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illustration by @estherlalanne

The golden era of Wattpad

The fanfiction platform that helped young women own their sexuality

To this day, I vividly remember my first encounter with the unknown world of fanfiction as a 14 year old. It was 2014, an overwhelming year plagued with an unforgiving 10th-grade exam cycle. The only way to handle that stressful year was to form an inexpensive coping mechanism that provided little bursts of joy to disrupt the usual mundanity of life. 

The subject of this cost-effective distraction was my newfound interest in a football player named Neymar Jr. Now, we can argue about the ethics of crushing on a problematic footballer for another delightful day. But, the recurring Google searches stemming from my curiosity to learn everything there was to learn about my crush  eventually led me, and millions of other young girls, to a defining moment of our sexualities; the zeitgeist of the mid-2010’s digital storytelling culture: Wattpad.

The golden era of Wattpad was upon us. If you were a teenager during the years of 2014-2017, it was virtually impossible not to have heard about the booming website. It captured the attention of young minds who evaded sleep and raced through 120 chapters of their favourite Wattpad book like the world was coming to an end. 

How Wattpad de-stigmatised sex

Fanfiction – a genre that already had a massive following on similar sites like Tumblr and AO3 formed the foundation of Wattpad and attracted passionate fangirls in hoards. From Harry Styles x Y/N (your name) fanfics, where you were the main character with ‘pick me girl’ vibes, to most of a chapter being dedicated to the protagonist’s low-maintenance morning routine and the art of the carefree, messy bun – Wattpad became a vortex where all the cliches in existence had congregated to inform and empower these sex-curious girls. Young women who otherwise, historically and systemically, had no access to any form of female sex education. 

“Wattpad gave me the freedom that I didn’t otherwise have while watching heavily filtered, PG television with my parents,” says 26-year-old Murugi, who started using the forum at 14. “I was able to read whatever I wanted and that freedom felt refreshing. Seeing people who I assumed were my age, freely writing and talking about sex made me a little less ashamed of it as a topic”.

Compared to the real world, where girls were basically trained to associate the mere thought of sex with feelings of intense shame and guilt, Wattpad was a digital haven, with sex being the dominating theme in all genres. 

Giving girls the permission to explore their sexuality

Angel Russell, sexologist and COO of global sexual wellness discovery platform Tickle.Life, explains the reason behind girls using Wattpad as the grounds for their sexploration with one simple word: Permission. “One of the first steps, when it comes to people having a healthy attachment to the exploration of one’s sexuality, is somebody, at some point, giving them the permission to explore. Culturally and socially, girls aren’t given that permission in the same way that boys are, so we look for communities like Wattpad for that validation.” 

Seeking refuge from societal structures that oppress the access to their bodies, teen girls flocked to Wattpad to create and consume stories that were produced by the demographic who understood their desires best. 

Soon enough, an expansive community of young folks took up space on the internet and attracted writers like Claudia Tan (author of the soon-to-be film adaptation Perfect Addiction) to Wattpad at the age of 16. “I liked the interactive nature of the site. I’ve always wanted to write spicy romances, and the fact that these writers were doing that made me feel less shame in the enjoyment of writing them,” she says, praising Wattpad’s engaging user interface for the “genuine and supportive community” it provided, enabling her to have conversations with her followers and readers.

A space to break cultural stigmas and taboos 

The books on Wattpad – albeit filled with clichéd storylines and missing punctuation – served as the first introduction of female-oriented sex scenes for young women of colour like 20 year old Umikha Rathod, who would never have equated the word or act of sex with any modicum of pleasure before.

 “I believe I read my first intimate scene on Wattpad,” she recounts. “It felt wrong and taboo and there was [this] fear of being caught. But there was also the excitement and desire to learn more.” Umikha’s experience is relatable to that of many women of colour, correlating to Wattpad’s meteoric success in countries like the Philippines and India, with Indian users spending about 37 minutes per day on the digital platform. 

Growing up as a South Asian immigrant, sex was a taboo topic in my culture. Unsurprisingly, Indian movies weren’t helpful either. Bollywood and regional Indian films had long perfected their art of depiction of sex scenes, hidden under layers of contextual metaphors that, both logically and biologically, never classified as actual sex. The passionate joining of two hands, kisses shared behind the privacy of a tree, and the collision of flowers were the only acceptable performances of sex that made it to our screens. 

In retrospect, it’s comical that the descendants of a once sex-positive culture that produced works like Kamasutra – perhaps the most salient literature on eroticism and sexuality – had our informal sex education and introduction to kinks through fanfictions on Wattpad. Be it the effects of colonisation or the patriarchal status-quo: as women of colour, reading stories on Wattpad allowed us to experience the coming-of-age, sexual awakening that our culture outright refused us. It also provided us with a safe environment without parental interference and offering what Angel describes “a cloak of anonymity”, to motivate our sexploration by writing stories that focused on our pleasure and fantasies.

The limitations of Wattpad as sex ed

Despite all the positive influences Wattpad has had on the sexualities of young women, it also harbours its fair share of criticisms. The very sense of community that Wattpad is praised for is paradoxically also regarded as its worst facet, with dangerous misinformation stemming from a lack of kink-focused sex education being the crux of the issue.

“A significant negative impact of consuming such sexual stories at a young age is the fact that neither are they real nor educational. Porn, such as erotica, doesn’t encompass the real-life aspects of sex like conversations about consent, STI prevention, and aftercare,” says sex and kink educator Emerson Karsh-Lombardo. 

Stories with clear power dynamics were being penned down by inexperienced and unaware amateur teens with varying intensities of smut. Some of the most popular concepts were books where the female protagonist was “sold to One-Direction” , or mafia/gangster-themed books with dominating alpha males and submissive females with millions of reads. 

“What we fantasise about vs. what we actually do are rarely the same. Our fantasy lives are very rich and detailed. However, learning to have sex through erotica is like learning to drive by watching the Fast and Furious movies. You wouldn’t, because it’s all fictional.” says Angel. 

Although these stories facilitated an early introduction to concepts of kinks like BDSM and consensual-non-consensual sex, according to Emerson, they can’t be labeled as educational or accurate by any means. “If a Wattpad story encompasses things such as power dynamics, impact play, or consensual non-consensualsual sex, they are encompassing kink activities. The most important aspect of a story encompassing kink is an emphasis on consent. If there is consent, it is kink. If there is no consent, it is abuse. This is a key difference.”

Sexual liberation beyond the golden years of Wattpad

Now, Wattpad is a worldwide, pop-culture phenomenon with movies like After and The Kissing Booth being the centre of discourses around the romantic glorification of abuse that occurs on the platform. Perhaps movie adaptations of stories written by young women who used Wattpad as a writing device for escapism and exploration may never appropriately translate to the current climate of pop-feminism. However, placing the onus on the writers isn’t the solution to the problem. An anti-racist and pleasure focused sex-education on porn literacy is.

Sexually liberated women have existed long before the inception of digital storytelling platforms or the Internet. Wattpad, with its unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships, and lack of queer-inclusive stories, wasn’t a perfect medium. But the generation of young women who had their sexuality’s genesis through Wattpad, continue to praise the role it played in dismantling the taboos and stigmas around cishet sex, that helped to sexually liberate them.

Most of us, now in our 20s, moved on from Wattpad years ago to meet our mature sexual interests to erotica, romance novels, and even K-Drama. Regardless of the feelings of embarrassment and cringe that arise when we reminisce about the time spent obsessing over the Wattpad books with clichéd tropes, its everlasting impact on our sexual identities cannot be neglected. After all, in what other world would it have been possible for Y/N to catch Harry Styles’ attention by reading a book during a One-Direction concert?

What can you do?

For more resources on pleasure-focused and queer-inclusive sex and kink education, you can find:

illustration by @estherlalanne

Exploring the theme of fan fiction, I created a positive and dreamy piece, using different symbols of sex discovery in teen years. From development and the beginning of sexual arousal, to the first celebrity crushes and need for intimacy, this piece explores writing as a creative way to cope, explore and express. The colours, the glow, and different panels represent a dream-like state where everything is possible.

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