Learning to Appreciate My Chamber of Secrets

A writer reflects on what reading fan fiction taught her about sex. 

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In middle-school health class, Ms. Wright paired me up with a boy I'll call Thomas Alonso for the Egg Baby Project. This was a weeklong nightmare project for students in school districts that couldn't afford those lifelike crying baby dolls. We were partnered with someone of the opposite sex and ordered to care for a soft-boiled egg as if it were a living, breathing human. It was supposed to teach us about responsibility, sex, and relationships without, in typical sex-ed fashion, ever actually talking about responsibility, sex, and relationships.

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That it was supposed to impose upon us the consequences of sexual intercourse was wholly lost on my partner. Five seconds after our teacher handed us our soft-boiled egg, Thomas threw it against the classroom's cinderblock wall.

Sirius Black, I scribbled later that day, next to the notes for a new piece of erotically salacious Harry Potter fan fiction outlined carefully in my journal, would never do that to our child.

Growing up with the Internet in the age of To Catch a Predator, I acknowledge that I'm lucky to be able to say "I learned more about sex from strangers on the Internet than anywhere else" without having an upsetting story about the resulting kidnapping and court case to follow. My parents were adamant with their "Don't meet strangers from the Internet in real life" warnings, and yet I don't remember them ever having "The Talk" with me in any official capacity.

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I assume that they assumed we lived in a decent-enough, liberal-enough public-school system that would take care of sex ed for them. Maybe they knew that I, preteen, gangly, and clad in superhero tees, was not a desired middle-school commodity. The American Girl book about changing bodies —The Caring and Keeping of You — that my mother handed me said this was perfectly OK. It advised that I should continue to be myself and also use deodorant.

Sex-ed class and that book had one key thing in common: Both said nothing about actual acts of sexual intercourse. Nothing spoke about the aftermath of sex beyond the threat of pregnancy and AIDS. There was no mention that oral sex existed. No one talked about consent. I knew what "gay" meant, in theory, but didn't realize lesbians were a thing! Looking back on the quality of the health classes that followed, I'm not sure when I would have received a well-rounded education about any of this before college if I hadn't continued to be myself.

Sex-ed class and that book had one key thing in common: Both said nothing about actual acts of sexual intercourse.

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"Myself" wrote fan fiction, stories that take characters or elements from an existing piece of popular culture and place them in the author's own contexts. Those stories get posted in online archives, and the world at large can read and review them. Fan fiction can be, and often is, about more than sex. If 50 Shades of Grey — originally written as Bella/Edward Twilight fan fiction before being reedited and published — is your only exposure to the stuff, then you could be excused for thinking that it's a platform that deals mainly in poorly written S&M fantasies. That aspect of it exists, certainly, but it's just as easy to find stories that focus on friendship, generic action-adventure romps, character-driven one-shots, and really any other genre of fiction one could think of. I'm currently in hip deep in some not-altogether-safe-for-work The Force Awakens fiction, and over the years I've read everything from tales set within the halls of Hogwarts to a story about graphic backseat blow jobs featuring some of my best friends, written by complete strangers who happened to like a YouTube video we made about the shows Suits and White Collar

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This hobby is not, and shouldn't have to be, the catchall for a 12-year-old's sexual education. Quite often it was a case of the blind leading the blind — one confused teen reading the questionable smut of another confused teen — but it was better than a smashed soft-boiled egg. And for me, and other girls like me whose sex ed consisted of fake babies, American Girl manuals, and Magic Johnson PSAs, or for the kids outside of the 24 states where sex ed is even required, there's something to be said for the usefulness of fan fiction as a place to learn, at least in part, about sex and relationships from their writing online. It's a place where those who perhaps aren't ready to explore physically (or are too covered in acne and superhero tees to be confident enough to do so) can experiment and explore with limited risk. It's a hobby that's easy to be snarky about ("Kendra, are you staying in to read about two men falling in love on a spaceship again?"), but it can serve an important purpose for those who participate.

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At its best, fan fiction is a stomping ground for creativity and self-expression. It's a place where a young girl can write and improve her writing in a female-driven space with more encouragement than consequence. It doesn't matter how bad your writing is; someone will enjoy it. If you don't believe me, please understand that in 1999 I wrote a terrible 60,000-word Harry Potter romantic-action-adventure fic, posted entirely in Comic Sans, that received multiple reviews in the vein of:

"Okay I didn't review for this when I read it and I have something to tell you: Please don't stop the story! At least do an epilogue! Just one more? okay I'll stop bugging you, but are you at least going to write another story, or series?"

Consistent approval made it easy to keep creating original characters (more often than not, thinly veiled versions of myself) that explored every aspect of the romance and sex I thought I was missing out on in middle school. Taking place in settings like Hogwarts or, later, Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters from the X-Men universe, these stories were certainly fantasies in the traditional sense, but they were also personal fantasies. Predictably, the various versions of myself that I came up with always ended up with whichever character I was obsessing over at the time — usually Sirius Black, J.K. Rowling's escaped wrongfully imprisoned convict, or Remus Lupin, her mild-mannered werewolf. Yet what I found was that having to follow through on plot and character development over the course of months and 50,000 to 100,000 words forced me to deeply consider what both sexual and nonsexual relationships really meant to me.

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Yes, giving a blow job could result in herpes or gonorrhea of the throat (common enough in boarding school that we needed to be warned about it multiple times over), and sex could get you pregnant. But what about the nonphysical? Where would I be mentally after that? Would my emotional reaction to it differ at 15 years old? What about 18? Would I want to tell anyone? How would people react if I did tell them? Did I care what my friends thought? Rather than simply being told I shouldn't do it, I sat down and pondered whether or not I would ever actually want to. Writing fan fiction meant reasoning through actions and the resulting emotions in a way my teachers never asked for, even after my supposed spouse killed our egg child.

Writing fan fiction meant reasoning through actions and the resulting emotions in a way my teachers never asked for, even after my supposed spouse killed our egg child.

I'm not going to pretend that this younger version of myself got everything right. My depiction of teen pregnancy is perhaps the most idyllic depiction of teen pregnancy ever put to paper. Much of my eighth- and ninth-grade years were spent writing a sprawling fantasy about an older version of myself and Orlando Bloom, in which we had a tryst as teens that resulted in my getting pregnant and having a love child that I then proceeded to hide from him for 13 years. It was a mad rom-com dash as he found out, we re-met, fell back in love, and lived happily ever after.

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In my defense, my friends, who also wrote fan fiction, didn't get everything right, either. For us this was a social activity, one that often ate into class time as we passed stories back and forth the way others passed love notes and games of M.A.S.H. Our different tastes in men and the relationships that came with them were eye-opening for me. One friend's insistence that Hannibal Lecter would treat her well despite being a violent murderer and cannibal to boot was a great introduction to the fallacy of the "But he'll be good to me; I can change him with the power of my love" narrative at a young age.

For us this was a social activity, one that often ate into class time as we passed stories back and forth the way others passed love notes and games of M.A.S.H.

But it's much healthier to experience trying to change a bad man in a fictional universe than in a real-world scenario. In my case, I had little vested interest in being an actual pregnant teen when I was writing about Orlando Bloom. I was, however, interested in what being a pregnant teen might mean beyond adult disappointment and an inevitable appearance on Maury. That's the beauty of fan fiction. You'll improve. Your ideas will mature along with your knowledge.

And I got better advice outside the blinkered existence of my teenage friends; I took Adult Relationships 101 from older women who were university classics professors during the day and wrote novel-length X-Men fan fiction by night. Their writing gave me my first realistic look at a slowly crumbling marriage. There was a miscarriage, the resulting depression; a husband's slowly wandering eye — innocent at first, but just as damaging; sex that got progressively worse, finally becoming routine; bonds of love that broke and never actually reformed. The shattered fictionalized marriage of two comic-book characters quickly checked my early delusions that all sex was good sex, as was the case with the driving swoony sex I read about in romance novels that always seemed to begin with the woman's satisfaction, the man existing as only an afterthought.

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I still value fan fiction as a medium of exploration for young girls, even if the stuff I wrote back in the day makes me want to Alex Mack my way underneath a rock and die. Remembering the wellspring of confidence I used to experience every time I received a good review or "like," I try to do the same for stories clearly written by young girls even when they aren't amazing. As adult and mature as they want their writing and characters to be, it's almost immediately obvious how much they don't know. Consequently, "Erections don't work that way!" is a common refrain to hear floating from my bedroom.

Fan fiction was a developmentally appropriate and necessary exploration for me and other girls, but I still wish that we were a culture united in valuing comprehensive physical, mental, and emotional sexual education. Instead we live in a country where only 13 states require that the information delivered in sex-ed classes actually be medically accurate. Unsurprisingly, Planned Parenthood found that curricula based in abstinence-only programming often provided medically incorrect information to students in middle schools and community-based organizations. Just eight states require that the information provided be "culturally appropriate and unbiased." Honestly, I was lucky to be handed an egg at all.

When I was 12, my friends and I kept lists of potential future fictional boyfriends and husbands in the backs of our plotting composition notebooks. Next to mine is a list of qualities I wanted to find in a man. Sixteen years later, my favorite remains "Does Gives good head (the girl kind)." My friends often accuse my standards for men of being too high, but if they are it's only because I had already articulated the bare minimum of what I not want but expect in a relationship with a significant other years ago. My "high standards" are hard-won from years of confusion and exploration on the Internet and the amount of information I processed at a blessedly early age, no thanks to my public-school system. I'm not selfish enough to think that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter specifically to teach me about sex, but neither I or my informed and happy sex life will fault her the results.

Kendra James is a recovering preteen and the author of the only Ugly Betty/Batman crossover fan fic on the Internet.

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