#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]

 

 

 

 

#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)

 

 

10 Reasons Why I Will Continue to Give my Children Handheld Devices

Hipmombrarian's Blog

Image My children, both on handheld devices, learning and laughing.

Last week the Huffington Post ran this article titled 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12.

As an educator who advocates for the intentional and appropriate use of technology, I could go on about this forever. But instead I’m writing here as a mother.

Here are my 10 reasons why I will continue giving my children handheld devices, and all other forms of technology as well.

1) Because banning things never, ever, ever works. 

Remember when your parents wouldn’t let you watch rated R movies so you just went to your friends’ houses to watch them? I think I’d rather have my kids using technology and handheld devices with me beside them. Where I can engage with them, answer questions, and limit content if I have concerns.

2) Problem solving.

When my kids…

View original post 699 more words

#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)

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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.”

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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)

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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

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

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

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

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

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

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

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THE GOOD

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

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

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

a) The smut is hot.

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

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

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

c) Fanfic (slash) is well written.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

f) In fandom, being queer is something positive.

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

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

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

Further examples of the multi-facetted motivation of slash readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

a) Writing style specifics

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

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

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

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

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

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

porn plot ratio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b) Society’s view on slash

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

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

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

c) Research specifics, including the mechanics of sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d) Ship wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

g) The erasure of POC characters

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

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

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

h) Female characters in slash – demonised, erased

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

Other respondents take this further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dominance of pairings featuring white men

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

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

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

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

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

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

i) The “Gay for you” trope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romanticising:

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

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

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

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

Age and consent:

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

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

Fetishizing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The effect of these on readers:

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

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

Other:

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

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

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Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Next up:

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

[MASTERPOST]