It all started when I was trying to find out where to send my Rupert Grint fan mail.
I was 11, and a Yahoo search led me to the official Warner Bros Harry Potter forum, and that’s where I found my very first sex mentor, let’s call her xxSlytherinXXXSweetie<3xxx. Her avatar was a svelte blonde doll, she typed in yellow Arial against the edgy-for-the-noughties black site background, and when she talked about Draco Malfoy’s 6-inch-long cock (lol OK), she had to spell it “co.ck” to trick the website’s decency filters. She probably didn’t know that her slightly naughty (but mostly just bad) fan fiction would make me blush, or that that garish yellow "co.ck" would live in infamy as my initiation into a culture that defined my teenage years. As they say, you never forget your first.
Offline, I was a sheltered military brat; I spent most of my time with my church youth group, or watching the Disney Channel and reading children’s fantasy books, so I had never really come in contact with much sex slang. Even now I can’t read the word “cock” without visualising that little dissecting full stop. Even when we’re talking about chickens. Or raised eyebrows.
Being scandalised by a mediocre sex scene was not something Hermione, the ultimate heroine of my rich teen fantasy life, would do. (Especially not the Hermione of this fic, who was too busy getting drilled by Draco in a magical soundproof bubble in the Prefects’ Toilet to be worried about the shock value, or worse, grammatical sin, of a pretty arbitrary epithet for junk.) But the idea that a character I knew, loved, and admired, could be doing something that felt so far beyond my maturity level is something I thought I should be worried about. Something I was ill-equipped to deal with. This was grown-up stuff, and grown-up stuff is scary. At 11, I was only about 10% curious about it; the remaining 90% cringed from sex in every other aspect of life. Too busy organising Beanie Babies and lip-syncing to Mandy Moore, thank you very much.
I’m what you’d call a late bloomer; I’m not quick on the uptake. I’m fast to blush and slow to adjust to change. Things rarely happen at the right time for me: I never felt like I was keeping up with my friends. Half the time I feel like I’m not keeping up with myself.
For example, my romantic and sexual awakenings were very different things. While the former was all fireworks and sunshine and Rupert Grint’s fucking beautiful blue eyes (Rupert – call me), my sexual awakening was more of a I-hit-snooze-three-times-and-this-alarm-is-loud-but-goddamnit-I-will-stay-in-my-bed scenario, plus presumably some teen film star’s hot bod? I honestly couldn’t say. My desire for sex always made much less of an impact than my petrifying fear of the unknown.
While I can’t tell you who made me go weak north of the knees as a teen, I can give you a list of approximately 70 boys, real, fictional, famous, or otherwise I was chastely devoted to. What can I say? A combination of religious schooling, crippling shyness, and fear of attachment made me terrified of sex and my own body. I completed university a virgin. I couldn’t even bring myself to use a tampon for the first probably 60 periods I ever had. Even as an adult who’s had a good few years to figure this whole sex thing out, the whole deal is often plagued by an anxiety and self-loathing I can’t quite shake.
But, as a teenager, I found that that anxiety dissipated beneath the security blanket of my all-time favourite 'ship: The Internet/Harry Potter. Nothing captured my imagination as much as Hogwarts: a place that felt so human but simultaneously removed from reality. Combined with the internet, Hogwarts offered me the room to be myself, but at a raw level – to explore ideas, lifestyles, and relationships that I could never feel at ease with in the real world.
Because the internet is not the real world; it’s not a place where you are you, or even a place where your favourite characters are your favourite characters. The internet is a midsummer night’s dream where everything gets mixed up and you get to be a little bit daring and out of the ordinary. A place not unlike a magical school that exists just beyond the reality you know. Except the secret world of the internet is a lot more fucked up than the Wizarding World, not least because Harry/Hermione 'shippers live there.
That fateful Draco/Hermione fic opened the floodgates: I got pretty comfortable interacting with completely fictional co.cks online, even as I remained terrified to death of meeting one in the real world. Over the next eight or nine years, I graduated from the Warner Bros site to more devoted fansites like MuggleNet and SnitchSeeker; I even did a stint as a moderator on SnitchSeeker. Sixth-grader and new kid Chelsey was a bit of a shy mess IRL, but ronweasleyrox (seriously, Rupert – please call) was a very trustworthy, responsible content manager. It’s a shame I can’t put it on my CV. When I wasn’t cleaning up spam on Invisionboards, I was busy exploring my first love: bad fucking fan fiction.
I read anything. I read everything. I consumed one-shots the same way I devour a full bag of oven chips after a night out, the same way I would – and still do – knock back questionable YA books. Reading fan fiction was easy, fun, and most importantly, it was the most subversive thing I had ever done in my painfully safe suburban upbringing.
I learned about blowjobs from a 200-chapter Marauders’ Era epic. My first exposure to protected sex discourse came in the form of a particularly memorable LiveJournal-based fic featuring a subplot in which Ron and Harry realise they’re more than friends and dive for the Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Condoms. I held my breath when Lavender got pregnant with Won-Won’s baby, and I sighed with relief every time Ron and Hermione had a passionate, detailed makeout. I read steamy sex scenes for every imaginable pairing in the Wizarding World, and moved on to crossovers like a cringeworthy but interesting The Last Five Years-inspired Snape/Hermione one-shot. What a world.
But it was also more than just sex. Fan fiction was my first exposure to LGBT couplings, and welcoming my favourite characters’ imagined choices to love and fuck whoever they chose would be a huge part of enlightening me about the LGBT community, whose voices were otherwise not present in my life at the time. A narrative about Hermione’s struggle with anorexia would give me some comfort when I struggled with my own body image. Even the staunchly PG-rated submissions on FanFiction.net taught me about grief, isolation, and mundane teenage angst – all in a firmly safe place.
There was something about these scenarios in which my childhood heroes could twist into new shapes that gave me a way to confront all of the strangeness of growing up even when, in all the other aspects of my life, I was refusing to do so. In the meta-fantasy world of fan fiction, I could hold these characters up as mirrors to my experiences, or as lenses into things I was afraid to experience. I could take two steps back to see all of the unfocused mess of the world at a safe distance. And when I was done playing make-believe online – when whatever uncomfortable or unfamiliar thing Hermione (always) et al were going through was over – I knew I could always find them again, untouched and safe, in canon.
Fan fiction, unlike a novel printed into permanence, was a map drawn in dry-erase. Gone, not real, the second I closed the window. It never fucking happened. Not to me, and not even to my favourite imaginary friends.
At the same time that I was sneak-reading Ginny Weasley/Tom Riddle erotica, I was attending a strict Christian school where sex ed was mostly “God says don’t” and an unforgettable assembly where pop songs were performed as warnings against heavy petting and drugs. Oh, and where Harry Potter books were banned. While 7am saw me outfitted in floor-length skirts and WWJD bracelets, midnight found me curled up in my kitty pyjamas, trawling through a bookmarked gallery of LiveJournals, fan forums, and FanFiction.Net on the family desktop. It was there that I learned to settle into myself, if even just a little bit. It’s where I grew up, to the extent that I could at least fathom sex even if I couldn’t do it. It was there that I felt in charge of my own life and choices, and got to try on different personalities and different lives, and it was there that I became a writer.
More than anything, fan fiction became my one-stop primer on all things: sex, bodies, politics, lonely teenagehood. It was my nerdy version of Cosmopolitan. It didn’t tell me what to do; in fact it offered bizarrely shit advice. But in a small way it prepared me for the world, and in a big way it made me braver – even if I’m still at my bravest when there’s a screen and a keyboard between me and everyone else.
PS: Rupert, if you’re reading this, I would ever so much like a follow-up to our 2003 correspondence. “Eat slugs, Rupert Grint x” isn’t enough to keep me going forever, you know.