Like, a lot.
I was a lonely child, and I quickly figured out that searching for things on the internet lead to a whole new world of romance and humor and words I wasn't supposed to understand, but did. I'm pretty sure that the first word I put into a search engine is unrepeatable here, but quickly after that I learned about fanfiction and 'shipping and slash, and I read Buffy fanfiction and Labyrinth fanfiction and stories about Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and the ways people touched each other when they weren't supposed to.
It was a silly time of life. I knew nothing about human interaction other than what my teenage heart told me, and I could read these fics and put myself in them - student, adventurer, lover. When seventeen-by-way-of-time-turner Hermione spent her summer hols in Rome and struck up a juggling game between Draco and Professor Snape, I was like, hell yeah. A smart girl with all the guys and a mystery to solve? You bet I was there, on the edge of my seat, waiting for more.
Now, ten years later, I will go back and read some of my favorite fics. I immerse myself in the things I used to love - big writers who have gone pro, illicit PDFs of writing purged from the internet, old caches of fics nobody really cares about, anymore. And I can enjoy them.
You see, some of my favorite pieces are about two adult characters of roughly the same age who end up together. Some of my former favorites are about two adult characters of vastly different ages who end up together because the writer thought that might be interesting. Exciting. Perhaps taboo.
When I was seventeen, I have to admit, I had a serious thing for older guys. I don't think that's all too uncommon, but I was reading this stuff where the brilliant student took on the brilliant professor and they were in all sorts of love and I thought yeah, that's totally okay. I was seventeen and I was pretty significantly stupid. I had a crush on a teacher and there was Hermione, seventeen and legal in the Harry Potter universe, taking lessons from Snape in power and seduction. When I was seventeen, that all made sense.
My sister is turning fourteen in November. Not that far off from a curly haired genius with a penchant for mystery.
When I try to reread and relive those old stories, I'm disgusted.
This isn't a post about Harry Potter fanfiction (if you hadn't connected the dots). It's about the ways we need to respect childhood, femininity, and appropriate agency.
I'm not ragging on fandom, here - but I am seriously objecting to the narratives which allow a student, however legal, to have an equal relationship with an adult. Even more, I have a serious problem with the way we see young women. The sexuality of young adults should be completely untouchable by adult sexuality. And if we continue to see young women's bodies as sexual in the adult eye, we are seriously failing our children, our girls. And we are teaching them the wrong lessons.
We read in the news, and have experienced in our schools, that young women's bodies are consistently policed. Leggings are wrong, yoga pants a no-no, tank tops a smidge too small, too tight. Those rules purport to restrict sexuality (which is absolute rubbish, for shame!), but the way our society functions absolutely does not. Our society is the narrative of the young, capable (but fragile) woman who is attractive to more powerful, older males. Even our fanfic reinforces this! There's clearly a power dynamic, and all of that is about a woman who has little or no power, a woman less experienced or a woman who's body needs controlling.
I look at my sister and her beautiful body and soul, and I think about the fanfiction I read, written by adults, which would strip her of her agency and of her childhood in the name of sexual titillation. I think about the school dress code, which strips young women of their right to choose their own outfits because God forbid a boy get distracted (because somehow she is responsible for their behavior). I think about her being seventeen and reading stupid garbage fanfiction and living in a world where women are victimized because of their own flesh and budding sexuality as a matter of course.
It is, as my mother has taken to saying, completely borked.
Here's the thing - young people have these overwhelming ideas of how capable they are. And they are not in any way aware of the forces outside of themselves which influence their decisions. They are absolutely valid people with valid concerns and wants, and they absolutely should be able to do certain things, like wear whatever they want, read whatever they want, have access to family planning, have parents who love them more than they love their values. We, as adults, have a responsibility to make the world a better, safer, more loving and more equal place for them. Teenagers are going to get a lot of ideas of sexuality and relationships, and that's okay - but we have to plant the seeds of self-respect and autonomy, of pride in sexual identity and gender, of power dynamics and yes, safe sexual relationships.
Hermione/Snape? Not a safe sexual relationship. Not even close. Why should older women in fandom teach that brand of unsafe sexuality and supposed love to younger women with access to google?
Why should schools teach young women and men that women's bodies need to be restricted? Need to be controlled?
I go back and read this stuff and yeah, I am disgusted. Because it comes out of a broader culture where women, especially young women, have no power. And because young women deserve the opportunity to be young and fool around and mess up on their own terms, not within the male gaze or the adult context. Because I think there are adult women out there who haven't realized this, yet.
I'm tired of this narrative of powerless women. I'm tired of our schools enforcing powerlessness. I'm tired of looking back on myself at seventeen and thinking, my God, somebody should have protected me from what was not only inappropriate but immensely hurtful. I'm tired of thinking that we have failed our sisters.
It's a hard thing for me to look back on what was an escape mechanism - fanfiction - and realize that it was completely borked. But it was, and it came out of a culture of young women having no agency and no respect from the adults who are supposed to protect them. It's hard for me to acknowledge that the fics I read at seventeen described highly predatory behavior because, as I've laid out, at seventeen I really didn't know anything other than a narrative of powerlessness.
Fandom should do better. The schools should do better. Parents should definitely do better.
Because my sister is turning fourteen, and because really, if you're into a fandom or not, we've all been a part of the story of our sexuality being taken from and used against us.
And no young woman should think that that is okay.