#7: Omegaverse – social commentary or abhorrent misogyny?

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

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

#4 – Is slash subversive? [on tumblr]

#5 – Smut, kinks, squicks, and the plot/porn ratio [on tumblr]

#6 – Omegaverse, vol I [on tumblr]

After a brief introduction to Omegaverse and my survey participants’ general attitude towards the genre (see #6), it’s time to get controversial – again!

Some quotes have already pointed towards reasons this trope can polarise as powerfully as it does. In this final part I’d like to take a closer look at what my participants cited when asked about what they like and dislike about this trope, which frequently surpasses simple squicks and kinks and touches topics like sexism, homo- and transphobia, to name but a few.

I’m going to walk you through the most central aspects my respondents highlighted, both praise and critique. Here is what awaits you:

  1. Porn-related aspects
  2. Romance and Bonding
  3. Mpreg
  4. Characterisation issues
  5. Heats, biology, and loss of control
  6. Non-con, dub-con aspects
  7. Omegaverse as transphobic
  8. Gender dynamics – is Omegaverse sexist or subversive? Both?
    • Part I: Critical voices
    • Interlude: Conflicting feelings
    • Part II: Positive voices

The final item on that list will be the most extensive, as well as controversial. Opinions differ, and all views have a lot of interesting points to contribute to the discourse on Omegaverse.

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Before I start, a few more general things: The following is a summary of my respondents’ replies to three questions, namely if A/B/O was love at first sight, what they like best about the genre, and what they like least.

Not everyone has as passionate views about Omegaverse, mind you. Alice (female, straight, 25-30, UK) says, “I’m… ambivalent. I don’t hate it with a passion, I find it weird, but it’s no weirder than some of the other fanfic phenomenons that have cropped up before.”

As seen in #6, some respondents have grown bored with the trope because, in their eyes, it regurgitates the same plot/porn ideas over and over again. Serafina (female, heterodemisexual, 18-25, USA) disagrees: “When omega verse first came about it spread through different fandoms like wildfire. Seeing each pairings dynamic within the verse was very interesting. As time grew people would switch up the verse and change or add certain parts to make it new again. I found it to be a very diverse tag within fandom fanfiction.” As Tia (female, grey-a, 15-18, USA) puts it, “… omegaverse is such a complex concept that my over imaginative writer’s heart would never let me not love it. Each author worldbuilds it in a different way.

To set the mood for the following points, let’s start with one reply to “Name your favourite thing about Omegaverse”, which covers most points that are going to prove to be a lot more controversial than a first glance might suggest:

“Where do I start? Everything that applies to slash applies doubly to Omegaverse. The power dynamics and how they are balanced out. The projection of female issues on the Omega – like pregnancy, bodily cycles, being penetrated, being (in many fics) seen as “inferior” in strength or social status. The eroticism that stems from the pure need of heat. The Alpha as the ideal male – protective, fierce yet caring, driven mad by his desire for the Omega, and ultimately a provider for his family. I could go on…” (merlenhiver, female, 30-40, Germany)

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  1. Porn-related aspects

No one will deny that A/B/O is heavily reliant on porn. Not only that, it’s also based on certain sexual phenomena only found in Omegaverse (okay, and werewolf/creature fics), like heat cycles, knotting, and self-lubricating anuses. Fyi, the latter took me a long time to wrap my head around.

Still, lots of readers love the smut. Luna (female, bi, 18-25, Finland) enjoys the wild and animalistic nature of A/B/O, calls it “a total holiday from everyday life” where rules differ. Alex Reid (genderqueer, they/them, greyromantic bisexual, 18-25, Serbia) likes that “everything is wet and messy, lots of come and size kink”. Different rules include some animalistic diction, which can be a squick for some. Similarly, some see Omegaverse as some form of bestiality – and either like or dislike that.

Regardless of whether you enjoy or hate the smutty particularities, Omegaverse “can be heavily kinkshamed,” Kady (genderqueer, androsexual, 25-30, USA) explains. “And given the gender issues that I’ve realized why I relate to it more easily, I feel a lot more personally attacked by the kinkshaming.”

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  1. Romance and Bonding

Several respondents said they love the way A/B/O produces deep emotional connections within a pairing. For all the smut, it is very romantic. “I love the concept of having a mate,” says Ambrosia (female, straight, 25-30, USA). “I enjoy the protective instincts of a loving, mated Alpha.”

“Also I looove the idea of true mates/soul mates like knowing by someone’s scent that you’re meant to be together, bonding for life (and just bonding in general), in some fics true mates can telepathically connect too which is great. all the destined to be together shit is fab.” (erin, female, pansexual, 18-25, UK)

“knotting: the fact that they have to post-coital cuddle. They’re still connected, they talk, the emotional back and forth that pure sex often lacks.” (missingnolovefic, female, queer, 18-25, Germany)

Consequently, when the possibly highly romantic trope of bonding is drained of its consensual nature, it can become a squick, as is the case for Mae (female, asexual, demiromantic, 15-18, USA): “Forced Bondings are the literal worse. The concept of heats, I can stomach. Knotting? Great. Mpreg? Even better. But I typically refuse to read fics, even for my OTPs, if one of them is forced into the bond. It’s a little different for arranged bondings between families where they rebel together and manage to fall for one another in the process, but full-on forced bonding is a no-go.”

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  1. Mpreg

“Mpreg, it’s just so weird. Like do they give birth through their butts?” (beejohnlocked, female, bi, 30-40, USA)

I’m sure a lot of fanfic readers empathise with her sentiment. Male pregnancy used to be my one major squick, and only when one of my favourite authors wrote the trope did I begin to warm up to it (still not something I seek out, though, even though kid fics are my guilty pleasure).

You can find mpreg anywhere, aided by magic or supernatural means, or simply left unexplained. Since a common cornerstone of this genre is that Omegas are able to bear children, A/B/O fics are fuller of mpreg than other tropes. Dalia (female, straight, 25-30, USA) values the genre because it gives an in-world explanation for male pregnancy. NothingToSeeHere (female, asexual/hetero-romantic, 40-50, USA) loves the egalitarian effect: “Frankly, my favorite thing is that it allows same-sex couples to biologically become parents. I wish all couples, regardless of sex and gender, would be able to choose to start a family easily and naturally and have kids that are a combination of both of their parents.”

Not everyone likes mpreg – it was one of the most frequently named squicks in an earlier section of my survey – as the following quotes will illustrate. All are in reply to “Name your least favourite thing about Omegaverse” and tie into other items on this list as well:

“This is not specifically about omegaverse itself, but when people say mpreg, they automatically think of omegaverse. The character could be trans or intersex or genderfluid. You never know.” (Devon, genderfluid, pansexual, 15-18, USA)

“Omegas portrayed as baby making machines” (Tiggs, female, gay, 30-40, USA)

“Simply put, mpreg. It’s not a squick for me, but I’m not crazy about it, and often short fics follow the cliché structure of they meet – they bond – they have sex – they have a baby. It’s a bit too Cinderella for me, too quick and not very satisfying, emotionally speaking. (…) Ah, and I’m also not sure I’m crazy about this trend I’ve seen around of calling the babies “pups” and such and using wolf/dog terminology. I see where it comes from, but I don’t really buy why a human omegaverse society would evolve like this.” (Lou, female, panromantic/grey-a, 18-25, France)

“M-preg. Nothing wrong about it but I don’t like how children affect the stories. I like it when the characters remain on the same level no matter if they’re alphas or omegas. Pregnancy almost always means tht one of the character will be seen as weaker or more delicate. It’s something I struggle with in real life, how women are seen as gentle, delicate creatures just because of their natural abilities. So finding the same kind of disparity in a fic is disappointing for me.” (Mélissa, female, pansexual/panromantic, 25-30, France)

“MPREG, it’s not really a huge squick, but sometimes I wish we didn’t have to go there. We could just have male Omegas because why not, none of it makes sense anyhow so there doesn’t have to be any logic in having Omegas who don’t get pregnant. What I dislike more than MPREG though is infantilizing or feminizing omegas way too much.” (M, female, currently 95% straight, with past same sex relationship, 25-30, Finland)

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  1. Characterisation issues

K.H.’s reply (female, demisexual, 18-25, USA) summarises the spirit of this aspect concisely: “I hate when a character’s personality is flipped on it’s head to fit the gendered roles of Alpha and Omega.”

That’s not always the case, of course, yet several respondents complained that it does happen. Here are two more quotes on how the genre affects the depiction of characters, both from the Sherlock fandom:

“(…) I also like the changes in power dynamics in pairings and how characters sometimes can be written as accepting of them and sometimes resist them. I mostly read Omegaverse in the Sherlock fandom and either Sherlock or John (both very strong, dominant characters) resisting the social and sometimes the physical stereotypes of the Omega is one of my favorite type of story.” (Ishtar, female, straight, 50+, USA)

“Well, I only have experience with “The Gilded Cage” so far. The exploration of biological determination and social oppression is fascinating in this context as well as what makes weak and strong. To make Sherlock, a strong character we clearly admire and root for, an Omega, with all of the distressing biological imperatives and legal unpersonhood just makes these issues resonate even more. It is also fascinating to witness John’s character, a morally upstanding and compassionate individual, be so distressed to be at the mercy of biology as well, and to see his gradual education of the issues concerning Omega. I know all stories have a different biology/world, but I really like the one Beautifulfiction has created.” (Myladylyssa, female, lesbian, 30-40, USA)

Note: I’ve included the fic rec because the number of times a respondent has praised this particular fic is in the double digits.

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  1. Heats, biology, and loss of control

Alphas and Omegas often are slaves to their biology. Sometimes there is actual slavery inside a fic’s world, with Omegas usually occupying the lowest social strata, which some of my respondents love as a trope and other hate with a passion.

It’s similar when it comes to the biological aspect of A/B/O and the way these stories present biology as something inescapably deterministic.

“I love the way desire can be so entirely overwhelming. I like it when this is presented in a sort of “coming of age” way instead of as more–rapey.” (Iwantthatcoat, agender, she/they, biromantic grey asexual, 40-50, USA)

“It was love at first sight for me. I [like] being able to express desire in a very primal way and the Omegaverse can be a good example of that.” (Soraya Merced         , female, bi, 18-25, Puerto Rico)

Several others were a lot less enthusiastic about this, especially with the way certain authors will portray Omegas (and/or Alphas) as mindless during heats, ruts, or sex in general.

“I did try to appreciate it, I made a point of reading a couple fics from different fandoms for a while. But. The problem I have with Omegaverse is the, as I like to call it, ‘biological inevitability’. A/B/O has always left me with a bad taste in my mouth because I feel as if there is no choice in it, no free will. It’s all biology. I kinda feel the same about the whole soulmates trope. Love, for me, is choice, every day. I have to choose to love someone and to let that love influence who I am as a person. The moment biology steps in and dictates not only a character’s sex life but also their place in society based on their sexuality, the whole concept becomes abhorrent to me. Sorry.” (Lena, female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

“I tried really hard to like it, but I want to read about human beings — we are ruled by our minds mostly and as such, Omegaverse fics just are not relate-able in any sense for me. There’s a lot of lazy writing that goes on in it as well, not helped by the fact that since most everyone is written as an animal who cannot control their desires, the smut takes precedence over the actual writing.” (Dan, male, 25-30, Philippines)

“I dislike the whole concept of [A/B/O]. I mean, sure there are parallels to ways of life in the real world where there are alpha people who kind of have the power over others, but that’s because it’s in different cultures, not on a biological level. And my instinct tells me it’s so basically wrong that people/persons can be reduced to animalistic aspects like it’s drawn out in the omegaverse.” (Laura, female, straight, 18-25, Germany)

Like Laura, Beccy (female, straight, 15-30, UK) also named “The use of a so-called “alpha voice” as a means of controlling every area of an omega’s life” as their least favourite aspect of Omegaverse.

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  1. Non-con, dub-con aspects

The nature of heats and the biological component to Omegaverse frequently lead to a blurring of boundaries between consensual and non-consensual sexual situations. The crux of the matter is: Can an Omega consent while in heat?

Opinions on this vary; different fics deal with this in different way – or not at all, in some cases. A/B/O fics run the risk of glossing over the issue of consent, which a majority of my survey participants found highly problematic.

“[Omegaverse] squicked me out. It seems a bit non-con to me in places and I’m really really uncomfortable with huge power dynamics in romantic relationships.” (Torin, female, lesbian, 18-25, Isle of Man)

“How dubcon is can get sometimes. The “acceptance” of rape as a way to advance the story, especially in stories where the omega is raped and the alpha is immediately able to then “cure” the omega with sex.” (courtney k., female, straight, 18-25, USA)

“The rape aspect of heat. I admit to reading those fics as well sometimes when the mood strikes, but only if its addressed as non-con. Putting a “biology” stamp on it and shrugging the rape away as “true love” gets too close to very real problems in our world and should not be idolized as such.” (missingnolovefic, female, queer, 18-25, Germany)

“there’s also huge amounts of consent issues surrounding the alpha/omega/beta dynamics – people don’t seem to understand what consent is and how it’s given, so they end up writing rape scenes and passing it off as either dubious consent or completely normal. I was horrified by how unchallenged some of the conventions were within the omegaverse sub-fandom.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

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  1. Omegaverse as transphobic

When asked about their favourite part about Omegaverse, ren (male, 18-25, USA) wrote: “since fandoms refuse to write trans characters I like being able to hc [headcanon] characters as trans while reading a/b/o”. Nondeducible from above says “the idea of omegaverse is inherently transphobic – instead of “ass babies” why not write about trans or intersex people who do exist in real life.”

Curiously, other respondents see this genre exactly the other way around:

“… I understood why [Omegaverse] would be something someone would like if they were transgender/ didn’t fit into gender norms and was looking for a different way to look at gender— a universe that had three instead of two. I tried reading a couple of things, but I didn’t like it. Then again, I am the epitome of the gender I was assigned at birth so maybe I’m just not the right audience for this.” (yowwzahh, female, 18-25, USA)

“This sounds so weak- ‘I read playboy for the articles’ – but I really am most into the world building and reimagination of gender and society. Some of my fave a/o is teen rated. I love the idea of having more male characters who have uteruses- as many transmen do in reality- and of playing with our gendered perceptions and expectations about characters and narrative and history.” (Bekah, nonbinary, she/her, queer, 18-25, USA)

“As transphobic as it is, I also enjoy putting a male character in a female position in society because I can visualize, empathize with that situation more.” (missingnolovefic, female, queer, 18-25, Germany)

My initial reaction to “Omegaverse is inherently transphobic” was one of confusion and denial. Then again, I’m cis female. Unfortunately, the one trans male participant of my survey doesn’t read Omegaverse (he does cite genderbending as a squick, though), so I cannot quote his opinion on the matter.

I did some research since it thoroughly confused me. What I found was this reply to an anon question by johnlocktentacles: “I guess the biggest problem for me, personally, is that there are a lot of folks out there who just loooove to read and write omegaverse fics, but won’t give fics with trans characters the time of day, and that’s shitty. If you go search for johnlock omegaverse fics, you’ll find plenty of reading options, but if you search for johnlock fics where one or both of them is trans, you get a tiny fraction of the number of results. to me, what that says is that people want to fetishize characteristics of certain trans people without actually acknowledging that trans people exist. People would rather invent an entirely new fictional gender structure than have trans characters.”

So, the problem seems to be – as ren points out in his quote above – that there simply aren’t enough fics featuring trans characters, and since Omgaverse fics that have male Omegas deal with, basically, men with uteruses who can give birth, the popularity of A/B/O is grating in light of the little interest in trans characters outside this genre.

Which, yeah, is shitty. The question remains, however: If people want to read about trans characters, why are there so few fics featuring them?

For now, onward to the final aspect of this analysis. Missingnolovefic from above, who came to Omegaverse for the way it puts men in a female social position which she can empathise with, continues that she “stayed for the complicated, original world-building the better authors work in. It turns into a sort of sci fi biology and social structure and politics and that’s amazing to watch tbh.”

This is a good transition to the fundamental question my participants debated, namely whether Omegaverse is sexist/homo-/transphobic, or actually subversive and an incredibly reflective commentary on society…

Hint: I say it’s both.

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  1. Gender dynamics – is Omegaverse sexist or subversive? Both?

As with slash, the critical potential of A/B/O stories is a polarising issue. Some answer this with an emphatic YES, others with an equally emphatic HELL NO.

I personally see fanfiction as a subversive act with subversive potential. Just like slash can be written in a way that it questions heteronormativity and prevailing assumptions or stereotypes, Omegaverse is endowed with the same possibilities. However, it’s also possible that authors reproduce misogyny in their stories, reinscribing heteronormative narratives onto the Alpha/Omega binary. For example, the strong Alpha protects the weaker, submissive Omega, thus mirroring conventional romance plots that have women being rescued and men being tough, etc.

Harking back to merlenhiver’s quote from the introduction, we can see heteronormative notions expressed in her praise of “The Alpha as the ideal male – protective, fierce yet caring, driven mad by his desire for the Omega, and ultimately a provider for his family.”

Some will see this dynamic as a stereotypical reproduction of male/female gender roles, with the man as the earner and the female as the carer. Another perspective might be one to view an Alpha’s caring nature and their more sensitive side as “new masculinity” as opposed to ‘tough’, ‘unfeeling’ men from the past. I have read fics that have Alphas struggle with society’s expectations of them as emotionally stoic and macho, with Omegas valuing their mate because he is “not like the other Alphas/like the stereotypical Alpha”. I’ve also read stories in which the Omega finds themselves appreciating ‘classic’ Alpha trades – which is often explained by their biological wiring.

Side note to consider: Romance novels featuring strong, heroic knights to the rescue of damsels in distress have also been called misogynistic. However, it’s important to note that erotic literature expresses fantasies, not a person’s political views. The things that arouse us – or not – aren’t logical or follow socio-political discourses. Thus, a reader can oppose unfair gender dynamics and at the same time appreciate “Alpha to the rescue” type Omegaverse plots.

Simply put: whether or not an A/B/O fic reflects, comments, or criticises gender dynamics depends on the individual fic, as well as the reader’s take on the issues portrayed. 

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PART I: Critical Voices

Not all respondents concede that this depends on the fic. K (they/them, gay, 15-18, USA) dislikes A/B/O “because it seems to just be a way to squish queer characters into het gender roles. The fact that everyone is is assigned a ‘position ‘ (omega, alpha or beta) is very similar to the way everyone irl is assigned a gender.” They acknowledge that “this could lead to allegorical critsisms of the construct of gender in our culture, but those kinds of fics are few and far between, and for the most part people stick to the very hetero-cis-normative gender roles associated with the different positions, and they get very boring and formulaic after a while.”

Other critics are similar in their generalisations and cite many reasons they have a problem with this genre’s treatment of gender roles. I have tried to organise the following list by topic as much as possible, but the categories frequently overlap.

a) Omegaverse combines misogyny and homophobia, reproduces patriarchy and skewed power dynamics

“The omegaverse seems like the ultimate in misogyny and homophobia, all rolled into one. It effectively erases female characters and forces strict and horrific gender rolls into this fictional universe.” (KnightFrog1248, female, asexual/lesbian, 18-25, New Zealand)

Weird reproduction of the patriarchy? if that makes sense? I hate Omegaverse fics where biological determinism applies and all the Alphas are big strong manly men with giant cocks who want to dominate and consume and all the Omegas are tiny and delicate and submissive. Gross gender dynamics irl, absolutely no reason to reproduce them in speculative fiction. Again, I can kind of see how this might be a fantasy for some people, but it really rubs me the wrong way. I just prefer relationships where both partners are equal and any kind of powerplay is short-term and well negotiated in advance.” (Em, female, bi, 25-30, USA)

Weird heterosexual sex dynamics are frequently replicated in Omegaverse. Some writers compare in-world prejudices (usually those about omegas) to real-world racism or homophobia, but they do it really carelessly and it ends up being rather racist or homophobic.” (Alice, female, queer/grey-asexual, 18-25, Canada)

“… sometimes I get sick of the fact that most Omegaverse stories are simultaneously a BDSM story with Doms and Subs.” (TheSilent, female, 18-25, Germany)

b) Omegaverse forces male/female dynamics on same sex couples

“It seems to exist so that people can write about same-sex couples and have them be straight. Like, why?!?” (KnightFrog1248, female, asexual/lesbian, 18-25, New Zealand)

“It often feels like it’s just a way to get stereotypical gender roles into a same-gender relationship. With small, delicate Omegas who stay home and look pretty and have babies. With strong, protective Alphas, who are wealthy and look after them. Omegas as property, Alphas as their owners. It’s like the worst of male/female dynamics from relatively recent history being re-vamped and re-romanticized.” (hiddensymposiarch, female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada)

“Authors using it as a replacement for writing heterosexual fic.” (Tara, female, 25-30, India)

“I don’t like how Alpha and Omega in particular are basically a new gender solely made up so there can be gender roles for two people of the same sex, whereas what I like about slash is that this gender difference with its stereotypes is NOT present in the first place; and I don’t like how people are basically reduced to their biology and “can’t help themselves” and Alphas are basically like sexual predators.” (TheSilent, female, 18-25, Germany)

c) Omegaverse normalises everything that is evil about our world

I’m squicked out by the power dynamics. I don’t want my beloved characters part of a world with dubiously consensual sex, oppression and discrimination on the basis of their gender, intensely strengthened gender norms, being made helpless with undesired child bearing and being a prisoner of their biology. It feels too much like choosing to roll around in the nastier bits of historical (and current) discrimination against women.” (aaa, female, straight-ish, 25-30, Australia)

“The mirroring of misogeny in A/O dynamics. Worse, portraying the discriminations between A/O in a way that it looks like that is something natural.” (Ged_the_Winged, female, heterosexual biromantic, 15-18, South Korea)

d) The way A/B/O presents Omegas is detrimental to readers who identify with Omega characters

“With fic largely being written and consumed by male attracted cis-females…isn’t it likely they will see themselves in the role of the omega, with possible detrimental effects on their own sense of worth and expectations for relationships with a male/alpha partner? Are omegaverse fics that play up those stereotypes the slash equivalent of ‘After’ or Fifty Shades of Grey?” (hiddensymposiarch, female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada)

“There’s a trope where the omega is ‘not like the rest of the girls’, and dislikes going into heat, and actively works to suppress their ‘instincts’, but ends up falling for the alpha and rutting around anyway. Smacks too much of internalized sexism and self-hatred.” (MonaLisa, female, bisexual, 40-50, USA)

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Interlude: Conflicting feelings

Under b), I quoted TheSilent (female, 18-25, Germany), who criticises both the heteronormative gender roles and the biological excuse for rape/dub-con. Regarding the latter, she goes on to say she is being “slightly hypocritical because I do sometimes enjoy the Sex Pollen trope, but I guess I prefer that because at least that’s not supposedly in a person’s “biological nature” but is an external influence and can be a one-time thing.”

Another respondent who pointed towards a certain ambiguity in their dislike for A/B/O is Abby (female, bisexual, 18-25, UK). She criticises “the societal sexism towards Omegas or the internalised sexism. Feels too much like homophobia and sexism rolled into one, which I just can’t stand.” Yet she continues: “It’s funny because I actually enjoy the societal sexism in PWP fics. Like, as a kink that is role-play or just PWP that you can interpret as role-play, I enjoy it (not the internalised homophobia/sexism though – like I mentioned earlier, it’s a complete no-no for me) but having an au where the society treats Omegas as second-class citizens feels too much like an interpretation of our current society and I read fanfic to escape it.”

And while magpieinthemorning (female, bi, 30-40, Germany) dislikes “romanticizing and normalizing the existing gender oppression in our society” when it comes to A/B/O, she adds: “Disclaimer: it’s possible that the couple of omegaverse fics I read were extreme and not representative of the genre. However, they were widely recommended by members of the fandom (that’s how I found them).”

What I want to highlight is that a person’s views on Omegaverse can be conflicting, not only because certain aspects are similar to those one enjoys in non-A/B/O fics, but also because it’s impossible to size up the entire genre and make generalisations.

UNLESS, I hasten to add, one simply doesn’t see the potential for criticism or social commentary in Omegaverse. Which is also a valid opinion to hold.

I don’t, in case that hasn’t become obvious. Thus I have chosen to close with the positive voices.

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PART II: Positive voices

Symbolicanus (female, bisexual, 18-25, USA) sums this up quite nicely when she says Omegaverse “gives a space to subvert, play with, and question heteronormativity, gender roles, and the patriarchy.”

It may take readers some time to see it this way – I for sure spent a long time being weirdly fascinated by A/B/O until I realised how much social commentary is hiding under the emphasis on porn. I’m not alone. As Jade (nonbinary, they/them, panromantic asexual, 18-25, USA) recounts: “I do remember finding it really odd and not entirely pleasant until I discovered some omegaverse fic that focused on gender, relatonship, and social dynamics rather than on kinky sex.” Referring to The Guilded Cage, emptycel (female, bisexual, 18-25, USA) “I read beautifulfiction’s Guilded Cage first, which was a great introduction to the world because it paints a complex society, and not one just driven by lust and mpreg.”

a) A different take on gender dynamics and roles in an alternative society

While she doesn’t like the genre, Victoria Aros Schmidt, (female, demisexual, 18-25, Chile) says “the universe as a whole tempts me in a manner like dystopia does, show us another way to organized the world and society, and the same time show us our defects and dark spots.” Riley (nonbinary, they/them, asexual panromantic, 18-25, UK), contrarily, found they like the genre, “especially fics that question how society would respond and adapt to having secondary genders like alpha/omega/beta.”

This different take on gender dynamics and the different ways societies in Omegaverse are organised are what many respondents named as their favourite thing about this genre:

Using it to explore gender and sexuality roles. Extreme gender roles. How canonically male characters are altered by being in a position analogous to traditional women’s roles.” (Serabander, female, straight, 50+, USA)

“I like the idea of a twisted reality where society is still fixated on gender but the skew is different, i.e. it’s not as much women that are repressed but omegas. it’s interesting to explore the themes of gender bias and prejudice using a totally fictional universe and it’s easy to relate to a lot of the injustices that omegas face and also fun to play with those themes.” (erin, female, pansexual, 18-25, UK)

“My favorite thing about Omegaverse is how the Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamic impacts the societies which has it. I seek out fics which do not ignore this aspect of the omegaverse. I also just enjoy the notion to begin with, it opens up a much broader space for gender when there are two factors to include. What if someone identified as one of their genders yet not the other?” (Mitzi, she/her or they/them, asexual homoromantic, 18-25, USA)

b) Turning gender-based discrimination on its head

By way of the inherent parallels between Alpha/Omega and male/female, male Omegas take on an interesting position in Omegaverse. Their experiences often mirror those of women in certain context in “real life” and reflect gender stereotypes and dynamics back at us. In that, A/B/O holds a mirror up to nature, so to speak, which proves to be a major plus for some of my participants:

“Aside from the porny aspects, I think that seeing strong male characters faced with enforced gender roles and gender-based discrimination makes me feel better about how I feel when someone expects me to be a daughter/wife/mother/fuckmeat rather than a real person. I also like the more complicated social dynamics that are possible with primary and secondary gender.” (thedepthsofmyshame, female, bi/pan, 40-50, USA)

“AAAAAHHHH, okay my absolute favorite thing about it is how it takes our current gender dynamics and FUCKS WITH THEM FOREVER. Men thinking about their cycles, worrying about pregnancy, the difficulties of navigating through gender politics when you are socially and politically disenfranchised, but this time starring MEN. There is nothing in this world that I love as much as I love fucking with gender roles. And omegaverse is AMAZING for that. But I also love that, because of the overwhelming nature of heats, the issue of consent MUST be discussed thoughtfully at some point, and that is one of the most amazing things about fanfiction in general.” (Brynna, female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada)

c) Omegaverse tells us how fanfic authors and readers think about our gendered reality

For Adelene (female, straight, 25-30, USA), the genre of Omegaverse shows how fandom, consciously or not, is dealing with “toxic hyper-masculinity, docile housewife, and people. It creates an interesting dynamic where you are in a way removing the stereotypes from genders and assigning them to a dynamic that is assigned based more on the personality of the character.” The infinite ways authors depict this, despite starting from the same framework, “gives you an insight into the many ways those stereotypes are perceived, reacted to, broken, and affect people both in fic and real life. I say real life as well since any writer draws from their own experiences and that always colors their writing.”

*

Additional remarks:

Some argue that stories that reproduce inequality in gender dynamics and heteronormativity prove that a trope is not subversive, or rather a step back. For example, Berit Åström analyses mpreg in Supernatural and concludes that mpreg mostly leads to conventional stories in an unconventional universe. She shows that the pregnant male is frequently given ‘female’ traits and the stories usually end in heteronormative, monogamous bliss and a nuclear family (birth parent, second parent, child/children).

In my essay on slash fan trailers, I discuss this very argument and propose a different reading – and yes, I’m quoting myself:

The fact that fans revert back to heteronormative plot lines despite a queered text only serves to demonstrate how powerful the reining hegemonic norms are and how deeply the male/female binary along with all its historically grown inequalities permeates the attitudes of every single person in societies socialised by Western/American mainstream media.” Taking a genre like Omegaverse that has the potential to subvert, as many fics prove, and re-inscribing it with unequal gender dynamics, etc, is not exclusively ‘bad’. “Instead, such a ‘subversion of the subversion’ exposes the societal mechanism for what they are, and exemplifies just how deep heteronormativity undermines our everyday lives.

*

CONCLUSION

As has become evident, Omegaverse can be both subversive as well as sexist/transphobic/homophobic at the same time. While it is understandable that some declare the genre “abhorrent” as a whole, a more differentiated view on this provides considerably more insight to the underlying discourses that fanfiction brings to the fore. It all hinges on several aspects – the fic in question, the reader’s attitude, etc. – so I urge everyone to consider this issue from multiple perspectives so you can draw a well-informed conclusion for yourself.

I leave you with a very optimistic quote, and hope you enjoyed the survey analyses. There might be more to come on such topics in the future, so stay tuned =)

*

“I adore the element of defying gender standards and fighting to come out on top in the name of love and justice.” (Mae, female, asexual/demiromantic, 15-18, USA)

[return to the index]

 

 

 

 

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#6 – Omegaverse, volume I

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

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

#4 – Is slash subversive? [on tumblr]

#5 – Smut, kinks, squicks, and the porn/ratio [on tumblr]

Omegaverse is that weird trope that has been popping up across all fandoms over the past few years. It tends to polarise, both due to the nature of the smut and because of the issues it deals with. In these final two sections of my slash survey analysis, I’m going to take a look at what my 441 participants have to say on the matter.

Here is what awaits you in #6 and the final post in this analysis:

  • Part 1: What is Omegaverse
  • Part 2: How did my respondents first discover Omegaverse? Was it love at first sight?
  • Slash Survey Results #7: Omegaverse – social commentary or abhorrent misogyny?

The majority of my participants read this fanfiction genre – 39,7% ticked yes, 36,1% say they read Omegaverse sometimes. 15,4% tried it but found they dislike it. The remaining 8,8% were excluded from the follow-up questions.

omegaverse read

Thus my survey yields a sample of 402 people to discuss the trope in more detail. Obviously I cannot quote each unique view, but I am able to note certain trends and common denominators.

*

Part 1: What is Omegaverse, or A/B/O (Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamics)?

The premise of the trope is rooted in biology: humans in A/B/O-type stories are classified not along a male/female binary, yet as either Alphas, Betas or Omegas. Not all Omegaverse fics have Betas, but if they do these are usually identical to “us”, in terms of physiology.

Alphas are seen as dominant, Omegas as submissive (with exceptions that flip this dynamic on its head).

Alphas can sprout a knot, an erectile tissue structure on the base of the penis that inflates when aroused or after climax. Knots are a feature of certain canid animals and serve the purpose of locking two mating animals together. Similarly, Alphas can impregnate Omegas. The animal-like behaviour doesn’t stop there – Omegas go into heats at regular intervals (heat cycle), and during the period (a few days to a week depending on the fic’s specific world) they tend to lose control over their bodies. Not having sex during a heat is at least uncomfortable, and in severe cases fatal, depending on the fic you’re reading. Pregnancy is an important topic in this genre, with mpreg being a frequent feature.

This biological premise grows into many, many different types of societies: Omegas may be cherished as life-givers, or they might be treated as nothing but creatures to be bred by the ‘advanced’/’stronger’ Alpha. Demographics also differ, from Omegas as rare and priced beings to making up a third or half of the population.

For more information, see Fanlore or either of the great primers that exist on AO3 (x, x).

The way A/B/O societies mirror issues of gender equality and use stereotypes of strong/weak, dominant/submissive, earner/carer dichotomies is hard to miss, and it was this political potential of the trope that first intrigued me. Like Jay (female, grey-a, demiromantic, 18-25, Germany) says, “It took me a while to recognise how much social criticism was hidden behind the porn.” Searafina (female, heterodemisexual, 18-25, USA) echoes this: “A/B/O dynamics in the beginning was all about heats and pregnancies, at least in my experience. Now it’s expanded to much more.”

Sure, Omegaverse has a lot of sexually explicit content and is filled with kinks from mpreg to heat cycles, to knotting, bonding, soulmates, slavery scenarios, and an entire range of dub-con and non-con aspects. However, it also has the potential to hold a mirror up to nature and demonstrate – in an over-the-top way, maybe – how gender inequalities shape our lives.

Not everyone will agree with me, but more on that in #7.

*

Part 2: How did my respondents first discover Omegaverse? Was it love at first sight?

The minority of my participants entered Omegaverse through recommendations, whereas most simply stumbled upon an A/B/O fic by browsing for reading material.

Other variations of ‘first contact’ may prompt readers to seek out Omegaverse fics:

“I was curious. I wanted to know why it was so popular.” (Alessnox, female, heterosexual/heteroromantic, 40-50, USA)

“I saw the tags, but didn’t immediately read the fic. Believe it or not, I researched it first, reading some essays from fans about the history, or meta. Some seemed to relate it a bit to Sentinel fic, so I went and investigated that, too. Then I started reading both types, Sentinal and Omegaverse.” (MK, female, straight, 40-50, USA)

“I first heard about it listening to a fanfic panel discussion at a manga/anime (etc.) convention just a few months ago, and looked some up as soon as I got home. Not unconditional love at first sight, more surprise and curiosity, but it certainly does appeal to me.” (Peter, male, homosexual/homoromantic, 30-40, Finland)

Many describe how they had no idea what the Omegaverse-related tags meant and consequently were completely surprised when they realised what they had discovered.

“It’s just something that I would see in a lot of pairings I’m a fan of. It took me quite a bit to wrap my head around it because theres a lot of structured world building and universe rules, and the fact that it was so explicit was a bit much at first.” (Liz, female, demiromantic asexual, 18-25, Canada)

“I found omegaverse from destiel the first time. It’s such a strange au and I remember being really confused because it had all these dynamics that hadn’t been explained. The idea of learning a new verse made me really excited.” (Americandilemma, female, biromantic asexual, 15-18, USA)

“I read werewolf AU’s and clicked on an Omegaverse fic without knowing exactly what it was. Imagine my surprise when no one actually turned into wolves… It took me reading nearly five other Omegaverse fics before I realized there was a definite difference. But by that time I enjoyed the trope so much I continued reading more.” (Katsa, female, bisexual, 15-18, USA)

“I ran into it in Supernatural fandom and it took quite awhile to grow on me, but I really like it now I got past the squick.” (missingscenes, female, straight, 25-30, Israel)

“I think I liked it immediately. It was an interesting universe that changes societies gender dynamics, which I thought was fascinating. Not to mention the sex parts were often really hot.” (Roxy, female, bisexual, 18-25, USA)

Reactions vary, as one can easily imagine. Here are some numbers, derived from the 168 people who went into detail:

  • 43 respondents say Omegaverse was “love at first sight”.
  • 54 participants needed some time to get into the trope but eventually found they like it.
  • 32 people describe their relationship to A/B/O as ambivalent. Either they are natural about the concept in general, or only read Omegaverse from certain authors they like, or only when the summary sounds enticing. Several said they enjoy it sometimes but don’t seek it out.
  • 27 respondents explained they tried reading Omegaverse but eventually gave up because it wasn’t for them.
  • The remaining 12 participants hate the trope with a passion and were very vocal about their misgivings, which I’ll expand on in #7.

One recurring motif that I found was the importance of the gateway fic. If a reader dislikes the first Omegaverse story they come across, they rarely go back for seconds unless prompted by rec lists or friends to give another fic a try. The reverse applies if the reader loves their gateway fic, obviously.

Furthermore, the way a fic explains the universe – or not, mind you – is incredibly important. As Pellewen (female, bi, 18-25, Australia) explains, they “came across a long, finished fic of James Bond/Q on AO3 and decided to give it a try. It was written so well, it completely turned me around on ABO and Mpreg. Prior to that though, I didn’t enjoy it.” Emily Goldstein (female, bi, 18-25, USA) paints a similar picture, but has grown less enthusiastic: “At first I was kind of turned off, because the first one I read was a smut one, and a badly written one, so I hightailed it out. Then, I found some better written ones with unique take on the Omegaverse, and I read those. I only go into it from time to time, though. Has to pass the acid test of “is it the same fic I’ve read 100+ times? Is it unique? Well written? Okay.” So yes, a reverse trajectory is also possible. In ii’s case (female, asexual, 18-25, Poland), she “used to like it, then got bored. It’s also usually connected to mpreg.”

Regardless of whether or not my participants like Omegaverse in general, they had A LOT to criticise about the genre. Intriguingly, aspects that some respondents tore apart for valid reasons, others praised for just as logical ones.

This is a fascinating topic, which is why I have decided not to add it to this post, but rather to give it its own write-up.

Read on:

  • Slash Survey Results #7: Omegaverse – social commentary or abhorrent misogyny? (link to follow)

 

 

#5 – Smut, kinks, squicks, and the porn/plot ratio

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

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

#4 – Is slash subversive? [on tumblr]

In the previous parts, I have concentrated on the more general topic of slash. Before I proceed to expand on what my respondents had to say on the fanfic genre of Omegaverse, let’s talk about… sex!

In this part, I explore…

  • Part 1: The importance of smut for fanfic readers
  • Part 2: Kinks, and ‘admitting’ to them
  • Part 3: Squicks – textual, sexual, and moral aspects

*

PART 1: The importance of smut

Or rather, the that role depictions of physical intimacy play for the reading experience of my participants. Their replies were pretty straight forward, thus this part will not be quite as extensive as #3.

I first asked my respondents whether or not they read sexually explicit content in general. 96,4% do; only 3,6% (16 out of 441) don’t.

read smutporn plot ratio

In the second graphic, the 16 who do not read porn did not all tick “0” as asked. My explanation for this is that they sometimes come across sexually explicit scenes without actively choosing to read it, maybe because the fic’s raiting led them to assume it was non-explicit.

Despite this discrepancy, the second graphic conveys clearly that, contrary to popular opinion perpetuated by the media, fanfiction is not all about sex. Sure, there are 2,5% who mostly read smut, and 15,6% who ticked 4 out of 5 on the porn/plot ration, yet an overwhelming 81,9% consider the ratio of porn and plot at least 50-50, with 40,9% scoring even lower than that.

The written responses to my next question, “How important is smut to you for an enjoyable reading experience?”, mirror these graphics. Most readers value the plot (and the quality of writing) over any sexually explicit material, though if it makes sense within the plot, a lack of smut would be considered unfitting, too. It also depends on the reader’s mood and what they wish to read. A handful of people simply said “not very” important and did not expand, but several did, in that demonstrating how many aspects influence a reader’s subjective opinion on explicit sex scenes.

a) Smut is essential

The following quotes show that for some, smut is the main reason for reading fic:

“Its extremely important and the primary reason I read fanfiction. But that being said, it has to be written well.” (Elizabeth, female, mostly straight, 30-40, Canada)

“I mean, if I didn’t want smut I’d just read a regular book. It’s not like, TOTALLY necessary if the story is good, but with slash, smut is pretty necessary” (yowwzahh, female, 18-25, USA)

“I mean…I sometimes am only in the mood to read a story that I know will have smut in it. But some of my favourite stories don’t have any. I feel like a jerk admitting that I prefer smutty fanfic, but at the end of the day if I want non-smut I can read published books that overall are higher quality. So I generally only read non-smutty fanfic if they have been strongly recommended or the premise looks amazing.” (hiddensymposiarch, female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada)

“I generally only read fanfic that has smut (regardless of the proportion of smut to plot). I only read non smutty fanfic if I find the premise to be particularly fascinating.” (Ella B, she/they, 18-25, USA)

“So… it’s kinda like how I don’t really eat sweets unless they have chocolate in them. I mean, what’s the point of consuming the sugar if there’s not chocolate? But every now and then I love a piece of extremely high-quality cheesecake or pumpkin pie. I only have so much time to spend reading fanfic, and there is plenty out there that is both well-written and contains smut, so I’m probably going to spend my limited time reading that. But sometimes I will read non-smut if I know it is quality by a quality author.” (sassy1121, female, 30-40, USA)

Yet the quality of writing does play a part with porn, too. As Kelly (female, bisexual, 18-25, USA) says, “Smut is very important to my enjoyable reading experience. The caveat, however, is that it must be well written and in character. My favorite stories are plot with a side of smut, where there are interesting things happening and two people also get it on.”

On that note, something that popped up in several of the answers was the ‘bar’ being set lower for smut in terms of writing quality. LJ (female, butch heterosexual, 50+, USA) says, smut is “always a plus. The bread and butter of fanfic. There are some non-smutty things I read, but usually they are in the highest percentiles of writing quality. I lower the bar for smut.”

Others echo this: “Only if really well written by really talented writers. Clunky writing style is distracting. Subtle erotica much more immersive.” (Elise, female, bisexual, 30-40, UK)

“If the main narrative of the story is about the formation of a sexual/romantic relationship involving sex, I kind of expect smut. Since I read a lot of this type of story, I end up expecting smut in most circumstances; though I have found a number of excellent smut-free stories, I find that I don’t go out of my way to look for them unless they are recommended to me.” (Hayley, female, bisexual, 18-25, US)

“I enjoy smut, and sometimes seek out pwp. I think that sex is a natural part of life, so when it is missing from my fanfic, I am a little confused.” (Alena Farfante, female, queer, 18-25, USA)

“It isn’t necessary, I’ll happily read about completely platonic relationships. Having said that, 9 times out of 10 I’ll enjoy well written smut more than well written plot.” (Charlie Scott, female, aromantic demisexual/pansexual, 15-18, UK)

“I tend to like there to be some smut in stories that I read, especially longer stories. I am especially into A/B/O stories at the moment, and there is usually quite a bit of smut in those stories. I don’t really read fanfic that does not have at least some sort of smut in it.” (Sarah, female, straight, 18-25, UK)

b) No smut, please.

A handful of respondents do not wish to read smut, which does not have to stem from a sex-repulsed attitude, mind you.

“Not at all. I’m quite uncomfortable with smut, so I usually skim read in case any plot happens but I don’t pay too much attention.” (Jane, 18-25, UK)

“Being asexual, this isn’t my typical area, though my history and behavior say otherwise. I’d say smut isn’t at all a must-have, just a… Pleasant surprise.” (Vanessa, genderqueer, they/them, greyromantic asexual , under 15, USA)

c) It depends … on the reader’s mood, the type of story, etc.

The importance of smut depends on many, many things. The most obvious might be the need for arousing reading material for masturbatory purposes:

“ (…) I like smut in showing their relationship progressing, and it’s hot too. But mostly I like reading about them finally getting together. It’s not about the smut, though it is a plus. When I’m in the mood to get off, IT IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. I must have smut if I am going to get off. Well written smut.” (Emily Goldstein, female, bisexual, 18-25, USA)

Angel’s reply is similar (genderqueer, they/them, bisexual, 25-30, UK): “For, ah, “private moments” I seek out purely pwps, but mostly I enjoy reading plot-based fics with a dash of porn in there.” They go on: “More important than the obligatory porn though is the tone of the fic and the content. There are fics that work completely without smut, and sometimes it feels like the author put the porn in there just to please; I skip the porn in these cases cos I feel it doesn’t fit within the overall tone and atmosphere of the fic. In other fics it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s in there, but I’m happy when it is if the atmosphere allows it. In others I scream if the atmosphere requires it and there’s no smut. So its all really subjective etc., I don’t think there are any rules or something.”

“It depends on what I’m looking for. Sometimes I might want the thrill of a porn experience from my reading, and other times I’m more interested in a story. I want all my stories to have relationship porn though – (ie) I need connection and working through issues and MEANING behind the actions between the sex partners. A straight-up fucking scene gets really boring with all the usual mechanics if there isn’t some communicating and feelings, characters growing and sharing and changing with the sex.” (phoenix, female, straightish, 40-50, USA)

“It really depends on the story, and my mood. Sometimes, I’m all ready for a long, slow burn with smut at the end. Sometimes, I just need me some nice PWP. I will occasionally read Gen fic, but I tend to lean towards M or E.” (Daelenn, female, asexual, 25-30, USA)

“I like it. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a really long, plot-heavy fic, and sometimes I just want to read about a particular kink or pairing. Sometimes I just want fluff. In any of these, smut has never taken away my reading experience. If I’m not in the mood for that dynamic I’ll just skip it. Most of what I read fanfic-wise has some form of smut in it, and I usually enjoy those parts.” (Mowgli, female, gray ace/heteroromanric-ish(?) [D2 to C1 range on the purple-red scale], 15-18, USA)

d) Smut is not essential (but nice). The plot is why I’m here.

The overwhelming part of my respondents value plot over porn. That is not to say that smut is not a nice addition to a story, but their main motivation for reading fanfiction is clearly plot-oriented.

“Not important – some of the best fics I’ve read have been gen (such as Sherlock and John being friends), or have been PG-13 where the sex scenes are glossed over with a sentence or two. If there’s smut, it has to be written well and be there for a good reason. If it’s just shoehorned in, I’ll probably either skip over it or stop reading the fic altogether.” (Anonymous, female, lesbian, 30-40, USA)

“Not at all. Sometimes I even skip parts of it when the scene is too long. It’s nice to have smut when it’s a long fic with strategic build-up and drawn-out tension in it, but I’m all for the arch of the build-up itself, I don’t care much for the action.” (Rosey, female, bisexual biromantic, 18-25, Hungary)

“It’s nice to see a little bit interspersed with a structured plot, because it gives the reader a chance to see their favorite characters at their most vulnerable and it many times terms to reaffirm the connection between the characters consequently.” (Mae, female, asexual demiromantic, 15-18, USA)

“It depends on the kind of fic. When a fic has a great plot and touches me in any other way (makes me laugh or cry or gives me a warm fluffy feeling 😉 ), I absolutely don’t need any smut in it. But sometimes I’m in the mood for smut and deliberately look for smut fics.” (Julia, female, bisexual, 25-30, Germany)

“I wouldn’t say smut is a primary focus when I read fic, but I don’t shy away from it. Especially if it is done well. Though I also don’t shy away from fic without porn. The overall plot quality is what I really use to determine if I’m going to read a fic.” (Ashley, 25-30, USA)

“I don’t like fics that focus too heavily on porn. It’s alright as long as there’s enough plot to keep the story going, but the moment that balance tips over, I simply lose interest. It’s fine as long as the sex scenes are part of a intricate/slow-burn fic AND as long as they don’t feature at the very end of it, as if smut was the most important part of the whole fic, the highlight that you have to earn and are presented with as a reward at the end of it. No. Just no. Also, I tend to favour smut that’s heavy on the emotional connection between the characters. This probably makes me sound like a prude, but I don’t see the appeal of a 2k porn fic without the least bit of closeness.” (Lena, female, demisexual, biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

“I love a nice, smutty story. But it’s not essential. I primarily look for good writing and a good story first. With Johnlock, there’s a lot of smut. And I will admit that some of my favorites are porn-without-plot. But many of my favorites also may have one sex scene at the end of 100,000 words. With my hockey RPF OTP, the smut levels are much, much lower. 50,000 words of marshmallow fluff that ends with them sharing a tentative, almost chaste first kiss. And I read it with a grin on my face that carries me through the rest of my day. Smut is good. But it’s really all about the OTP’s relationship and how the writer builds it. I don’t need smut to thoroughly enjoy a story.” (Ann, female, straight, 40-50, USA)

“Not very important, though when I started reading fanfiction I read mostly smut (or lemons as they were called back in the day). Nowadays I find that if you’ve read one sex scene (and I’ve read a lot), you’ve read them all. Which says more about how many slashfics I’ve read than the quality of porn in fanfiction in general.” (Eve, female, 18-25, Netherlands)

“I tend to enjoy the non-smut stories more. But am strangely fascinated by the smut ones all the same. When starting to read fanfiction I found the smuttier stories tended to be better written and so I continue to read them today. (They are not always better written and sometimes are horrifically bad, but as a rule the older writers tend to write more smut than not.)” (Kim, female, grey asexual, 30-40, Australia)

Intimacy = sex?

Finally, there were some quotes that bring into relief that for a lot of readers, “intimacy” equals physical intimacy, e.g. sex.

As gimmeadoctor (female, asexual, 15-18, Italy) says, “I don’t really enjoy PWPs, but yes, after more than 4 chapters of pining after each other I start feeling a need for smut. Some of my favorite fanfics are smut-less(?), but I certainly wouldn’t mind if the author had written some sexual scenes in them.”

Mog (female, asexual gray-romantic, 18-25, UK) makes this clearer: “Smut isn’t super important, but I do like a good slash to plot ratio, just because I do find it slightly annoying if I read a huge fic and then at the end there isn’t really any sense of them being together without any kind of intimacy? The same goes for visversa though, if there’s just too much slash, my brain just kind of shuts off.”

I did not highlight these quotes in order to judge them for equating intimacy with sex. It is one possibility to define intimacy, co-existing with many others reliant on emotional connections rather than physical ones. However, this I believe shows one aspect of fandom that I have witnessed as well: the way you mostly expect smut at some point. During a recent fic I found myself worrying about not being explicit enough, yet more explicit scenes and acts would not have fit the dynamic of my pairing, so I opted not to. Yet the fact that I was worried about reader response to a lack of smut is striking, I propose.

B (female, heteroromantic asexual, 18-25, Poland) voices similar criticism in their answer. For them, smut is “unimportant, with exception of tiny little moments of “I’m in the mood”. I have to say I’m so angry when fanfiction writers admit to be almost forced to write/add smut.”

*

PART 2: Kinks, and ‘admitting’ to them

Mostly out of curiosity, I asked my respondents whether or not they have any kinks and/or squicks. I intentionally did not define ‘kink’ (though I did with squick), which prompted some, like punk (female, bisexual/pansexual/queer, 25-30, UK/USA), to highlight that every sexual preference counts as a kink. “I view all sexual preferences as kinks, so this is a difficult list to generate for me.” And Kady (genderqueer, she/her, interested in men, 25-30, USA), after listing several kinks, goes on to say: “um… the problem is that people define kinks differently? Sometimes you’re actually talking about tropes or types of stories.”

Most respondents took ‘kink’ to have more to do with fetish, or simply be non-vanilla. Which prompts the question of how one defines ‘vanilla sex’. From the replies I gather than everything surpassing a simple sexual act without toys or additional supplies other than lube and protection can be deemed a kink.

While some participants don’t have any kinks, either because of a lack of enjoyment or because it makes them uncomfortable (the latter not being tied to sexual orientation, for the record), a lot of respondents do have kinks and did not hesitate to list them.

Needless to say, these lists were incredibly eclectic, with only scat being the one thing I did not see named. While respondents attested to enjoying certain kinks, several also acknowledged they do not seek them out with particular vigour.

Punk, from above, says, “I don’t read fic that’s primarily about sex or sexual kinks; I read fic if the plot sounds good and then I care less about the content of the sex scene(s), as long as everyone still seems in character.”

“I don’t particularly have anything like that, but there is stuff that I accidentally discover while reading a certain fanfic and then look for more with the same themes later. It’s different in every fandom, depending on the characters’ personalities and their canonical relationship with each other. Again, it’s the unexplored potential in the original universe that gets me interested in particular themes in fanfic, and smut isn’t exempt from that.” (Rosey, female, bisexual biromantic, 18-25, Hungary)

“I read lots of kinks, but not usually FOR that kink. I will read something that lots of people have recced, or that looks interesting for the pairing or storyline. And I may find myself enjoying the kink that I thought I had no interest in, or I will find that the kink turns me off so badly that I stop reading the whole thing. It really depends on how it’s handled by the writer and whether or not the emotional content is more important than the actual kink itself. But I almost never set out looking for a specific kink to read.” (Trixie, female, female, bisexual, 40-50, USA)

Some kinks were also rather fandom-specific, like “bestiality” within Supernatural. Furthermore, Brynna (female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada) brings to the fore another aspect commonly found in stories featuring kinks or fetishes: “Kink fic is some of my favorite, because there is almost always more discussion about what kind of sex is about to happen than usual (which is something I wish our culture could get used to doing with ALL kinds of sex, but I digress).”

It’s also a process, as Cait (female, bi, 18-25, Australa) shows: “I used to avoid certain kinks because I thought I wouldn’t like them (such as omegaverse) but after reading some I found I really enjoyed it – so now I make a point to not avoid anything and at least give it a try.”

Like Ana (15-18, USA) says, you cannot know what you like unless you try it: “Bdsm Water sports Military kink Praise kink Daddy kink I’ll read everything at least once.”

As pointed out above, the term kink might also refer to preferred tropes.

For instance, Charlie (female, pansexual, 18-25, Sweden) says: “I sometimes enjoy BDSM. I also like fics where a character is different and their partner is accepting. It can be disability fics (like blind Sherlock) or a man that has boobs (futanari) to give two examples. I don’t know why it turns me on and it makes me kind of ashamed because I know that they might suffer if it was real life.”

The latter ties into the final aspects I would like to delve into regarding this question, namely issues of morality and shame.

For Marr (female, bi, 40-50, UK), everything is a potential fic to read, “except adult/child supposedly consensual sexual relationships as I think these are irresponsible. NB I have read and written about past child abuse but in a clear context of horrific impacts on the victim and dreadful consequence for the adult.”

Marr was the only one to explicitly name legal aspects (age of consent) as a deciding factor, yet the feeling that certain kinks are somehow morally ‘wrong’ or shameful colours several other replies as well:

“I’ll read most kinks – for some the bar is set higher than others in terms of how good the fic/writing has to be. I’ve read incest fic and dub and even non con-ish stuff to my eternal shame.” (emilycountess, female, straight, 18-25, Australia)

“There is ONE and only One, but I’ll never admit it.” (Carolina, female, asexual lesbian, 18-25, Mexico)

“Oh yeah, you name it. Bondage, punishment, watersports, daddy kink, diapers, orgasm denial, cross dressing, military kink, possessiveness, it goes on. If it involves one character exerting power over another I’m into it. I don’t like to justify rape and torture fic with a word like ‘kink’, but I’ve read and got off on that as well. I try to avoid it generally speaking, but, you know.” (Isabel, female, bi, 15-18, USA)

“Yes, I sin. I kinkshame myself. Watersports Urethral sounding Docking double penetration bukkake comeplay basically everything filthy.” (Ailbhe, female, bisexual, 18-25, Ireland)

Regardless of where one draws the line in terms of depictions of rape and torture, there seems to be something illicit about these topics especially. More generally speaking, being ashamed of their preferred choice of reading material is central to how the participants replied to my other question:

“Do you admit to these kinks outside of the relatively safe space of fandom?”

(A note on my use of “admit”: No kinks are shameful as long as everybody gives consent, but society tends to lead us to believe they are.)

Ungodly’s answer (genderqueer, they/them, asexual demiromantic, 18-25, Argentina) – “Yes. I don’t have a giant banner that reads ‘I encourage cross-dressing and endorse to the BDSM lifestyle’ but I do talk about it with friends and family” – is one of the few in this vein.

The overall tone of the replies was: NO. Sometimes with a caveat that friends who are also in fandoms and also have a preference for certain kinks are an exception, though I would suggest these situations belong more to ‘fandom’ than ‘real life’, if one wants to make this distinction.

There were respondents who replied with “yes” in different shades of enthusiasm, and Brynna (female, bi, 30-40, Canada), who said “I am a staunch defender of BDSM to anyone who will listen.”

On the other hand, she adds: “I tend not to get into the stuff I like in fanfiction because, outside of watersports, these aren’t kinks I actually personally enjoy.” The distinction between what someone likes to read about and what someone would actually like to try in reality is important to keep in mind. Only because someone likes to read about bondage does not automatically equal a desire to experiment with bondage or similar things.

Two instances that might allow an admission to one’s kinks are future romantic partners, and respondents engaged in a relationship mostly said they had discussed sexual preferences with their partners. How safe a person feels is the second aspect:

“I would if I felt safe enough with a person and if there would be reason to talk about such things.” (GvC, female, questioning, 25-30, Germany)

“I would only ever admit my kinks in a place where every member of the conversation is on equal ground, and it’d have to be tit for tat. If I give up a secret, they better give up one, too. Even then, I’d Neff hard pressed to give up everything I think I like- especially stuff I’ve read in fanfic. Kinks are too often used to shame people.” (Tia, female, grey-a, 15-18, USA)

Here we are, then. SHAME. (No, not the film with Michael Fassbender.)

Varying degrees of shame, embarrassment, or the fear of being shamed by others keep the majority of my respondents from discussing kinks more openly.

Side note: As getoffmysheets (female, heterosexual panromantic, 18-25, USA) highlights, not every person experiences situations in which sexual preferences come up, among other because it is not anyone’s business what other people like in bed. “I wouldn’t say “admit”, haha it’s never really come up? Like, I don’t find it to be anyone else’s business.”

Another side note: The exact kind of kink also plays a role, with some being easier to admit to and other being cloaked in a veil of silence: “After rape – probably not. Everything else – easily.” (Zev, female, demisexual, 30-40, Russia)

As the following quotes exemplify better than any summary ever could, what keeps people from talking about kinks are both internal and external factors. Internal factors in terms of a personal feeling of embarrassment at enjoying certain things, probably tied to societal norms of ‘normal’ sexual behaviour vs. ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour; and external factors in terms of how others or society in general would react to finding out about the preferences of the respondent.

“Not really no. I feel like I’d be judged more harshly.” (Bennycoram, female, pansexual, 15-18, Wales)

“Definitely not. I still have trouble admitting outside fandom that I read slash at all.” (Wild Song, female, grey-asexual panromantic, 25-30, USA)

“I did once, and to a select few. I prefer not to now other than the vague ‘I could imagine handcuffs in my non existent sex life’. People already react strange to that one.” (missingnolovefic, female, queer, 18-25, Germany)

“Oh no. No. I once told a friend that I liked the teacher/student, and I could probably do it again, but not omegaverse. Something about it embarrasses me. I’m even a little shamed to enjoy it. I don’t think I could every tell my boyfriend all about the alpha/omega ways.” (Mutandine, female, demisexual, 18-25, USA)

“NO! I wouldn’t even admit them here if you followed me on tumblr. 😉 I know BDSM is quite ‘normal’ these days but I grew up in a family that never talked about sex. While I’ve learned to talk about sex, I feel really ashamed to admit that I have kinks. Not even my partner knows about my kinks.” (Charlie, female, pansexual, 18-25, Sweden)

“I admit that I’m kinky to a few select people, and some of my specific interests are listed on my fetlife profile. Nobody knows all the weird stuff I get off on. If you haven’t noticed, I’m a little ashamed and weirded out by it myself.” (Isabel, female, bisexual, 15-18, USA)

“I hardly “admit” to reading fanfiction if I can help it. It’s not like it turns up in day-to-day conversation “what were you up to yesterday? didn’t wanna go out with us?” “oh I just read this awesome 20K words fanfic where John ate Sherlocks arse like a creampie for hours, had him gang banged in their imagination while fucking him against a mirror afterwards and then had a quite good wank meself, thx.”” (Judy, female, bisexual, 25-30, Germany)

Things are easier in online fandom, or online in general. Sydney (female, pan or bi, 25-30, USA) says, “In a select group of friends, and my partner, I talk about kink, but definitely not in public. Online I supposed I’d say I engage with it more, of course due to the anonymity.”

However, this prevalence of shame in itself betrays a greater problem: discussing sex – maybe especially female-identified individuals discussion what brings them pleasure – is still very much taboo in society.

“I’m actually pretty vanilla when it comes to sex, but I don’t feel like you need to be ashamed by what you like in the bedroom. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to admit to your kinks, if anything it can help get conversations going and give kinks a better light in society.” (Natalie K, female, straight, 18-25, USA)

*

The asexual fallacy

As mentioned above, it is not possible to infer someone’s kinks or lack of them from their sexual orientation. Just because someone identifies as somewhere on the asexuality spectrum does not mean they categorically don’t want to read about sex. It is possible, but non-aces are perfectly capable of disliking depictions of sexual acts just as well for a variety of reasons.

However, this notion still exists, and renders an open discussion about kinks difficult.

“I do not even ‘admit’ them within fandom because I’m ace and everyone thinks I’m sex-repulsed and I’m scared of people thinking that I’m lying about being ace,” explains Jehanna (female, biromantic asexual, 18-25, Germany). NothingToSeeHere (female, asexual/hetero-romantic, 40-50, USA) also doesn’t admit to their kinks. “I am asexual and do not practice, nor discuss sex at all outside of fandom (online) activities.” This does NOT mean sex does not feature in their fanfiction experience: “My best friend in RL has read one story I wrote and was disturbed at the sexual and kinky nature of some of the scenes, but in general my real life is sex-free.”

*

PART 3: Squicks

A squick, in the sense that I have defined them for the purpose of this survey, is a deep-seated, visceral turn-off for the reader.

This ‘turn-off’ can be either sexual or not, yet in fandom ‘squick’ is commonly used as an antonym to kink, endowing it with a sexual connotation. Quite a lot of people – including me – use it more generally, referring to both specific sexual acts/fetishes, for example watersports, and literary aspects of fanfic, like OOCness (out-of-character-ness) or certain tropes/genres, like mpreg. It is also important to differentiate between squick and dislike, as Alice’s reply (female, straight, 25-30, UK) exemplifies:

“I wrote a list and then had to pause because I guess for me it depends how a lot of things are presented and how you mean ‘turn off’. Sexually speaking, there are a good number of things I highly dislike– pedophilia, necrophilia, shit, piss, gore, rape. But if we mean ‘squick’ how I usually use it, which is just anything I intensely cannot handle, then with some of those I can waver on the fence depending on how they’re presented in the story. I’ve read fics which include some of those ‘squicks’ but the inclusion was satirical, or comedic, or dealt with seriously and not just thrown in as sexual titillation. There’s a difference between saying ‘gore squicks me out completely and I CAN’T watch any kind of gore in any context’ and saying ‘I can watch a horror movie, but I don’t want to wank to it and the idea of using gore as porn fodder squicks me.’ and again ‘I can watch horror movies and my feelings towards horror-porn are neutral’.”

That being said, the majority of my respondents took squicks to refer to both sexual and textual turn-offs, demonstrating how blurry the line between these truly is in fanfic. The exception might be EdVos’ “Weak grammar and diction. I can’t get through the story without my eyes twitching” (female, straight, 18-25, USA), yet many of those who referenced grammar/diction also cite other, more sexual elements as squicks.

I will not list all of the named squicks, but highlight a few recurring ones that several participants of my survey share, as well as point out some unique answers that prove just how subjective this topic is. This list is not to be taken as a hierarchy or as representing the number of people who share a particular squick.

Squicks – textual, sexual and moral aspects

a) OOCness

How one draws the line between in-character and out-of-character is in the purview of the person drawing the line, and for those not invested in fanfiction, understanding what this means might be a challenge. In Supernatural, I would describe any depiction of the older brother Dean as OOC that portrays him as uncaring about his younger brother’s welfare, for example, since the source text makes it unequivocally clear that Dean cares deeply about Sam and would do anything, including die. (Which he did. Repeatedly.)

b) genderbending

Angel’s reply (genderqueer, they/them, bisexual, 25-30, UK) explains this well. They say, “(…) when the traditional gender roles are projected onto the fictional characters, like, Sherlock: John is smaller, so he’s the submissive one, so he must always be the receptive etc. partner; likewise however it pisses me off that because Sherlock in S3 has shown he has actual emotions (how dare he) people claim he MUST be submissive and always bottom etc., the ‘sad gay baby’ stuff. Just because one is emotional =/= submissive or the like. What the fuck.”

Mitzi (female, she/them, asexual homoromantic,18-25, USA) echoes this: “Ahem, also when someone bends the gender of one half of the ship (often considered the more ‘feminine’ half) to make the ship a heterosexual one. This only squicks me when the character is bent to be a cisgendered woman and I haven’t the faintest notion why.”

c) Questions of realism

Angel also says, “When there’s no preparation at all, specifically for anal (“I’m gonna take you dry” Oh my god please don’t, I can’t hit the X button harder)”, which some readers do not mind to see in fics. It is all a question of how much realism a reader needs in fanfic.

d) Fandom-specifics

For example, queerjawn (she/her or they/them, panromantic demisexual, 30-40, Spain) cites “any fic where Sherlock has sex, any sort of sex, with a woman” as a huge turn-off they just cannot stand. “I’m much more tolerant of John doing the same, although I’m not really interested.”

d) Watersports, scat

Involving urine or faeces in sexual acts appears in many replies to this question. Sometimes it might just be a mild squick, like it is for resplendeo (female, bisexual, 18-25, USA). “I do enjoy that one in fic occasionally.” Thus it keeps bearing in mind that not every squick is an absolute no go, and that the question of how an author shapes any of these aspects is equally important.

e) bestiality, animal-related tropes

The span of this is wide, and my respondents did not go into detail. As I understood it, these squicks include animals being physically involved in sexual acts (as in Character/Original Dog Character), or turning/likening humans to animals, for examples designating them as pets or altering their human physiology to become more similar to animals.

f) Omegeverse-related things

Omgaverse is a squick for many a fanfic reader, and within the genre there are some conventions that received special mention, like “overdone alpha/omega stuff that makes the omega lose their mind, needing only to be fucked like a toy etc., that’s so horrible,” says Angel. Yet there are caveats: “This stuff can be done well if only one puts their mind to it.”

g) Rape

The absence of explicit consent also prompts many of my respondents to stop reading. However, some differentiate between “rape” as a plot element that is being dealt with in a serious manner, and “non-con when it’s written just for the sake of it and as it was sexy,” as fancypantskid (she/her, bi, 25-30, Brazil) puts it. As with all squicks, even those involving moral/ethical issues, the mere existence of these fics shows that not everyone condemns fics featuring rape with the aim to arouse as ‘wrong’. (Whereas everyone I’ve encountered in fandom views the act of unconsensual sex as wrong/a crime. This is about the depiction of rape in fictional situations and whether portraying such an act with the intent to arouse a reader is equally ‘wrong’.)

For the record, I also include the mentions of paedophilia in this category, referring to sexual acts in which one participant is a prepubescent child, generally under the age of 11 (the lowest age of consent is 12 years; more on age of consent later).

h) Incest

When I first entered the realms of Supernatural fanfic, I was surprised by how many stories featured incest, meaning they put Sam and Dean Winchester in romantic and sexual situations as brothers, given the social incest taboo in many countries (not all, mind you). I do not wish to delve into the debate about whether or not consensual incest is okay that I’ve seen conducted in fandoms – not just Supernatural – but I do wish to point out that there are different perspectives on this subject.

“Incest squicks me right the fuck out. This includes “but one of them was adopted so it’s not really incest!” fics, which I find even squickier than just incest because of the justification people use.” (resplendeo female, bisexual, 18-25, USA)

i) Age of consent related

These are two quotes referring to this:

“I don’t read mature/explicit fanfiction with characters younger than 16 and it’s sort of frustrating that AO3 actually allows for pedo crap.” (fancypantskid, she/her, bi, 25-30, Brazil)

“I never read anything involving minors because that’s just promoting paedophilia.” (mex, female, bisexual biromantic, 15-18, UK) 

NOTE: As stated under g), I counted paedophilia without the clarification of including minors as opposed to the pre-pubescent definition of paedophilia as “rape”. My choice to view replies such as those by fancypantskid and mex under “age of consent related” squicks stems from the different ages of consent that exist. They range from 12 to 21 across the world, and thus if an author in the UK depicts a 17-year-old male-identified character in a sexual relationship with another male-identified character, from a UK perspective they are not a minor. To a reader from California, where the age of consent for same-sex couples is 18, this would need to be tagged as ‘underage’ on AO3. Thus, this is an area that is much more grey in my eyes.

There has been considerable debate on the definition of paedophilia in fandom and where to draw the line, respectively if portraying young characters in sexual relationships – especially when the other party is older than 18 or 21 – counts as paedophilia in general or whether it is something different. In my understanding, the big question that determines people’s individual attitudes towards this, is “Can minors consent?” Discussing this is not the purpose of this survey result analysis, yet I felt like this item on the squick list needed some differentiation.

PS: Another answer by resplendeo that might fall into this category, though power imbalance in general could also be a category on its own: “Actual power imbalance due to age is also another one that generally can’t do it for me.”

j) Other responses

“Terms of endearment (!!!!!) I’m perfectly fine with the word ‘love’ but when they call each other ‘baby’ or ‘daddy’ ugh! Complete turn-off!” (Camila, female, straight, 15-18, Colombia)

“I am turned off by nearly all “real-person” fics. I am super uncomfortable unless the characters are fictional.” (EMH, female, bi, 40-50, USA)

“Right now in the marvel fandom, there is a trend towards fetishizing Bucky’s arm and Skinny!Steve that I really hate in a visceral way. It has a lot to do with being disabled and my own personal relationship with my body, and I recognize that people are into it for some of the same types of reasons. But I really can’t stand it and it has lead to some of my very few blacklisted terms on tumblr.” (Trixie, female, bi, 40-50, USA)

“As for squicks, I can’t stand fanfics which the male main characters pay a woman to be their baby surrogate mother. And prostitution. Both of these things are disturbing realities and it just ruin the fun of a story for me. Anything related to the current wars in the middle east also bother me a lot, the authors tend to display pro-imperialism views about these conflicts and they glorify american/british soldiers, which I consider disgusting, offensive and a major turn off in a story. I’m a sherlockian and I love John Watson, but fighting in Afghanistan was ridiculous.” (fancypantskid, she/her, bi, 25-30, Brazil)

“Not really. All sex is in the same level for me = I don’t like to read any of it. I’ve read some pretty fucked up things just for curiosity (you know, people saying they read so and so and now they’re traumed for life) but they cause nothing on me” (Carolina, female, asexual lesbian, 18-25, Mexico)

*

CONCLUSION

To sum up, I can say that smut is not as important to fanfic readers as predominant stereotypes of fanfiction as ‘bad porn’ might suggest. A lot depends on the reader’s mood, with the literary quality of the fic being awarded the most importance for the majority of my respondents.

Kinks span an incredibly wide berth, including sexual acts as well as tropes. Squicks call the distinction between elements of narration being strictly porn or plot further into question, and also open up debates on moral/ethical/legal issues.

#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

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.