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.
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.”
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?