This is probably the best, non-judgmental description of fan fiction I’ve ever heard of in main stream media.
My research focused on the connection between male homoerotic fan literature (“slash fanfiction”) and female sexuality. I became interested in this concept/question when my mother asked why my group of friends and I (and the overwhelming majority of the users of the website on which we interact with one another, Tumblr) “see gay everywhere.” There is a running joke on this website that “Tumblr likes gays more than gays like gays.” Tumblr and the Archive Of Our Own (a multifandom fanfiction database known commonly as AO3) are heavily interconnected, and together produce a massive amount of (primarily male homoerotic) fan literature—fiction, often explicit erotica, homoeroticising male characters who are generally canonically portrayed as at least nominally heterosexual in their original medium. The vast majority of the users of both of these sites are female. Thus, women are a driving force behind a sizeable portion of the Internet’s written portrayal of male homosexuality. It is produced primarily by and for women. Why? What draws them to it? How does it influence or relate to their own sexuality? What is the appeal? I gathered six participants from across several fandoms (followers of individual television shows/books/movies/etc.) to begin to answer these questions, as well as the overarching question at play—what is the connection between female sexuality and male homoerotic fan literature (slash fanfiction) on the Internet?
As I began my work, my initial research question—the incredibly broad “What is the relationship between slash fanfiction and female sexuality?”—evolved into two, slightly more specific questions: first, “What is the appeal of slash for women?” and second, “How does reading/writing slash affect female sexuality and sexual identity?” The process became slightly muddled when I realized that I was unlikely to get a particularly straightforward answer to either of those questions, but on the other hand, the rich, complex narratives I did get were much more interesting than a straightforward answer.
I gathered my data through interviews with participants and examinations of the literature they produced. I interviewed six female authors of slash fanfiction and read a sample of each of their works, analyzing an average of three to five stories per author. Interviews with four out of my six participants were conducted online, as they were with people as far away as Canada, New Zealand, and Thailand, and the other two were conducted in person and recorded. I had a lot of initial ideas about what their answers would be, based partially on my own experiences as a writer of slash and a member of the community, as well as my experience reading it and noticing overarching themes. Some of my ideas—that the appeal came partially from a sense of insecurity rather than an initial sexual attraction to two men in an erotic situation with one another, for instance—proved to be true. However, it was the nuances that surprised me. My initial idea was that the insecurity was about body image and not wanting to compare oneself to the more “perfect” female ideals in most pornography (bleached, waxed, artificially enhanced, etc.). In actuality, the nature of the insecurities in question were incredibly varied, ranging from nervousness about a lack of real world experience with men to victims of sexual assault feeling uncomfortable with situations that involve women in a sexual capacity. These answers started to change the way I was asking my questions; I went from wanting to know what about slash was sexually appealing to wanting to know what made it intellectually and emotionally appealing. The more I found out, the more I wanted to know, and the more nuanced my interest became. I wanted to know more than the overall relationship between women and slash. I wanted to know what made OTPs (One True Pairings, the relationship a reader/writer invests in the most) so centrally important to each individual participant; I wanted to know what made each person seek out different tropes and clichés time after time. Because of time and project restraints, I couldn’t really look into those things as much as I would’ve liked to, but they’re questions I’m definitely going to come back to personally after this.
I was very lucky in regards to my relationship with the people I was interviewing. As an active and prolific member of the slash fanfiction writers’ community, I was already relatively close to several prominent members of each fandom community, and some of them were kind enough to participate. We had a relationship of mutual respect for one another’s works, and so approaching them was not as nerve-wracking as I think it would have been to approach another community cold, but in most cases, we were not so close with one another that I feared a lack of candidness because they would be nervous about losing my esteem. I was lucky in that most of my participants knew that I was an anthropology major before I asked for their help, and some of them were also involved in anthropology in school, so they were much more comfortable with the interview process than I suspect many people are. While one participant seemed very uncomfortable with the interview process, and gave very stilted answers, and another seemed a little too aware of the academic nature of the conversation and spoke in an unnecessarily formal sort of way, the other four were relaxed and thoughtful and gave me a lot of useful content to sift through. I’m sure that the idea of a “best” participant is somewhat bizarre, and due to the fact that the community I was studying was online and not exceptionally cohesive, the idea of a “key informant” doesn’t quite fit the situation, either, but one of my participants, lissalinen, gave such thoughtful, insightful answers that it completely changed the way I looked at my own relationship to slash and to the community at large.
My participants consisted of six women: it_mightbe_love, fireferret, lissalinen, sallygardens, sordid_sugarplum, and darkmagyk. It_mightbe_love and sallygardens both self-identified as asexual, clarifying that that did not mean that they did not have sex in their lives or that they were not interested in it, that it means different things at different times, and that, from their experience, asexuality was less about being stridently non-participatory in sexuality and more about being “situationally sexual.” Fireferret and sordid_sugarplum both identified as basically pansexual, interested in people rather than binary ideas of gender, and darkmagyk and lissalinen identified as primarily heterosexual. The women ranged in age from eighteen to thirty six, and came from the United States, England, New Zealand, Thailand, and Canada.
Most of my data analysis consisted of looking for patterns. My participants had a very wide range of interests, experiences, responses, and degrees of comfort with the interview process. Their work covered an impressively broad scope of fandoms, subjects, and themes. Most of my time, outside of the actual interviewing and reading processes, was spent sorting through the conversations and the work, looking for overall key ideas and then trying to see how they answered my questions. Because of this method, I came up with a series of sort of bulleted themes that I then had to reintegrate into a series of coherent narrative strands. I found separate themes in the written works and in the interviews, making note of them, and then doing my best to relate them back to one another.
If I had to do this study over again, I don’t know that I would actually change a great deal. I would love to have more participants, particularly ones I did not know before the study, and I would have loved the chance to do more in-depth follow-ups about specific aspects of their answers, but none of that would have been feasible within the constraints of this assignment. The most important thing I think I did was that I let the way that the participants framed their experiences—in terms of safety rather than appeal—guide my questions and alter my focus. The most important thing that I didn’t do was that I did my absolute best not to push the women into giving me the answers I expected; I tried to ask open-ended questions, and only use really specific, leading language when I was referring back to something that they had said previously that I needed clarification on.
In the written works, I consistently came across themes of hurt and subsequent comfort; personal discomfort with the body, social interaction, and sexuality; virginity and an overall lack of sexual experience; found/created “family” ties; insecurity regarding inexperience or sexual identity; “true love,” in the form of love at first sight or “soul bonding”; a lot of open dialogue regarding internal emotional and mental processes. One initial expectation that I had was that men in fanfiction would be somewhat feminized, a sort of way for women to make them more accessible. I did find that they were made more “accessible,” more emotionally available than society tends to tell us they are, in the way that they dialogued frequently and eloquently about their emotional states and desires, but in all other respects, “manly” characters—ones who were gruff, awkward, overbearing, hyper sexual, sporty, protective, jealous, possessive, or otherwise participants in the modern masculine ideal—not only retained their “manliness”, but had it emphasized strongly.
In the interviews, the themes I found most consistently were ones related to a certain sense of safety. Insecurity played a very large role, but the insecurity ranged from negative personal body image to a fear of men after a sexual assault to discomfort with their lack of experience in conjunction with their age. For several of the participants, it seemed that part of the appeal was that they were allowed to play out their own insecurities on a scale where they were considered socially permissible without being clichés; slash, for them, was a safe arena to voice feelings that society makes inappropriate or embarrassing for women, like a high sex drive, insecurity regarding personal worth or preferences, or a lack of interest in classic romance. One participant said,
“Slash gives me a place to write about being terrified of relationships in a genre that makes sense, because love is scary for a gay man and isn’t supposed to be for a woman. It’s given me a place to explore ideas and themes that are personal for me, in a way that allowed me to make them separate from myself, so I could see them objectively.
“If I wrote a woman, everyone would say, “stop writing stories about yourself and someone fixing you,” or, “get over it,” or, “stop the self-pity.” But a gay man, he has so many reasons to be scared or lonely or filled with self-hatred and he deserves someone to come along and tell him that it’s okay to be who he is, because it is. It’s harder to justify a woman hating herself, somehow. She’d just be told to get over it.”
For other participants, it still comes back to safety; slash is a safe arena to explore potential relationship dynamics, kinks, and sexual identities outside of a personal context. Two of my participants self-identified as asexual, and another identified as aromantic. For all three of them, slash was a place where they could exercise desires that they found cerebrally stimulating—from more “out there” kinks to basic sexual interaction to intimate romance—but did not want to engage with in the real world. One participant described it in terms of slash fic containing men who were “more authentic” than real people, so it was easier to envision healthy relationships between them than between one and a woman, as women are taught to be “inauthentic in the extreme, mostly for self-preservation.”
Another aspect of the appeal, especially for the two participants who had been victims of sexual assault, is that slash allows them to process feelings regarding their past negative experiences with men. They can work through their sexual desires and emotional states without having to worry about the power dynamic that they have experienced between men and women, and can instead, as one participant puts it, “create entirely new dynamics without worrying about society’s gendered ideas of power.”
Some part of the appeal does come back around to wanting men to be more accessible and understandable. For one participant, men are still a foreign entity, still very distinct and separated by a very firm gender boundary from herself, and slash is a way for her to get inside the male mindset without simply engaging in wish-fulfillment fantasies in which she “makes men think what [she] wants them to think.” Another described it in terms of, “If I were writing heterosexual romance, I would use it as an excuse to make my favorite characters attracted to the things I am, to be turned on by what I like, because if I’m going to put them with a woman, I want that woman to be something like me. With slash, I can be more true to their characters, write better fiction, because it’s not about making them compatible with me, it’s about finding other characters that they, within their existing character mindset, would be attracted to and interested in, and writing about that dynamic honestly.”
Finally, there is perhaps the most obvious portion of the appeal—that of aesthetics. “More is more,” one participant said, “and more gorgeous man-arms and five o’clock shadow and razor-sharp cheekbones is definitely more.”
After finding themes and patterns within the works and the interviews, I asked the participants about the real world ramifications of their relationship with slash. I was curious about whether it had helped or hindered their relationship with men in their personal lives, and what that meant for them, as well as how reading and writing slash had affected the way they established their own sexual identities.
Without exception, all the participants said that their relationship with slash had broadened their view of sexuality, especially in the sense of making them more comfortable with “alternative” sexualities. On the other hand, it also seemed to more clearly define gender for them, sharpening the line between male and female, and, in the case of three participants, making that line one that engendered envy. Two participants said that, after several years of reading slash, they began to resent their own biological sex, becoming envious of the apparent authenticity in a relationship between two men. Another said that reading slash gave her “unrealistic” hopes regarding men, making her expect them to know what she needed before she knew she needed it. Four out of six participants reported more comfort interacting with gay men than straight or bisexual men, and two said that they experienced a lot of real-life infatuation with gay men, though one described the experience as something wherein they “loved him as one man to another; I wouldn’t want to date him as a woman.” All the participants defined their sexuality in very particular terms, well beyond the basic gay/bi/straight spectrum in intricacy, and most (five of six) attributed this particularity, and even the basic vocabulary they used to engage with these identities, to their exposure to the slash community and the accepting way it deals with varied sexualities as a whole.
Another real world aspect of reading slash was, for everyone I spoke to, the sense of community. Even when individual writers interacted minimally with the other members of the community, they reported a consistent environment of acceptance and encouragement of self-exploration and expression. Three of the participants came from very rigid, conservative backgrounds, and found a sense of freedom from that within the slash community, discovering a sense of encouragement for them to discover their own wants and needs that they had never experienced in their upbringing. For two others who had been raised in kink-oriented, sex-positive environments, slash was a place where sexuality was as encouraged as it was in their own lives, not as constrained as they found society expected it to be when women took part in it.
In contrast with my initial expectations, I did not find a connection between slash and the romantic relationships these women had with men in the real world. Two of the participants had yet to have a long term intimate relationship with either a man or a woman, two self-identified as virgins. Two were involved in long term, monogamous relationships with men.
Overall, combining my analysis of text and interviews, synthesizing those themes with the way slash has affected these women’s real lives and personal identities, if I were going to try to answer my primary research questions with a short, straightforward answer, I would say that slash appeals to women because it gives them a safe place to step outside of themselves as a means to explore things within themselves. It allows them to set aside their preconceived identities and explore possibilities without the apprehension that comes with owning an identity as your own, letting them feel out interests, dynamics, and labels thoroughly before assimilating them into their own identities. Slash, in a word, is safe, from the disconnect from personal experience to the accepting nature of the community as a whole.