“Harry Styles” is a member of the Mafia, going undercover every night as a rock star. Along with the other members of his band, he stages elaborate heists at every stop on their tour, their sold-out shows serving as the perfect cover-up. The only thing that consumes him more than his rampant drug use is his love and desire for the photographer joining the band on the road.
Not the real Harry Styles, of course. The Harry Styles with a secret life of crime is a character in Duplicity, one of the most popular fanfictions about the musician on the online writing-sharing website Wattpad. In another fanfic, Styles is a murderous nightclub owner who has a deathly fear of water and loves making dioramas out of dead butterflies. Yet another casts him as a local gang’s dangerous drag racer who eventually begins a relationship with his competition. Wherever the Styles fandom goes—from TikTok to Twitter to Tumblr—these stories of unpredictable relationships and power-driven sex follow.
After taking a long hiatus from music due to the pandemic, Styles—the real one—is finally back on the road with a nearly three-month tour of North America. Some of the fans (self-proclaimed “Harries”) going to see his largely sold-out shows are doing so after spending the past year and a half reading viral erotic fanfiction about him, cultivating a specifically unrealistic version of him within their minds. Online books such as Stall and Duplicity, the latter of which is still being written, are routinely top-ranked on Wattpad, where millions of fans eagerly await chapter updates about the life of a fictionalized, heavily sexualized Styles.
A large portion of Styles fanfic reimagines Harry—who doesn’t label his sexuality in real life—as a gay man in relationships with different men, most notably his former One Direction bandmate Louis Tomlinson. But Stall and Duplicity, like much of the Harry Styles fanfic that has trended on Wattpad and TikTok in the past year, depict the artist in heterosexual relationships where he’s a possessive, hypersexual, emotionally unavailable, sometimes even abusive boyfriend. He touches his female love interests erotically in public, teases them, controls them sexually and otherwise, and keeps them on the brink of danger. Sometimes he ties them to their bed frame or cuts their panties with a knife.
“The image that I have of Harry from reading [het] fanfiction is not the Harry that’s actually onstage,” said “Abby,” a college student who read Harry Styles fanfiction in her preteens and asked not to use her real name out of concern for her privacy. Soon she’ll see Styles live for the first time, after recently becoming reacquainted with erotic fanfic about him via viral videos on what’s known as Harry TikTok. “I know the kind of person that Harry is—that he’s a good person and would never do bad things. But there’s the smallest part of me that says, ‘Hm, what if he’s not?’ and thinks he actually has that dark side.”
The actual Styles has never presented himself as this type of threatening, hypersexual abuser (neither have the rest of One Direction’s members, for that matter). Rather, Styles has curated a brand predicated on being welcoming and inclusive of all identities. His own slogan, featured in his sophomore album Fine Line and emblazoned across his merch, is “Treat People With Kindness.” And perhaps that’s precisely why so many fans want to twist him in the opposite direction.
The depiction of Styles as a controlling sexual and romantic partner dates back to the first wave of fanfics about the musician, when he was still an active member of the boy band One Direction. Anna Todd’s fanfic After, for example, was among the most popular of the era, so much so that reader demand for the first few chapters crashed Wattpad’s website. In Todd’s telling, Harry is an emotionally unavailable bad boy with punk-edit tattoos who seduces the protagonist, an innocent college freshman named Tessa. By 2014, the Styles fanfiction had reached 1 billion reads on Wattpad and earned Todd a book deal. After then became a bestseller, spawning four sequels and a film series, with the third installment, After We Fell, premiering just last month. Though the story stopped being explicitly about Harry Styles along the way toward mainstream success (his character was renamed “Hardin Scott,” among other changes), the Harry Styles tropes Todd helped popularize are experiencing a renaissance within the fanfic space.
While many of these stories are about a version of Styles who isn’t actively a pop star or a former member of One Direction, they are still closely connected to the actual, real-life Styles. The plot of Stall, which has accumulated 49.1 million readers, hinges on a reference to Styles’ song “Medicine,” an unreleased track known among fans for its sexual lyrics. (It’s so popular that some fans are now petitioning for the song to be added to the “Love on Tour” set list.) In the fanfic, the “medicine” in question is Harry’s inescapable need to torture and kill men who get away with unspeakable crimes.
“How can that not affect the way you think about the song?” Abby said, on what it would be like to watch “Medicine” live after reading both Stall and Stall 2. “It just makes you think that the song is really sinister when it’s not. It’s just very horny.”
Plenty of these fanfics themselves are sexually explicit. In those where Harry is in a heterosexual relationship, he’s often possessive and sexually experienced, with a propensity for BDSM and sexual power play. “Her body seems so small under mine and I feel like I need to be really careful and make sure I don’t collapse on her and kill her,” says the Harry in writer happydays1d’s Wattpad hit Malignant, adding, “I guess all women are like this, though.” Malignant has been read more than 34 million times since it was published as the first of a trilogy in summer 2020. “Harry is so used to me falling undone to his every touch, giving into him so easily because he drives me insane,” says the female protagonist, Amelia, in another chapter, while describing her resolve not to have sex with him. He responds by downing alcohol in a dimly lit club, then putting his hand up her skirt in public.
“When you look across fandoms, this is not something that happens only to Harry. In other fandoms, people headcanon somebody as being really forceful or whatever, and someone else as being gentle,” said Flourish Klink, a co-host of the Fansplaining podcast and occasional fanfiction writer, who has been deeply involved in fandoms of all kinds since the late ’90s. Styles fans’ personal headcanons—fan-made tropes and beliefs about a given character or figure that stray from the typically agreed-upon status quo—may also have to do with the type of preconceptions about heterosexuality that go into writing the fanfiction. “It may be a little bit because there are these ingrained het romance ideas about taming a guy.”
Indeed, Abby, who is a heterosexual woman, told me, “We want Malignant Harry and we want Stall Harry, because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to think is attractive.”
Still, Klink adds, similar tropes play out in other types of fanfiction too, including slash, or same-sex-focused, fanfic. “There are a lot of these abusive boyfriend representations and so forth,” they said. “I don’t believe that anybody is in here going, ‘I want this abusive boyfriend.’ I really think it’s sort of a normal representation of, yeah, sometimes that can be a hot fantasy.”
Zan Romanoff, an essayist, journalist, and novelist who writes about fandom, said that fanfiction can also be a space for women and noncis men “to work through the toxic messages that we have been given in this culture about what love and sex should look like.” “You are being told constantly that men have dark and violent impulses towards you, right? That they’re uncontrollable monsters whose sexuality will take over, who want to hurt people. I wonder if [fanfiction] is a safe place to sort of indulge and explore those ideas, to be in control of them,” Romanoff said. “It’s like, yes, Harry is this dark, menacing figure, but if you’re the author, you’re in control of dark, menacing Harry. You are dictating this fantasy.”
In an interview with the website One Direction Fanfics, Stall’s author, MysteryMixtapes, said as much. “I wanted to write a character that should be, by all accounts technically unlovable and essentially a [villain]; then see if I could make him loveable and have that as a romantic lead,” the writer said. “I wanted to see if I could make a character like his, someone people would empathise with and feel compassion for.”
Klink agrees. “Fiction is one of the healthier ways that people can explore in that space without it being dangerous,” they said. “This is all happening on your computer. The only place it’s happening is in your head.”
Still, reading, and especially writing, erotic fanfiction remains taboo. “There’s still a stigma about especially female fans writing sexualized things,” said Paul Booth, a professor of media and cinema studies and expert in fandom at DePaul University. “It’s not about Harry Styles, it’s not about One Direction, or any sort of object. It’s about policing particular types of sexual behavior and particular types of sexual activity [because] we are still, as a society, extremely uncomfortable with young [women] expressing sexual desires.”
And while she began reading explicit fanfic at a young age, Romanoff doesn’t believe that it affected her as much as other literature. “When I think of the sort of problematic thing that I read in my adolescence that then shaped the way that I conceived of myself as a woman and a sexual and romantic being, it’s Atlas Shrugged,” she said. “Which is to say that, yeah, totally I could imagine reading stuff like After and sort of internalizing some harmful stuff, but I think it’s also important to emphasize that that stuff exists literally everywhere in our culture.”
But while part of the taboo surrounding erotic fanfiction in general may indeed come from a desire to police sexuality, these stories are about a real person, not a fictional character—and that’s where it gets complicated. This is true of most celebrities who have fanfiction written about them—let alone a member of One Direction who has been so prominent in the cultural zeitgeist and has fans who have fiercely defended him against this hypersexualized characterization in fanfic and other media for the past decade. Portraying Styles as a criminal, a killer, or an abuser brings its own unique set of consequences, not least of which is the possible effect on his own image. When HBO’s Euphoria included an animated sex scene depicting one character’s fanfic featuring Styles and Tomlinson, for example, Tomlinson said it left him “pissed off”—surely not a reaction that the fans who obsess over these fanfics feel good about.
Beyond that, though, erotic fanfiction opens the door to (over)sexualizing a real person, with some writers using the celebrity’s image in graphic, often violent scenarios without their consent. Some may see it as a practice predicated on taking the real-life person and corrupting their image to better suit a fantasy. A lot of sexually focused, het fanfiction is also full of abusive and problematic behavior and thus risks fetishizing this behavior as well as the real person. The visibility of these works can help create a space in which it becomes acceptable not only to promote and desire these abusive relationships, but also to project them onto an autonomous person with no say in the matter.
Because fanfiction writers often pull details from real life—Styles’ iconic butterfly tattoo is one example—the line between the real person and the fanfiction persona can easily become blurred, too, which in turn can be dehumanizing for the celebrity implicated in the fanfic while also encouraging the type of one-sided parasocial relationships that, while “perfectly normal,” can have problematic consequences. It’s these possible consequences that are often at the center of popular critiques of erotic fanfiction.
That doesn’t mean that all erotic fanfictions—even those that focus on BDSM and hypersexual relationships—are inherently bad. Some fans compare such literary fantasizing about a celebrity to fantasizing about a friend, which they argue is harmless as long as the necessary boundaries are respected. It’s the intention behind the fanfic that determines whether or not it’s problematic.
For members of marginalized communities—including women, queer and trans people, and people of color—fanfiction can provide an especially important avenue to explore sexuality and other complex issues, according to Owen G. Parry, a multidisciplinary artist and the founder of the collaborative blog Fan Riot. “It’s a space for people who don’t necessarily [jibe] with the more normative or canonical narratives in the world,” Parry said. “It gives them an opportunity to tell and imagine their own story by kind of resituating or recontextualizing these narratives and characters.”
In many ways, the very process of fanfiction—often taking a corporate character, narrative, or figure and creating an alternate reality with it through “transformative fandom”—is itself a subversive act.
“Transformative fandom is so interesting because, to me, it just gives a lie to this idea that people are quietly receiving culture and just like swallowing it whole. You can see these young people, largely women, being like, ‘No, I need to figure this out. I need to think this through. I need to make it weirder, or I need to make it mine.’ It’s a power reversal,” Romanoff said. “And it’s one of the reasons it makes people so uncomfortable.”
“Harry and all the 1D boys were supposed to be given to us as these sexless sweetheart idols, and some part of the sort of female response to that was to be like, ‘Actually, he’s a mobster,’ ” she added. “Or perhaps he’s an alcoholic, or a distant loner, or maybe even into knife play and BDSM.”