to be a bit lenient when it comes to stories where the adult is somewhere between eighteen and twenty, and the teenager is sixteen or seventeen. Chances are these characters are close enough in age that relationships like this happen in real life. I knew several students in college who were still dating girlfriends or boyfriends that they knew in high school who were younger than them. Depending on the state you live in (in the U.S. anyway) consent laws even allow for things like this by lowering the age of consent to sixteen or seventeen, or by saying that if an adult is dating a minor they must be only three or four years older or any sexual relationship is considered nonconsensual.
In many ways these fanfics with underage sex, especially the ones featuring two teenagers, instead of a teenager and an adult, are often reflections of authors’ real high school experiences. The old adage is write what you know. Even J.K. Rowling was asked if Harry, Ron, and Hermione would deal with things like teen pregnancy. JKR didn’t include any sex in her stories, but she was very much aware of what real teens were doing. Much of young adult literature has some type of sex in it. Maybe it’s not as graphic as Fifty Shades of Grey, but there definitely are scenes that depict sex between minors, simply because it’s a reality. Even shows like Glee and Teen Wolf don’t hide the fact that teens are having sex. To act like they aren’t would just be a lie.
So there is a part of me that says art reflects reality and the same is true of fanfiction. If as a teenager you experienced young love, and that happened to include sex, then when writing about such things of course you would include it. Furthermore, I’m not going to lie that reading about teenagers my age or close to my age having sex, may not be the same sexual experiences, but the same inclinations I did—definitely helped me develop as a person.
But when do the characters become too young? Even in pornography everyone has to be eighteen. Yes, these characters aren’t real people, but a problem is still present there. If someone drew a comic depicting child pornography we would all be uncomfortable, even though no real people were being harmed, because obviously the person drawing this and the people viewing it have a serious problem and pose a threat to the community. So the fact that these characters aren’t real people is irrelevant.
I have seen a remarkable lack of outrage against fics where the characters are thirteen or fourteen. Now I could argue that the same thing here as I did with teenagers in high school and say that authors are reflecting their own sexual experiences into their work, but to me, writing about what most people would considered preteens, who have barely started hitting puberty, seems a little odd. Especially, when that thirteen or fourteen year old is paired with an adult—it starts to cross the line from genuine sexual experience into something much less consensual. I have even, on occasion, come a across a fic where the character is much younger. Now, I should say that the few times I have come across a fic were a character was younger than thirteen and having sex (usually again with someone much older), a moderator of that fanfic community immediately removed the fic.
But still, just because authors warn for certain things, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. I once—and I really feel uncomfortable saying I even saw this—saw a fic that warned for pedophilia. (I should state that many fanfics have been written that deal with issues of child abuse, and I personally think that is fine, especially since those fics make a point to portray the horror and tragedy of such an act. This was not such a fic.) The author also said in the fic summary that they personally did not agree with anything in the fic, but that a friend of theirs requested that they write it. Though I did not read this fic, I also know that it was categorized as a PWP, which means “plot what plot”… so the fanfic in question was unlikely to deal with any real issues and instead just focused on the actual sex. The fanfic was immediately removed and the author banned, but the whole experience shook the community to the core. I didn’t read any fanfic for days after that, and I had many friends that felt the same way.
On the one hand, I was able to explore my sexuality in a healthy way as a young woman through fanfiction, but I could have done the same thing reading about eighteen-year-old’s having sex, instead of ones that were actually as young as me—though at the same time characters my age were the ones I related to more. So it becomes a difficult issue. We as members of a fanfiction community need to address some of these issues. Is a warning for underage sex enough to let an author get away with writing graphic sex about fourteen-year-old’s? And again, there are gray areas that I mentioned already, but just because there are gray areas does that mean that the fanfiction community should give a pass to everything that warns for underage sex?
In this instance two of the things I love about fanfiction, which is openness and lack of judgement, may be something that is hurting us here. Many fanfic authors and readers seem to take a stance of, “I don’t personally like it, but I won’t judge you for it.” And while that usually is a benefit to the community, helping to avoid kink-shaming and hatefulness, it can cause problems. Furthermore, most fanfic communities take that attitude on almost everything but pedophilia. Like I mentioned with the one fic that warned for pedophilia, I have never once heard of a fic like that just being viewed as okay by the community or the moderators. So there is a line that can be crossed. Now, I have also never seen those lines specified in every fanfiction community; some do, but many don’t. And it begs the question of what makes one fic more acceptable than another? Is thirteen or fourteen a seemingly acceptable age cut-off for a character? Or should the cut off come when the character is much older?
I don’t really know what the solution is here as far as what we as a community should say is okay or not. But to me this does seem like a problem that we as a community should be talking about and addressing far more frequently.