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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.