Joyce activated, issue 77

Obviously, this week I’m writing about fan fiction. And thanking everyone who got in touch to see how I am, from the bottom of my heart.

Joyce activated, issue 77
To boldly go...

Probably most readers know that I’ve had a really shitty week. Rather than rehash it all for anyone who doesn’t, I’ll direct you to my colleague Maya Forstater’s writeup for the weekly Sex Matters Memo – it’s too painful for me to rehearse the facts again.

First, I’d like to assure everyone I’m doing fine – I am so lucky to have a fantastic organisation backing me, and the outpouring of support has been incredible. I have received dozens and dozens of messages of support from all over – from people I know and people I don’t. At least half a dozen were from parents who said that they recognised the phenomenon of girls developing gender dysphoria on fanfic websites from their own daughters’ trajectory, and urged me to keep going with my work. I was particularly pleased to hear from another writer who has covered this issue (more about this further down). 

Second, a podcast I recorded before the incident dropped on Friday – and in it I said more than I’ve said yet on the link between fanfic and trans identification among girls. You can listen to it here – the segment about social media starts at about 55 minutes, and the stuff about fanfic a few minutes later.

Nothing to do with fanfic, another appearance I promised to share some weeks ago – doing spectrum street epistemology with Peter Boghossian – also dropped this week. (The section with Eric Kaufmann was already out; this was the bit recorded as a three-way with Andy Ngo.) Obviously I know Ngo is controversial. I like to talk with all sorts of people, because that way I learn the most; your mileage may differ, and that’s fine too. One thing I would say, though, is that talking to people always means understanding better where they’re coming from, which is extremely important when you want to understand the world and effect change. It’s also very humanising – I found this conversation genuinely moving. 

I’ll be recording another podcast next week, and I’ve already arranged with the interviewer that we’ll dedicate the entire conversation to fanfic, which as Maya said I can “talk for Ireland” on. I’ll share that as soon as it comes out.

I have been fascinated by fanfic since first writing about slash fiction – fan fiction about romantic and/or sexual relationships between two men, both heterosexual in the source material – in 2016. I had never even heard of fanfic, let alone slash, until earlier that year, when I was drafted in by The Economist’s editor to write a companion piece and an editorial about the impact of porn on young people’s ideas about sex, to go along with a piece two business journos had already written about the business model of “free to view” porn. In the course of researching that I stumbled across the concept of slash and thought it was the maddest thing I had ever heard – my jaw literally dropped.

After doing an inordinate amount of research, I ended up writing an article on slash for The Economist’s companion lifestyle publication, then called Intelligent Life and now called 1843 (the year The Economist was founded). Here it is on The Economist’s website, and here it is archived.

But I didn’t connect slash, or fanfic more generally, with trans identification because I still had no idea girls were identifying as trans. It was a second “by chance” commission – being asked in 2017 to write about “why kids had suddenly started identifying as trans” – that led me to that rabbit hole. I did my research, I fell down the rabbit hole, I met detransitioners, I learned that Tumblr (which I hadn’t previously heard of – I was born in 1968) and YouTube were spreading a psychic contagion, I wrote a book, I left my job at The Economist so I could dedicate more of my time to campaigning against trans ideology – and still I wasn’t thinking about fanfic as a causal factor. I didn’t even mention it in my book, which came out in 2021.

Then about 18 months ago, I can’t remember why – something someone said about the gender conforming girls who start identifying as “gay boys”, most probably – and I suddenly recalled the way everyone I had spoken to for the Economist article emphasised that the male couples in slash weren’t very like men. Here’s a quote from that article:

In an influential essay in 1985, “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love”, the late Joanna Russ, a science-fiction author and feminist theorist, argued that the characters in slash were “not exactly male”. The sex scenes were often vague about what exactly was being penetrated, and the feelings and emotions of the receiving partner were reminiscent of those of a woman making love with a man. The constant references to the characters’ genitalia, Russ thought, were disguises: badges that said: “Hello, I have a penis, I’m a man.” The “endless hesitations and yearnings” of the plots resembled the manufactured misunderstandings of the romance genre. This raises the question: why project it all onto male bodies? “Why don’t the women who read [slash] simply read romances and be done with it?” she asked. “Why the ‘drag’?”

And so I went back to the site I had done most of my research on five years earlier – Archive of Our Own (AO3) – to see what I had missed first time round, and what had changed.

So many things, it turned out, and about a year ago I wrote an issue of this newsletter on some of it. But there’s so much more to say about fanfic, not only about trans identification or about slash, but about what it tells us about what young women think – and how it is changing the way young people of both sexes behave.

I’m still mulling it all over, but here are some initial thoughts.

From the point of view of a researcher, what’s valuable about peer-to-peer sites like these is the same thing that makes them so dangerous: the total lack of any gatekeeping. Without editors and commissioners to convince, and with no money changing hands, they provide what economists think of as the Holy Grail – “revealed preferences”, or evidence of what people actually want, rather than what they say they want.

But even as they reveal thoughts and desires, these sites also shape them. And they do so extraordinarily quickly. It’s fascinating – and also very disturbing.

One thing that has happened in the six years since I wrote that first article about fanfic is that it has become enormously more pornified – not just the slash, the M/F (male/female) couplings too. Most stories are tagged – with characters and pairings, with story types (happy ever after; alternate universe…) – and if they are classified as “explicit”, with sex acts. So it’s easy to get a sense of overall shares of material, and trends, simply by doing search for various tags.

Well, I don’t even remember seeing slapping, choking or spitting tagged back in 2017; and though anal was sometimes tagged, it wasn’t common. That has completely changed, and all those tags are really commonplace, along with much more explicit terms that used be unknown outside hardcore porn.

I now think there is a “doom loop” between the porn that boys and young men watch, and the fic that girls and young women write and read. I’ve heard young women say it’s now normal for young men to expect to do anal and to choke them and spit on them, and the porn those men are watching is obviously blamed. Well, the young men say the young women expect it too – and I now think they really do. These practices cross over into fanfic, where they’re normalised among girls and made to seem exciting and satisfying. So both sexes think the other expects them, and both sexes are correct to think this.

Another development is that fanfic authors are now fantastically obsessed with therapy. I don’t remember ever seeing a storyline or tag about the characters being in therapy six years ago; now it’s really, really common. And the therapy is described in endless detail – so boring, at least to me! But some of these stories are extremely popular (you can judge by how many people read them, and how many people give them kudos – the AO3 equivalent of likes).

I have a very bad feeling that this fictionalised therapy is doing quite a lot of harm. I’ve just finished Abigail Shrier’s excellent and disturbing book “Bad Therapy”, in which I learned to my astonishment that a very large share of all American kids have been in therapy at some point. Abigail argues that much of this therapy is doing immense harm, as is the extraordinary rush for American schools to “therapise” the classroom, with bad therapy turning into worse teaching and harming the entire school population.

But nowhere does Abigail mention – and nowhere have I seen anyone mention – the fact that girls and young women are creating, sharing and receiving false and harmful ideas about therapy, and more broadly about mental health and resilience, on these enormous sites.

A third common and disturbing theme of fanfic is so-called “found families” or “families of preference”. Partly that’s because a lot of the source material is children’s literature, and children’s literature has always had to find a way to get the kids away from adults so the plots can work. So the kids are often orphans, or have neglectful parents, or have gone to boarding school. Harry Potter obviously features all three.

But the denigration of families, and glorification of friends, is more than artefactual. Unlike the source material, Harry Potter fanfic tends to lean into the anti-parent vibe, with many storylines in which teenagers and young adults cut off parents if they don’t see things the right way, and thrive as a result. The same trend is visible in other fandoms. Friendship groups are not just idealised, they’re presented as a better alternative than the family you were born into – you get to choose them, after all. There’s no acknowledgement that in real life, friends, unlike most parents, tend to melt away when things turn bad.

It’s a disturbing reinforcement of the anti-family trend in the wider culture. This is particularly visible when it comes to trans issues, with ideological young people feeling completely justified in telling their parents, especially their mothers, that if they say a single word that could be interpreted as gender-critical, they’ll be cut off. I have lost count of the number of women by now who have come up to me at events and said they would love to speak out about the harms of trans ideology but their child – usually a daughter – has told them they must stay silent, or else.

And of course teenagers and young adults who come out as trans often tell their parents the news alongside an ultimatum: get with the programme or never see me again. The trans lobby, and some of the more high-profile trans YouTubers, tell children that if their parents won’t go along with their claimed identity, they should abandon them and turn to their glitter family.

I’ll finish this issue up with a few quotes from emails I received this week. First, from Substacker @hollymathnerd, who got in touch to say that she has also written about the link between slash and fanfic – I was delighted to hear from her, since she’s a lot younger than me, and saw a lot of it from inside.

When Harry met Draco - image source elivrayn on Instagram

Here’s the article Holly sent me. I’m enormously jealous of the excellent title: “When Harry Met Draco”. When I was writing for 1843 the canonical slash relationship was Kirk/Spock, and the piece was therefore called “To boldly go”, which is fine but a bit meh. Now it’s Harry/Draco, giving Holly something much better.

“I got a ton of email on this one from parents whose daughters are into fanfic,” Holly wrote, “including one who saw the connection between his daughter identifying as a man and her obsession for the first time. It’s amazing to me how big of a thing this is and how little the average person knows about it.”

And finally, a selection of the messages I received from readers, with anything even remotely identifying redacted. 

I was glad to see your article on the connection between slash and fandom and girls identifying as male, because it’s something I noticed many years ago when I was in fandom writing slash fic myself…It was my participation in fandom on Tumblr that first started making me worry that a lot of kids identifying as trans were actually experiencing a serious social contagion and using this identification as a method of escape from feminine gender stereotypes and social exclusion. I watched it happen, from a trickle to a torrent.
During that time I had several female friends who identified as transmen, one of whom I distinctly remember saying “My ultimate fantasy is to have sex with a man, as a man”. Another friend had escaped from a very abusive online relationship with a duo of transmen who live in the USA who had their names legally changed to [two male characters in a big fandom]. I had transmen friends who lived full time as male anime characters.

In GC circles, I have been pointing out the connection between fandom and young girls identifying as male for a long, long time. It’s great to finally see someone of your prominence talking about it publicly.

I’ve been aware of slash fiction and straight women wanting to be gay men for over 20 years, when I read an article about “girlf*gs” in Bust magazine. A book was published by the same name by Janet Hardy, who has also written books about BDSM. I think many of these “girlf*gs” would now call themselves transmen and some have taken the medical route…Locally, I know of a FTM activist who is married to a man but uses her trans identity to gain entry to the “queer” community.
Some of these women are engaging in risky sexual behaviour. I was shocked to read that the rate of HIV in FTMs is almost 7 times that of the general population…For these women, taking on a gay male identity seems like a way to finally break the shackles of heterosexism. This is only an illusion, one that comes with serious health risks for women, not just from hormones and surgeries but from the sex itself.

I just wanted to say how much your piece on fanfiction resonated with me and accurately describes what is going on in my family. 
I found my daughter was reading disturbing pieces of writing on AO3 when she was aged 12. During lockdown she and her friend group became obsessed with “shipping”. Now, two years later, my child says she’s a boy and as a high school freshman all her teachers are obediently calling her a boy’s name. 
I’m sure you have heard from many parents in a similar situation. Here, in [American west coast], we’re in a difficult position, and I am too frightened to push back against it…Thank you for your important work. It is a tragedy if our quirky girls are convinced to opt out of the gene pool.

And finally, thank you to everyone who reached out to see that I was alright – I am, though I was badly shaken. And thank you all for your support.

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