Sexuality and slash fandom (2007 post)

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Title: Sexuality and slash fandom
Creator: Shoshanna
Date(s): March 27, 2007
Medium: online
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External Links: Sexuality and slash fandom; Archive
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Sexuality and slash fandom has the sort-of subtitle: "'Or, from "We're Not Gay, We Just Love Each Other" to "For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, Fraser is sucking Ray's cock'."

Some Topics Discussed

The Post

A recent post in brooklinegirl's LJ, and the discussion following, got me thinking about the changes I've seen in slash fandom since I was a wee newbie sprat.

(One of those changes, of course, is that slash fandom has gotten incredibly bigger. I used to be reasonably confident -- that is, I was pretty confident, and I think that that confidence was pretty reasonable -- that I was au courant with most of what was happening in slash as a genre and as a community. That was in, oh, 1992. Today I wouldn't dare even begin to claim that. And even in 1992 I might have been wrong. In 1985 Joanna Russ wrote that "About 125 [K/S] zines have been published since 1975-6, in editions of 500-1500," and I certainly hadn't, and haven't, read them all. I'm musing here about my experience in fandom, as I remember it, looking back sometimes as far as two decades. Other people's experiences will be different, and I'm not denying their validity. Mine is valid too.)

I've been in media and slash fandom for twenty years. I've seen slash go from being one aspect of the fandom of a show ("I'm a Pros fan, and I read both slash and straight"; "I'm a Robin of Sherwood fan, but I only like gen") to being a fandom in its own right. (This has also happened, more recently, with vids. Watching and making vids used to be a way one expressed fannishness for a particular show; now vidding is a fandom in itself. I wonder what the next offshoot will be?)

When I got into slash fandom, it was commonly believed that slash fans were mostly straight women. The question was most often framed by outsiders (the few who studied or commented on the community, albeit usually superficially or mockingly) as, "Why are straight women interested in this?" We ourselves knew that there were numbers of lesbian and bi women in slash, as well (yeah, hi there), but it was generally agreed that most slash fans were straight women. This no longer seems to be the assumption, to put it mildly.

A lot of slash now is clearly and unashamedly about the porn, the hotness. Why else are there communities like stop_drop_porn, and blowjob challenges on ds_recsredux? As I remember slash fandom of fifteen years ago, while a well-told and erotic sex scene was definitely a plus -- and while there were already those who thought that a story without sex didn't qualify as slash* -- the overall goal was usually, or at least publicly spoken of as being, to illuminate the characters, and only secondarily to arouse the reader.

[*They were, and remain, WRONG WRONG WRONG. I hath spoken.]

Not that we had no appreciation of erotic entertainment, of course! I don't want to give the impression that we were all superciliously above such things -- hardly! I believe it was my fannish generation that invented the term "PWP," after all. There was smutty art at conventions -- though then as now it sold better if it depicted a deep connection between the characters, not just sex -- and male strippers as Saturday night entertainment at the first few Escapades, and so on. Nor do I mean to imply, in any way, that slash writers today aren't trying to explore the characters. (Also, I generally look for the NC-17 rating in my own slash reading these days!) But the way they go about it feels different from what I remember from ten and twenty years ago.

A couple of illustrations: My first slash story, written in 1987, contained so much explicit sex that when I submitted it to a zine, I said in my cover letter to the editor that I hoped it wouldn't be a problem, that I hoped that this much sex was OK. Indeed, she didn't have a problem with it, and I never heard that any readers did either; but I was unsure, because it had more detailed, explicit sex than almost anything else I'd read in slash, and certainly than anything I'd read in her zines, which were some of the largest and most well known in the fandom.

IIRC, M. Fae Glasgow, who probably did more than any other single person to push the sexual boundaries of slash in the late 80s and early 90s (she may have done more than any two or three people put together!), once came into a panel at which people were discussing "Why do we like slash?" and said aloud that that was an easy question to answer: "We like it because it makes us hot and wet!" And people were a little taken aback; it's not that they disagreed, exactly, but I had certainly never heard anyone say it out loud and flat like that. Also, of course, the discussion was normally about why it turned us on; the idea that it did and that that was sufficient in itself, a goal in itself, was not a place such discussions usually went.

And I don't remember any feedback or letters of comment that amounted to only "ohmygod that was hot I'll be in my bunk." That particular kind of public response to stories is, I think, relatively new; and it signals a general belief that authors will be pleased to hear it, that authors are working to create that reaction in their readership and will be satisfied with it. (I did once have someone tell me, in a con dealer's room, that they had read a story of mine and -- sly look -- "I was sorry I was reading it in public." I wish I could remember what con and what story this was, so I could date the anecdote, but it was probably in the late 1980s. I was a bit taken aback; I knew it was a compliment, so I was pleased, but I wasn't sure how I was supposed to react to being told this. Today I wouldn't be thrown by it at all.)

Gender was pretty fixed in these stories, although it didn't always seem like it at the time. God knows there were plenty of awful stories in which Doyle or Illya or whoever cried crystal tears and whimpered and clung and trembled, and we generally criticized them as "feminizing" the character. After a few years someone pointed out that it was far more accurate to say that such stories infantilized the character, and I fell on that term with joy, because I'd never been entirely comfortable with saying that such character traits were feminine; but that was the language slash fandom generally used. Henry Jenkins, in Textual Poachers, quoted a 1986 K/S story by GF that described Kirk's and Spock's mouths, open and wet against each other, as like "two vaginas hungering on each other"; but I never saw that story, or a similar gender-bending in any other story.

Certainly certain aspects of gender were blurred in slash from the beginning: a friend of mine once remarked that one of the reasons she liked slash was that in a relationship composed of two men, at least one man had to be doing the emotional work of relationship maintenance that is usually relegated to women in our culture. But it was very clear that men were men and women were women. Amongst all the elf stories and pre-reform Vulcan stories and AUs in which the guys were Cretan bull-jumpers or whatever, I don't remember a single one in which they were women. (Except for a couple ST:TOS riffs on "Turnabout Intruder" and the Pros story my girlfriend and I wrote, which we wrote specifically and deliberately as a joke, and into which we incorporated every horrible fanfic cliche we could think of.) It wasn't unusual for slash stories to include a line about how no woman could ever be so wonderful/kiss him so well/hold him in strong arms/fuck him so gloriously. (Do I need to point out that this is a decade before one of Dan Savage's correspondents coined the term "pegging"?) This is a long, long way from Fraser buying a mail-order pussy so he and RayK can try it out. Misogyny in slash was often debated, and sadly not always too hard to find an example of.

Neither was homophobia. "We're not gay, we just love each other" wasn't always homophobic, but it often was. (When it wasn't, it was a way of increasing and dramatizing the emotional stakes. These guys would do anything for each other -- they are so important to each other that the emotional and physical attraction breaks through not just the barriers of social convention, but even the barriers of their own preexisting sexual preferences. Their love is stronger than their heterosexuality. I'm reminded here of MMWD's recent post on It's Not Incest, We Just Love Each Other, though I haven't followed all the conversations that post sparked...) Of course, it also mattered that nearly all the first big slash couples were located in far more homophobic contexts than those today. K/S is a special case, here -- although we never had any indication that the ST:TOS Federation included anything but straight people, still, authors could have written stories that assumed a welcoming 23rd century society, and for the most part they did not. (Bear in mind that such a society was harder for authors to imagine in 1979 or 1986 or even 1992 than it is today.) But it would have been ridiculous to write Bodie and Doyle, or Starsky and Hutch, or Napoleon and Illya, or even Vinnie and Frank, as not concerned by what it would mean to be in a committed same-sex relationship. (I say "Vinnie and Frank" because Roger wouldn't care :g:) It wasn't until the X-Files that I remarked that if the thing that worries Mulder most about sleeping with Krycek is that it's gay, he seriously needs to reexamine his priorities. So slash BSOs normally had to deal with homophobic contexts, and occasionally were written in what certainly looked like homophobic ways -- and slash fans themselves, of course, sometimes faced homophobic reactions from other fans and from mundane culture.

Torch recently mentioned Lezlie's Wave Theory of Slash, which Lezlie posted to Virgule-L, the slash list (yes, Virginia, at that time there was one slash email list) and published in the Terra Nostra Underground, an apa I was also in, in 1993. You can read it here and here. I see the wave theory as a way of describing the different levels of effort slash writers felt they had to put into convincing their readers that the guys would ever do this; and I think we're now long past fourth wave. When "For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture" constitutes sufficient explanation for pretty much anything . . . well.

I think this change is largely due to the fact that most of us see sexuality (and gender) as more fluid than we did twenty years ago: our culture does generally, and slash fans do in particular. That's reflected in how we motivate slash (we no longer need to spend five thousand words justifying the idea that a character who seemed straight on screen might possibly still be attracted to another man), and it's also reflected in a lot of slash fans' and slash fandom's self-presentation. Would anyone now argue that a large, perhaps even overwhelming, majority of slash fans are straight women? I said at the beginning that this post (which has been germinating for weeks) was originally inspired by a post of brooklinegirl's; specifically, it was inspired by her concern that slash fandom puts pressure on fans to be queer. Wow.

And yet, while this post was germinating, cimmerians came back from Escapade, having had a terrific time but nonetheless mourning "the ways in which a slash environment is not a queer space". See that question I asked in the previous paragraph? Cimmerians overheard two fans "putting forth the idea that lesbians 'belong in femmeslash', and should leave slash to the nice straight women and gay men." Again I say, wow.

My experience is that, over these past two decades, slash and slash fandom have become much more explicitly sexual; simultaneously, its/our conception of sexuality has become much more fluid and multiple. I see slash now as incorporating more explicitly female sexual energy than it used to: from stories maintaining that "no woman could ever be so good" to stories in which the guys are lesbians, and, pace cimmerians's experience, as generally welcoming fans' sexual energy both in relation to the stories (and vids and art) and in relation to one another.

Excerpts of Comments to the Post

destina:
This is a completely fascinating post. I love to see you getting thinky in public! :D I enjoyed this very much, though I don't have much to say in response. Just that sometimes as a straight woman who loves her slash, I'm often mystified by various aspects/permutations of this discussion; it doesn't matter at all to me if slash fandom is a queer space or an everyspace. It's our space. I still resist the growing implication that slash has to be overtly sexual and porny, that its definition has come to be the number of parts on display rather than the emotional journey leading to the display of parts, and I can feel myself being consigned to the shrinking minority. Which is funny, because I came into fandom on the waning cusp of some of these changes. For me, slash will always be about the emotional dynamics between characters, and I wonder how much that underlying point of view (and my avoidance of PWPs without emotional context) influences all the other things I feel about fandom as a common space, and how resistant I am to the discussions where generalizations are made about misogyny of slash and slashers (particularly wrt any fan who isn't interested in telling stories about female characters, or in femmeslash).
shoshanna:
I still resist the growing implication that slash has to be overtly sexual and porny, that its definition has come to be the number of parts on display rather than the emotional journey leading to the display of parts, and I can feel myself being consigned to the shrinking minority.

Heh -- just as the middle class has always been rising and youth have always been worse behaved than their elders, that minority has always been shrinking. Personally, I define slash as "fan fiction about two characters of the same sex in a sexual or sexually charged relationship," and I will argue to my last breath that no actual sex, on-screen or off, is required. (Hell, I wrote a Wiseguy slash story that contains no sex and only one character, and he doesn't even know it's a slash story. But I say it is, right down to the blowjob.)

I think there is slash that isn't about the emotional journey and the emotional context, but it's not slash that interests me so much, you know? Even though, at the same time, I've come to be more interested in the sexy aspect of it; it's so much less sexy and less interesting without the emotional context.
laurashapiro:
Thank you so much for this. I just love getting a useful historical perspective on this stuff, and I'm so glad to see it being written down. Our past matters!
klia:
These guys would do anything for each other -- they are so important to each other that the emotional and physical attraction breaks through not just the barriers of social convention, but even the barriers of their own preexisting sexual preferences. Their love is stronger than their heterosexuality.

This, and the equality aspect, were the reasons I became a slash fan. And I'm afraid my sensibilities haven't changed in that regard. I'm still only interested in stories about two guys, not one bully and one crybaby, or two chicks with dicks.

But the biggest change I've seen in slash fandom has been the politicization. I've seen it written for years, now, that if you're not interested in or actively advocating the queer agenda/queer politics, you're considered a homophobe. Not into stories where Mulder and Krycek are living together in San Francisco and tending bar/working security at a Castro Street club while decorating their loft and planning their commitment ceremony? Homophobe. A WNGWJLEO fan? Homophobe. Femmeslash not your thing? Misogynist. Into shows/movies without lead female characters? Misogynist. And I really object to those assumptions. Just because my story preferences are very much centered around the canon universe and *recognizable*, mostly-canonical characterizations does NOT make me a homophobe. And the fact that I'm attracted to/far more interested in male characters does NOT make me a misogynist.
sheron:
I've seen it written for years, now, that if you're not interested in or actively advocating the queer agenda/queer politics, you're considered a homophobe. Or if you like the "we're not gay" thing, then you're a homophobe too, because your characters should be bursting out of the closet and it's shameful to not embrace your (potential) homosexuality and immediately start picking out curtains.... That's not to say I don't enjoy some stories that are domestic in nature, but I'm just not interested in reading about the actual picking out of curtains, or my guys going to an antique fair to buy a quilt, or something. But, to me, there's a difference between domestic and mundane. :P
shoshanna:
There have always been lesbians in slash. But I think they used to be less visible, that queer slash fans were visible as individuals but not, perhaps, as an aggregate, if you see what I mean. One of the early explanations for "Why slash?" was more or less "Well, if one dick is good, two are better, plus the reader isn't competing with a woman for the guy(s)," which renders queer female slash fans theoretically irrelevant or invisible . . .
cathexys:
What a wonderful overview of some of the issues I'm most interested in and concerned with on a theoretical level! I really appreciate the historical perspective and think you're right that even as particular fans may be at certain stages, fandom a a whole has changed.

The thing I've been thinking most about recently (which kind of really came to the fore in the gen debates last week) is the way non-romance fanfiction with same-sex loving characters has increased (due to I'd guess any number of reasons, including some writers who enter fandom for the gay/queer fic rather than primarily for the shows), which really makes the definition of slash much more difficult.

So while it may have been romance and now is much more sex, both of these are still slash as I understand it...i'm getting lost when we're getting to the detective/adventure/travel narrative that just happens to have our guys together in there...
kassrachel:
What a delicious ramble; thank you so much for posting this.

I've only been a part of organized fandom since 1999 (which boggles my mind, now; it feels like I've spent my whole life here) so I really enjoy reading remembrances of what fandom was like before I got here. (Kind of like looking through photo albums from the years before I was born, or hearing stories about what my family's life was like before I entered the scene.)

My experience is that, over these past two decades, slash and slash fandom have become much more explicitly sexual; simultaneously, its/our conception of sexuality has become much more fluid and multiple.

<nowiki::nod::</nowiki> That's been my experience too, even just in the 8 years I've been here. It's a fascinating shift. I suspect this has a lot to do with the general fannish move from list culture (public lists and private lists, and also maybe public and private irc channels) to livejournal culture where individual posts or journals can be locked or unlocked, but the conversation is presumed to be distributed across a near-infinite number of journals -- and a much higher degree of self-centeredness or self-revelation is not only tolerated but embraced.

On some level, part of me is still chewing on the Escapade panel from a few years back when we talked about the erotics of our own fannish participation -- the extent to which we write explicitly for one another, and how that shapes our relationships both with the texts at hand and with our communities and our friends. I feel like there's some relationship between that subject and this one, but am not exactly sure how to articulate it...
therealjae:
Thank you for *finally* explaining "they're not gay, they just love each other" in a way that finally helped me get a handle on why some people find that concept romantic. To me it always smacked so much of something that self-deluded gay men would say that it always made me shudder--but "their love is so strong that it goes beyond..." makes perfect sense.
shoshanna:
I believe it was sherrold who explained it that way to me, back in the Terra Nostra Underground, but I could be wrong, and I don't want to excavate and blow the dust off eight years' worth of decade-old apas to find it, at this point . . . Like you, I had found WNGWJLEO pretty creepy up to that point, but when whoever-it-was explained it that way, it was as though light burst upon me :g: And of course, if the characters are homophobic (even while they're having gay sex), that doesn't necessarily mean that the story or the author is also homophobic. Internalized homophobia can be an interesting thing to explore in slash!
sheron:
Interesting post.

Personally, what puzzles me about the more recent fanfiction is how being attracted to a guy immediately makes someone gay, even though before they enjoyed long-term fulfilling relationships with women. It's like while jumping out of one box, we jumped into another.

As well, I wish a lot more authors emphasized the emotional rather than the physical in their stories today.

Would anyone now argue that a large, perhaps even overwhelming, majority of slash fans are straight women?

That certainly seems to be the case to me. I wouldn't say anything like 90%, but maybe 70%, I would assume.
klia:
See, that puzzles me, too. One of the reasons I resist the "It's a Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay World!" bandwagon is because the characters I love are canonically straight, and it bothers me that I'm suddenly supposed to think of their marriages/committed het relationships as experimenting with the opposite sex, or mistakes, or something like that. Wouldn't that make them different characters altogether?
shoshanna:
I guess I wouldn't call 70% an "overwhelming" majority; but it certainly is a majority. I don't exactly take polls, but it seems to me that I've been in contexts where the percentage of straight women felt more like 20-50%. Still, who knows? It depends on so many things.
arallara:
This was fascinating, thank you. I love hearing these kinds of personal histories of slash fandom from people who have been in it longer than I have. And when I think about the changes I've seen in my seven years (most characterized I suppose by the transition from list culture to LJ culture, and the explosion in explicit identification with queerness on the part of many slashers who might previously have felt more comfortable with the generalizations of heterosexuality), it's kind of incredible to realize just how much more change is apparent to the folks who have been around for 10, 15, 20, even 30 years.
xanphibian:
Fantastic post. I adore hearing about how fandom was in earlier years, and the history and gradual metamorphisis of craft and attitudes. I always feel like such a baby compared to people who've been in fandom for so long, but also heartened that YES, it's totally okay to *stay* in fandom, since that's all I want to do. (of course, that's not at all what the post is about, but I'm a dork that way)
st crispins:
I liked reading your post because we come from the same time period and it brought back memories of our conversations at MediaWest.

I always felt a little (sneakily) fortunate because since I don't write slash, I never had to get caught up in all the debates.

But now Gen is problematic as well. Sigh.

I have pretty much given up on labels, warnings, etc. and frankly it wearies me that the framework has become, in some ways, more important (and sometimes longer and receiving more attention!)than the stories themselves.

Sometimes, being a cranky old menopausal fan, I want to say, "Just write, damn it!"

And if it's good, they will come (sometimes, in more ways than one :) )
keiko_kirin:
Great post! You've expressed many of the thoughts I've been having and couldn't verbalize. And you've expressed them in a coherent, non-ranting, and explanatory way. I've struggled for years over how what I like/write could be considered homophobic, but could never explain WNGWJLEO so well. I've added this post to my memories, because there's so much here I am so glad you said.

Currently in fanspaces, I see assumptions that (a) any fangirl is bi (I don't often feel the default assumption is lesbian, but I also don't feel the default assumption is straight), and (b) any fangirl will be attracted to women characters, find them hot, and find femmeslash hot. I fail miserably on both counts, and there have been a few times and forums where I've felt like I should turn in my fandom membership card for letting the side down, y'know? But then I remember the diversity of just the small group of fans I know, and remember the change in feeling I had, circa 1992, when I discovered that I was not the only little girl who'd fantasized about two men together. No way I'm giving up my membership card, dude! You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

And the thing is: I am totally 100% there for my fan pals who love women, love femmeslash. That's what's great about fandom, isn't it? That they have this place to play, too. All I want is to be able to keeping playing there as well, keep loving men, loving the m/m dicksex, loving WNGWJLEO or *whatever works for the characters I love* based on their canon, their interactions, their worlds. And to do that without being called a homophobe.
shoshanna:
I think GF definitely pushed the envelope with her 1979 novel “Mirrors of Mind and Flesh” with all those incredibly detailed sex scenes. And of course there’s her amazing artwork... Definitely! I probably didn't give her enough credit in my musings; I didn't really get into K/S until later, and I guess B7 slash wasn't so smutty at that time. As for her artwork; you know, the first time I ever saw GF, I looked across a room and saw a woman in a flowing patterned dress with a filmy overdress that was also patterned, so that as she moved the two patterns slipped over each other to make an ever-changing, intricate moire; and I said to myself, "That has got to be GF." And indeed it was! (None of the patterns involved delicate flowers with penis stamens, though.)
catalenamara:
K/S is a special case, here -- although we never had any indication that the ST:TOS Federation included anything but straight people, still, authors could have written stories that assumed a welcoming 23rd century society, and for the most part they did not.

I did.

But yes, I agree, for the most part early K/S writers did not proceed from the assumption that 23rd century societies would be welcoming of all types of sexualities.

Everything I wrote, “back in the day” proceeded from that very assumption. I generally figured both guys were bi, and went from there. I felt no need to address the issue at all; instead, I used as a background core assumption that two men in a sexual relationship together in the 23rd century wouldn’t be in the least bit remarkable. (I think a far more likely 23rd century prejudice would be sex with aliens...)
catalenamara:
There were huge, *huge* discussions in the 1970s about whether slash, by its nature, was misogynistic. And I’m sure you’ll recall all of those WNGWJLEO panels at MediaWest and ZCon and Escapade where some people practically came to blows over that issue.

I remember convention room parties at Shore Leave in the early 80s where we thrashed out – and left unresolved – many of these same issues.

There wasn't much discussion about femmeslash because, until Blake’s 7, there just wasn’t much of it (the occasional Chapel/Uhura or Uhura/Rand story aside).

So, I'm not really seeing any really new issues here... Just old issues that have been reframed and re-emphasized, with proportionally more people taking certain positions than you would have seen in the past.

And of course there have been arguments for years that slash “ought” to be this or “ought” to be that or “ought” to prove some point.

My answer to that has always been: "Why?" Why does slash need to be anything other than it is, to each individual reader/writer?

References