Artwork by Nadine Hurst
Picture this: it’s 2013. 9 am Science class. You’re sat at the back of the classroom, barely awake due to only sleeping three hours. You have your science book out on the desk, your pencil case placed strategically at the right angle whilst the teacher starts drawing up diagrams of plant cells, making it look as if you’re copying notes or reading a textbook. Instead, a new chapter of After has been published on Wattpad, and you’re trying not to scream as Harry declares his love for Tessa. Life is good.
That was my routine through secondary school. Wattpad will forever be a staple in my teenage years. The late nights, the excited discussions at lunchtime with friends, the daydreaming in every class wishing that I was with Luke Hemmings. Case studies show that celebrity crushes are a natural phase during the teenage years, triggered by puberty and the sudden desire to engage in romantic and sexual relationships. These fantasies allow teenagers' brains to come to terms with these desires and allow them to explore in a ‘safe space’. However, a study by Psychology Today now holds a warning that celebrity crushes can be maladaptive – “resulting in reliance of romantic relationships as a foundation of self-worth, negative evaluations of sexual experience, and endorsement of traditional gender roles.”
Now, at the age of 20 and reading this information, I suddenly became very aware of the fan-fictions I used to read when I was younger. Furthermore, I saw how these stories had damaged me more than I ever thought possible.
For so long, I thought I’d want a relationship like the ones I read. I wanted someone to have this hold of me, to shock and pleasure me whenever they felt like it, even if at the time it didn’t seem to work for me. I wanted the fiery arguments, the passionate reconciliations, to have a guy who was cruel and standoffish to everyone except me because I was his and only his. Now I know two things. Number one, those fan-fictions are a complete lie; I am still coming to terms with the fact that I won’t date Chris Evans in real life. Number two, if any guy tried to treat me that way, I would feel no guilt in punching him in the face.
To be blunt, I don’t think it is healthy for abusive relationships to be glamorised - let alone commercialised - simply because they started as an online story written by a fan. With the announcement of Anna Todd’s After (a Harry Styles fan-fiction accumulating over 1 billion reads on Wattpad) being made into a movie, lots of Harry’s fans expressed online how it is wrong to glamourise these stories to a young audience. With 80 million monthly users, Wattpad continues to be a breeding ground of damaging desires that will affect another generation of teenagers thinking that abuse is a sign of love.
This is not to scare people off from reading fan fiction. If I hadn’t read and written my own, I might never have found my passion for writing and books. Several of my favourite books are Wattpad originals, possessing incredible writing and well-rounded characters. Some of my best memories are doing Wattpad reading parties with my best friends, all of us reading stories together and discussing the scenes in great detail. I’ve learnt more from those stories than I ever did during my health classes. What I want people to realise, and it doesn’t matter how old you are because it’s never too late to learn this, is that the majority of relationships in those stories are incredibly toxic and dangerous.
Books like After are poisoning our perception of loving, respectful relationships. I have read all three of the original books published on Wattpad, and it terrifies me to think that my children also read books like this in the future. Too many times Harry emotionally manipulates and physically intimidates Tessa, abusing sex to maintain control and becoming possessive even when they’re not together. Tessa is no better: she too is manipulative, erratic, controlling and distant. The books seem to follow a timeline spanning no more than a couple of years. I was exhausted just reading them; can you imagine living like that for the rest of your life?
Your first thought might be: But Holly, the sex scenes. How insane are the sex scenes? Not only would I not be surprised, but I also wouldn't blame you. Unfortunately, we have forgotten that sexual relationships are normally very different to fan-fictions, and for good reason. The term ‘vanilla’ is now an insult against someone whose sexual desires and activities are deemed ‘boring or uninteresting’. Even physical actions like choking, spanking, aggression, and degrading language are viewed as sexual normality. Each person’s sex life is their own, but I have overheard a 17 year old mock her friend for being too ‘vanilla’ because she wasn’t comfortable with choking. We now judge one another on what pleasures us because we have this unrealistic expectation of sex provided to us by writers who are our age and have very little experience of their own. They mimic what they read from other stories, and in turn influence future writers to do the same.
When sex becomes a tool or a weapon, it is no longer sustainable in a relationship. Long-lasting sexual relationships are built on two consenting couples who are comfortable and happy around one another. The sex cannot outweigh the abuse you’d get for the rest of the day.
If you only take one thing away from this then let it be this: if they don’t respect you, they don’t love you. It doesn’t matter how many times they say they do. It’s not possible. True love is respecting your partner - not just as a human being but as an equal. It is what fan-fiction lacks, the realisation that fiery, passionate relationships do not always accumulate to good relationships.
Y/N does not mean “Yours no matter what.” Do not romanticise abuse. If you find yourself in a toxic or dangerous relationship, there are people and organisations who want to help you. If you’re reading fan-fictions now, I beg you to keep checking yourself and catch yourself when you’re becoming numb to the warning signs. A boy on a page can’t hurt you, but a boy in the real world can. It’ll only benefit you if you learn the difference now.
The freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247
Male Victims of Domestic Abuse – Please call 01823 334244 to speak to us confidentially
Article by Holly Morris