Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture

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Academic Commentary
Title: Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture
Commentator: Sharon Cumberland
Date(s): October 8, 1999, January 25, 2000
Medium: online
Fandom: meta
External Links: online here
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture is an essay written about fanfiction and media fandom culture by Sharon Cumberland.

It was first a paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 8, 1999, and posted online on January 25, 2000.

It was cited in Jae's essay Young, Female, Single…? A Study of Demographics and Writing-/Reading-Habits of Fanfiction Writers and Readers.

Some Topics Discussed


The subject of this paper is the emerging genre of internet fan fiction, and the way in which women, the primary authors of such fiction, are using the paradox of cyberspace--personal privacy in a public forum--to explore feelings and ideas denied them in the past. Its specific focus is on erotic stories inspired by characters created for TV and film that fans have appropriated for their own narrative purposes. I am going to suggest that the protection and freedom of cyberspace is enabling these writers to defy many of the social taboos that have inhibited self exploration and self expression in the past, and that the implications of this phenomenon can inform our understanding of the social, psychological, and literary uses of cyberspace.

The Paradox of Cyberspace

Sherry Turkle, in a recent article entitled "Drag Net: From Glen to Glenda and Back Again: Is it Possible?" examines the benefits of concealing one's biological gender while participating in MUD culture. Since the characteristics of male and female gender identity must be constructed in real life anyway, she argues, reconstructing identity in a MUD by changing gender enables both men and women to escape the expectations of their biological sex and to gain insight into the opposite sex. While the authors of internet fan fiction are, as a general rule, not concealing the fact that they are women, the majority of them-especially those writing erotica-conceal their real life identities with pseudonyms. Thus one element of the cyberspace paradox-personal privacy-is achieved, and the woman author is granted a level of liberation, like those in Turkles's MUD culture, that goes beyond first amendment rights. Even though authors who publish in print media are free to write uncensored erotica, social mores inhibit most women writers from doing so. By writing on the internet under pseudonyms, women can go directly to their readers without risking their identities with editors, publishers, or-as Henry Jenkins describes in Textual Poachers -anti-erotica fans. In pre-internet times the only way to buy fan erotica was to attend conferences and buy fan 'zines sold by the authors themselves, which made the authors vulnerable to being "outed" by those who wished to discourage their use of celebrity heroes in sexually explicit stories.

Genres of Fan Erotica

Clearly the internet's unique combination of privacy with access to an audience has enabled a huge subculture of adult fan fiction to thrive. Though there are many genres, as the "alternative" category shows, the three major genres of fan found on the internet are "het" or herterosexual fiction, lesbian fiction, and "slash" fiction, a genre consisting of male-on-male erotica written by heterosexual women for an audience of heterosexual women. Women who write for adult audiences are experimenting with and challenging the conventional gender definitions imposed upon them in real life society. In cyberspace, where a woman cannot be criticized-or even identified-for her writing, one can see areas of curiosity and concern that could not be seen in arenas where women would have to pass through editorial hierarchies or expose themselves to the expectations of gender roles in public three dimensional life.

One page, called Slash Fiction Online ( [1] is an example of the most useful kind of site in the ringworld-those that offer glossaries and meta-critiques of fan writing so that the reader can go directly to stories that have impressed at least one other reviewer in the circle.

At this site there are 82 current listings of reviewed stories written by 55 separate authors. I visited about ten percent of these websites and discovered that each one had dozens of stories, either by the author of the story listed, or by additional authors who share the site-another indication of the extent of the phenomenon.

An excellent example of "slash " fiction that illustrates both the quality and the conventions of this genre is by a group of three women who jointly call themselves The Krell. ( The Seduction of the Desert Prince is an illustrated novel of nineteen chapters based on the television show The Highlander and its primary character Duncan MacLeod, but is set in an "alternative universe," i.e. a setting other than that provided by the creators of the television series. The story centers on the intimate relationship between Duncan MacLeod and a desert prince who has bought him as a slave. Typical of slash fiction, there are extended sex scenes, but they are few in number, relative to male-authored gay erotica, and they are embedded in a plausible and suspenseful plot. The characters are well developed, and they ring true to the original series, which is a primary criterion of success in fan fiction.

In email exchanges with the authors of this novel, I asked what motivated them to write, since it was clearly not financial gain or commercial success. One author who responded said that writing is a hobby and an avocation and that "doing it professionally would add levels of stress…and personal expectation that I don't have with my fan fiction" (elynross). Another of the authors told me that she wrote what she wanted to read since erotica in bookstores is focused on sex and not relationships: "I write erotic stories because I like to explore the themes of emotional intimacy, and I write fan fiction because it lets me do that with characters that already interest me" (Killasdra). This is a perfect summation of slash fiction-erotica that occurs only in the context of emotional relationships, involving familiar and favorite characters.

When asked if they would have written erotica if they had not found fansites on the net and audiences who responded positively, the authors stated that they would not. "I do think I would have written regardless, " says one, "but whether I would have written pure erotica? I doubt it. Not without the community of other women out there reading it and responding to it."


  1. now at Slash Fiction Online