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My Paper Partner

by Emily Smith (she/her)

contributing writer

illustrations by Haydn Nixon (he/him)

From The Kama Sutra, to a 5,000 word Harry Styles x reader fanfic, literary porn is one of the many things that the digital age has gotten its rough, veined, choke-worthy hands into. Gone are the days of Fifty Shades of Grey being the most NSFW thing you could find; now you can filter sexy stories by your favourite kink - for free. But are they replacing genuine romance with fantasies? And are they enabling unrealistic sex expectations like the idea that someone can make you cum with just a smouldering look?

Everyone craves a sweet escape from life; that’s the point of fiction. It’s far easier to get wrapped up in someone else's imaginary scenario than to deal with the problems of your own. I fell into that rabbit hole early-on, consuming romance as soon as I could read. So, I clung to fictional romance like a drowning man to driftwood and haven’t let go since.

Some of you might be the same. I was reading at an “advanced level” as a child; it was all my teachers ever told me. “Emily is reading far beyond her years,” they’d beam proudly. But how advanced is too advanced? Morris Gleitzman and Roald Dahl quickly got dull. Jacqueline Wilson’s Love Lessons and Girls in Love paved the way to Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments. From there, I discovered Tumblr, Wattpad and Archive Of Our Own. Now I’ve lived in this rabbit hole for the past decade. My driftwood has transformed into a yacht that would make your great aunt shudder.

My own love life? Pfft. Why should I redownload Tinder, when I can hop online and in two seconds be having dinner with Edward from Twilight? Or slow dancing with V from BTS? The opportunities are limitless. What’s Tyler from five kilometres away going to offer me that Nick Wilde from Zootopia can’t? The world of fiction truly is limitless and bonkers. And I mean this. The things I’ve said above are actually on the milder side if you can believe it. Debate has asked me to give an example of something crazy I’ve read. I asked, “Can I up my word count by 1,000?”

In the meantime:

• ‘Donald Trump x Bob the Builder’. This does exist. Their whirlwind romance began when Bob was tasked with building Trump’s wall.

• ‘Kissing the Coronavirus’. The scientist who falls in love with the virus she is tasked to eradicate.

• A vivid reimagining of America’s founding fathers as liberal LGBT Gen-Z college majors (it’s set in America, duh).

I digress. If you think any of these stories are a crime against fiction, that's the point. It can be anything you want; you have so much power. You can take the everlasting piss out of a critically acclaimed piece of work. You can create your own critically acclaimed piece of work.

Everything is so much sweeter and easier when it’s not real. Sometimes I ask myself, when does it end? How far down the rabbit hole do I go? But... everything is so much simpler. Surely touch and flesh can’t measure up to the palaces built out of paragraphs between pages.

Fictional sex is better too, and BookTok will agree with me. Oh, BookTok, how I love and loathe you. For the uninitiated (I envy you), BookTok is a subgenre of TikTok that focuses on - you guessed it, books. What started as simple book recommendations has blown into a viral sensation that has an impressive 114.3 billion views under the hashtag. There’s a few things that cause a book to go viral on BookTok. Does the plot sink its teeth into you and not let go? Are the metaphors so carefully intricate that they dance circles around you? Is the prose so devastatingly, overwhelmingly purple that it soaks you from head to toe in crystalline colour? Nah. But it does have age gaps, forced proximity and enemies to lovers. And, of course, smut. Spicy smut, in the eloquent words of some BookTok users. Explicitly graphic, detailed sex scenes that could make E.L. James blush. None of those softcore, metaphorical, fade to black sex scenes. This is as steamy as a hot shower. The raunchier, the better.

But Emily, you might be shouting, you read all that and more when you were young. Yeah, look how I turned out. I’m writing this article right now. I leaned into it. BookTok boasts the subtlety of a punch to the face. Often, I have to draw a line in the sand. Real life, especially when it comes to sex, is not at all like a BookTok recommendation. Come now (figuratively). Your first time is probably going to be awkward and clumsy.

You could explore your own sexual identity within the privacy of your mind, or you could live in someone else's. It’s a dangerous line to toe; take it from me. It’s gotten so muddled that I’m not even sure what I like. Sometimes I sit back, close the book and wonder; have I ever really explored my own romantic identity or have I been too engrossed in everyone else's?


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