Welcome To The Sex-Positive Wonderland Of Erotic Fan Fiction

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News Media Commentary
Title: Welcome To The Sex-Positive Wonderland Of Erotic Fan Fiction
Commentator: Clare Fallon
Date(s): October 12, 2015
Venue: online
External Links: Welcome To The Sex-Positive Wonderland Of Erotic Fan Fiction, Archived version
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Welcome To The Sex-Positive Wonderland Of Erotic Fan Fiction by Clare Fallon is a 2015 article in "The Huffington Post."

Some Topics Discussed

  • exploring sexuality through fanworks
  • young girls and the differing access to sexual discovery
  • slash as safe because it doesn't involve self-insertion
  • lots more


Fan fiction -- stories about characters from existing published work, or even about real people (looking at you, One Direction) that are circulated among fans without being officially published -- is a genre little understood and much maligned by the mainstream, which could no longer ignore the form after the original Twilight fanfic Fifty Shades of Grey took the English-speaking world by storm. (To legally sell the books, author E.L. James had to change the characters of Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian.)

Mainstream discussions of X-rated fanfic usually veer toward the gleefully smug or the bemusedly grossed out. Like lists of "5 Ridiculous Works of Highbrow Erotic Fan Fiction," articles describing Fifty Shades and its fanfic peers as “the written word equivalent of taking two naked dolls and mashing them together to make what you think sex looks like when you're 10 years old,” round-ups that kick off with “All we have to say is: oof.” There's also the San Francisco reading series "Shipwreck," which solicits sexy scenes set in classic books from "great writers," then has them read aloud in front of an audience to roars of laughter; past shows are documented on a podcast.

Fan erotica can certainly be funny, intentionally or unintentionally, but the perpetual laugh track makes it difficult to understand why people are drawn to it, despite the ridicule.

Little solid research has been done on who writes and reads fan fiction, especially the huge subset of X-rated fanfic, but surveys and anecdata suggest the arena is dominated by girls and women, many of them queer, many of them young. There's no one type of person who writes and reads fanfic, however. Kiri Van Santen, Communications Co-chair for the fan collective Organization for Transformative Works, says she knows men and women of all ages who write fanfic. “I suspect that it is true that the majority of fanfic writers identify as women or girls,” she added, “but I don’t have data to support that."

When it comes to hormonal teenagers and horny adults scoping smut on the Internet, this is not the demographic we typically envision. Why are these people -- people we might traditionally consider unlikely to seek out sexually explicit content, let alone between anime characters or Sherlock and John Watson -- the ones creating and supporting this sexually curious community?
Fan fiction jumps off of the long-established emotional connection readers feel to beloved characters and canonical pairings, combining the efficiency of traditional porn with the slow emotional burn of traditional erotica. Plus -- huge bonus -- you can write it yourself, and while some fanfics stretch for many chapters and incorporate significant character development, you can also dash off a few sexy paragraphs without having to create and flesh out new characters.
The opportunity to displace these risky desires, not just into pseudonymous fictions, but onto fictional characters, makes fanfic a welcoming sexual space for girls and women, where they can safely spin their more illicit fantasies off into the minds and actions of distinctly separate alter-egos. “It made me much more comfortable in myself. More comfortable in my sexuality and going out to find other erotica and pornography without having to feel ashamed,” recalled Amy, 23, who lives in Portland and got into fan fiction early in high school. “These are characters, but they’re also people, they do normal people things and that includes sex and other sexual activities.”
More importantly, slash can serve as another degree of separation between the fans and their sexual interests. Growing up, girls can be uncomfortably aware of their bodies as potential sexual objects, an anxiety that may not be solved by projecting onto female characters. Writing about sex between men may allow them to put aside their own insecurities and fears about sex and sexual judgment. “It’s a way of writing about sex without writing about girls,” pointed out Deborah L. Tolman, professor of psychology and social welfare at Hunter College and CUNY. “There’s still a minefield for girls to act on their desires, on their sexual feelings. Even though we say everyone can do everything, slut-shaming shows that’s certainly not the case.”

It’s not just women, Tosenberger pointed out to me, but queer people and people of color generally, who lack honest, unfiltered erotic content that reflects their desires. “If you’re a woman, if you’re queer … you end up scrounging,” she said. “You have to scrounge for the scraps of mainstream media and literature with erotic content. You’ve gotta put up with all kinds of nonsense because ... who gets access to what is still so centered around straight white cisgender men.”

Erotic fan fiction, existing outside the established media, can build a world predicated solely on the actual desires of women, queer people and people of color. The women I spoke to almost all recalled how the alternative world of fan fiction, existing outside of the patriarchal media, fostered a greater sense of sexual agency for them. “Erotic fan fiction ... helped me to internalize my own fantasies,” said Alexandra. Reading explicit fics, she said, “I formulated some of my sexual appetite and taste from certain pieces, and gained at least a beginner's understanding of kinks.”
Hurt/comfort fics, a popular subset of stories, go a step further, showing a character heartbroken or victimized, then consoled by a strong, loving partner. “In erotic fic,” said Van Santen, who has been reading fanfic in her personal time for years, “that generally leads to banging.” For queer people and straight women, for whom violence, brutal rejection and vulnerability can often go hand-in-hand with romance, these fics choose not to eliminate these harsh realities, but to write alternative endings in which solace, and bliss, can be found even in the wake of disaster. As Van Santen puts it, she likes “a bit of creative violence in my sex scenes, as long as the violence is followed by snuggly aftercare."
At its heart, fanfic arises from a thirst for something lacking, whether it’s more tales featuring a reader’s favorite characters or a representation of her sexual interests that the mainstream media isn’t putting forward. “Historically and today,” explained Tosenberger, “fan fiction tends to be written by people who find themselves alienated by the texts, in some way, who find themselves outside the text’s preferred audience and push back.”