Slash fiction and human mating psychology

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Academic Commentary
Title: Slash Fiction and Human Mating Psychology
Commentator: Catherine Salmon and Don Symons
Date(s): February 2004
Medium:
Fandom:
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Slash Fiction and Human Mating Psychology is a 2004 article by Catherine Salmon and Don Symons. It was published in "The Journal of Sex Research," Vol. 41, No. 1, Evolutionary and Neurohormonal Perspectives on Human Sexuality. This article later became Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality.

Abstract:
The stark contrasts between romance novels and pornography, both multibillion dollar global industries, underscore how different male and female erotic fantasies actually are. These differences reflect the different selection pressures males and females faced over human evolutionary history and highlight the utility of using unobtrusive measures to study aspects of human nature. Salmon & Symons (2001) examined slash (the depiction of a romantic or sexual relationship between typically heterosexual male television protagonists, such as Kirk and Spock from Star Trek) as an erotic genre, placing it in the context of romance and female sexual psychology. The topic is revisited here with attention also being paid to slash between two female television characters and the appeal to people of fiction in general.

Sample Study Group

One of the study groups for this article were twenty-two Canadian females ("admittedly only one small study") in a romance readers club who'd never read a male-male romance. The were asked to read Marion Zimmer Bradley's book The Catch Trap. When questioned afterwards, 78% of them said they "enjoyed it at least as much as other romances." And participants who enjoyed the book "more than the average romance were significantly more likely to to report that they had been considered tomboys as girls."

Sections

  • Introduction
  • Why Do Humans Enjoy Fiction?
  • The Nature of the Genre Romance Novel
  • Slash Fiction and Its Fans
  • Our Research on Romance Novel Readers
  • Slash as a Sub-Genre of Romance Fiction
  • Then Why Does Slash Exist?
  • Female-Female Slash: A Test Case

Excerpts from the Article

"Slash fiction" or "slash" is a kind of romance fiction, usually but not always very sexually graphic, in which both of the lovers are male. To be considered true slash the lovers must be an expropriated media pairing, such as Captain Kirk/Mr. Spock (K/S) from the original Star Trek series or Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson (H/W). The term "slash" arose from the convention of using the slash punctuation mark to unite the lovers' names or initials. Like mainstream genre romance novels, slash is written almost exclusively by and for women. It originated in the mid-1970s when female Star Trek fans began to write and disseminate narratives in which Kirk and Spock fall in love and become lovers. As time went by, virtually every cop, spy, adventure, and science fiction television series featuring two male partners was "slashed" (i.e., slash stories focusing on the main characters were written and disseminated) by some of its female fans. In the early years slash was disseminated primarily via fan magazines ("fanzines" or "zines"), which were sold by mail order and at fan conventions. Today, slash is disseminated primarily via the internet. Enter slash into any search engine and you will find hundreds of sites, most of which are devoted to only one or a few male pairings, though some archives contain thousands of stories featuring many pairings and TV shows.
Our research on slash has not, to date, led to the discovery of a heretofore-undreamed-of psychological mechanism or even to a novel hypothesis about such a mechanism. Instead, slash has turned out to be an exception that proves (tests) the rules, and the rules remain essentially intact. That is to say, it was more the case that our previously held views of female mating psychology led to a deeper understanding of slash than the other way around. We did, however, develop testable hypotheses to account for the appeal of slash, which we describe later in this article (see Salmon & Symons, 2001, for more information). Before discussing slash and its fans, however, we first consider the general question of why human beings enjoy fiction at all. Our discussion is animated by the premises that mental phenomena, such as enjoyment, are the products of brain states and that the human brain, like every organ in every species, is the product of evolution by natural selection.

Slash is much more similar to mainstream romance novels than most academic students of slash have realized (e.g., Fraser Lamb [sic] & Veith, 1986 [1]; Jenkins, 1992 [2]; Penley, 1991; Russ, 1985 [3]). For example, a slash story is in essence a love story in which two long-term male partners, usually depicted as heterosexual (however unlikely this may seem), suddenly realize that they have come to love one another. Slash stories typically have a happily-ever-after ending, namely the establishment of a permanent, monogamous romantic and sexual union. In addition, while the average slash story probably contains more graphic sex than the average romance novel does (as many students of slash have noted), graphic sex is not a necessary component of either genre; there are PG, R, and X versions of both, and in both the emphasis is always on the emotional rather than the purely physical aspects of sex. In slash and mainstream romances alike, sex occurs within a committed relationship as part of an emotionally meaningful exchange, and it serves rather than dominates the plot. While slash fans produce a great deal of slash-related artwork, it is unabashedly romantic, very much in the vein of romance novel cover art. It may depict nudity, but it almost never depicts penetration. A further similarity is that the heroine of a romance novel is always the main point-of-view (POV) character, but it is common for the POV to shift between heroine and hero, because many romance readers enjoy having a direct pipeline to the hero's thoughts and feelings. In slash, one of the lovers is always the main POV character, but the POV commonly shifts between the two.

[snipped]

A final similarity between slash and mainstream romance novels is that themes of sexual exclusivity and sexual jealousy are prominent features of both. In sum, perhaps the main lesson to be learned from analyzing slash is the rather banal one that the more things seem to change in the domain of human mating psychology, the more they actually remain the same. Romances- mainstream novels and slash stories alike are in essence female fantasies about overcoming obstacles to achieve the perfect mateship.

THEN WHY DOES SLASH EXIST? We propose two kinds of answers to this question, which should be regarded as complementary rather than as hypotheses to be tested rather than as established conclusions.

First, although the heroes of mainstream romance novels are "warriors," the heroines are not heroes, no matter how intelligent, well-education, fiercely independent, professionally successful and spunky they may be. In slash, however, both lovers are warriors. Slash is based on shared adventure, and its protagonists slay each other's dragons. This, we believe, is the most significant different between slash and mainstream romances.

The typical slash fan may be a woman who is psycho-sexually unexceptional but who, for whatever reason whatever reason, prefers the fantasy of being a cowarrior in the fantasy of being Mrs. Warrior, the fantasy of being a hero who triumphs over the forces of evil to the fantasy of being a heroine who triumphs over an alpha male.

Who might such women be? Our research suggests at least one hypothesis: They might be, disproportionately, former tomboys. Research on tomboys suggests that most do not reject traditionally female activities but rather embrace traditionally male ones (e.g.. they may play with both dolls and trucks). As adults, they typically score high on tests of assertiveness, competitiveness, and willingness to lake risks. Slash may have a special appeal to such women because it uniquely fuses traditionally female romance with traditionally male camaraderie, adventure, and risk taking.

The second reason for the existence of slash may be that it solves some of the problems inherent in the genre romance formula better than genre romances themselves do. Here is one example (see Salmon & Symons, 2001) for others): For the happily-ever-after ending to be credible, the reader of a genre romance must suspend disbelief regarding the way male mating psychology and male-female mating relations are portrayed. (Of course, slash fans must suspend disbelief that two heterosexual men could fall in love with each other and sexually desire each other because of that love. Women who cannot do this do not become slash fans.) In the real world, intense sexual passion and romantic love are evanescent, but in Romantopia they are not: The hero's sexual and romantic passions bind him permanently to the heroine. To find the happily-ever-after ending credible and satisfying, the reader of a genre romance must believe that this bond is so durable that the hero will never be tempted by the opportunities that are bound to come the way of a warrior who possesses every trait that young women seek in a prospective mate.

"THE SEXUAL WORLD: Don Symons: Slash Fiction" 2009 Interview

One of the authors, Donald Symons, discussed slash fiction in an interview uploaded to YouTube in January 2009 in a video titled "THE SEXUAL WORLD: Don Symons: Slash Fiction."[4] He never mentions Catherine Salmon, his co-author, in the interview.

Below are comments by fans regarding the interview, the article "Slash fiction and human mating psychology", and the book where the article was printed Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality.

The video contains several cutaways to about a dozen images. Some of them are of chapter titles in the book. Two are to the covers of two mainstream "bodice ripper" romance books, and one is to a "Conan the Barbarian"-type of art (perhaps by Frank Frazetta?). The other five images are to unattributed fanart (1. at .58 Kirk/Spock from an unknown print zine by an unknown artist, 2. at 1.19, a Highlander manip, artist unknown. 3. at 1.24 Bashir/Garak by TACS cover of Tarkalean Tea, 4. at 1.30 Bodie/Doyle by TACS, unknown source, 5. at 1.35 a McShep manip, artist unknown.

All comments are from oh dear god; archive link or the LiveJournal crosspost.

giandujakiss:

Yeah. I mean, I think you start to go wrong if you study slash as opposed to fandom, for one thing. I suppose it's possible that he just didn't come off well in the interview and that his book has a better understanding, though.

eisen: O I C, Mr. I r Smart Cuz of My Degrees. I am like unicorns, and I do not exist.

I ... what. There is so much wrong with that perception of slash fanfic I do not even know where to begin. I am too confused to be as angry as my icon would otherwise indicate I am!

(He looks so weirdly pleased with himself, too. It's like he's a little boy who got caught by his mommy with his hand in the cookie jar and he got away with it, or something. There's something very puerile about his behavior that disturbs me, on top of the absurdity of his statements about slash.)

giandujakiss:

Yeah, there's definitely an attitude there that's rubbing me the wrong way but it's possible I'd have felt that way no matter who was speaking. I suppose it's also possible that his views are actually more nuanced, if you see what he's written - the interview format possibly wasn't great for exploring the topic. But the whole thing just rubbed me the wrong way.

eisen: It's possible! But I am not sure I'm inclined to read his book and find out, after watching that interview.

It made me feel vaguely like I was watching that one scene in a comedy film where the hip nerdboy drills a hole into the girls' bathroom and spends the next five minutes staring in it all goggly-eyed as the movie treats him to a parade of fetish objects, who could be people but aren't, as they're only being viewed through a peep-hole, to keep him entertained. The viewer is clearly meant to think this is funny and sympathize with his motives if not his situation, but I'm the viewer, and all I end up feeling is uncomfortable because if I were in that movie I'd be the one looked at through the peephole.

makishef: I think what's so funny about this video is how his extreme generalizations almost make sense to me (or would, could I not name an example that fell outside each and every generalization he makes), but it still feels like... well, like an anthropologist commenting on a group of people he's not actually that familiar with. Like a man going to a "tribe" of women so he can come back to the other men and say, "Look what I found!"

I think the generalization that it's all heterosexual women really threw me most, and I think when he compares them to mainstream romance novels, he's missing the point. Ignoring for a moment that there are indeed bi- and homosexual female and male slashers in fandom, what always interested me about slash was that it is largely for women, by women, and using or even objectifying men for their pleasure. It always struck me as playing into the romance novel/romantic comedy tropes just to subvert them by casting two men rather than playing into the gender roles. (The same could be said for a lot of femslash I've read.)

Or, shockingly, just because many women might find two men together sexy. Period. No further analyzation needed, except maybe to check your own ideas that women's sexuality can't possibly have nuance to it (like those oh, so sophisticated men).

Lastly: "This is monogamous. It's nothing like real gay male sex is." My brain just died.

Haha, thank you for sharing this. I like a little outrage with my morning coffee.

stromatolite:

I couldn't agree more about the tribe comparison. He's found something exotic to show off, and hasn't made any attempt to understand what's going on from the point of view of the tribal members.

avavast: 1:24, Garak/Bashir. ♥

The bizarre statement at the end was definitely what got me out of my seat. It also ties in with the assumption that m/m slash is written for and consumed (only) by heterosexual women. He seems to want classify gay sex = this, female desire = this, and slash = this. When those topics are anything but classifiable because gay sex isn't just this; it's this, this, this, and this, and this.

He did say something that I agreed with in part: the idea of co-warriors. Regardless of if the story is f/f, m/f, or m/m, I love to see characters cast as co-warriors and as partners on an equal playing field despite any dynamics they may have in the bedroom.

cathexys: Oh God...he's still around?

He's like the low point of fan fiction research.

ratcreature:

Right, I remember that bizarre article. It was a great example for "when sociobiology makes 'science' look even worse than usual", iirc, wasn't it? Sociobiology theses tend to do that to you, more often than not, in my experience. I mean, there might be some that don't employ weird circular reasoning to prove their reactionary assumptions through 'science' but more often than not it seems to go like: my fantasied ideal patriarchy must be biological, because things were like this forever before the icky feminists complained, and they wouldn't have been like that if it wasn't "natural" so I construct some biological reasoning with selective observations and lots of fudging that makes patriarchy the inevitable destiny so I can feel reassured that feminism is icky and just wrong because 'science' says so. All too often it's like the 2.0 version of measuring skulls and then afterwards setting criteria so that it's 'proven' white people are smarter than others.

dysprositos: I still can't get over the fact that even knowing about Holmes/Watson, he still honestly thinks that slash was started in the '70s by Kirk/Spock shippers. Fanacs: always older than you think.

And oh yes, warriors. Holmes/Watson is all about the warrior nature! Gus and Shawn are warriors! Kirk's a warrior! Spock's a warrior! Rodney McKay is the warrioriest warrior who ever warriored! (The only pairing I can think of that's about shared warrior-ness is Xena/Gabrielle, but he explicitly excludes femslash from the slash genre....)

*goes off to read article*

[snipped]

I'm kinda wondering how anybody at all would consider him an authority. I mean, he's published a book on us?

The section entitled "SLASH AS A SUB-GENRE OF ROMANCE FICTION" makes it seem like he's never encountered PWP, noncon/dubcon fic, aliens made them do it or sex pollen, hatesex in its infinite varieties, &c. What has he been reading? (Plus, dude, if you're on the opposite side of Henry Jenkins, you might want to consider the possibility that you're doin' it wrong.)

"First, although the heroes of mainstream romance novels are "warriors," the heroines are not warriors, no matter how intelligent, well-educated, fiercely independent, professionally successful, and spunky they may be. In slash, however, both lovers are warriors."

...Is he just defining himself to be correct?

OH LOOK YOU GUYS FEMSLASH EXISTS. But it's only written by lesbian and bisexual women! *infinite headdesk*

I propose that we all find and send him counterexample stories, particularly for the section of "why don't these stories exist?" descriptions. As far as the first category goes ("heroines have sexual relations with trees, ferrets, isosceles triangles, or any other random creature or object"), I grew up in HP fandom, I know SGA fandom brings the crack, how hard can it be? And I've read fics matching 2-5. (2: PWP one-off het between strangers, 3: wife/husband (or wife/long-term lover) sex, 4: "heroines meet, win the hearts of, and ultimately marry gentle, sensitive, mild-mannered, hard-working, nonthreatening heroes with slightly feminine facial features who are anxious to shoulder half the housework and childcare," and 5: "heroines marry such men as described above, and then have impersonal, short-term extramarital flings during ovulation with Mr. Good Genes macho studs.") I mean, Torchwood fandom alone has all of these.

dana: Rodney McKay is the warrioriest warrior who ever warriored!

Hahaha, great, now I have an image of Rodney McKay in a Conan the Barbarian outfit. Thanks for that!

But seriously, the 'warrior' label also threw me, because the guys from the popslash fandom, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, all totally warriors.

lauredhel: "Without question, there are now and always have been happy marriages. That said, we recommend the following armchair experiment in unobtrusive measurement: Open any book of quotations and read the entries on marriage (this article's epigraph is a typical, relatively mild example). After reading a few dozen quotations on this topic you may conclude that the core fantasy that animates slash fiction--erecting a "marriage" on the foundation of an established, trusted, and tested friendship---might not be such a bad idea."

He's just a marriage fetishist. Bleagh.
Oh, man. I'm not actually going to read because it will be Bad For My Blood Pressure, but really, thanks for exposing Teh Dumb. [5]

mikeneko: Something they emphasize a LOT in anthropology studies is that you'll never be anything but the Asshole Other. (But, y'know, in more lofty and science-y language.) That is, you're supposed to try to understand cultural phenomena while carrying in mind that you'll never, ever grasp the full parameters and meanings because you're outside the culture. But this mainly remains classroom hypothetical -- How often is an anthropologist, sociologist, or other miscellaneous social science type going to show up and turn _you_ in the field study?

So I loved this as a brilliant example of "Hey, _this_ is how you look and sound to the people you're studying." Fantastically uncomfortable and irritating. I loved it. :D

delhinapterus: I have a lot of issues with how he treats fandom and slash and a lot of people have really already stated those issues so I won't repeat it. However, I was thinking that his tone reminded me of something and I finally figured it out. It reminds me of the "In the Tradition of the Wickedary" essay (ie. slash upholds the patriarchy) that got fandom annoyed last year.

Since I haven't reread the Wickedary one recently (I don't know if it's even still up) I'm relying quite heavily on what I remember about it but from memory I think they both contained a lot of the same generalizations about slash as romance novel substitute and the lack of women.

such heights: OH DEAR LORD. I'm not sure where to begin!

I think this is what I hate most about bad academia on the fandom, the way it so obviously is about someone deciding on an explanation for these crazy straight women and their bizarre subculture, rather than actually studying fandom in any sort of in-depth way.

truwest: These two authors are an embarrassment to the profession of anthropology.

I actually read the article -- the one mentioned earlier in the comments.

There are many, many statements that are factually incorrect or that take one type of slash story/trope and treat it as a universal.

There may be some interesting points buried in there -- but the sheer number and extent of the misstatements are so distracting, and come across as so ignorant of fandom, it's hard to give the article any credit at all.

A few gems (some are my paraphrase):

- "slash is just a subset of regular romance novels". This is one of his core assumptions and it results in their mixing research findings from regular pro romance novels and from slash fandom.

That is a *fatal* flaw for a cultural anthropological study -- I can't quite believe that they thought that was OK to take this approach. It's like saying that you've decided upon surface examination that the Trobriand Islanders are really a "derivative culture" from the Germans, so you do cultural study and combine examples from each culture willy-nilly to make your point.

Cultures can only be fully understood from an insider/experiential perspective (in addition to any outside or other perspectives that the researcher takes on). The need for a non-judgmental insider view is a *fundamental core concept* of cultural studies in anthropology.

Even doing cultural comparison studies require first going in-depth in each culture and explaining from the inside -- and only then attempting any comparisons or contrasts. But in this article, the authors mix the two (pro romance novels/readers & slash fandom) from the beginning.

Other eye-rolling moments:

- "slash fanart almost never shows penetration."

I must be looking at different fanart.

- "the women in romance stories are never 'warriors' and in slash fic, both men are always 'warriors'...".

A perfect example of the article boiled into one short sentence: a conflation of multiple assumptions, biases, undefined/unclarified terms, and mixing the 'findings' from different source groups/cultures.

- "slash stories feminize one of the men...the smaller of the two, physically weaker, lighter in coloring, more seductive, more in touch with his emotions, and quicker to perceive the development of mutual love..."

Again taking a trope that's found in some stories and seeing it as universal. Factually untrue and laden with all kinds of unexamined heteronormal gender stereotypes that don't even apply universally to non-fans, much less fans ("women are more seductive than men?" - very much depends on what culture and the person/role in that culture).

- "there are no romance stories in the world/on the internet where women have sex with their husbands or long-lost lovers."

This point is esp weird, because part of the article's argument is that women's porn is about establishing/maintaining committed relationships. And there's a ton of fiction (both pro and amateur/fic, het and slash) that deals w/ romance inside a long-term relationship. So again: a gross misstatement and strange contradiction to a point they're supposedly trying to make.

- "writers often made technical mistakes in their descriptions of male-male anal sex (e.g., easy anal intercourse without lubricant), which suggests the possibility that they were not literally imagining anal sex at all"

Because all other literature always describes sexual encounters in technically accurate terms. *sarcasm* The authors seem unfamiliar with the concepts of "fiction," "storytelling" and "literature." Absolute 'technical accuracy' isn't usually the point.

- "in Internet slash discussion groups it sometimes emerges that female fans who enjoy reading and writing about anal sex in slash do not actually enjoy having anal sex."

Again the connotations of "fiction/literature" seem to have escaped the authors. News flash: there are a lot of men who watch porn who have no interest/desire to act on three-ways, orgies, etc IRL. Ditto readers of mystery stories who don't really want to murder anyone, fans of horror stories who actually don't really want to chop people up with chainsaws, people who watch 24 but don't really want to torture anyone, etc.

- "slash protagonists usually are depicted as having had a great deal of sex with women, they are also usually depicted as 'anal virgins.'"

Again taking one trope and presenting it as universal.

Too many other screamers to list here...go read for yourself.

Bottom line: if I were going to engage these two authors in conversation, I would barely know where to start, the article contains so many inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

But I REALLY HOPE that some of the more substantive scholars/academics of fandom will jump in and kick the authors' rhetorical asses. Because this is ridiculously sloppy work. This kind of stuff gives social science a bad name.

Oh well. Look, people are wrong on the internets!

giandujakiss: His scholarship sounds terrible - the mixing of pro romance and slash being the worst. There's a reason I read fic and that I stopped buying romance novels - the novels weren't telling me the stories I wanted to read.

And from what people said above, it's not surprising that his work is laden with sexist and heteronormative assumptions. I'm just sorry because I gather? that people who don't know better take his work as the standard basic examination of slash.

References

  1. Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines
  2. Textual Poachers
  3. Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love
  4. THE SEXUAL WORLD: Don Symons: Slash Fiction; archive link, YouTube video, uploaded January 3, 2009, accessed July 25, 2011
  5. monanotlisa