Like many lovers of Gen Z fanfiction, I was 12 years old when I first started reading fanfic. I’d heard about Wattpad from friends, and decided to check out the stories written about Percy and Annabeth from Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief — sexually explicit stories. I was obsessed with their relationship, and used it to safely explore my own sexual curiosity. At the time, it felt like a forbidden secret. The fiction was my first exposure to erotica, and I had nobody to talk to about what I was reading. Fanfic went on to deeply impact my understanding of sex and relationships, and I unknowingly became a part of a collective of young people known as the Wattpad Generation.
Founded in 2006, Wattpad is a storytelling platform where people can express their creativity. Popularized by YouTube videos in which Vloggers read fanfics out loud, young women began flocking to these sites to read and write original stories that expanded upon their favorite fictional character or celebrity relationship. Unlike e-books, which are formally published, Wattpad allows anyone and everyone with an active account to compose a story. Consuming stories that built upon canon offered glimpses into relationships that never came to be in their source material, and these pieces sometimes even went onto be published. Fifty Shades Of Grey famously began as a Twilight fanfic. As a result, young adults became exposed to erotica as they entered their teen years, which went on to influence the way they approach sexual relationships. These young adults make up the Wattpad Generation.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Pediatric Academic Societies, only 39% of adolescents get the “birds and the bees” talk from their parents and only 39 states in the United States require schools to teach sexual education. Of those states, only 18 require sexual education to be medically accurate. The lack of comprehensive sex-ed can make it extremely difficult for adolescents to get a comprehensive understanding of sexual autonomy, and a lack of comfort asking questions from authority figures can lead to trouble distinguishing between the healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships. As a result, young people growing up with the internet began to turn to Google to learn more about sexual fantasies, stumbling upon Wattpad or other forms of pornographic material. Wattpad fiction also had a more conspicuous underbelly: A lot of the content was sexually explicit, and introduced an entire generation to erotica at a very young age. Less conspicuous than pornography, it even allowed teens to engage with its content using an iPad or Kindle.
Mary,* 20, frequently read One Direction fanfiction in middle school, and remembers the first time she perceived sexual gender roles in fanfiction. “There was always a formula: She went down on him, he went down on her, then they would have penetrative sex,” she tells Her Campus. “It made it seem like both parties had to do something, no matter what, but in real life people shouldn’t feel like they have to reciprocate every time if they’re not comfortable with it.” Engaging in oral sex, and building up to some huge “penetration finale,” is a common theme in both erotica and pornography, but often lacks in communication and consent. Reading these stories without any sexual experience lead Mary to associate sex with obligation from an early age.
I was too embarrassed to tell him I learned it from Louis Tomlinson fanfiction when I was 13.
One Direction fanfic also ended up influencing her sexual relationships later on. She tells Her Campus, “One of the first times I was doing anything sexual with my first boyfriend, I pulled out some moves. He was like, ‘How did you know to do that?’ I was too embarrassed to tell him I learned it from Louis Tomlinson fanfiction when I was 13.”
Another example is the infamous After series, which started as a popular Harry Styles fanfiction. The first book centers around a “bad boy” who tries to pursue a “good girl.” He eventually takes her virginity, then reveals the entire plot had been driven by a dare. The protagonist falls in love anyway, and the two embark on a very toxic relationship. Mary remembers reading After, and being confused as to how the main character (Tess) recovers from such a traumatic relationship.
But not all members of the Wattpad generation drew the same conclusions. Ryan*, 20, tells Her Campus that reading and writing on Wattpad gave them the tools to better navigate intimacy. “I think it made me more romantic and creative in terms of writing,” they say. But they admit that the exposure to erotic fanfiction at such a young age didn’t provide a particularly solid education in sexual relationships. “It gave me unrealistic expectations about sex, and glamorized toxic relationships,” they say.
Megan Harrison, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), tells Her Campus that exposure to these tropes can be extremely harmful. “The problem here is that readers can inadvertently learn to accept these types of behaviors and relationships as being normal,” she says. “Many of these erotic novels and fanfiction stories promote toxic patterns of behaviors, as well as unrealistic sexual expectations.” They can also make attempts to excuse harmful behaviors – in After, the protagonist was often given a pass due to his tragic past involving his father.
I relate to this phenomenon. Reading fanfic at a young age led me to believe that controlling behavior was attractive to some degree. I’d read stories where the male character would get jealous and angry if the woman was talking to another man. At the time, I believed his behavior was romantic, because I hadn’t learned any better and this was my first exposure to intimacy. I later learned the hard way, through real life experiences, that it’s far more attractive when a relationship is built on a foundation of mutual trust.
“We’ve failed to teach generations of people – and particularly youth — to celebrate their sexuality, feel positive in their bodies and embrace pleasure,” Jennifer Wiessner, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Sex Therapist, tells Her Campus.
Wattpad gave me unrealistic expectations about sex and glamorized toxic relationships.
According to Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), less than 8.2% of students in the LGBTQ+ community say they’ve gotten proper, inclusive sexual health education. In fact, only seven states in the U.S. (and the District of Columbia) require sexuality inclusive sexual education. Sexual education’s puritanical, heteronormative lens can be traced back to abstinence. Since 1982, the U.S. government has spent around $2 billion dollars on abstinence-only education. These programs are still funded today by the government, but have been repackaged as “sexual risk avoidance” programs. “Improvements in sexual education will help to address self-acceptance, normalizing realistic body image standards, sexually transmitted infections, preventing sexual harassment, and of course sharing the benefits of sexual pleasure,” Harrison says. Incorporating the benefits of sexual pleasure into sex education makes it less “taboo” to discuss, allowing for the topic to seem more realistic. And with the combined access to information and comfort asking questions, young people stumbling across erotic fanfiction will be less likely to take what they read at face value.
But Wiessner says that we live in a “sex-silent, yet sex-saturated culture,” which makes it difficult for people to gain the proper education because of its taboo nature. In order for people to feel more comfortable discussing sex, Wiessner proposes starting the conversation earlier. “I propose sexuality education start in the home from birth,” she says. “By parents and guardians, with a safety net provided by the government and schools with comprehensive sexuality education that is state-mandated, standardized, inclusive, and taught by sex-positive professionals.”
Starting the conversation at home within a family can provide a more comfortable environment in which to learn – when parents and schools shy away from these topics, adolescents are likely to seek out information, stumbling upon platforms such as Wattpad when they do. Parents and schools should be talking about how to have safe sex and prevent pregnancy, but also emphasizing sex-positive ideas, such as communicating with your partner and feeling confident in your body. “Countries like the Netherlands and Sweden are pro-sexuality education and support sexual diversity,” Weissner says. “They begin their education with children at an early age, thus normalizing healthy sexuality from birth. This creates better attitudes about sex, and lower pregnancy and STI outcomes than in the US.”
But Harrison reminds readers that, for all its drawbacks, a free, unfiltered platform like Wattpad can have its perks. “It’s a wonderful way for new writers to express themselves creatively and try to build a loyal fanbase,” she says. “But it’s important to address that many of the writers on the platform are young in age, and lack real-world experience. Evidence shows that young people are regularly using digital platforms and websites as the main source of information about sexuality. In which case, young people shouldn’t be the ones in the sole position to educate others about sexual health and relationships. Wattpad has the potential to exacerbate feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety as readers feel their real-life experiences fall short of the fantasies and stories they read.”
So, yes — Wattpad can be an excellent way to explore sexual curiosity, but to an extent. While I loved growing up reading fanfiction, a lot of the material I consumed wasn’t healthy and was written by people my own age. It can be difficult to convey realistic depictions of healthy sexual relationships when the authors aren’t receiving proper information, and haven’t experienced those types of relationships yet. As a member of the Wattpad Generation, I’ve had to re-learn a few things I learned about sex. From how awkward early encounters can be, to incorporating discussions of consent and the normalization of BDSM.
Is generation alpha doomed to repeat our mistakes? Erotica is more popular than ever with young adult readers, with TikTok allowing for young readers to share its “spicy booktok” recommendations (the hashtag #spicybooktok has 203.2 million views and counting). Wattpad stories clearly can’t and shouldn’t be filtered out, but adolescents (specifically ages 10-14) should proceed with caution before diving in. Instituting more inclusive, robust sexual education at home and at school – programs that focus on the dangers and pleasures of sex, as well as relationship red flags – can make an improvement in sexual health, autonomy, and fantasies of young people. The Wattpad Generation can come together and use our power for good: to promote sex positivity and education through the content we produce for others to consume.
*Names have been changed.
Pediatric Academic Societies. (2018) Let’s Talk about Sex: Do Adolescents’ Parents and Primary Care Physicians Talk to Them About Sex?
Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. (2021) LGBTQ+ Inclusive Sex Ed.
Fox, A. M., Himmelstein, G., Khalid, H., & Howell, E. A. (2019) Funding for Abstinence-Only Education and Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention: Does State Ideology Affect Outcomes?
Megan Harrison, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Jennifer Wiessner, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Sex Therapist