#4 – Is slash subversive?

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

#3 – Slash: the Good, the Bad, and the Subversive [on tumblr]

Note: All quotes are taken verbatim and will be attributed to the pseudonym specified by the participants. If provided, I will include age, pronouns, orientation, age and country.

Gosh, writing up this part of my analysis was HARD since I am oh-so very biased about this.

See, if you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said: No, slash is a way for women to enjoy porn without societal norms and power imbalances inherent to m/f porn written on the bodies engaging in sexual acts. Well, 14-year-old me might have been less eloquent. What’s more, 14-year-old me identified as bisexual, whereas 24-year-old me has migrated onto the asexuality spectrum (grey-a, to be exact), and does not read slash for the porn anymore. 24-year-old me sees fan activity as subversive in general, given the grassroots nature of reclaiming popular culture from corporate enterprises that mostly filter narratives through heteronormative lenses.

About a third of my respondents agree. And yet there were a staggering number – approximately another third – who think differently (gasp You don’t say! waves-sarcasm-flag), negating slash any subversive potential. The remaining third argue that this potential depends. On what, I shall let the voices of my respondents show.

Long story short, the issue of writing this up posed a problem, seeing as I strive to make this analysis as transparent as possible. What I have decided on is this: given the threefold structure of responses (yes/depends/no), I will summarise the arguments brought forth by each fraction in the beginning, and then let the quotes speak for themselves, adding emphases for easier reading.

Here is what awaits you:

Question: Slashing characters who are straight in canon – do you see this as a form of critique of the source text?

  1. No. Slash is not subversive.
  2. Depends. Slash might or can be subversive.
  3. Yes. As to why slash is always a subversive act.

Before delving into the three categories and the grey areas in between, let’s consider why my turn of phrase “who are straight in canon” is problematic. This was intentionally not placed in quotation marks as to avoid turning this into a ‘leading question’. However, what is to say a character actually is straight?

Continue reading

#3 – Slash: the Good, the Bad, and the Subversive

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

Note: All quotes are taken verbatim and will be attributed to the pseudonym specified by the participants. If provided, I will include age, pronouns, orientation, age and country.

In this third part of my survey results analysis, I will take a look at these three questions I posed in my survey:

  1. Why do you read slash? What do you like about slash?
  2. Is there anything about slash/slash conventions that you dislike?
  3. Slashing characters that are straight in canon – do you see this as a form of critique of the source text?

NOTE: If my anthropology minor has taught me anything, it is that “every view is a view from somewhere and ever act of speaking, a speaking from somewhere” (Lila Abu-Lughod). So this analysis is inherently biased, not only by the way the survey was disseminated, but also in the way I select examples and summarise responses. Thus I have posted my own responses to the survey questions above, in order to highlight my own positionality on these topics.

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THE GOOD

  1. Why do you read slash? What do you like about slash?

Everyone has subjective reasons for reading slash, though a number of points were cited quite often. Thus I feel safe to make generalisations while highlighting that they do not suffice to capture reality; however they do allow me to structure my analysis and are thus to be regarded as nothing more than tools.

In the following I will briefly delineate the reasons that were named most frequently. It is not a hierarchy; rather the sequence is inspired by what I think are popular clichés/assumptions re: why people read and write fic.

a) The smut is hot.

Since all fanfic is porn, as the cliché goes, the reason for reading it must be sexual gratification, right? Well, partially. For example, Steve (15-18) reads slash “because I like my ships getting together. the fluff and the good sex”. Of course people like the sex scenes, but it was not the answer that popped up most frequently in my survey, and if it did, then rarely on its own.

b) Fanfic (slash) gives me more stories about characters I care about.

Now this one, however, was VERY prevalent. This reason is kind of obvious, too, since reading about the same characters over and over again without having loved them in the first place does not make a lot of sense when you are reading for pleasure and not for your job/academically.

c) Fanfic (slash) is well written.

Additionally, the high literary quality of fic served as an essential reason for my respondents regarding why they keep coming back for more. Of course this is not specific to slash either, and what one person considers “quality fic” might cause others to shake their heads and close the tab.

Good thing there’s just so much out there, isn’t it? William Björkman (genderqueer, he/him, asexual, 15-18, Sweden) agrees, saying he gets “to read about my favourite characters again and again in various situations even though there is no more canon material. Most fanfics are also enjoyable as stand alone novels, with amazing plot lines, characters and settings. It’s pretty much fantastic and I’m saddened that it doesn’t get more appreciation.”

d) The fanfic-specific form of publishing; plus: it’s free!

Furthermore, he highlights “the fact that I can read it at any time without having to bring a physical book with me, so it’s much more portable”, which is not where the peculiarities about fanfiction end. “It’s also easier to share and get in touch with the author, sometimes even form a bond with them or simply show my appreciation for the work by leaving a comment”, something that conventionally published books rarely offer. Oh, and last but not least: “It’s also completely free so even I, a poor teenager, can read for days and not have to worry about it costing. I will forever be grateful for that.”

e) Slash (fanfic) is the only place where I can find queer/different stories.

A word that popped up a lot when respondents described mainstream media was ‘heteronormative’. That is, every character is straight by default, necessitating queer characters to ‘come out of the closet’ whereas heterosexual people never have to. Viewing everything through the lens of heteronormativity results in narratives dominated by male-female relationships.

For some, this becomes tedious after a while. As William (bi/pan/questioning, 18-25, Norway) explains, “I like slash because I’ve honestly gotten so bored with concept of a man and a woman being together. I mean, everywhere you see, around you, in the media etc. it’s always a man and a woman together.”

In addition, K (they/them, gay, 15-18, USA) writes, “I enjoy seeing people like myself represented in the works I love”, something that several queer-identified respondents highlighted as well, like William Björkman: “it’s very diverse. It’s difficult to find good stories with LGBTQIA characters in mainstream media and gay romcoms are pretty much non-existent. But with fanfiction it is amazingly easy to come by”.

Fanfic and slash are not only different in that they feature queer storylines – they also depict romance and intimacy in a way not commonly found in mainstream media, as ungodly (genderqueer, they/them, asexual demiromantic, 18-25, Argentina) points out: “Slash is not the main reason for which I read fanfic and it’s not what attracted me towards fandom in the first place. Through the years I realized that slash enabled me to experience different degrees of emotional and physical intimacy making it both an intellectually stimulating exercise and a powerful creative outlet, all this within a moderately safe environment.”

Also, when pairing two men together, “there is less stereotype than with heterosexual couples, for example, who is dominant and who is submissive,” writes Marion (female, queer, 18-25, France). This idea surfaced throughout the responses and echoes a long-standing theory regarding slash: filtering romance and sex through two male characters allows straight, female readers to break away from being the ‘submissive’, ‘passive’ part in bed. They can freely identify with both the penetrator and the penetratee, so to speak.

However, it would be a fallacy to reduce this idea, namely that slash offers a better pornographic experience for readers, to heterosexual women only. SergeiSilence, for example, who identifies as asexual and poly (18-25, France), also values slash for the way it excludes women, yet for another reason. What she likes about this genre is “the fact that I don’t have to associate myself to characters, that I can read sexual scenes without it having to be about me, that I can read stories without having to read (always) about sexism and inequality, that I find slash romances often less cliché than heterosexual fiction because there isn’t the same expectation that a man and a woman talking to each other will end up together and/or having sex, that any relationship needs to be explained and allowed to grow into something believable, that gender and sexuality are in my experience more research or experimented with in that type of writing…”

f) In fandom, being queer is something positive.

What is more: for queer readers, (slash) fanfic offers a world where being queer is a positive thing, which is invaluable given how much stigma is still attached to anything deviating from the norm all over the world.

Katastrophi, a trans male and panromantic bisexual (18-25, USA), exemplifies this point: “I’m from the south of the US. Same sex relationships, especially male/male are seen as something not great or some kind of circus act to mock; more so when I was younger, but still quite prevalent now. Slash helped me apply a sense of normalcy to lgbtqia culture. The stories were written by real people, about people doing things that the media or small town propoganda never want you to see. It helped me form my own opinions and feelings on issues as most stories battled with the concept of gendered love and homophobia.

“Quite frankly, in the long run, it helped me discover my own gender identity and preferences. Living in a small town with literally no resources for lgbt+ youth, the Internet and other people’s discoveries are really all you have to go by. I’m in no way saying that I happen to be Trans or gay because of fanfic, that is [absurd]; but it gave me something to work off of. It gave me a branch to hold on to so that I could discover my likes and dislikes or quirks that I didn’t have names for without getting into a pool of over-opinionated advice or social justice blogs.”

Further examples of the multi-facetted motivation of slash readers

To recap, my respondents have provided a long list of things they like about slash which motivate them to seek out more stories. There have been many, many complex replies that focus on more aspects that I have named here. Thus I want to cite a few more to highlight both how individual people’s reasons are, how much the different reasons are intertwined, and how many more sides there are to this topic:

“I enjoy fanfiction in general, and all the pairings I care about happens to be slash/femslash. I prefer slash-pairings because heterosexual pairings usually don’t intrigue me, and homosexual relationships don’t get much representation in media. It’s thrilling to explore the potential sexual/romantic tension between two characters you think belong together, it adds an extra dimension to their dynamics.”(Emmie, she/agender, aro ace, 18-25, Sweden)

“I like the fact it turns subtext into believable text (which is true for all fic, not just slash fic, I guess. The wish fulfilment part of it). I like the smut. I’m also mostly into it for just the writing- fandom has some crazy talented members. The range of imagination and skill is astounding (and fandom does all this for free, which never fails to humble me).” (yanking-awry female, straight, 15-18, India)

“Different, queer-inclusive, take on canon. and porn” (ren, male, 18-25, USA)

“I read slash because it allows me to experience and read about people I more closely identify with, it is also in a lot of ways the only opportunity I have to experience couples that I think would be beautiful but might never happen [in canon] because they are a gay couple.” (Avery, biromantic asexual)

“I don’t get off on it sexually, personally, but I think it’s wonderful and I love reading it. This is because I already love the source material, most of it is well written, and that is the story I want to hear. I want to read a story about two characters I ship falling in love, so I go find some. It also probably has something to do with my personality: I’m more of a rereader than a reader, so I like the fact that in slash, I know the basic idea of what will happen (two characters fall in love, the type of story/ending it has is mentioned in the tags) but it is still new material. I also like that, especially with bigger pairings, there are hundreds of thousands of docs out there to read. You can never run out! On a more socio-political note, being gay myself, I love the fact that there is an endless supply of positive/multidimensional queer literature on the Internet: and I already know I love the characters, settings, etc. In so much of media, queerness is seen as a deviation from the norm, and us our stories are told one dimensionally, made into tragedies, tokenized, or dismissed. This isn’t how it is in fanfic, where a queer relationship is the expectation from the outset. Also, I’m underage, in the closet, and in a very conservative family and community. I’m not able to get my hands on anything queer positive or “inappropriate” unless it’s online and free. Mostly, I just love reading the stories, it’s fun, romantic, sad, sexy, and there isn’t anything else like it!” (You’re-the-bees-knees-John, female, lesbian/grey-a, 15-18, USA)

“There are a lot of amazing writers in fandom. I love the stories that are being told and the ability to give the sides of things that aren’t as represented in mainstream media. Both as a writer and as a reader, it is an opportunity to see representation that isn’t common. There is also a freedom in taking characters that are already known and putting them in an alternate setting. Sometimes it is fun to read beloved characters doing things that wouldn’t be possible in the original material, while other times it seems to be an extension of the original media I love. With slash in particular, we can take the characters into the spaces a traditional narrative won’t (for instance the bedroom) and see the parts the story is missing. However, there is often a focus in the media on sex when fanfic comes up and I think that does a disservice to the amazing character growth and stories that are being written. I love E rated stories, but particularly as it relates to slash, there is a sense that gay or bisexual characters are somehow more sexual or more focused on sex. In addition to queer characters being excluded from pop culture, when they are there, they are usually hypersexualized, so I think it is important to note that in many slash fics there is a lot more going on. Sex is great, but it isn’t all about the sex.”(Bel, genderqueer, she/her, polyamorous, pansexual/panromantic, demisexual, 30-40, USA)

One last quote, which also provides a perfect transition for question #2:

“I tend to like slash when the creator manages to turn a status quo upside down or when a particular pairing twists an otherwise common or well-known story into something completely different and challenging. I sometimes feel like slash fic/art/anything is basically a big eff you to social norms that (queer) fans as a whole grew tired of. I certainly am tired of watching the same old hetero nonsense play out whenever I switch on the TV or go to the cinema or even pick up a book. Which doesn’t happen as often as it used to, actually. There’s this tumblr post about how slash fic warped our perception of regular/straight literature and how it now seems dull in comparison to queer stories, and that’s exactly how I feel about it. Being queer myself, I have to constantly keep myself from rolling my eyes when faced with yet another bland boy-meets-girl-story. Those can be fun, I know they can and I do ship some straight couples, but in my experience, more often than not, those stories just aren’t that fleshed out and believable. I guess that’s because straight relationships are kind of expected to happen at the end of a story and are therefore not given as much thought and warmth and actual substance then, say, the friendship of two men or women. (Let’s be real, it’s mostly men.) And that’s why I mostly read slash – it’s more entertaining, it’s more provoking, it’s more thought out. Well, not all the time, there’s exceptions. Which leads us to the next question.”(Lena, female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

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THE BAD

  1. Is there anything about slash/slash conventions that you dislike?

[Note: In wording this question I failed to realise that ‘slash conventions’ might be misunderstood as referring to meet-ups like ComicCon. This caused some confusion and I dearly apologise for my oversight! Thankfully, the majority of my respondents understood that I was referring to tropes and narrative traditions within slash fanfic.]

The replies I received for this question were fascinating. For one, there were huge common denominators with a handful of voice speaking out in opposition, and for another, several replies went very deep regarding the societal circumstances that caused certain conventions.

What’s more, a majority of respondents also divulged personal preferences and dislikes, which exemplified very well that one person’s dislike might be another person’s like. The same goes for moral boundaries and what constitutes “romanticising” when it comes to things like rape, mental illness, child abuse, etc.

“Slash is so varied because there is such a large amount of people who contribute to it in some way. No story can ever be the same because each author is different and brings their own perspective to the table, which is why I think fanfic is so uniquely brilliant. No matter what you enjoy reading or creating, there’s always someone else who likes it too.” (Abby, female, bi, 18-25, UK)

And if a reader comes across something they don’t like, they can just stop, as several respondents highlight. “My biggest complaint is abandoned works-in-progress,” adds thedepthsofmyshame (female, bi/pan, 40-50, USA). “Given that fanfiction is written and distributed for free, I don’t actually feel like I have the right to complain.”

a) Writing style specifics

Many aspects that were named pertained to the specific writing styles or tropes, including characters. For instance, OreruionielEruan (female, pansexual, 18-25, Slovenia) writes, “Idk if this counts, but I really hate Victor Trevor. I know the poor guy didn’t really do anything to deserve it, but he’s getting on my nerves since he’s almost always some kind of Sherlock’s ex.” And emilycountess (female, straight, 18-35, Aus) explains, “I’m totally over coffee shop AUs. The bar is set much higher for kid fic than other stuff. I don’t like heavy angst. Interestingly, for Teen Wolf I prefer AUs, for Harry Potter, I prefer post epilogue (often non-epilogue compliant) but otherwise largely canon-compliant. I read some RPF as well (shame on me), and in RPF fics, I tend to prefer non AU.”

For Anni (female, asexual, 15-18, Protugal) “Grammar mistakes and not enough paragraphs. Also 1st pov” are a no-go. And yes, I mostly included this quote since I share the aversion to 1st person POV and was happy to find a kindred spirit.

The author’s bias aside, OOC (out of character) portrayals, bad grammar and spelling, as well as ‘bad plot’ seem to be things the overwhelming majority of my respondents collectively dislike, whereby the latter is a highly subjective point. As subtextme (female, asexual/panromantic, 30-40, USA) says, “Everyone has their own tastes. What I don’t like could be something someone else likes a lot. I tend to steer clear from the fics that are plotless porn because it isn’t my cup of tea.”

She is not alone – PWP (porn without porn/plot what plot) fics do divide readers. “I avoid the PWP fics, because I’m in it for the emotional connection between the characters, not the sex,” says Beth (female, asexual, 25-30, USA) for example, which several other participants echo in their replies:

“I’m not sure how this stands in comparison to other readers but I can’t stand not having a plot of any kind in what I read. To each their own, but I tend to stay clear of those.” (Trish, female, 18-25, Mexico)

For comparative purposes, when asked to rate the ratio of plot/porn they read on a scale from 0 (no smut) to 5 (mostly smut), 2,5% of the 441 respondents selected 5.

porn plot ratio

Another response related to the porn/plot topic comes from Lena (female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany): “This is gonna make me sound like an ass, but the thing is, I try to look for pairings that actually have some merit in them. I tend to avoid stories that pair two characters who are never depicted as having a connection at all or who never even exchange a single line on screen. I don’t see it in the text, so I can’t emphasize with it in the subtext. Then there’s PWP fics. Maybe it’s because of me being demi, but as a general rule, I get slightly uncomfortable and annoyed whenever I come across these stories. Again, there are exceptions, and those usually occur when it’s about a pairing I’m used to and very comfortable with.”

On the subject of smut, several respondents also raised objections to the emphasis that fic places on sex scene:

“It’s sometimes difficult to find lengthy fanfics without too much sex is something that irks me a bit. Somehow fanfiction has started to equal porn and the fact that it’s so centred around sex and oftentimes kinky sex makes it very difficult for me, both as a reader and a writer, to enjoy more popular stories and not be bothered with comments like ‘I wish you had more sex in your story’ and stuff like that, especially for me as an asexual as it seems more and more that sex=love.” (William, genderqueer, he/him, asexual, 15-18, Sweden)

The overt focus on sex is also something I have witnessed as a reader/writer of fanfic, yet as a grey-a reader who currently feels closer to the asexual end of the spectrum, my attitude towards this is utterly different from those who gain sexual gratification from sex scenes. (If the emphasis on smut actually is a trend and not just an impression of a few readers, it might be considered ironic that the stereotype of “fanfiction = porn” seems to be fulfilling itself. Though this just as a cynical and not serious side note.)

Related to the emphasis on sex is the emphasis on penetration:

“When there is a sex scene (if applicable) I don’t like it when the characters act as if the only sex they can have is penetrative, or it’s the only ‘real’ type of sex. Especially if it’s the first time for the characters…seriously, you don’t need to penetrate each other right away.” (Beth, female, asexual, 25-30, USA)

“Some ideas about how m/m or f/f sex works – it’s evident people have no idea what actual queer sex is like and they copy specific patterns of how sex is supposedly like. […] In f/f sex there’s an incredible amount of fisting, as if penetration is once more the goal and fingers are not enough.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

b) Society’s view on slash

One topic that a few respondents highlight is society’s negative view on slash, and fanfic in general.

“I dislike the view people have on it,” says Maria (female, bi/homoromantic, 18-25, Germany). “People, who don’t know a thing about it, who actually never read it. I hate this cliché, that slash is just bad porn, written by hormone driven teenage girls. But this is actually not true.”

After all, if fanfic = porn, then talking about it equals talking about sex, which is still widely considered a taboo: “I feel like a real weirdo being into that stuff. Like I can hardly talk about it. Almost nobody talks about their porn preference so I don’t feel comfortable admitting I’m into guys kissing/having sex.” (Judy, female, bi, 25-30, Germany)

c) Research specifics, including the mechanics of sex

Before expanding on the one thing that dominated the replies, let me talk about this first. A handful of respondents criticised an obvious lack of research on the author’s part, for example:

“I think the thing that annoys me the most is inadequate preparation and lubrication, especially in more intense sex scenes.” (Celia C., female, bi, 18-25, USA)

“I hate it when you are reading a fic and bam: sex. For god’s sake lube and prep are important. If you wan your fic to be somewhat realistic maybe spend 10 lines about how they prep and use lube.” (blasy, male, gay, 18-25, Spain)

“Weeell… The sex scenes often paint a false and overly pink picture about anal sex. E.g. too little preparation, surprise sex in an alley (or anywhere else) without a condom etc. As a biology/anathomy-entusiastic, these things make me cringe.” (Agatha, female, probably hetero, 25-30, Hungary)

“Yes, badly written fics with no research done. Like when I am reading a fic that is situated in UK, I hope not to find Walmart as main food chain store. Do your BLOODY research!” (Tsuyu, female, asexual, 30-40, Lithuania)

Obviously, not everyone gets this intense about research. As an author, I personally do my best to research the *** out of things, though I’m a tad perfectionist that way, and given that fic is free and anyone can simply stop reading, I also understand when authors don’t invest much time in research.

I believe this issue boils down to the individual reader’s conception of what art should be. How closely do you want art to mirror reality? Does fiction have to be realistic in order to be enjoyable? Or is it possible to regard ‘unrealistic’ sex scenes as something that transcends reality in its literary status?

d) Ship wars

A large number of respondents explicitly criticised the ship wars that still dominate fandoms from time to time:

“There can be “ship wars” within a fandom where two different popular slash pairings fight amongst each other feeling that the other is invalid or stupid. Personally, slash fanfiction is there for anyone’s enjoyment and there is no right or wrong pairing.” (Searafina, female, heterodemisexual, 18-25, USA)

“People that don’t like a certain ship or trope should just stay away from that ship/trope. Instead, they continue shame them/it as much as (if not worse than) everyone outside the slash country does. We’re in a hated group, so why hate each other? In-fighting ruins things.” (Tia, female, grey-a, 15-18, USA)

Of course, ship wars can happen between any pairing, whether het or slash or OT3s (though I have never come across one for the latter). Even after years in fandom and witnessing several different wars, I am still as baffled as Searafina and Tia as to why they happen.

e) Top vs. bottom, and the weakening of characters

Something that ties in with both d) and f), what feels like 50% of replies to this question cited the top-bottom-debate for slash pairings. An example that popped up was top!lock and bottom!lock in the Sherlock fandom:

“I mean seriously?! sure, some men like to bottom more than others but that extreme fixation on those roles in fandom is a little too over the top. ..switch!lock, my friends. This goes hand-in-hand with those old uke/seme tropes where the uke is a fragile crybaby and the seme a hypermasculine asshole (props to the femslash corner on this one. it’s a lot more balanced there)” (varvox, female, asexual panromantic, 18-25, Germany)

For Anonymous (female, lesbian, 30-40, USA) this is a case of OOC portrayals: “For example the ‘gay baby Sherlock’ thing – that’s not what he’s like in the show at all. I don’t like it when the character is made weaker for the sake of drama. The fic shouldn’t have them go around crying all the time if they don’t do that in canon.”

The insistence on who is “seme” (top) and who is “uke” (bottom) tends to go hand in hand with what I called ‘weakening’ of characters:

“Most queers aren’t Top or Bottom, this is a weird argument to be having, especially with respect to fictional characters where you can justify literally any headcanon about sexual preference. There seems to be this overwhelming concept that who is on top or on bottom is tied to who is in power or who is the Man in the relationship, which is gross. The concept of power relations being played out like that is gross to me. that’s already what hetero relationships are supposed to be like and it’s terrible and people in those relationship have to constantly fight against gendered expectations that unfairly constrict both parties. also none of the queers I know actually enact this at all?” (Em, female, bi, 25-30, USA)

Julie (female, biromantic grey-a, 18-25, Norway) emphasises this lack of basis in reality, too: “I hate the seme/uke or top/bottom stereotypes with a passion. I want the couple to be realistic.” Then again, as dominatrixeditrix (female, 40-50, USA) points out: “but hey, I don’t honestly know what goes on in m/m relationships, so that’s on me and my thinking about power dynamics.”

“[…] while I know this applies to straight pairings as well, I do think that the temptation of forcing one person into a traditionally feminine role while boosting the other person’s masculinity is more prominent in slash fics then in, well, duh, fics with straight pairings. I will never understand how people can be so anal (hehe… I’m pathetic) about who tops or who bottoms. What’s the big deal? Like, how is this something people actually argue about?”(Lena, female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

It ties into a larger issue, which Bekha (nonbinary, she/her, queer, 18-25, USA) sums up as “simplistic views of gender identities and gender roles” that have her clicking away quickly. “But often I’d be closing those tabs anyway because of the quality of writing or plot,” she adds.

However, the existence of the top/bottom discussion is predicated on preference that some readers actually do have, like Ambrosia (female, straight, 25-30, USA), who writes: “I really, really dislike “versatile” pairings (as in, either one can top in a sexual relationship).”

Patricia (female, quoiromantic demisexual, 18-25, Philippines) also actually has “a preference regarding who tops and who bottoms,” though she qualifies this, “but I really don’t like it if they become ‘girly/helpless/cute/small/lithe’ because they’re ‘the girl in the relationship’.”

Now, if you view this as nothing but a preference or a kink, then a laissez-faire attitude won’t be hard to come by. After all, as Bekha says, “there’s plenty of the kind of slash I like, and it’s not terribly hard to avoid the offensive portrayals.”

f) Squeezing m/m relationships into m/f boxes (aka let’s talk about gender roles)

Yet I personally think this ties into a larger issue. Even more prevalent than references to ship wars or top/bottom discussions, which sometimes were called “mischaracterisations” (Lena, from above) or OOC portrayals, were the critique of writing slash pairings in ways that mirror stereotypes about gender roles.

“I really dislike when slash fanfic writers do either consciously or subconsciously place the two characters into gender role stereotypes for example, the person who is the “bottom” (the one generally being serviced/taken care of) is often soft, insecure, or overly vulnerable and tends to be assumed to be the “mother” if children are involved. Whereas the “top” has the control, the protectiveness, the macho ego and is rarely seen as vulnerable.” (K.H., female, demisexual, 18-25, USA)

“I don’t like it when writers or readers get caught up on penetrative sex or who tops/who bottoms. That is (usually) less present in the fic than in the discussions that go on in fandom. People don’t fit in neat little boxes and I am more interested in moving towards more inclusive thinking rather than getting caught in gendered heteronormative roles.” (Bel, genderqueer, she/her, polyamorous, pansexual/panromantic, demisexual, 30-40, USA)

I could cite several more quotes that say exactly the same thing. For these respondents, writing one half of a pairing in a way that has a ‘feminine’ connotation, according to social conventions, is not a matter of OOCness but of characters being forced into boxes and categories. These boxes, for example that the man is the aggressor when courting a female, asking her out, etc., are seen as social “truths”, but as several disciplines have shown, gender and thus gender roles are nothing but constructs. The only name I’m going to drop is Judith Butler, who was one of the first to unveil how gender roles are not something fixed. Not even a person’s sex, i.e. female or male, is fixed, since there is no ‘real woman’ or ‘real man’in terms of genitalia. There is too much variation in the way gender is expressed alone (not only in different shapes and sizes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ reproductive organs, but also in the variations of non-binary gender identities). The myth that one chromosome makes someone male or female has also been dismantled. And yet, the notions of what makes someone a ‘real’ man or woman still prevail in society and thus colours fanfic in the way it portrays characters.

I could go on and on about this (seeing as it’s part of my essay topic and I’m very argumentative about it and personally don’t see it as mere OOCness, which is not meant to devalue anyone’s opinion here!), but I’ll concede the floor to Angel (genderqueer, bisexual, 25-30, UK), whose response to what they dislike about slash conventions sums this up better than I ever could:

“The reinforcement of gender roles in typical heteronormative understanding (see Butlers’ argument of sex already being gendered because we have no other ground of comprehension other than reinforced heteronormativity). I believe that the understanding of queer relationships is also largely influenced by these, i.e. that het people understand the majority of homosexual relationships to be based in an oppositional relation, e.g. someone always has to be the butch and the other the femme etc., there exist no other possibilities. I think a great number of queer people also operate on these beliefs simply because we’ve never learnt how to be ourselves because everything is steeped in heteronormativity and gender essentialism, our entire society and understanding of biology etc.. For example, in Merlin, many people cast Merlin (because of his skinniness, ‘elfin’ looks) as the ‘feminine’ part and make him the traditional stereotypical blushing, trembling, fragile, submissive ‘mewling’ etc. part, especially when it comes to sex. I think especially in sex this is noticeable. While stereotypes etc. are helpful, they also sometimes cause harm and in slash fic this is quite often the case.”

g) The erasure of POC characters

As ren (male, 18-25, USA) puts it: “the tendencies to erase female/poc characters in favor of making two white cis boys get together” is another negative aspect of slash fic.

Em (female, bi, 25-30, USA) is more vocal, and as a Tony/Rhodey fan myself, I’ll allow my bias to quote her in full: “There’s also a lot of unfair preferencing of white dudes. No one ships Tony/Rhodey (Iron Man) even though they’re BFF and have great banter and Rhodey CARRIED TONY OUT OF THE DESERT, but everyone loves Steve/Tony because of their thirty seconds of arguing. I’m not trying to bash anyone’s ships but I think there’s probably a reason for that.”

The “reason for that” pertains not only to the marginalisation of POC characters but also of women, which was a topic that received a lot of attention throughout the responses. (I could have combined these two categories seeing as they share similarities, yet there is a huge difference between the questions, “Why are there so few POC characters in fic?” and “What’s with the lack of women in slash?” after all, that must not be simplified.)

h) Female characters in slash – demonised, erased

Em continues, “Also, I assume this is mostly about m/m ships, but I just wish there was more femslash! I think there are a lot of good reasons why more of it doesn’t exist, but it still makes me sad.”

Other respondents take this further:

“I often feel like that in some m/m slash fiction there is an underlying tone of misogyny. I think that’s probably due to the fact that many female characters are disliked by the viewers. There are different reasons for that but I believe that the biggest reason is that minor female characters tend to be flat characters, mere plot devices or eye candy, and as such are neither relatable nor attractive (especially) to female viewers.” (Hagzissa, female, bi, 18-25, Germany)

“That there is so little f/f fic (which is not the fic authors’ fault but due to the lack of interesting female characters in mainstream television/movies/literature) and that what is there tend to be overlooked due to the way more popular m/m ships.”

“The lack of women or the vilification of women in some fanfics.” (Jehanna, female, biromantic asexual, 18-25, Germany)

“There sure is an unfortunately unsurprising amount of misogyny going on in slash fandoms – there’s a lot of ‘oh here’s the lady that canonically gets in the way of my slash pairing, let’s get rid of her or have her act like a terrible person to get her out of the way’ and such. Character assassination, I believe it’s called?” (resplendeo, female, bi, 18-25, USA)

One quote I’d also like to add, if not discuss at length since I have yet to come to a conclusion on this issue personally, concerns genderswapping fics, aka when one member of a same-sex ship is written as the opposite sex. Tiggs (female, gay, 30-40, UK), argues: “Want to read about a ‘straight’ couple? Read Gen fic them! Stop playing with our boys!”

I have never personally liked genderswapping, though I do see the transformative quality and potential for critique of the male dominance of especially YA fiction by, for instance, rewriting HP canon through fem!Harry. However, I have not yet formed an opinion on, for instance, writing fem!Stiles/Derek fics. I’d like to simply label it as a “if people like it, let them write and read it” situation. Yet for me, slashing characters perceived as straight in canon has subversive potential (more on that later). What happens if I take the, in my opinion, subversive act of claiming media text produced by powerful, heteronormative media creators and turning into slash, and then un-transform it into just another het pairing?

Just something to think about for y’all. (I’d love some thoughts, though?)

The dominance of pairings featuring white men

Anyway, the problems of the absence of POC characters and issues has been named in one breath along with eclipsing issues of other minorities as well as women, so I have a lot of intersectional quotes that I don’t want to rip apart:

“I dislike the racial and lesbian issues that get put under the rug.” (Kaitlyn_Allake, female, asexual, 15-18, USA)

“The lack of fic with nonsexual homoromantic relationships, the tendency to bash or demonise female characters, and the tendency to write out the possibility of bisexuality, and asexuality.” (Madeline Hunter, female, aro ace, 25-30, Canada)

Yet sirnotappearinginthisblog (female, bi, 25-30, USA) sees improvement concerning the latter: “Bisexual and asexual erasure are also sometimes a problem, but that’s getting better too!”

And one more, since it highlights the power that fanfic as a cultural agent does have, no matter how much society tends to ridicule us:

“Sure, fanfic writers and readers are a lot less powerful than mainstream media, but fanfic is still public speech, out there, on the Internet, for everyone to read. And it’s definitely communicating /something/ to the people who read it (including, increasingly, media corporations) about how the most enthusiastic, supportive, and energetic elements of media audiences value nonwhite and female characters.” (H. Wang, female, bisexual aromantic, 18-25, USA)

i) The “Gay for you” trope

Another facet of heteronormativity is the binary of gay/straight, meaning that there is no in-between, leading to things like the “We’re Not Gay, We Just Love Each Other” trope (see Fanlore).

“I dislike the trope of gay-for-one-person,” says Evelyn (female, asexual/biromantic, 18-25, USA). “It erases bisexuality and generally invalidates a lot of gay/bi people.”

Serabander (female, straight, 50+, USA) goes into more detail: “As a cis/het reader, I feel I don’t have much say in the matter. I understood (and agree) that the theme of ‘I’m not gay, I’m just gay for you’ that was prevalent in the 90s and early 00s was/is offensive. (And it’s still present, mutated into the “we’re gay but not that kind of gay” trope.) I do wonder if the current ‘secretly bi’ or similar discovering-I’m-gay-but-it’s-not-a-big-deal themes will eventually be seen as problematic as authors adapt more subtle understanding of the experience of personal and cultural sexuality.”

j) The depiction of controversial topics in fic: rape, power dynamics, paedophilia, and the issue of romanticising anything

Oh myyy, I’m really throwing the hottest points of contention in fandom into one pot here. While ship wars might polarise, these things DIVIDE. A lot of it has to do with where to draw a line, for example at which point consent turns dubious, or whether there is such a thing as dub-con in the first place, where underage stops and paedophilia starts, as well as an entire cosmos of aspects regarding the depiction of rape and non-con, to name but a few.

After long contemplation, I have decided to not mediate this point at all since anything in that vein would be very biased and run the risk of colouring the views of my respondents too much. Thus all I shall do here is list quotes surrounding this topic, grouped according to content when I deemed it appropriate with headings so you are free to avoid certain topics, and leave you to reflect on how you feel about each on your own.

Romanticising:

“Wildly incorrect characterization, sadness, morally wrong subjects, like NON CON AND MANIPULATION that are being excused and even smiled upon, this is not always the case obviously.”

“Again, romantisizing. Not just mental illness, but self-harm, substance abuse, or even abusive relationships and rape. Myself having an adjustment disorder with depression and having self-harmed before, this isn’t triggering as much as maddening.” (Vanessa, genderqueer, they/them, greyromantic asexual, under 15, USA)

“There are a lot of fanfic tropes that I dislike and most of them have to do with portraying abusive situations, especially if they are romanticised or make ‘sexy’ (noncon or dubcon aka rape, bad bdsm practices, omegaverse, shotacon or lolicon aka pedophilia, etc. etc.). Luckily it is easy to avoid those fics since they tend to be centred in a particular subset of fandom I stay far away from and there are so many more fics that are good (and there are so many more tropes that are good).” (Twin, she/her, 18-25, Netherlands)

“Not something specific to slash, but I don’t like when people apply stereotypic and harmful heteronomative dynamics to any pairing, slash or het. I also hate glorified so called ‘non-con’, that is, rape. Again, this is not something specific to slash but can be found too often.” (Emmie, she/agender, aro ace, 18-25, Sweden)

Age and consent:

“However, especially in the Sherlock fandom, there was an entire discussion on pedophilia within the fandom. Look, I try very hard not to judge, but when people fantasize and make porn with a character that is underage (and not like, 17 years old, but YOUNGER) and another that is way above legal limit (25+) it worries me. I don’t like that, I don’t like how THAT specific situation turns people on. daddy!John is fine if they’re role playing (what happens between two consenting adults is none of my business), but when the other person is truly a minor? No. Even if they’re fictional, they represent ideas. Literature is powerful. It gives voices to communities, and most of the times that’s good. A survivor can work through their own situation by writing a fic about how Sherlock was raped in college and how that feeds into his character, and how he tries to grow. But giving voices to the truly sick… It’s a double-edged sword.” (Emily Goldstein, female, bi, 18-25, USA)

“Consent issues, i.e. the huge amount of rape in fics which is often mislabelled as ‘dubious consent’.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

Fetishizing:

“A lot of it is highly sexualizing lesbians/gays in ways that does not respectfully reflect the nature of the ship. Slash fics for the sake of heterosexual entertainment is not fun.” (Shanimal, female, ace/aro, 18-25, USA)

“The way some people uses hurtful misconceptions about being queer or having a mental disorder just for fun. I’m not talking about portrayals of dark themes or investigation and trial of representation of something we didn’t go through.”

“I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the power dynamics of straight writers and readers fetishizing gay sexuality in general, and young gay men in particular.” (Ged_the_Winged, female, heterosexual biromantic, 15-18, South Korea)

“In general, I believe that children are deified in society and as someone who is childless, I’m inundated with a lot of various cultural expectations surrounding them. Therefore, I don’t like Parent Fic or mpreg. This is my escape from the cultural fetishization of children, I don’t want the end-all, be-all of my fantasy characters’ lives to be being parents there, too.” (hobbit-feels, she, 40-50, US)

“The overwhelming focus on m/m pairings, whereas f/f pairings are much rarer. A lot of the times, if younger people are reading slash fics and looking at slash fanart (I was 14, and I consider that rather young) it gives them the idea that fetishizing same sex pairings is okay, even in the context of fiction.” (SK, she/her, 18-25, USA)

Omegaverse (to be continued in later instalments of my survey result analysis):

“The idea of omegaverse is also inherently transphobic – instead of ‘ass babies’ why not write about trans or intersex people who do exist in real life.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

“I also dislike when authors decide to replace sexism and inequality by creating alternate universes where a part of the population is inferior because of their sex instead of exploring mysogynia and homophobia.” (SergeiSilence, asexual and poly, 18-25, France)

The effect of these on readers:

“I can’t speak for other fandoms, but I have seen things in mine [BBC Sherlock] that I would rather never have been able to see. But I guess that’s not a problem of slash conventions, it is a problem of what people are able to put in the internet, in sites that everyone, including underage teens and kids can see.” (Ink Feathers, female, bi and bi, 15-18, Columbia)

“I also think that people start reading explicit slash fic at a very young age, and I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to explore or learn about one’s sexuality. (Much like I don’t think it’s healthy for young cis-het men to watch so much porn. It is acknowledged and understood that such porn consumption is already causing problems for young men when they have sexual contact with a real life partner, and I think fanfic actually can have some of the same harmful effects.)” (hiddensymposiarch, female, bi, 30-40, Canada)

Other:

“When suddenly all characters in a fic are gay/part of a slash couple; when the slash couple is written too obviously from a female POV or is acting like a het couple in disguise.” (merlenhiver, female, 30-40, Germany)

“I’ve noticed a disturbing trend towards censoring fics and art that people don’t like. That these issues get treated as black and white when they are anything but.” (justacookieofcumberbatch, female, bi, 30-40, USA)

*

Conclusion

Well, I never said I’m writing about easy topics here. In addition, every reader has their own preferences, not to forget subjective ideas about morality and such, which render a simple question into almost 8,000 words worth of quotes.

Originally I wanted to continue with question #3 and investigate what my respondents say about the subversive power of slash, but this part is already rather lengthy. In that, this question shall be the sole focus of #4 of my survey result analysis.

Before I come to an end, here is one more ‘bad’ thing about slash:

“[I don’t like] that it raises my expectations too high. I don’t know how to put it into words, but I think that if I watch the show or whatever I’ll be disappointed because I won’t find what I can find on fanfics, not nearly half of it.” (Camila, female, straight, 15-18, Colombia)

And last but not least, let’s not forget this:

“There are lots of things that don’t work for me personally (e.g. ageplay kink), but in some ways that’s what fic is about – it’s a world big enough to cater to multiple different tastes, whether clashing or complementary, and just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean a whole lot of other people don’t love it. It’s easy enough to find the things that work for me and avoid the things that don’t.”

*

Next up:

  • #4 – Is slash subversive? (coming soon)
  • #5 – Kinks, squicks, and the porn/plot ratio (coming soon-ish)
  • #6 – Omegaverse (coming soon-ish)

[MASTERPOST]

 

Slash Survey – positionality #1

If my anthropology minor has taught me anything, it is that “every view is a view from somewhere and ever act of speaking, a speaking from somewhere” (Lila Abu-Lughod). So the analysis of my slash survey I am currently undertaking is inherently biased, not only by the way the survey was disseminated, but also in the way I select examples and summarise responses.

Thus I will provide my own responses to the survey questions here, in order to clarify my background and positionality.

Continue reading

#2 – Discovering slash fanfiction

#1 – The Respondents

Note: All quotes are taken verbatim and will be attributed to the pseudonym specified by the participants. If provided, I will include age, pronouns, orientation, age and country.

Given that my two essays centre on, in the most general sense, slash and Omegaverse, the first part of my survey took a closer look at slash. I intentionally did not provide a definition in order to avoid steering responses into a certain direction, yet for the purpose of this analysis, let me cite three choice definitions:

  • Fanlore: “Slash is a type of fanwork in which two (or more) characters of the same sex or gender are placed in a sexual or romantic situation with each other.”
  • Urbandictionary: “Genre of fanfiction involving pairing two male or female characters together; characters are commonly shown with a slash in between.”
  • Thefreedictionary: “A genre of fanfic depicting romantic relationships between characters, usually of the same sex, that are not romantically connected in the original work or works upon which the fanfic is based.”

Interesting to note, in my opinion, are the different emphases of these examples. Thefreedictionary limits the genre to pairings that are not canon, thus for example excluding Jack/Ianto from the series Torchwood from being slash in the strictest sense. However Janto, as the shipname goes, was named as an example for slash by some of my respondents, so clearly this definition is too limiting for my purposes. Urbandictionary makes no such distinctions, yet for them slash only seems to pertain to couples, excluding all OT3 or polyamorous pairings from the genre.

This is why I shall take Fanlore’s definition as the basis for the following analysis. Not only does this definition include canon ships, but it also extends to queerer relationships, meaning those outside the monogamous norm suggested by the other two definitions. Fanlore’s understanding of slash also is not limited to fanfic, but rather finds application to all fanworks.

Question: How did you discover slash fanfic?

This was the first thing I asked my respondents. While their replies are as unique as the individuals who typed them, I was able to identify several leading themes as to how they found their way to this genre of fanfic.

Specifically, people seem to have found their way to slash fanfic through (a) friends, (b) via non-slash fanfic, fanart or fandom involvement in general, (c) through online research, which may or may not be be fandom-related, (d) by accident on the internet, or (e) through Tumblr [note: since this survey was distributed via Tumblr, this prevalence of this answer is likely to be related to this].

These paths to slash do not occur in isolation and more often than not are undeniably intertwined. Thus these categories I have opened up are to be understood as mere tools of analysis, not as genuinely separated boxes. They simply allow me to structure my findings better. In the following I will expand on the categories I have opened up above, providing verbatim responses given within the survey and concluding with several additional observations.

a) First contact through friends

Several respondents explained that their friends introduced them to fan writing. As Phoenix_torn (female, straight, 25-30, Canada) writes, “I would say my first experience with slash was in high school (probably 9th grade?) when someone brought a printed copy of a Moffats/Hanson fic to school and was talking about it in the halls. The internet was really where I found and started reading it. Message boards, Livejournal, etc.”

Rosep (female, straight, 30-40, USA) recalls: “Way back in 2001-2002! From a friend in college who had gotten into NSYNC slashfic. I didn’t care for the band but was fascinated by this online community that had formed around it.” And Realms (genderfluid, bisexual, 18-25, USA) explains that is was “originally a dare at a sleepover, later I went back out of curiosity.”

Friends lending a helping hand seems to be especially important when computers in every household are not the norm: “Back in the early 90’s I didn’t have a computer and a friend printed up fan fic for me. Some of it was slash.” (Chrissymbod, female, straight, 40-50, USA)

For mscadee (female, probably bi, 25-30, USA), friends played a pivotal role as well: “In 8th grade (circa 1999) someone in my group of friends printed out this sex story they had found online (original characters, het) and we all read it at lunch. So the next time both of my parents were out of the house and I could get online without someone looking over my shoulder (as our one computer was in the dining room, in full view of everyone), I started trying to find more stories and somehow stumbled across fanfiction.net. There was a Harry Potter category and I fe[ll] head over heels into fanfiction and I haven’t really stopped since then. I don’t remember exactly when it turned to slash, but it was very soon after my initial forays into fanfic. I’ve never been a Harry/Ginny fan and that was what a lot of the het fic is/was. Harry/Draco was my first OTP.”

Her answer segues into the second category I was able to identify, since simply coming into contact with fanfic does not suffice to make a slash reader; there also needs to be a fannish predisposition.

b) Discovery through zines, other fanfic, fanart or fandom in general

Interest in fandom was a vital aspect for all respondents, so when you are already part of online fan culture, maybe even reading fanfic of canon – and thus predominantly heterosexual – pairings, the way to slash by extension is not far-fetched.

“Someone told me about a site called fanfiction.net when I was in 8th grade. I went on it and originally, I read heterosexual Harry Potter fanfiction,” says Ambrosia (female, straight, 25-30, USA). “Then I discovered slash by reading a fic that had a male/male side pairing that featured prominently. Afterwards, I sought more slash fics out & that was how it started.”

Artists tend to find their way to slash via their chosen fan activity, as Tia (female, grey-a, 15-18, USA) exemplifies: “Back when I was in grade school (9 or 10 years old), I made a DeviantArt account to make it easier to track which drawing tutorials I was using. I came across some Yu-Gi-Oh yaoi YamiXYugi (just kissing, though, honestly), and not understanding the idioms of the fandom community, I started reading it because it was from an artist I’d really liked.” Katsa (female, bisexual, 15-18, USA) echoes this sentiment when she says, “It was a slash side-pairing in a hetero story and I really enjoyed the dynamic, so I looked specifically for the slash as the main pairing.”

Mutandine (female, demisexual, 18-25, USA) explains, “if I remember correctly, I got really into hetalia and yaoi at the same time. I started to look up a lot of character/character or boyxxboy stuff on youtube and deviantart. One day I found a small fanfic (this was before I knew the term) on someone’s deviantart and I ate it up. After reading all I could find on that site, I started googling and found ff.net. It was like a dream.”

Others cannot really pinpoint when reading fanfic turned into reading slash as well. “I kept seeing stories with two characters paired together but I mostly ignored them for a while. I’m not sure when the switch happened but it was gradual. One or two pairings were kind of cute, it can work in canon,” explains Ennis (female, aro ace, 18-25, USA). “Before I knew it was a fully fledged yaoi fangirl (slash fan- gay anime pairings).”

One thing about slash that became evident throughout the responses was its dominance in online fandom. “It’s kind of hard to miss, in fandom circles!” asserts kutubiyya (female, bi, 30-40, UK). “I think probably the first fandoms where I became aware of slash were Buffy and Xena – in both cases for f/f slash. In terms of my current main fandom (cricket RPF, aka about as niche as it gets), I specifically went looking for slash, and was delighted to find that it existed.”

“I used to search for Marauders Era fic and kept coming across the slash fiction,” remembers darkandstormyslash (female, bisexual, 25-30, UK). “At first I tried to avoid it but then I started to really enjoy it.”

Jenazzouzi (female, lesbian, 25-30, Germany), on the other hand, “accidentally started reading a Harry/Draco slash fic. There was a warning for slash but I didn’t know what it meant. At first I was a little shocked and laughed when they kissed.”

Fan interaction tends to be a gateway to slash as well: “After I became obsessed with the show [BBC Sherlock], I started noticing people on tumblr talking about fanfiction, so I checked some of it out and I haven’t stopped reading it since,” tells William (male, bi/pan/questioning, 18-25. Norway). Fellow Sherlockian Daelenn (female, asexual, 25-30, USA) discovered it through podcasts: “I believe I first heard about it on the Baker Street Babes, and then more about it on the Three Patch Podcast.”

Not to forget, fanfiction is older than the internet, and several respondents point to fanzines when asked who introduced them to slash. “[C]ollege back in 1988” saw Iwantthatcoat’s (agender, biromantic grey-a, 40-50, USA) introduction to fanfic and slash. “I met a friend (I left a note on her car because I loved her fan-related bumper stickers) who gave me a fanzine with slash in it.” MonaLisa, (female, bi, 40-50, USA) echoes this: “First exposure was with typed, passed around Kirk/Spock fic in the 90’s. Rediscovered it after falling hard for BBC Sherlock.”

And like MK (female, straight, 40-50, USA) highlights, awareness of slash and fanfic is not enough since you also need to have access to stories: “I knew of slash fanfic (late-80s maybe) from being in the Star Trek fandom as a teenager and college student. I didn’t actually read slash until I discovered LiveJournal years later, after there was easier access to fic online.”

Sometimes it also hinges on the fandom: “I read het pairings first, as that was what was recommended to me by other people I knew who read fanfiction,” says Riley (nonbinary, they/them, asexual panromantic, 18-25, UK). “The concept of slash pairings was surprising to me and I don’t think I started regularly reading it until I became a part of the Sherlock fandom and these fics were being recced on my dash all the time (incidentally it was not long after that that I began identifying as not-straight, too).”

c) Finding slash through research (both fandom-related and personal)

Easier access, as MK states above, is certainly one aspect that has helped certain communities grow into what has become known as mega fandoms. Harry Potter on AO3 has more than 87,000 stories, Supernatural over 121,000, to name but two examples. Given this sheer mass of fan writing on the internet, people are bound to discover it during research, whether for personal reasons or fandom related.

As Amanda (female, bi, 15-18, USA) writes, “When I was first trying to figure out my sexuality I did a lot of searching for stories about non-hetero people because I wanted to feel less weird. Some of those ended up being fandom-related.” Liska (female, pansexual, 15-18, Australia) had a similar motivation: “I guess it was just the normal progression of curiosity. I was interested in sex and sexuality so I started reading smut and when I found a lot of the content in most hetero smut to be triggering / cringe worthy in its inaccuracy so I stopped reading hetero smut. After stumbling around on the internet I eventually found slash and after reading a few fics I decided to keep with it.”

Other times, the exposure to slash originated with a favourite character, which was the case for Bow Skull (female, straight, 25-30, USA), who explains, “When the lord of the rings movies came out, I wanted to find more stuff about Legolas because he was my fave. Lo and behold, I stumbled across a fan fiction website and saw that all the ships were slash ship and my first time reading fanfic was reading about Aragorn and Legolas sexing it up in the forest.”

In a similar vein, the ending of a series or a hiatus also provide viewers with reasons to seek out ‘MOAR’:

“Once upon a time when there was the great BBC Sherlock hiatus. I desperately wanted to find something to read and then I discovered AO3 – it was a chain reaction…” (Seogon, female, straight, 30-40, Poland)

“After [Sherlock] season 3 I was poking around online to see any ‘solutions’ to the gaps in season 3 and came across Johnlock fics that ‘rang true’.” (Baforuyak, female, straight, 40-50, USA)

And when you couple this need for more with a certain dynamic on screen, subsequent research might also land you in the world of fanfic:

“Watching Hannibal, the chemistry of the two main characters was so enticing that I felt the urge to find more material to enjoy, which led me to fanfiction on AO3 in general. And because of the slightly or later not-so-slight-anymore homoerotic nuances I just naturally slipped into reading slash.” (Laura, female, straight, 18-25, Germany)

“Found it on AO3 when I googled “bromance bbc sherlock” since I thought there was an underlying romantic relationship in the series.” (Paula, female, bi/biromantic, 30-40, Sweden)

“I think the first time I ever read slash fanfiction was when I was first watching Supernatural. I kinda shipped Sam and Dean and I was looking to see if I was alone in shipping them. Then I found AO3. The rest is history.” (Tessa, female, bi, 15-18, USA)

The variations of this theme are eclectic, thus I will include several more quotes. It will become obvious, I believe, that several of these could have easily been attributed to any other category I constructed, thus underscoring how impossible it is to draw definite lines in this regard:

“I was looking for more content about a scene from my very first fandom online (a little known TV show), like, curious about the actors’ and creators’ inspiration. By putting in the characters names into the search bar, I stumbled across fanfiction.net. And someone had written a brilliant alternate take on the scene I loved! I was so shocked. But I loved it and then I was hooked and figured out how to use the website, find other fandoms, track down author’s livejournals, etc.” (Dalia, female, straight, 25-30, USA)

“It started after the last Harry Potter film came out. I was desperate for any kind of good Harry Potter material because I didn’t want it to end, and that’s when I discovered fanfiction. From there I got into Drarry fanfic, and the rest, as they say, is history.” (Teresa, female, pan, 18-25, UK)

“I had always heard of it in sort of hushed tones or jokes, particularly in the pre-internet days. After Queer As Folk US went off the air, I didn’t want the series to end. That’s probably around the time I started actively reading it. I did not participate in creating any until the recent round of The Hobbit movies came out in 2012.” (hobbit-feels, female, 40-50, USA)

“I think I first read about it somewhere, but I can’t remember if it was a newspaper article or an academic study. It got me curious and a quick search online led me to a whole new world…” (Peter, male, homosexual/homoromantic, 30-40, Finland)

“Around my junior year in high school, I was googling the rumored Batman-Superman movie and stumbled upon a slash website devoted to the pairing. I read a piece and thought it was funny. It was what I now recognize as a “crack” fic, so that was my idea of the entirety of slash fiction for a while– silly, lacking any redeeming value. But I came back to the site a month or so later. I was hooked on a piece that kept me up until 2 am and had me in tears by the end. I started seeking out slash fiction regardless of the fandom–I actually read Twist and Shout half a year before I started watching Supernatural. But finding that site through sheer curiosity was my introduction into the world of fanfiction–and fandoms, even.” (KRB, female, demisecual, 18-25, USA)

“My friend introduced me to the website Deviantart when I was twelve and among the Sherlock art I noticed something called “johnlock”. When I then made a search for this on the net I saw a link for “johnlock fanfiction” on tumblr. I clicked on this which brought me to a variety of “johnlock fics”. I started reading and since then I have been a dedicated fan of fanfiction, especially since discovering AO3.” (Will Björkman, genderqueer, he/him, asexual, 15-18, Sweden)

“A friend introduced me to it. Though I think she was never really serious about it. It was more a teenager thing (omg it’s got SEX!!). I was always very interested in everything sex-related though and did my own research and soon discovered the enormous amount of fanfiction online. I’ve been an avid reader ever since.” (GvC, female, questioning, 25-30, Germany)

And one more quote, which shows you can encounter slash literally everywhere:

“I read a Captain America/Thor fic after it was recommended on a knitting forum.” (Randomfan123, female, pansexual/panromantic, 30-40, USA)

d) Stumbling over it on the internet

Another large subset of replies simply boils down to ‘the internet’. For example, Sherlockfogetshispants (female, questioning, 25-30, USA) explains she was “browsing the internet around age 12” and “just happened across it”.

Anon’s (female, bisexual, 18-25, Canada) statement, “unrestricted internet access at age 10” hints at a more controversial side to this topic. In general I have found that participants all found their way to fanfiction at a young age. There are some who seem to find slash ‘dangerous’, in that it might corrupt the oh-so impressionable minds of young readers (author-waving-sarcasm-flag), yet I will take a closer look into the ‘scandalous’ or ‘dirty’ qualities associated with slash later in this post.

e) Tumblr

Oh yes. If you are reading this analysis on Tumblr and/or have an account yourself, you will probably know what I am talking about here. As one of my respondents so aptly put it, “it’s Tumblr’s fault. It’s all Tumblr’s fault. Everything is Tumblr’s fault. You know I used to have a life before I found this Godforsaken website” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, female, “fuck if I know”, 18-25. Murrica).

Abby (female, bisexual, 18-25, UK) echoes their sentiment. “I signed up a few years ago and quickly got involved in the fandom side of it [Tumblr]. To be honest, I’d basically been writing fanfic in my head for years without knowing what it was and so discovering it felt like coming home.”

Additional observations: community, female characters, and the illicit quality of slash

This aspect, the feeling of ‘coming home’, of discovering that you are not alone in your thoughts, is something that colours a lot of responses throughout my survey. As Queenmab3 (female, bi, 30-40, USA) writes, “I had no idea other people paired these characters together and I was amazed. I wasn’t alone to not take only the heteronormative narrative we’re given on screen and leave it at that. Before I found fic and fandom I thought I was the only one that saw John and Sherlock together. (Because of course Sherlock was my gateway.)”

As stated above, slash is a part of fandom that is very hard to miss. “The first two major fandoms I entered were Harry Potter and Naruto,” remembers getoffmysheets (female, heterosexual panromantic, 18-25, USA), “and in Naruto, Naruto x Sasuke is like…inescapable.”

One does not simply love slash, at least not everybody. While there are respondents who described their encounter with slash akin to love at first sight, others took longer to find the joy in pairing same-sex characters together. Furthermore, fandom is transmedial and becoming active in fandom or simply orienting oneself is a process that takes time, something that these following quotes exemplify vividly:

“In 2007 I found slash fanart of YuGiOh on the internet while searching for YuGiOh fanart and thought it was a joke at first but then I found out that it’s called Shonen-Ai and all but a mere joke and everything went downhill from there, haha I joined a german anime site (animexx) later that year and found the fanfic section. 13-year-old me was intrigued by the amount of (retrospectively badly written) slash fanfic there was and I decided to learn more about it. read more, look up ship names on the internet, write stories myself…” (varvox, female, asexual panromantic, 18-25, Germany)

“I discovered slash fic shortly after discovering fanart. I thought the idea of Parent!lock was adorable, though at the time I didn’t actually ship Johnlock. I knew slashfic existed, but it was taboo, I never looked it up. However, in an effort to find more parentlock fanart, I searched Parent!lock on Google, found a fic on Live Journal, and since I was alone in my room at eleven o’clock at night, I didn’t think that anyone was going to judge me. I stayed up until two in the morning reading it, and from there I ended up in a downhill spiral. Slowly, through exposure, I grew comfortable with the idea of slashfic, started shipping Johnlock, and in a few months I had my own accounts and I was writing my own fic.” (emptycel, female, bi, 18-25, USA)

Oh yes, the negative reputation of slash strikes again! (Keep reading, I’ll get to this in a moment.)

Representation and the lack of well-developed female characters

Several of my participants also touched on the fact that mainstream media is dominated by male characters, who are usually portrayed as straight, cisgender, and white. For KaleidoGarden (female, straight, 18-25, Philippines), this meant that slash was the solution: “I started reading slash when I got into this sports anime where 90% of the characters were male, and there where only six female side characters, two of which were much older than the main characters, two were very rarely seen and the other two were annoying. So the logical option was to ship male/male characters.”

Jen (30-40, USA), who got into slash “when yahoo groups were all the rage”, so late 90s, early 200s, was surprised by slash at first: “I just kinda ran in to one and blinked because I did not realize two males were going to get together in it when I started reading. I realized it made it more interesting to read stories when the relationships had more variety.”

Sometimes the source text already offers possible homoerotic interpretations. As punk (female, bi/pan/queer, 25-30, UK and USA) explains, “Long, long ago (in 2000) I was trying to write a Harry Potter fic with Remus and Sirius and couldn’t figure out who they would end up with/marry because they seemed to fit so much better together. I was also in Sherlock Holmes fandom at the time (for the books) and realized there was a lot more to Holmes and Watson fic than just FRIENDSHIP.”

Fandom and slash as ‘dirty’ and ‘corrupting’

The two pairings Wolfstar (Sirius/Remus) and Johnlock peppered many replies, mostly with regard to how many slashy undercurrents the source material provides fans with. And yet, reading the realisation of this subtext evokes feelings of unease to the extent that emptycel, as quoted above, only did so when alone in her room with no one around to judge her. Coming to terms with one’s preference for slash, then, is a process that is hindered by powerful ideas about how reading non-conforming narratives might “corrupt” the audience.

The negative connotation many future slash readers first associated with the fanfic genre come to light in my survey in several replies. Here are some examples:

“It was a bit strange at first, but it was romance and it was sweet and it was something that was not only hushed in general society, but practically outlawed to talk about in the house. It was my mature, dirty little secret.” (Tia, female, grey-a, 15-18, USA)

“My friend showed it to me saying I was too pure for this world and needed to be corrupted.” (Allice Castel, they/them, pansexual/polyromantic, 18-25, USA)

“I wanted to read more fanfiction and didn’t look at the rating. At first I was nervous and kind of guilty, but I quickly learned to love it without feeling awkward.” (Devon, genderfluid, she/her, pansexual, 15-18, USA)

“I remember being a bit weirded out. I’d heard of slash before and didn’t care what people read and I knew gay people IRL, so that wasn’t it either.” (piepeloe, female, straight, 30-40, Belgium)

“Always read erotica, watched show and became curious about meta, meta led to fix recs, which I read and loved, at first with some embarrassment.” (Jennifer, female, mostly straight, 25-30, USA)

“Back in my first fandom (in the Pit, when I was eleven, so cut me some slack) it was known as yaoi. I don’t remember my first slashfic, but I was probably going through the entire collection of Digimon fanfic, part of which was, yes, yaoi. It might have even been incest, since I was looking for fics that emphasized the Kouji/Kouichi brotherly bond and might’ve stumbled into something that went a bit too far. It’s a miracle I turned out as vanilla as I did.” (H. Wang, female, bisexual aromantic, 18-25, USA)

“Back in 2010, I used to be really into Supernatural and started looking for anything fan-made on the web. I came across fanfiktion.de which is basically the German equivalent of fanfiction.net. Naturally, there was no way of avoiding slash in the SPN fandom and at first I found it pretty gross, considering that most of the fics I came across were Wincest-centric. I gradually became friends with one author who mainly wrote Destiel and her fics made me see this pairing as a possibility in the first place. I still thought most other slash pairings were quite far-fetched and they didn’t make much sense to me, so for me it was a progress of getting used to slash fic. My parents are pretty uptight about anything queer (though they claim not to be), so I guess it rubbed off on me for a while.” (Lena, female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

Personally, I remember some of these sentiments when I first started reading slash. My sister even edited out the smut in one of the first fics she recced me when I was 12/13 (which in retrospect might be the reason I never found it as brilliant as she did, since the sex scenes carried a lot of character development and plot). And I’m not going to lie, the fact that fanfic and slash in particular seemed to be ‘forbidden’ somehow was a vital reason for why I wanted to read more in the beginning.

What the cited quotes illustrate is that the perceived illicit nature of slash, as not only the depiction of sex but also as the depiction of ‘gay sex’, can be both enticing and off-putting. The social context of each respondent carries a lot of weight here, seeing as this is where notions about ‘right’, ‘wrong’, acceptable expressions of sexuality, etc. are shaped, which Lena even highlights in her reply above. What is more, slash seems to be endowed with the power to “corrupt”, to make readers enjoy non-normative sexual practises when they would have turned out ‘completely normal’ otherwise.

These prejudices/fears are not limited to slash but affect fan writing in general. Thedepthsofmyshame (female, bi/pan, 40-50, USA) delineates her journey as follows: “I’ve known about slash since I was on usenet. I only read a few stories because I found I didn’t care for them. Fanfiction felt pathetic to me, a medium for readers too fixated on one story to appreciate anything else and writers so unskilled they could not create their own characters. It took me twenty years to overcome my prejudices, but I now think that some of the brightest and most daring contemporary fiction is fanfiction.

The mechanism that support such prevalent stereotyping are multi-faceted, spanning historically grown social norms, hegemonic ideas about sexuality, notions about creativity and creative expression, and many, many aspects more, including the public image of homosexuality and knowledge of queer practices in general.

For example, Agatha (female, probably hetero, 25-30, Hungary) writes: “The only thing I remember is that I was quite confused by gay sex, at the beginning. I think one of my first slash fics was about vampires? I remember thinking: “Right, they are supernatural creatures. They must have an extra hole down there, or something.” It seems silly now, but I was a teenager back then, and I knew nothing of prostates.”

In a similar vein, participant In Love with a Sparkly, Dancing Rainbow (female, demisexual, 25-30, Philippines) delineates her love for anime, about 1995-2006, that included the series Gensomaden Saiyuki in which the four main characters, who underwent “varying levels of heart-wrenching life experiences”, were portrayed as friends. She continues, “One day, after hours of looking up posts that could put into words this “something else” feeling I couldn’t tamp down, I stumbled upon a series of fanfiction (my first ever) depicting two of the characters in a relationship with each other, another character pining, and the last one completely oblivious to the angst fest. That was the day I learned that how gays look was extremely stereotyped in media (particularly in my country), that you didn’t have to “look gay” to be gay. That particular fanfiction series was both shocking and enlightening. It was also, to date, one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful piece of writing I have ever read.”

Summary

As my respondents’ answers demonstrate, people find their way to slash for a myriad of reasons in a myriad of manners. Stereotypes, taboos, prejudices about fan activity, sex and especially queerness (everything non-heterosexual) play prominent roles that affect each reader’s reaction to slash in unique ways.

What all the participants have in common, however, is that they stayed in fandom and that they continued reading fanfic, including slash. As KnightFrog1246 (female, asexual/lesbian, 18-25, New Zealand) concisely puts it: “My friend showed it to me about two years ago, and then it ate my life.”

This leads me to the focus of my next post: What, then, is so great about fanfic and slash that it enables the genre to become such a prominent element in many people’s lives?

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Next up: #3 – Slash – the good, the bad, the subversive

[go to part #1]

Slash Survey Results: #1 – The Respondents

In order to gather some original data for two essays for university, I took to Tumblr with a call for participants. Within a few short days, 441 people in total were kind enough to take the time and fill out a survey on slash and Omegaverse.

First of all: Thank you to everyone who participated and those who reblogged to signal boost!

Unsurprisingly, the survey yielded a lot more results and quotes than I will be able to integrate into my two assignments. Thus this post shall be the first of at least three separate ones analysing the results.

The Respondents – who are they?

Regarding the participant’s age, the majority is between 18 and 25 years old, while the subsets 25-30 and 30-40 on the one end, and 15-18 on the other, are located in similar percentiles. Only 0.9% (4) respondents are under 15 years old; 7,3% between 40 an 50, and 1.8% older than 50.

age

Out of the 441 people, the majority (195) comes from the US. The United Kingdom (52) and Germany (44) follow, with Canada (19) and Australia (17) being the only other two countries in double digits.

Survey country 1 Survey country 2

All in all, there is a decent variety to the participants, which mirrors statistics on the origin of Tumblr users that I have seen.

Along the gender and sexuality spectrum

The last time I did a survey (the Sherlock Fandom Survey for my essay on BBC’s Sherlock, transmedia storytelling, and TJLC), I offered a variety of boxes to tick for the questions gender and sexual orientation.

In retrospect I regret this choice, seeing as it takes away the option to completely self-identify. This is why I gave no pre-conceived labels or categories whatsoever during this run.

In terms of gender, the notion that fandom is predominantly female rings true. 366 of 441 respondents (83%) identify as female. 26 identify as genderqueer or genderfluid, 13 as male (including one trans male), 6 as nonbinary, 6 as agender, and 24 chose not to identify.

I also asked respondents for their sexual and romantic attraction, should they agree to specify. 43 refrained, yet only 76 of 441 identify as completely heterosexual (none of whom identify as male), which shows that the “straight female” fanfic reader is a lot less common than predominant stereotypes suggest. Four identified as “mostly straight” or “straight-ish”, including “Probably heterosexual. I mean, I’ve never been attracted to a woman, but that doesn’t mean that I never will be… So who knows? :)”.

Five more respondents pointed to a more questioning attitude, like “Bi, pan (I don’t really know)” or “fuck if I know? “not monosexual” is about all I have for sure”.

Short of listing every combination of orientations that was cited, I cannot comprehensively summarise the results. A large part of respondents identifies as bisexual, sometimes with a bi- or panromantic orientation. Pansexual, demisexual and homosexual are common as well (“greypanromantic demisexual, but you can put lesbian”). There is also a large subset of people on the asexuality spectrum, from grey-a demiromantic over asexual panromantic or asexual biromantic to aromantic asexual. Three participants highlight a polysexual/polyromantic aspect.

Two participants are quoi, which I had to look up since I had not encountered that term before conducting this survey. The aromantic wikia defines it as a romantic orientation on the aromantic spectrum. According to theasexualityblog, quoiromantic is also known as WTFromantic or Whatromantic and “describes people who cannot differentiate between platonic and romantic attraction, cannot define romantic attraction and therefore are not sure if they experience it, experience attraction somewhere between romantic and platonic, or want to be in a queerplatonic relationship”.

I was happy to see that people didn’t hold back, oversimplify or feel the need to fit into preconceived boxes. While this means that I do not have a nice, clean graphic for this question, it also proves that the majority of fanfic readers identifies as queer rather than as heterosexual women.

Fandom and fan activity

The survey focussed on fanfic, yet I also asked about other fan activities the respondents engage in.

fan activity

More than half of the participants (56,9%) not only read fanfic, but also write it themselves. Thus they have multiple views on the topic of slash as will become evident in the second part of this analysis.

Regarding fandoms, I did provide a list of boxes to tick, yet this was mostly to check whether or not the statements provided in later replies would also pertain to the fandoms I cite as examples in my essays. So beware, the actual fandom experience of the respondents is a million times more diverse than this graphic.

fandoms

Now that I have provided a brief overview of the demographics and characteristics of my sample group, let’s dive into the first key topic of my survey: slash.

Next:

  • #2 – Discovering slash fanfiction
  • #3 – Slash – the good, the bad, the subversive

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NOTE: The dominance of BBC Sherlock fans is likely to be due to the way this survey was shared on Tumblr. Several of the larger blogs that reblogged my post are Sherlock-centric, which led to this evident bias.