A 13-year-old boy sits hunched over a suspiciously gaudy magazine or a lurid, jerky video on a computer screen, furtive and flushed, sticky gobs of tissue in the wastebasket. It’s a familiar tableau: The traditional sexual explorations of a testosterone-clogged adolescent male.
Meanwhile, in a room of her own, another 13-year-old makes her own tentative sexual forays, but it’s not a familiar scene. She’s not “practice kissing” with her BFF or pushing off the roving hands of a too-old boyfriend or giggling about guys she’s totally crushing on. It’s just her, at her keyboard -- oh, and she's reading about the characters of her favorite book having acrobatic, highly noncanonical sex with each other.
Fan fiction -- stories about characters from existing published work, or even about real people (looking at you, One Direction) that are circulated among fans without being officially published -- is a genre little understood and much maligned by the mainstream, which could no longer ignore the form after the original Twilight fanfic Fifty Shades of Grey took the English-speaking world by storm. (To legally sell the books, author E.L. James had to change the characters of Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian.)
Mainstream discussions of X-rated fanfic usually veer toward the gleefully smug or the bemusedly grossed out. Like lists of "5 Ridiculous Works of Highbrow Erotic Fan Fiction," articles describing Fifty Shades and its fanfic peers as “the written word equivalent of taking two naked dolls and mashing them together to make what you think sex looks like when you're 10 years old,” round-ups that kick off with “All we have to say is: oof.” There's also the San Francisco reading series "Shipwreck," which solicits sexy scenes set in classic books from "great writers," then has them read aloud in front of an audience to roars of laughter; past shows are documented on a podcast.
Fan erotica can certainly be funny, intentionally or unintentionally, but the perpetual laugh track makes it difficult to understand why people are drawn to it, despite the ridicule.
Little solid research has been done on who writes and reads fan fiction, especially the huge subset of X-rated fanfic, but surveys and anecdata suggest the arena is dominated by girls and women, many of them queer, many of them young. There's no one type of person who writes and reads fanfic, however. Kiri Van Santen, Communications Co-chair for the fan collective Organization for Transformative Works, says she knows men and women of all ages who write fanfic. “I suspect that it is true that the majority of fanfic writers identify as women or girls,” she added, “but I don’t have data to support that."
When it comes to hormonal teenagers and horny adults scoping smut on the Internet, this is not the demographic we typically envision. Why are these people -- people we might traditionally consider unlikely to seek out sexually explicit content, let alone between anime characters or Sherlock and John Watson -- the ones creating and supporting this sexually curious community?
To the uninitiated, smutty fanfic can seem creepy, odd and superfluous. There’s porn everywhere on the Internet -- why turn to often poorly copy-edited, fan-written sex scenes starring Loki and Harry, in the same universe and making love at last?
To many in the fan writing community, however, the aspects of fanfic that can make it seem icky to outsiders are exactly those that allow readers to feel comfortable with the sexual content within. While boys are expected to sneak glances at porn or fantasize about feeling up their classmates’ boobs (boys will be boys, right?), girls have rarely been offered such a direct pathway into sexual self-discovery. It’s still far from simple for a girl to own her sexuality. But giving those urges to other people -- familiar characters from books or TV, members of their favorite musical group -- well, that feels less implicatory. In fanfic, girls can remain off-stage, able to glance sideways at their fantasies and desires without ever having to directly claim them.
The entire concept of fan fiction serves as a distancing technique, argued scholar Catherine Tosenberger when we spoke on the phone. “It can feel a bit less revealing,” she said. “If you put up original characters -- female writers routinely get asked, well this character is female, you’re a woman. Is this you?” If the character was already created by J.K. Rowling, the answer is a bit easier: No, clearly this is Hermione, a very specific woman who isn’t me!
Erotica itself isn’t new, as a long, healthy tradition of bodice-rippers can attest, but there’s an efficiency built into erotic fan fiction that is difficult to replicate in a stand-alone work. To build our emotional attachment to the sexy protagonists, romance novels must include long passages of plot and character development; sometimes the actual sex doesn’t even happen until the end of an entire book. And who wants to read an entire book before she’s allowed to get “in the mood”?
Fan fiction jumps off of the long-established emotional connection readers feel to beloved characters and canonical pairings, combining the efficiency of traditional porn with the slow emotional burn of traditional erotica. Plus -- huge bonus -- you can write it yourself, and while some fanfics stretch for many chapters and incorporate significant character development, you can also dash off a few sexy paragraphs without having to create and flesh out new characters.
The opportunity to displace these risky desires, not just into pseudonymous fictions, but onto fictional characters, makes fanfic a welcoming sexual space for girls and women, where they can safely spin their more illicit fantasies off into the minds and actions of distinctly separate alter-egos. “It made me much more comfortable in myself. More comfortable in my sexuality and going out to find other erotica and pornography without having to feel ashamed,” recalled Amy, 23, who lives in Portland and got into fan fiction early in high school. “These are characters, but they’re also people, they do normal people things and that includes sex and other sexual activities.”
For Kelly, 28, who lives in Sacramento, the existence of a community of writers creating fics about characters who shared her desires was vital; it was a parallel world in which her sexuality was treated as normal. She discovered fan fiction at around 13. “Reading about those characters and knowing that there were other people in the world who not only read about them too, but actually wrote about them in those ways, helped me gain a sense of confidence and strength in my own sexuality,” she told me.
The enormous popularity of slash fiction -- a term describing a gay pairing not established in the original text, such as Draco/Harry -- has frequently baffled outsiders and even fans who struggle to articulate their fascination. On many fan sites and forums, slash fics far outnumber het pairings. Much of it, like all fan fiction, is likely written by young women, most of whom, surveys suggest, are queer. But why? There’s no woman to be passionately adored in these scenes. “
If you think guys are hot!” exclaimed Tosenberger, laughing.
More importantly, slash can serve as another degree of separation between the fans and their sexual interests. Growing up, girls can be uncomfortably aware of their bodies as potential sexual objects, an anxiety that may not be solved by projecting onto female characters. Writing about sex between men may allow them to put aside their own insecurities and fears about sex and sexual judgment. “It’s a way of writing about sex without writing about girls,” pointed out Deborah L. Tolman, professor of psychology and social welfare at Hunter College and CUNY. “There’s still a minefield for girls to act on their desires, on their sexual feelings. Even though we say everyone can do everything, slut-shaming shows that’s certainly not the case.”
Luce, a blogger at Lady Geek Girl and Friends, quoted female slash fans who articulated just such a benefit to the genre: “Reading M/M is safe for me. I don’t want to identify as the sexual person involved,” one wrote on Tumblr.
Women are often socialized to simply want to be wanted. The premium on a woman being deemed desirable to men is so high that it is, frankly, often difficult for women to feel sexual without feeling safe in her desirability. When interviewing adolescents and teenagers for her research, Tolman explained, “What I’m not hearing is a sense of entitlement to their own sexual feelings.” Instead, she said, “I hear a lot of girls talk about looking sexy as an aspect of feeling confident.”
The world doesn’t make it easy for girls to explore their sexuality without the oppressive weight of male desires hanging over them. After all, the traditional porn industry, much like mass media in general, caters almost exclusively to men, particularly the white, cisgender, heterosexual male gaze. While good feminist-friendly porn exists, it’s relatively rare and often comes at a price, and for young people who aren’t straight, cisgender men -- many of whom are still under their parents’ roofs -- free and easy is key.
Alexandra first found traditional porn when she was in seventh grade: “I was morbidly fascinated by it but also always felt queasy and guilty about it,” she told me. Her parents emphasized to her “how unfair and even cruel it can be to women.” Smutty fanfic, however, felt less taboo. She recalls “a mild embarrassment and an awareness that I would not mention fan fiction to my parents.”
It’s not just women, Tosenberger pointed out to me, but queer people and people of color generally, who lack honest, unfiltered erotic content that reflects their desires. “If you’re a woman, if you’re queer … you end up scrounging,” she said. “You have to scrounge for the scraps of mainstream media and literature with erotic content. You’ve gotta put up with all kinds of nonsense because ... who gets access to what is still so centered around straight white cisgender men.”
Erotic fan fiction, existing outside the established media, can build a world predicated solely on the actual desires of women, queer people and people of color. The women I spoke to almost all recalled how the alternative world of fan fiction, existing outside of the patriarchal media, fostered a greater sense of sexual agency for them. “Erotic fan fiction ... helped me to internalize my own fantasies,” said Alexandra. Reading explicit fics, she said, “I formulated some of my sexual appetite and taste from certain pieces, and gained at least a beginner's understanding of kinks.”
Kelly, who is bisexual, found in fan fiction confirmation that her orientation was normal -- and smut that didn’t cater to the ghostly presence of the male consumer. “I had watched porn prior to finding fan fiction but it was usually the most typical straight, male-gazey porn you could think of and two women being sexual together was strictly for the entertainment of men,” she told me. “In fan fiction ... there are so many stories where characters are gay, straight and bisexual and there's no question that their sexuality is anything other than normal and healthy.”
While the results of this fictional experimentation might sound science-fictional rather than medically accurate, Tosenberger argues that what's important is "having space to explore their own sexuality in a way where … they aren’t going to get pregnant or get a disease. Who cares that that doesn’t sound like any penis that anybody has ever heard of?"
Sexual experimentation encompasses far more risks and emotional stressors for women and queer people, who might not be encouraged to embrace their natural sexual urges as straight men are. Watching porn can provoke guilt for enjoying the apparent degradation of the actors involved, but actual intimacy is even more frightening -- pregnancy, sexual assault and even STIs typically loom larger for young women and, aside from pregnancy, queer men.
The safety and familiarity found in fan fiction can be its own aphrodisiac. It’s physically risk-free, it’s generally guilt-free, and it fosters a sense of emotional connection to the characters involved that can ease the bizarre random feeling that scenes of two strangers having sex can provoke. “Reading a story about Buffy and Spike taking a ‘roll in the hay’ was far more pleasurable for me than watching a porno with random people who hardly speak, don't have any compelling backstory, and who I might not even find that attractive,” said Kelly.
It also allows writers to feel a level of control over the outcome of risky or frightening sexual situations. Rape, trauma and coercion frequently play roles in fanfic erotica -- at a safe remove that can’t be found in the real-life victimization women often face, nor even in porn that more viscerally depicts degradation or pain. In erotic fanfic, an entire alternate world can be built to make sex inviting and adventurous -- in a way girls may struggle to associate with their real-world selves, where concerns about slut-shaming, pregnancy, domestic violence and STIs are unavoidable.
Hurt/comfort fics, a popular subset of stories, go a step further, showing a character heartbroken or victimized, then consoled by a strong, loving partner. “In erotic fic,” said Van Santen, who has been reading fanfic in her personal time for years, “that generally leads to banging.” For queer people and straight women, for whom violence, brutal rejection and vulnerability can often go hand-in-hand with romance, these fics choose not to eliminate these harsh realities, but to write alternative endings in which solace, and bliss, can be found even in the wake of disaster. As Van Santen puts it, she likes “a bit of creative violence in my sex scenes, as long as the violence is followed by snuggly aftercare."
The fact that the world is complete, not solely sex-focused, is vital; many erotic fanfic readers first indulged in PG-level fics that allowed them to spend more time with their favorite characters, before stumbling across or slowly exploring the explicit variety. After all, much of the fan fiction world is completely smut-free, so explorations of relatively innocent tales can lead to the discovery and slow exploration of the adult-themed variety -- if you choose to look for it.
I stumbled across sexual themes in fanfic when I was seeking out a more innocent form of romance between my "OTP," Ron and Hermione. It would never have occurred to me to look up porn on our shared home computer or buy explicit erotica at Barnes & Noble, but when it snuck into my fanfic, I was intrigued.
“It was a such a gradual process becoming introduced to it, it didn’t feel taboo or anything like it might have otherwise,” agreed Amy, 23, who lives in Portland. Mia, who lives in New York, got into fan fiction when she was around 14. “I wasn't looking for erotic ff in any way specifically, but I also wasn't at all surprised to see that it existed,” she recalls.
At its heart, fanfic arises from a thirst for something lacking, whether it’s more tales featuring a reader’s favorite characters or a representation of her sexual interests that the mainstream media isn’t putting forward. “Historically and today,” explained Tosenberger, “fan fiction tends to be written by people who find themselves alienated by the texts, in some way, who find themselves outside the text’s preferred audience and push back.”
With teen literature, in particular, often beholden to business concerns and the need to reach a wide audience, there’s a self-censorship at play that leaves out marginalized experiences and those deemed inappropriate for younger readers, like sexual activity. “Many fetishes or kinks wouldn’t fit well with the themes in most YA books, but that doesn’t mean that teenagers who have those kinks should be made to feel deviant or ‘weird,’” Van Santen argued.
Of course, we can't be sure that writing and reading erotic fanfic is the healthiest way for a young person to explore his or her sexuality. Reading such idealized scenes, potentially written by other sexually inexperienced fans, can set up unrealistic expectations about sex. "I’d rather they were exposed to age-appropriate sexual information and that their questions are answered when they have them," said Jane D. Brown, an expert on how media influences adolescents.
Fanfic doesn't exist in a vacuum, either; though writers can circumvent the patriarchal structure and sanitized standards of mainstream entertainment, the writers themselves still live in a society where men are often deemed more worthy of sexual agency -- some even believe this may have to do with the popularity of slash pairings, as white men typically form the most popular duos, even when the series protagonist is a woman or man of color. "Slash,” as Tosenberger told me a friend of hers likes to say, “is the sound of white men fucking.”
There's still so much we don't know about how young people are discovering sex today, Tolman emphasizes. "We do not know what it means to see sex before you have sexual experiences," she told me. "We do not know." Young women and teens, in particular, are bombarded with messages about how they should behave sexually, and they may simply carry those ideas into their own fantasy lives unless they're also thinking critically about what's expected from them sexually, what society is telling them about their sexuality, and what they actually want.
"I do think engagement with those questions from a critical perspective is a really important part of girls exploring the possibility of what sexuality can mean for them," said Tolman.
Still, there's a lot of reason to hope, based on what we do know, that marginalized young people who aren't being catered to by mainstream media are finding quiet empowerment in the form.
"One of the reasons fanfic is so dominated by women is because if you’re a straight white guy, all stories are for you," Tosenberger said. "With women, with queer folk, with people of color, you wind up scrounging for scraps." It's hard to know exactly what drives this odd community. Ultimately, we can theorize, guess, and extrapolate, but we don’t really know who most fanfic authors and readers are in their offline lives. And that’s exactly the point.
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