The Fifty Shades Phenomenon

When E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series became an international success, selling more than 70 million copies worldwide in 2012,[1] many were surprised at the phenomenon of women suddenly reading erotic fiction in public. Yet the escapism of romantic and erotic fiction was nothing new; Mills and Boon have been publishing such novels, aimed at women, for nearly 100 years.[2] Fifty Shades was different, however, in the media attention it received, and in the evidence generated afterwards that these stories had negative effects on the mental and relationship health of women who read them.[3] Fifty Shades was forming attitudes and behaviours.A laptop user browsing the internet.

As we hear this, we should not be surprised. Many of us will have experienced the power of immersing ourselves in fictional worlds. Similarly, you may have heard the disturbing statistics on the effects of pornography on young people.[4] When we consume such media we are shaping ourselves, and we must be careful. What you may not know, however, is that Fifty Shades did not begin life as a series of novels.  Instead, it was a fanfiction series called Master of the Universe, posted online by its author “Snowqueens Icedragon.”[5] Fanfiction involves taking the characters, setting, or plot of existing media, and using them to write new stories. Across the internet you can find fanfiction based on films, books, games, bands, and sports teams, to name just some of the most common genres. Master of the Universe featured the characters of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series in a new setting, with a level of eroticism that far exceeded anything in the original novels. After publishing the story online, chapter-by-chapter, E.L. James changed the character names, removed obvious references to the Twilight books, and published her story in novel format. The rest is history.

This blog is not an attempt to respond to a twelve-year-old book! However, I tell you this story because it helps us to begin to understand what fanfiction is, and the power it can have over people. In some ways, fanfiction is as old as storytelling – people have always spun new tales from existing characters and worlds. But fanfiction today is different: it is vastly more popular, much of it is erotic, and many in our churches, especially women and young people, are aware of it.

The History of Fanfiction

Fanfiction as a community project, and as an erotic project, really began in the 1970s. Women who enjoyed the television series Star Trek began writing their own stories about the main characters, and sharing these with one another. Many of these stories were romantic or sexual in nature, and often included homosexual relationships between the characters Kirk and Spock.[6] Since these early days, fanfiction has predominantly been a female pursuit,[7] with many of today’s readers beginning their involvement during adolescence, and some persisting into adulthood.

For the first few decades, fanfiction remained underground, and relatively small-scale. However, with the growth of the internet, everything changed. Authors could share stories widely, and forums and communities enabled fans to discuss their favourite shows/books etc. What was once hidden and secret edged into the mainstream. Today, there are websites dedicated to the interests of specific groups of fans, focussing on single fandoms,[8] or even specific relationships (known as “pairings”). There are also large multi-fandom archives such as, and the newer, but rapidly growing, (AO3). As of March 2024, AO3 hosts more than 12.5 million works, in nearly 64 000 fandoms.[9] Surveying the most popular fandoms, we see that the majority of works feature male/male pairings, with male/female the second most common, and that many of these stories contain explicit or semi-explicit content. For example, at time of writing the Harry Potter fandom, which is one of the most diverse in terms of pairings, contains 200 000 stories featuring male/male relationships, and 162 000 containing male/female pairings.[10] Not all of these stories will feature explicit scenes, and there are a smaller number of “gen” stories (78 000), which are not about romantic relationships.

The Appeal of Fanfiction

Given the number of stories published, and the nature of these stories, we must ask why fanfiction is so appealing to the women who enjoy it. One of the most notable things about modern fanfiction is the immediacy of the emotional connection for the reader. Unlike a novel, or even an episode of a television series, the author can be confident that their target audience comes to the story already familiar with the characters or setting, and with an existing emotional connection to those characters.  Readers can search for stories featuring the pairings, genre and plots that interest them. Therefore, when a reader opens a story, they are already invested in seeing these characters, and this specific relationship. The author does not need to spend time describing the setting, or establishing a backstory. As a result, fanfiction tends towards stories where there is an immediate, or early, emotional hit. This is also the case in longer stories, where chapters are published sequentially. Typically each post contains its own emotional beat, rather than merely advancing the plot. As noted above, there are non-sexual stories, for those who simply want to enjoy a fictional world; yet the majority of content involves some form of romantic or sexual themes, and many readers will be familiar with the allure of this form of fanfiction.

Authors and readers are invested in the lives and relationships of their favourite characters, and often inhabit the stories for themselves. As a result, male characters are often feminised in some way, and there are numerous anecdotes of gay men dismissing male/male stories as unrealistic. The female authors and readers use the main characters, whether male or female, as their avatars in the fictional world. When two characters you believe are “meant to be together” finally achieve this relationship, the reader rejoices with their success, and feels something of it for herself, living vicariously through them. In many fanfiction stories, this relationship is the marker of the characters’ success in life, regardless of any other ills which may befall them.

This level of emotion is intense, but it is also ultimately unsatisfying. After completing a story, many readers relate feeling flat and low, and often quickly read another story to regain the emotional intensity. Fanfiction is perhaps the fast-food equivalent of a novel; it satiates the immediate hunger, but cannot truly satisfy. However, reading stories such as these can shape our desires and expectations. Common fanfiction tropes normalise ideas such as homosexual relationships, salvation through romantic relationship, and even risky or violent sexual acts. Helen Joyce recently published an article beginning to investigate whether fanfiction is influencing adolescent girls identifying as transgender.[11] It is clear that we, as Christians, must grapple with this form of media, and what it offers.

Fanfiction and the gospel

So what does the Bible have to say about fanfiction? One obvious, easy, response would be to simply say “ew, yuck!” and demand that no Christian ever read fanfiction again. I would argue that this is not the right approach. Firstly, there are stories online that do not contain such problematic content. Furthermore, we cannot say that romantic fiction, or depictions of romantic relationships, are by definition inappropriate; Song of Songs belies that position. Sex is a good gift of God, given to humans who are made in his image and designed for relationships with one another.  It is right, in the right circumstances, to celebrate sex and relationships. However, it is clear that fanfiction is often unhealthy, both in the relationships it describes, and in the effects it has on readers. Here it is helpful for us to think more deeply about the promise of fanfiction. Fanfiction stories typically present a fictional world in which success is marked by finally finding your one true love. This is the same plot as many romances through history; and there is a reason why stories such as this resonate with us so deeply, and why we long for deep and meaningful relationships.

We are meant to long for the one relationship that can complete us, but we find it in Jesus, the true husband of his bride, the church. When we seek to fulfil this desire by living vicariously through fanfiction, or even in a relationship with a real-life partner, we invariably find ourselves disappointed. Stories finish, people sin, lovers die. We cannot ultimately be satisfied by these echoes of the true relationship we are designed for; instead, these human relationships are meant to point us towards the true bridegroom.

When we feed our need through fanfiction instead, we open ourselves up to be shaped by the many ungodly ideas these stories include. The glory of the gospel, however, is that we can genuinely experience a profound relationship with our Lord. It is as readers see his face more clearly, that the appeal of fanfiction will begin to diminish. So please do not dismiss fanfiction, and romantic fiction, as simply silly or sinful flights of imagination. Instead, recognise that we all need a relationship with Christ, and so see these stories as what they are: an expression of the deepest longings of our hearts; our need for Jesus the true bridegroom.


This article was written by Cori Bromfield, a member of the Crosslands Cultivate programme. 







[6] Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, (University of Pennsylvania, 1992).


[8] “Fandom” is the term for a community which has grown up around a particular media product.  For example, the “Star Trek fandom” is a community of Star Trek fans.

[9] [Accessed 06 March 2024].

[10]*d*%20K*d*%20Rowling/works [Accessed 06 March 2024].

[11] [Accessed 06 March 2024].