Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love

From Fanlore
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Academic Commentary
Title: Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love
Commentator: Joanna Russ
Date(s): April 1985
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
External Links: online here/WebCite, also here
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love is a chapter in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts, a book of feminist essays by Joanna Russ.

A different version of the essay Another Addict Raves About K/S was published in the zine Nome #8 in May 1985. It is unknown which essay was "first" as both publication dates are so close to each other.

The chapter in the book discusses at length the appeal and meaning behind women writing K/S fiction.

Russ talks about slash and this chapter in My Hair Stood on End!: Talking with Joanna Russ about Slash, Community, and Female Sexuality (March 31, 2011).

An Excerpt

Vulcan and Human natures, or Kirk's Pride or everybody's scrupulousness and doubts and reasons not to – which sometimes goes on for sixty or seventy pages. These endless hesitations and yearnings resemble the manufactured misunderstandings of the female romance books (themselves sexual fantasies for women). In fact, so paralyzing are these worries and scruples and hesitations to the two characters involved that over and over again the ‘lovers must, be pushed together by some force outside themselves. Somebody is always bleeding or feverish or concussed or; mutilated or amnesiac or what-have-you in these tales.

Either both are starving to death on a strange planet, in which case they can at least die in each others’ arms, or- they are (temporarily) immured in a cave and Spock, concussed, thinks he's dreaming and acts on his passion for Kirk, or Kirk is suffering from brain/burn and is reduced, mentally, to childhood, in which condition he innocently makes sexual advances to Spock, who is horrified, not by Kirk’s innocent actions, but by his own response.

In short, the stories, over and over, set up situations in which the two are not responsible. Other (R and G-rated) stories present various beatings, blindings, and mutilations which necessitate not only intense emotional intimacy, but also one character’s touching and holding the other with an eroticism only lightly veiled in the story (arid probably not veiled at all in the readers). So far the material sounds like the irreverent description by two of my friends; “Barbara Cartland in drag.” But if that’s all K/S stories arc, why don’t the women who read them simply read romances and be done with it? Why the “drag"'? Why project the whole process on two male science fiction characters?

First of all, K/S is not about two men. Kirk is a man, to be sure, but Spock isn't, he's half human alien. Susan Gubar has speculated in a recent essay that when women s.f. writers write aliens they are very often writing about women. Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith also suggest (brilliantly, I think) that although Spock is not literally female, his alienness is a way of “coding” into the K/S fantasies that their subject is not a homosexual love affair between two men, but love and sex as women want them, whether with a man or with another woman. Lamb and Veith cite many more details which support this view: briefly, that Spock‘s reproductive biology is cyclical and uncontrollable, that although “a prince among his own people," Spock is just another Fleet officer in a Federation led by Human men, that he is isolated both from Vulcans and from Humans (as nontraditional women are alienated from both traditional women and from men), that he has no command ambitions, that he often gets Kirk out of difficulties caused by Kirk’s impulsiveness and rashness (qualities Spock does not and cannot afford to display), that his Vulcan and human sides are at war, that Vulcan is matrilineal, that he must be self-controlled and guarded, and so on. [1](The argument is much more detailed and convincing than I can mention here.) I would add that the lovers come from literally different worlds (the stories constantly emphasize the difference in their natures and backgrounds), and that the sexuality in the stories is only nominally male. [2]

Reactions and Reviews


I rejoice that Russ used the word "androgynous". Many feminists have condemned the use of this word including Russ herself. As best I can determine, the reason is that sexists have arrogated the concept of androgyny for their own purposes giving it a sexist connotation. If feminists don't want to use words with sexist connotations they must stop speaking every known language except possibly Laadan, the woman's language that SF writer Suzette Haden Elgin has just invented. Since no one is prepared to speak Laadan just yet, the only reasonable approach is to reclaim words in the languages we do speak, and give them feminist connotations. I did this with androgyny a number of years ago in my first article for the SEXISM ON DARKOVER series for the fanzine JUMEAUX, I said that androgyny can be defined as the opposite of sexism. Sexism is the theory that non-biological traits can be divided by gender. Androgyny is the theory that both sexes share many of the same traits. Surely this is a crucial concept for feminism. If androgyny as the opposite of sexism acquires greater currency, this may make the sexist definition of androgyny an anachronism. More feminists should follow Russ's example in her use of this word.

Unfortunately, Russ proceeds to a much more dubious premise — the idea that all K/S fans regard male-male relationships as superior to male-female or female-female relationships, I would like to propose instead that most K/S fans regard men as totally inadequate in their relationships with everyone — whether it be other men or women, and that K/S is the attempt to rectify that inadequacy. The theory that K/S fans are hooked into the male-male relationship myth doesn't explain the form that typical K/S takes. The larger than life male-male relationship is all about competition amid combat. For these, K/S writers substitute romarice and eroticism. These run contrary to the essential spirit of male camaraderie which represses emotions and sexuality. Russ even points this out later in the essay without realizing that this subverts her Original premise that K/S fans worship at the same altar as Hemingway. Her own evidence proves my theory that K/S exists to criticize and improve upon men as they are.

I was amused to learn that Russ seems to believe that none of us can possibly conceive of a heterosexual relationship on a grand mythic scale, I can conceive of one. There is an intensely beautiful male-female relationshio that I have seen in fan fiction. The woman is a highly independent innovator who is also very passionate. The man is a charismatic leader who is also extremely empathic and senisitive,, The two are equals and their relationship is nearly unparalleled in intimacy and level of commitment. I speak of Amanda and Sarek in the NTM universe. I don't believe I'm the only NTM fan in K/S fandom either. This is ideal heterosexual romance as we would like it to be, and like K/S it is by and for women.

So, yes there is NTM, but I still want to write K/S.

I hope that this essay that Joanna Russ has written will not be considered the gospel of K/S interpretation, I see signs of this and it worries me. I am sure that Russ knows that these are only her opinions, but many K/S fans seem to believe that there is only one valid way to see K/S and that is how Russ sees it. The Russ analysis should be a beginning, an opening of the door. Now we can all start thinking about the motivations of K/S writers and the values expressed in K/S fiction. Russ's essay should not cause us to stop thinking and examining. This essay is macroanalysis. It deals in broad themes expressed in typical K/S, My concern is with microanalysis — particular stories and particular writers.

The typical can tyrannize over us. There are exceptions to the typical and if the exceptions are studied, new trends can be found. [3]


I always like to see someone else take Star Trek seriously besides me, and if it is outside fandom, all the better. Recently, I discovered two scholarly books that concern themselves, at least in part, with Star Trek (I have the good fortune of being employed at a college library). One deals with American popular culture [American Monomyth] and the other with feminist issues, and I must say it has been fascinating delving into them.... My second find was a collection of feminist essays called Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts by Joanna Russ. In it is an essay entitled, "Pornography by women, for women, with love." In the opening paragraphs, she discusses the title and says something like, "Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you about Star Trek." She proceeds to take a look at the K/S literature and comes up with a decidedly "thumbs up" verdict. I'd like to point out that I had never read any K/S when I read this essay, and I wasn't sure how I felt about it except that it seemed a rather alien concept to me. Reading this essay, however, gave me a way of approaching K/S, and it provided me with a background which allowed me to enjoy the K/S I finally did read. I think the most interesting premise of the essay was that, although Kirk and Spock are both male, the stories are really not about male love. They resemble love and sex from a female point of view rather than a male one (a main example used is that in traditional male-female relations, women wait and men act. In many K/S stories, neither of these men act; they wait, and hem and haw and wonder if what they are doing is right). Other pluses: androgyny—Kirk and Spock are equals and take on equally both male & female roles in love; the celebration of male beauty, as Russ puts it. We (female) readers get loving descriptions of two terrific male bodies. The author's conclusion is that K/S is not pornography in the popular sense, which defines pornography as disgusting and degrading. K/S, seen in the light of Russ' article, is sexual fantasy of a sophisticated nature. It's not about S & M, even though violence is often done to the characters. It's about a satisfying love between the ultimate equals, the kind of love rarely found in reality. Well, I'm sorry if I've bored anybody who's been through all this before, from religion to K/S and back again, but talking about things like this is what makes being a fan fun and special for me. And isn't sharing what being a fan is all about? [4]


This book of feminist essays (Crossing Press, 1985) was loaned to me because I was interested in the subject matter of the essay "Pornography By Women, For Women, With Love" — which is about K/S fan fiction. If you know what that is, you are already smiling and interested.

If not, let me explain that this is about love relationships between Kirk and Spock of Star Trek. I have always loved science fiction. I haven't always loved Star Trek. I’ve come around a lot on this subject. There was a time when I was rather bitter toward things like Star Trek and Star Wars and other popular media science fiction. I regarded it as simple-minded, diluted, cotton-candy versions of the real stuff, and feared that this pap would crowd out the more seriously-intended science fiction.

I try to keep an open mind, and I guess I now see this stuff as an important part of the educational function of science fiction, in that it has provided stepping stones into the larger field of SF; maybe it has even induced some people to being to read. I won't want to get into this too much in this review; I've written extensively about my thoughts on science fiction and SF conventions and their educational functions in an article in The Comic Buyer's Guide last year.

To return to the Russ essay cited above, fans who are familiar with Star Trek fandom may be amazed by the analytical manner in which the K/S stories are considered. You probably thought the stories were just for fun! Actually, Russ's essay makes it clear that the stories are fun. It is startling to see these stories seriously studied and placed in a feminist context. Those readers who are not familiar with Star Trek fandom will be even more amazed by the nature and extent of the phenomenon.

Russ's essay on K/S fiction illustrates one of my ideas about popular culture. It seems to me that commercial artfoms, like TV, movies, comics or popular fiction, sometimes become something much more than "merely” entertainment. Members of the large audience — which in part defines popular culture — bring their own individual viewpoints and interpretations to the products; absorb the symbols and vocabulary, the lexicon; and in using all of these elements as part of their shared experience, adding their own human dimensions, create "real" art forms and real ways of communicating important and interesting thoughts and ideas.

Obviously I've been getting around to saying that this is what Star Trek fans have been doing when they create their own stories, especially these K/S stories, which are a rather extreme example. They add an erotic element to the TV product that goes beyond that envisioned by the show's original writers and producers.


My reading of this book suggested that Russ was a opponent of censorship. When the local fan group got together to discussed this book, I realized that this is more than an attack on censorship, but rather a celebration of the variety of human expression. K/S stories are a clear example of an erotic fantasy with real meaning to some people, in contrast to commercial pornography or the sexual images of men and women in TV advertising. Russ supports individual rights, and doesn't want to take judgmental stands. An interesting aspect of this book is the extensive autobiographical context of the essays, and the warmth and humor of the discussion. Russ takes a lot of effective shots at the unholy alliance of feminism and the right wing against pornography and for censorship. So go and read this book. You will find it provocative and valuable. [5]


I think that I, like most "/" connoisseurs, first read Joanna Russ' essay when it was originally published...but I hadn't seen the piece since then, and it was interesting to review her ideas. Her analyses struck me again as it had four years ago - as being at the same time too shallow, and too convoluted. But on the whole I agree with her conclusions, and believe that "/" is ingenious, creative, deeply rooted in feminist consciousness... and, for the greatest part, healthy. And have often wished that some enterprising psych student would do a thesis on the "'/" phenomenon...or, for that matter, on the whole phenomenon of fandoms themselves... [6]


THANK YOU for [reprinting] the article!!! It was indeed fascinating, and it does arrwer a few of those questions that creep up on us during a sleepless night --life 'Why am I writing this stuff anyway? I'm not gay!' Now I never saw the K/S premise myself -- probably because I was never that deeply into TREK fandom -- but the conclusions drawn are just as appropriate for S/H (except the 'alien' aspect...) particularly in the hurt/comfort scenario. Anyone who has had any experience with injury or illness knows that there's very little romance in cleaning up blood or changing dressings or bedpans. Or in dealing with a mental problem. And Amor doesn't always vincit omnia. But these situations provide us, the writers, with a necessary 'conflict' to put our characters through — eh, voila, a plot... Or at least a 'plot device'. One thing I really do object to, however, is the classification of '/' as 'pornography I've said this before, but I AM NOT A PORN WRITER. 'Pornography' stems from the Greek, and denotes literally 'Whore scribblings'. Well, I'm not in that profession. Pornography also suggests smut. And while I admit to writing erotica, I'll take issue that it's smutty. I read a definition once that defined porn as 'Books to be read with one hand'. If anyone wants to read my stuff one-handed, that's up to them -- hell — I find it erotic to write, so I expect the reader to be likewise affected — but, gentle friends, don't tell me I'm writing porn... However, I'm not labouring under the delusion that I'm producing 'art', either! [7]

The 'Confessions' article served to remind me how marginal is my knowledge of Star Trek or of K/S. Guess the article does have more relevance there, when though there's some common ground. Some very interesting evaluations there. [8]

I think that I, like most "/" connoisseurs, first read Joanna Russ' essay when it was originally published, but I hadn't seen the piece since then, and it was interesting to review her ideas. Her analyses struck me again as it had four years ago - as being at the same time too shallow, and too convoluted. But on the whole I agree with her conclusions, and believe that "/" is ingenious, creative, deeply rooted in feminist conciousness... and, for the greatest part, healthy. And have often wished that some enterprising psych student would do a thesis on the "/" phenomenon...or, for that matter, on the entire phenomenon of fandoms themselves... [9]

"Erotica", lovely word, that. It rolls off the tongue like... like, uhmmm, well, never mind, I'm of the firm opinion that "/" is the most sensual, exciting, comforting, heart- (and other vital organs of the body) stirring writing there is, and as I mentioned in the last APA, it strikes me as be ing so uniquely feminine, and feminist, that I haven't been quite able to analyze it to my own satisfaction yet. And despite the intelligence of Joanna Russ's essay, she hasn't quite got a hold on it either. Myself, I've never taken great offense at being accused of writing "pornography"

coming from the kind of people who are up tight enough to label it that, it's a compliment, I'm actually kind of fond of being told I write "trash", "filth", and "obscenities". And I especially enjoy being called a "pervert", 'Cause it gives me the chance to grin smugly and say, "Yep. Jealous?" [10]


...I read Joanna Russ's early K/S paper with interest (since it was new and different then, to have an academic paper on slash. [11]


A bowl of soup flies across the room in a display of anger by a person suffering from the cyclical effect of reproductive hormones. Who threw it? My friend, Belinda (who gets a bit tetchy at that time of the month), or even me? No. It is our favourite half-Vulcan/half-human, Spock, who is suffering from a severe case of hormonal imbalance.

When we first look at slash fiction, the sexuality of the protagonists would appear rather obvious. However, in the words of Ira Gershwin, "it ain't necessarily so"! I'm going to focus on K/S to explore the claim made by Joanna Russ that the sexuality in slash is only nominally homosexual.

Russ suggests that K/S is not about two men but rather that Kirk is a man but Spock is a half-Vulcan alien. She uses the notion of Patricia Lamb and Diana Veith that this alieness is a coding for the female (Russ, 1985: 83). Like a woman, Spock's reproductive cycle is cyclical and uncontrollable (which makes one wonder if Vulcans have pre-pon farr contingencies in their laws like our PMS ones). Despite being descended from Surak, Spock is just another star fleet officer, which is similar to the negation of women in our society. As well, through being isolated from both humans and Vulcans, Spock parallels the non-traditional woman who is alienated both from the traditional women and men. (I would hope that this alienation has decreased somewhat in the last 15 years since this article was written.) Taking all these points together, Spock encodes women, who constitute the vast majority of slash fandom.

Russ also notes that the descriptions of sex highlight that it is basically heterosexual sex, citing a variety of reasons including a "blithe lack of lubrication" (Russ, 1985:83). I would argue that this is more due to the naivete of the writers. In recent slash stories, there is a great deal more lubrication used, as evidenced by the "amber hued bath oil" put to such good used in "Turning Point" (Killashandra, 1995: 36). Indeed, much time is now spent by slash writers in detailing the great degree of preparation carried out by one partner on his soon-to-be-penetrated lover.

Taking this discussion out of the ST:TOS arena, we can find similar elements in some other slash fandoms. In The Sentinel, some slash writers have codified Blair into a virtual female, one that is frequently reduced to tears . This is possibly due to his longish, curly hair; his slighter build in comparison to Jim and Simon; his high communication and empathy skills, and his ability to display a greater emotional range than the cops he hangs around with these days! In The Professionals slash fiction, Ray Doyle has also been known to be described as fine-boned and slight, while his green cat's eyes frequently fill with unshed tears while in AU slash, he is often made elfin. This reading of slash does not appear to work in the Blake's 7 universe where it is hard to conceive of Blake, Avon, Villa, Gan or Tarrant as being codified as "female".

So, are all slash writers really penning heterosexual sex in the guise of homoerotica? While it is possible that some are, it seems unlikely. However, this interpretation does provide a different perspective from which we can gain insight in the sexuality expressed in slash fiction. [12]


Joanna Russ’s 1985 essay “Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love” encompasses its entire argument in the title. Her provocative use of the word pornography is noteworthy in the context of the passionate debates on pornography fought within the feminist movement during the 1980s. In addition to her overt pleasure in the text (“I love the stuff, I love the way it turns me on”), she emphasizes the empowering nature of sexual fantasy, especially when combined with a community of women—women as writers, editors, and readers—free from commercial restrictions. In so doing, she supplements a mere textual analysis with the cultural force that is slash fandom: a community by women, for women.

Russ comments on the heavily cultured implementation that celebrates delayed gratification, monogamy, service, and suffering. By turning cultural expectations of women into virtues projected onto (alien) men, writers of the classic Star Trek Kirk/Spock slash she discusses carve out a space for sexual fantasy even as they fail to ultimately escape patriarchal ideology. Yet, Russ suggests, the cultural work that slash writers perform is important, not only in its all-female process but also by introducing explicit sexuality into a realm that used to fade to black just when things got interesting. Slash may have similarities with the genre of romance in the emotional gratification it offers its women readers, but it supplements this with a healthy dose of explicit sex.

Reading the essay today, Russ’s explanation of women’s identification with and projection onto male characters in same-sex romantic and sexual relationships is surprising in its insight and its limitations, particularly because of her own sexual orientation, an out lesbian. She acknowledges the desire for equality and the ability to desire men, yet she is stuck within a heteronormative framework, both in her oversight of nonheterosexual fans and her easy objectification of gay men. The essay remains important because of its overt discussion of pleasure, its focus on community, and its stance, so often seen in writings about slash, that slash is a way to rewrite or reconfigure cultural needs that goes against the grain of mainstream culture. [13]



  1. ^ Russ is referencing The Romantic Myth and Transcendence: A Feminist Interpretation of the Kirk/Spock Bond (1982)
  2. ^ from Evalangui's Entrancing Eccentricities/WebCite
  3. ^ from That K/S Essay
  4. ^ from Interstat #108 (October 1986)
  5. ^ by Hank Luttrell in Janus (issue #25, volume #10, number #1) (1986-87)
  6. ^ from a Starsky & Hutch fan in Tell Me Something I Don't Know! #13
  7. ^ from Tell Me Something I Don't Know! #13 (May 1989)
  8. ^ from Tell Me Something I Don't Know! #13 (May 1989)
  9. ^ from Tell Me Something I Don't Know! #13 (May 1989)
  10. ^ from Tell Me Something I Don't Know! #14 (July 1989)
  11. ^ from Gayle F on Virgule-L, quoted with permission (June 17, 1994)
  12. ^ From "Sexuality in Slash: My God, Spock, You're a Woman!" by Rachel Shave, posted October 18, 1999, accessed May 22, 2013
  13. ^ From Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (University of Iowa Press, 2014). 77-78.