Joyce activated, issue 29

Recent years have seen the formerly niche genre of fanfic explode in popularity. Much is pretty hardcore—and a surprising amount features couplings between two men who are straight in the source material. I think this may be part of what is fuelling trans-identification among teenage girls.

Joyce activated, issue 29

Before I ever got interested in trans issues, I wrote a feature article that, though I didn’t know it at the time, would keep resonating with what I went on to do. While researching a piece about online pornography, I had come cross “slash” fiction—fanfic, written predominantly by and for straight women, which pairs two male heterosexual characters in a sexual relationship (“ships” them, for short). I had never written or read any fan fiction, though I knew it was immensely popular and also that the “Fifty Shades” series had started as a “Twilight” fanfic. And I had no idea until I researched that story that a very large share of all fic brings together two men who, in “canon” (the source material), are straight.

The name “slash” comes from the punctuation mark in the first slash pairing to develop a devoted following: Kirk/Spock. Those Star Trek-inspired stories were shared at sci-fi conventions and in small-circulation home-made fanzines. But the arrival of the internet and enormous repository sites where anyone can post their own fic mean that fanfic in general, and slash in particular, are now both easy to find and enormously popular. I think this may be playing a significant part in the epidemic of teenage trans-identification, especially among girls.

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Before reading the rest of this article, read my article from 2016—it’s on The Economist’s website here, and has also been archived.

I find it fascinating now to read something I wrote a year before I discovered that something was up on sex and gender. Without even realising that soon I wouldn’t be able to do this in any mainstream outlet, I wrote frankly and fearless about psychosexual differences between the sexes, and why people of one sex might imagine themselves into the skin of the other.

And the people I interviewed spoke the same reality-based language. For example, take this quote from Donald Symons, an expert in sexual psychology: “To encounter erotica designed to appeal to the other sex is to gaze into the psychological abyss that separates the sexes.” He and a slash aficionado ended up writing a book together about what slash tells us about women’s psyches, which relied heavily on concepts from evolutionary psychology—concepts that become meaningless if you confuse the sexes, or pretend that there are only minor differences between them, or that those differences disappear once someone identifies as trans.

Since this article was a labour of love written around my day job editing the International section of The Economist, the people I interviewed weren’t people I already knew from my beat. I never talked to any of them again. But I’d take a large bet that none of them would use the same words and phrases to me now, if I were talking to them today.

I don’t think either they or I had the faintest idea that a social contagion was even then getting under way in which growing numbers of teenage girls were identifying as trans—and that as the epidemic gained pace it would spread beyond the gender-conforming young lesbians who made up such a large share of the early adopters. Soon enough, a significant share were ordinarily heterosexual, feminine-presenting girls who had shown no signs of alienation from their sex until they hit puberty.

When I talk to anyone even slightly distant from the fast-changing subculture of trans-identifying teens, this is immensely puzzling. There’s a kind of sense—a homophobic kind of sense, of course—in an extremely gender non-conforming same-sex attracted person claiming to be the opposite sex. You can wish the world was more accepting, and that it was less likely a gay person might feel the need to transition, but you can see why it might have occurred to them. They will find their adoptive sex’s stereotypes easier to perform, for a start. And in their trans identity they get to be “straight”, and by now I’ve been told by plenty of trans and detrans people that this was a factor in their transition.

But what happens to the sexuality of someone straight who claims a trans identity? (Within trans ideology, of course: in reality nothing happens, only the words change.)

Some of them may identify as non-binary or gender-fluid, or describe their sexuality as pansexual or the all-purpose “queer”. The first leaves the question of which category they are in themselves open; the second leaves the question of whom they find attractive pleasingly vague. And then they can carry on pretty much the same, as a straight girl who fancies boys—with maybe a few piercings or tattoos, or interestingly dyed hair. (An even easier way to abandon Normieville is to identify as bisexual, even if you never do anything about it. This report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology not only shows the sort of rise in identification as LGBT that has to be fashion-driven, but just how common this notional bisexuality is, especially among politically left-wing female college students.)

Some, however, eschew all obfuscation and describe themselves as gay boys or men. I’ve started seeing more posts from gay men complaining about this, and more of them pointing out the homophobia of suggesting that they can “get over” their “sexual hang-ups” and sleep with a nice girl, just like they’ve always felt pressure to—as long as that girl identifies as male.

Are these the female equivalent of the autogynephile—the man who finds the idea of himself as a woman erotic, and who disturbingly often insists that that makes him a lesbian, and that lesbians ought to regard him as a potential sexual partner? In the late 1980s, when Ray Blanchard was doing the research that led him to proposing a classification of trans-identified men according to their sexuality, the clinic in Toronto where he worked was already seeing a non-negligible number of women—but almost all were extremely gender non-conforming lesbians. Straight, gender-conforming women with an unusual sexuality that meant they were aroused by envisioning some version of themselves as men barely featured.

Sexualities, like the sexes, are not mirror images of each other. So it would hardly be surprising if sexual motivations for transitioning also differ between the sexes. As that article about slash fiction suggests, written erotica for women can be regarded as the female equivalent of visual erotica (that is, porn) for men. What men and women find sexy differs (beyond the sex of the target): men care much more about youth and beauty and women much more about wealth and other markers of status. The former lend themselves to a visual treatment; the latter to words. Are some girls and young women writing themselves into a desire to transition?

I started this article thinking mainly of m/m (male/male) fanfic, which makes up a fair amount of the total. If you visit Archive of Our Own (AO3), you can sort stories according to fandom, pairing, degree of steaminess, actions performed and more. The site now has over 10m stories. To pick a popular fandom, the Harry Potter fandom has over 400,000 stories. I’ve just done a search that looked for “explicit” stories within that fandom with m/m pairings. There were more than 37,000, the most-read of which had 1.3m hits.

AO3 is not the only fanfic website: others include Wattpad and And as I said in that article, back in 2016, the stories they host provide an insight into teenage girls’ and young women’s erotic lives, unmediated by such gatekeepers as agents, editors and media organisations. Classic slash stories feature men reimagined as women would like them to be. “They are tough, talented, widely admired and complex,” I wrote. “They talk about their feelings and notice what women wear.” This fanfic is often described as “gay”, but it really isn’t: it’s by straight women, for straight women. One of my interviewees had shown some of these stories to gay men, who found them not erotic, but hilarious.

Judging by some of the articles, and the self-presentation of a significant number of “trans boys”, some are captivated by a version of themselves that is aesthetically reminiscent of a member of a Korean boy band: cute, fey, highly groomed, unthreatening and above all not very male. I think at least some girls are thinking and writing themselves into a version of “manhood” every bit as fake and inaccurate as the porn-addled version of “womanhood” claimed by some transwomen; a version that says a great deal about the psychology of these girls’ actual sex and betrays a profound ignorance of the realities of the target one.

There were also plenty of stories that were highly explicit, and some featuring material I thought deeply unpleasant, even bizarre. But when I revisited those sites for this article, the impression I got was that an awful lot of the stories are much more hardcore.

Take a quick search I did in the Harry Potter fandom, leaving all the filters unchecked except “explicit” and sorting by number of hits. This is what a curious Harry Potter fan might do, right? Flicking down my eye landed on a very popular, multi-chapter effort about “whore school” at Hogwarts, in which the female pupils are trained to work in prostitution, which is apparently at the heart of the magical economy. Harry, as the best-endowed boy in the school, gets to be the trainer. I skim-read the first few chapters, and as far as I can tell he will end up having sex with every girl in the school—or perhaps only the over-age ones? I’m not sure.

And when I say “have sex” I mean “fuck”. With all the porn tropes of slapping, spitting, reaming, choking; the same gut-churning emphasis on the volume of ejaculate and other bodily secretions; the same very young women portrayed as cock-hungry collections of holes to be not just penetrated but “rammed” and “destroyed”; the same miserable, degrading, joyless, loveless stuff that has taken up residence in far too many young men’s heads via online porn, and that growing numbers of young women report is destroying their love lives. It inspires a mixture of disgust and arousal—a powerful and particularly unpleasant emotional state.

Of course, a kid looking for something to read doesn’t have to tick “explicit”. And some of the stories are very good—I started reading one about an alternate reality in which Draco Malfoy kills Dumbledore at his first attempt, Harry et al never find the Horcruxes, the Order of the Phoenix loses horribly, and found it hard to put down.

An awful lot of the stories, however, are just as disturbing as hardcore visual porn, but aren’t thought of by parents as in anything like the same category. (Reading an explicit story on one of these websites does require you to tick a box saying you are aware that this is adult material, and most of the stories are plentifully tagged with content warnings.)

It’s common to worry about the porn that teenage boys are looking at, and what that is doing to the way they treat their female peers, and what that does in turn to create in those girls a distaste for womanhood. But the route to trans identification that goes via what those girls are reading and writing, whether that’s gut-churningly misogynistic and explicit “straight” porn about well-loved children’s characters or erotica centred on idealised, feminised mis-portrayals of gay men, probably matters at least as much. Don’t just ask what your sons are looking at; ask what your daughters are writing and reading.

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