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Slash and Yearn?: In more than 800 websites devoted to Harry Potter slash, some host 100 or more stories apiece, while others feature galleries of fan art picturing Harry and his boarding-school chums in relationships very different from those created by author J.K. Rowling.

When Harry Met Smutty

The guardians of the Harry Potter empire wrestle a thorny problem: What to do about the Internet's bumper crop of slash fiction or worse--perverse porn--about everyone's favorite little wannabe wizard

By Christopher Noxon

THREE WORDS guaranteed to make parents of bookworms squirm, editors at Scholastic wince and attorneys at AOL Time Warner snap to attention: Harry Potter porn.

The phrase may sound like a sick joke, but it's all too real to those charged with protecting the mighty Harry Potter empire of books, merchandise and movies. And with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix flying off of bookshelves faster than low-carb candies, the guardians of the Harry Potter copyright are again confronting a particularly tricky question: If it's no use getting worked up over unauthorized web tributes to everyone's favorite wizard-in-training, what about hot boy-on-broomstick action?

Produced and consumed mostly by young women, naughty Harry Potter stories belong to the larger online phenomenon called slash fiction (slash refers to stories that pair male characters like Captain Kirk and Spock or Starsky and Hutch; stories about male-female sex are called simply het). Here's a sampling of Harry Potter slash, taken from a novella called Irresistible Poison, about a budding romance between Harry and his archenemy, Draco Malfoy:

"His hands moved up to hold Harry's startled face, and in the space of a next heartbeat he was kissing Harry, hard and full on the lips, his manner deeply passionate, hopelessly desperate ...

"What just happened?

"He knew bloody well what just happened. He just kissed Harry Potter, that's what happened. The thought of it made him nauseated, even though at the very same time an entrenched part of him yearned for the perverse, forbidden pleasure of it all over again."

In the world of Harry Potter slash, that's relatively tame stuff--the same Singapore college student who penned the scene has posted much lustier scenarios in stories like Forbidden Want and Taken by Force on her website Magical Intrigue.

A Google search lists more than 800 websites devoted to Harry Potter slash, with some hosting 100 or more stories apiece and others featuring vast galleries of fan art picturing Harry and his boarding-school chums en flagrante. Meanwhile, many other slashers distribute stories on newsgroups devoted to unauthorized Harry Potter fan fiction. Slashers are careful to include disclaimers warning underage readers about sexual content, and most are careful to "age up" the characters, staying away from the period when the series began (when Harry was all of 11).

Th-Th-That's All, Folks!

But those measures aren't likely to calm executives at Warner Bros., the studio that's already taken a hard stance against online material and domain names related to J.K. Rowling's fantasy franchise. Before the release of the first film two years ago, studio attorneys sent cease-and-desist orders to operators of several fan sites in the United States and Britain. A public relations meltdown followed, and the studio was pilloried in the press and shamed by a sweet-faced 16-year-old fan from Virginia, who organized a boycott and gave a Warner Bros. VP a thorough drubbing on MSNBC's Hardball.

Just as that controversy was beginning to quiet down--Warner Bros. ended up dropping or settling cases against unauthorized sites, and the boycott was quietly called off--came an even sleazier online affront to its wholesome brand. When studio executives learned about Harry Potter slash from this reporter in August 2001, they took four days to round up the troops from sojourns in France and Aspen--then released a formal statement.

"It is not only our legal obligation, but also our moral obligation to protect the integrity of our intellectual properties," the statement read. "This is especially true in the case of indecent infringement of any icon whose target audience is children."

Although Warner Bros. went on to declare its commitment to "protecting First Amendment rights," it appeared that billable hours were about to start piling up. "We are considering all our options," the statement concluded. (Meanwhile a representative from Scholastic, which retains the rights to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, said the children's publisher was unaware of the phenomenon and did not respond to subsequent calls for comment.)

Attorneys familiar with copyright and anti-obscenity laws say the studios are well within their legal rights to go after slashers. They are likely to refer to so-called tarnishment provisions of federal trademark law, which have previously been used by the Dallas Cowboys to block distribution of a porn movie that included team uniforms and by Coca-Cola to stop the merchandising of posters featuring the familiar logo with the words "Enjoy Cocaine."

Negative Attention

But just because they can sue doesn't mean they ought to. "The problem is that the act of taking legal action could trigger a public response that brings more attention to the offending material than it would have ever had otherwise," says Chris Murray, chairman of the entertainment and media group at O'Melveny & Myers, a Los Angeles law firm that represents several studios. "I know of many cases in which a holder of intellectual property will ignore fan material by saying, 'It's not really hurting me, so why bother? It will die out on its own."

"But I'd be surprised if that were the case here," Murray adds. "None of the copyright owners that I'm aware of are likely to knowingly tolerate pornography."

Most slashers, meanwhile, bristle at the suggestion that their work can be dismissed as knockoff erotica or demonized as kiddie porn. "I will take serious offense to anyone who labels my stories as 'porn,' because it insults me as a writer--the majority of my stories are PG or R, and sex if any at all is only incidental to the plot and not its focus," says a prolific slasher known as Rhysenn, a twentysomething straight woman who has written more than 20 Harry Potter slash and het stories along with a few novellas. "Pornography is crude and blatantly sexual; slash deals with characters and romance and emotions more than the physical aspect of the relationship alone."

Slashing Out

It's true that most slash reads more like a paperback bodice ripper than like hard-core porn--Rhysenn's stories, for instance, are heavy on tortured descriptions of moony-moony desire with just a few detailed blow-by-blows (note to Hogwarts headmaster: if the broom shed's rocking, you might try knocking).

According to MIT scholar Henry Jenkins, who has tracked slash since its appearance in photocopied zines circulated at fan conventions, slash appeals to young women because it lets them experience romantic bonds in a mythological universe far removed from the more familiar (and far scarier) world of boyfriends, dating and sex.

That's certainly the case for a Harry Potter slasher from southern England known as Acassha, who admits that some may find it odd that a 19-year-old straight woman enjoys writing and reading what looks on the surface like gay porn.

"That's been the subject of debate in many a mailing list," she writes via email. "Some say it's female porn, others that it gives us a chance to control men. Personally, I think it's because we can't stand the thought of reading something with a man and woman having sex. It's squicky [slang for something that makes you uncomfortable], because you start thinking, 'Well, I don't do that ... should I?'"

It's doubtful, however, that Warner Bros., Scholastic or J.K. Rowling have much sympathy for fans who say they're entitled to write about the sex lives of underage magicians as a psychological tool for exploring their frustrated sexuality. With the much-hyped and mightily presold fourth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, released this week, and the publicity campaign in full gear, Warner Bros. is more likely to greet Harry Potter slashers with more takedown orders than tolerance.

"If they do get aggressive, we know we'll be the first in the firing line," writes Acassha, who says she regularly receives emails accusing her of being a "sick pervert" from outraged Harry Potter fans. "We'll be the first to be targeted in something like this, because it's not seen as 'normal.' But that's despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of us."

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From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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