#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.
In the second graphic, the 16 who do not read porn did not all tick “0” as asked. My explanation for this is that they sometimes come across sexually explicit scenes without actively choosing to read it, maybe because the fic’s raiting led them to assume it was non-explicit.
Despite this discrepancy, the second graphic conveys clearly that, contrary to popular opinion perpetuated by the media, fanfiction is not all about sex. Sure, there are 2,5% who mostly read smut, and 15,6% who ticked 4 out of 5 on the porn/plot ration, yet an overwhelming 81,9% consider the ratio of porn and plot at least 50-50, with 40,9% scoring even lower than that.
The written responses to my next question, “How important is smut to you for an enjoyable reading experience?”, mirror these graphics. Most readers value the plot (and the quality of writing) over any sexually explicit material, though if it makes sense within the plot, a lack of smut would be considered unfitting, too. It also depends on the reader’s mood and what they wish to read. A handful of people simply said “not very” important and did not expand, but several did, in that demonstrating how many aspects influence a reader’s subjective opinion on explicit sex scenes.
a) Smut is essential
The following quotes show that for some, smut is the main reason for reading fic:
“Its extremely important and the primary reason I read fanfiction. But that being said, it has to be written well.” (Elizabeth, female, mostly straight, 30-40, Canada)
“I mean, if I didn’t want smut I’d just read a regular book. It’s not like, TOTALLY necessary if the story is good, but with slash, smut is pretty necessary” (yowwzahh, female, 18-25, USA)
“I mean…I sometimes am only in the mood to read a story that I know will have smut in it. But some of my favourite stories don’t have any. I feel like a jerk admitting that I prefer smutty fanfic, but at the end of the day if I want non-smut I can read published books that overall are higher quality. So I generally only read non-smutty fanfic if they have been strongly recommended or the premise looks amazing.” (hiddensymposiarch, female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada)
“I generally only read fanfic that has smut (regardless of the proportion of smut to plot). I only read non smutty fanfic if I find the premise to be particularly fascinating.” (Ella B, she/they, 18-25, USA)
“So… it’s kinda like how I don’t really eat sweets unless they have chocolate in them. I mean, what’s the point of consuming the sugar if there’s not chocolate? But every now and then I love a piece of extremely high-quality cheesecake or pumpkin pie. I only have so much time to spend reading fanfic, and there is plenty out there that is both well-written and contains smut, so I’m probably going to spend my limited time reading that. But sometimes I will read non-smut if I know it is quality by a quality author.” (sassy1121, female, 30-40, USA)
Yet the quality of writing does play a part with porn, too. As Kelly (female, bisexual, 18-25, USA) says, “Smut is very important to my enjoyable reading experience. The caveat, however, is that it must be well written and in character. My favorite stories are plot with a side of smut, where there are interesting things happening and two people also get it on.”
On that note, something that popped up in several of the answers was the ‘bar’ being set lower for smut in terms of writing quality. LJ (female, butch heterosexual, 50+, USA) says, smut is “always a plus. The bread and butter of fanfic. There are some non-smutty things I read, but usually they are in the highest percentiles of writing quality. I lower the bar for smut.”
Others echo this: “Only if really well written by really talented writers. Clunky writing style is distracting. Subtle erotica much more immersive.” (Elise, female, bisexual, 30-40, UK)
“If the main narrative of the story is about the formation of a sexual/romantic relationship involving sex, I kind of expect smut. Since I read a lot of this type of story, I end up expecting smut in most circumstances; though I have found a number of excellent smut-free stories, I find that I don’t go out of my way to look for them unless they are recommended to me.” (Hayley, female, bisexual, 18-25, US)
“I enjoy smut, and sometimes seek out pwp. I think that sex is a natural part of life, so when it is missing from my fanfic, I am a little confused.” (Alena Farfante, female, queer, 18-25, USA)
“It isn’t necessary, I’ll happily read about completely platonic relationships. Having said that, 9 times out of 10 I’ll enjoy well written smut more than well written plot.” (Charlie Scott, female, aromantic demisexual/pansexual, 15-18, UK)
“I tend to like there to be some smut in stories that I read, especially longer stories. I am especially into A/B/O stories at the moment, and there is usually quite a bit of smut in those stories. I don’t really read fanfic that does not have at least some sort of smut in it.” (Sarah, female, straight, 18-25, UK)
b) No smut, please.
A handful of respondents do not wish to read smut, which does not have to stem from a sex-repulsed attitude, mind you.
“Not at all. I’m quite uncomfortable with smut, so I usually skim read in case any plot happens but I don’t pay too much attention.” (Jane, 18-25, UK)
“Being asexual, this isn’t my typical area, though my history and behavior say otherwise. I’d say smut isn’t at all a must-have, just a… Pleasant surprise.” (Vanessa, genderqueer, they/them, greyromantic asexual , under 15, USA)
c) It depends … on the reader’s mood, the type of story, etc.
The importance of smut depends on many, many things. The most obvious might be the need for arousing reading material for masturbatory purposes:
“ (…) I like smut in showing their relationship progressing, and it’s hot too. But mostly I like reading about them finally getting together. It’s not about the smut, though it is a plus. When I’m in the mood to get off, IT IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. I must have smut if I am going to get off. Well written smut.” (Emily Goldstein, female, bisexual, 18-25, USA)
Angel’s reply is similar (genderqueer, they/them, bisexual, 25-30, UK): “For, ah, “private moments” I seek out purely pwps, but mostly I enjoy reading plot-based fics with a dash of porn in there.” They go on: “More important than the obligatory porn though is the tone of the fic and the content. There are fics that work completely without smut, and sometimes it feels like the author put the porn in there just to please; I skip the porn in these cases cos I feel it doesn’t fit within the overall tone and atmosphere of the fic. In other fics it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s in there, but I’m happy when it is if the atmosphere allows it. In others I scream if the atmosphere requires it and there’s no smut. So its all really subjective etc., I don’t think there are any rules or something.”
“It depends on what I’m looking for. Sometimes I might want the thrill of a porn experience from my reading, and other times I’m more interested in a story. I want all my stories to have relationship porn though – (ie) I need connection and working through issues and MEANING behind the actions between the sex partners. A straight-up fucking scene gets really boring with all the usual mechanics if there isn’t some communicating and feelings, characters growing and sharing and changing with the sex.” (phoenix, female, straightish, 40-50, USA)
“It really depends on the story, and my mood. Sometimes, I’m all ready for a long, slow burn with smut at the end. Sometimes, I just need me some nice PWP. I will occasionally read Gen fic, but I tend to lean towards M or E.” (Daelenn, female, asexual, 25-30, USA)
“I like it. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a really long, plot-heavy fic, and sometimes I just want to read about a particular kink or pairing. Sometimes I just want fluff. In any of these, smut has never taken away my reading experience. If I’m not in the mood for that dynamic I’ll just skip it. Most of what I read fanfic-wise has some form of smut in it, and I usually enjoy those parts.” (Mowgli, female, gray ace/heteroromanric-ish(?) [D2 to C1 range on the purple-red scale], 15-18, USA)
d) Smut is not essential (but nice). The plot is why I’m here.
The overwhelming part of my respondents value plot over porn. That is not to say that smut is not a nice addition to a story, but their main motivation for reading fanfiction is clearly plot-oriented.
“Not important – some of the best fics I’ve read have been gen (such as Sherlock and John being friends), or have been PG-13 where the sex scenes are glossed over with a sentence or two. If there’s smut, it has to be written well and be there for a good reason. If it’s just shoehorned in, I’ll probably either skip over it or stop reading the fic altogether.” (Anonymous, female, lesbian, 30-40, USA)
“Not at all. Sometimes I even skip parts of it when the scene is too long. It’s nice to have smut when it’s a long fic with strategic build-up and drawn-out tension in it, but I’m all for the arch of the build-up itself, I don’t care much for the action.” (Rosey, female, bisexual biromantic, 18-25, Hungary)
“It’s nice to see a little bit interspersed with a structured plot, because it gives the reader a chance to see their favorite characters at their most vulnerable and it many times terms to reaffirm the connection between the characters consequently.” (Mae, female, asexual demiromantic, 15-18, USA)
“It depends on the kind of fic. When a fic has a great plot and touches me in any other way (makes me laugh or cry or gives me a warm fluffy feeling 😉 ), I absolutely don’t need any smut in it. But sometimes I’m in the mood for smut and deliberately look for smut fics.” (Julia, female, bisexual, 25-30, Germany)
“I wouldn’t say smut is a primary focus when I read fic, but I don’t shy away from it. Especially if it is done well. Though I also don’t shy away from fic without porn. The overall plot quality is what I really use to determine if I’m going to read a fic.” (Ashley, 25-30, USA)
“I don’t like fics that focus too heavily on porn. It’s alright as long as there’s enough plot to keep the story going, but the moment that balance tips over, I simply lose interest. It’s fine as long as the sex scenes are part of a intricate/slow-burn fic AND as long as they don’t feature at the very end of it, as if smut was the most important part of the whole fic, the highlight that you have to earn and are presented with as a reward at the end of it. No. Just no. Also, I tend to favour smut that’s heavy on the emotional connection between the characters. This probably makes me sound like a prude, but I don’t see the appeal of a 2k porn fic without the least bit of closeness.” (Lena, female, demisexual, biromantic, 18-25, Germany)
“I love a nice, smutty story. But it’s not essential. I primarily look for good writing and a good story first. With Johnlock, there’s a lot of smut. And I will admit that some of my favorites are porn-without-plot. But many of my favorites also may have one sex scene at the end of 100,000 words. With my hockey RPF OTP, the smut levels are much, much lower. 50,000 words of marshmallow fluff that ends with them sharing a tentative, almost chaste first kiss. And I read it with a grin on my face that carries me through the rest of my day. Smut is good. But it’s really all about the OTP’s relationship and how the writer builds it. I don’t need smut to thoroughly enjoy a story.” (Ann, female, straight, 40-50, USA)
“Not very important, though when I started reading fanfiction I read mostly smut (or lemons as they were called back in the day). Nowadays I find that if you’ve read one sex scene (and I’ve read a lot), you’ve read them all. Which says more about how many slashfics I’ve read than the quality of porn in fanfiction in general.” (Eve, female, 18-25, Netherlands)
“I tend to enjoy the non-smut stories more. But am strangely fascinated by the smut ones all the same. When starting to read fanfiction I found the smuttier stories tended to be better written and so I continue to read them today. (They are not always better written and sometimes are horrifically bad, but as a rule the older writers tend to write more smut than not.)” (Kim, female, grey asexual, 30-40, Australia)
Intimacy = sex?
Finally, there were some quotes that bring into relief that for a lot of readers, “intimacy” equals physical intimacy, e.g. sex.
As gimmeadoctor (female, asexual, 15-18, Italy) says, “I don’t really enjoy PWPs, but yes, after more than 4 chapters of pining after each other I start feeling a need for smut. Some of my favorite fanfics are smut-less(?), but I certainly wouldn’t mind if the author had written some sexual scenes in them.”
Mog (female, asexual gray-romantic, 18-25, UK) makes this clearer: “Smut isn’t super important, but I do like a good slash to plot ratio, just because I do find it slightly annoying if I read a huge fic and then at the end there isn’t really any sense of them being together without any kind of intimacy? The same goes for visversa though, if there’s just too much slash, my brain just kind of shuts off.”
I did not highlight these quotes in order to judge them for equating intimacy with sex. It is one possibility to define intimacy, co-existing with many others reliant on emotional connections rather than physical ones. However, this I believe shows one aspect of fandom that I have witnessed as well: the way you mostly expect smut at some point. During a recent fic I found myself worrying about not being explicit enough, yet more explicit scenes and acts would not have fit the dynamic of my pairing, so I opted not to. Yet the fact that I was worried about reader response to a lack of smut is striking, I propose.
B (female, heteroromantic asexual, 18-25, Poland) voices similar criticism in their answer. For them, smut is “unimportant, with exception of tiny little moments of “I’m in the mood”. I have to say I’m so angry when fanfiction writers admit to be almost forced to write/add smut.”
PART 2: Kinks, and ‘admitting’ to them
Mostly out of curiosity, I asked my respondents whether or not they have any kinks and/or squicks. I intentionally did not define ‘kink’ (though I did with squick), which prompted some, like punk (female, bisexual/pansexual/queer, 25-30, UK/USA), to highlight that every sexual preference counts as a kink. “I view all sexual preferences as kinks, so this is a difficult list to generate for me.” And Kady (genderqueer, she/her, interested in men, 25-30, USA), after listing several kinks, goes on to say: “um… the problem is that people define kinks differently? Sometimes you’re actually talking about tropes or types of stories.”
Most respondents took ‘kink’ to have more to do with fetish, or simply be non-vanilla. Which prompts the question of how one defines ‘vanilla sex’. From the replies I gather than everything surpassing a simple sexual act without toys or additional supplies other than lube and protection can be deemed a kink.
While some participants don’t have any kinks, either because of a lack of enjoyment or because it makes them uncomfortable (the latter not being tied to sexual orientation, for the record), a lot of respondents do have kinks and did not hesitate to list them.
Needless to say, these lists were incredibly eclectic, with only scat being the one thing I did not see named. While respondents attested to enjoying certain kinks, several also acknowledged they do not seek them out with particular vigour.
Punk, from above, says, “I don’t read fic that’s primarily about sex or sexual kinks; I read fic if the plot sounds good and then I care less about the content of the sex scene(s), as long as everyone still seems in character.”
“I don’t particularly have anything like that, but there is stuff that I accidentally discover while reading a certain fanfic and then look for more with the same themes later. It’s different in every fandom, depending on the characters’ personalities and their canonical relationship with each other. Again, it’s the unexplored potential in the original universe that gets me interested in particular themes in fanfic, and smut isn’t exempt from that.” (Rosey, female, bisexual biromantic, 18-25, Hungary)
“I read lots of kinks, but not usually FOR that kink. I will read something that lots of people have recced, or that looks interesting for the pairing or storyline. And I may find myself enjoying the kink that I thought I had no interest in, or I will find that the kink turns me off so badly that I stop reading the whole thing. It really depends on how it’s handled by the writer and whether or not the emotional content is more important than the actual kink itself. But I almost never set out looking for a specific kink to read.” (Trixie, female, female, bisexual, 40-50, USA)
Some kinks were also rather fandom-specific, like “bestiality” within Supernatural. Furthermore, Brynna (female, bisexual, 30-40, Canada) brings to the fore another aspect commonly found in stories featuring kinks or fetishes: “Kink fic is some of my favorite, because there is almost always more discussion about what kind of sex is about to happen than usual (which is something I wish our culture could get used to doing with ALL kinds of sex, but I digress).”
It’s also a process, as Cait (female, bi, 18-25, Australa) shows: “I used to avoid certain kinks because I thought I wouldn’t like them (such as omegaverse) but after reading some I found I really enjoyed it – so now I make a point to not avoid anything and at least give it a try.”
Like Ana (15-18, USA) says, you cannot know what you like unless you try it: “Bdsm Water sports Military kink Praise kink Daddy kink I’ll read everything at least once.”
As pointed out above, the term kink might also refer to preferred tropes.
For instance, Charlie (female, pansexual, 18-25, Sweden) says: “I sometimes enjoy BDSM. I also like fics where a character is different and their partner is accepting. It can be disability fics (like blind Sherlock) or a man that has boobs (futanari) to give two examples. I don’t know why it turns me on and it makes me kind of ashamed because I know that they might suffer if it was real life.”
The latter ties into the final aspects I would like to delve into regarding this question, namely issues of morality and shame.
For Marr (female, bi, 40-50, UK), everything is a potential fic to read, “except adult/child supposedly consensual sexual relationships as I think these are irresponsible. NB I have read and written about past child abuse but in a clear context of horrific impacts on the victim and dreadful consequence for the adult.”
Marr was the only one to explicitly name legal aspects (age of consent) as a deciding factor, yet the feeling that certain kinks are somehow morally ‘wrong’ or shameful colours several other replies as well:
“I’ll read most kinks – for some the bar is set higher than others in terms of how good the fic/writing has to be. I’ve read incest fic and dub and even non con-ish stuff to my eternal shame.” (emilycountess, female, straight, 18-25, Australia)
“There is ONE and only One, but I’ll never admit it.” (Carolina, female, asexual lesbian, 18-25, Mexico)
“Oh yeah, you name it. Bondage, punishment, watersports, daddy kink, diapers, orgasm denial, cross dressing, military kink, possessiveness, it goes on. If it involves one character exerting power over another I’m into it. I don’t like to justify rape and torture fic with a word like ‘kink’, but I’ve read and got off on that as well. I try to avoid it generally speaking, but, you know.” (Isabel, female, bi, 15-18, USA)
“Yes, I sin. I kinkshame myself. Watersports Urethral sounding Docking double penetration bukkake comeplay basically everything filthy.” (Ailbhe, female, bisexual, 18-25, Ireland)
Regardless of where one draws the line in terms of depictions of rape and torture, there seems to be something illicit about these topics especially. More generally speaking, being ashamed of their preferred choice of reading material is central to how the participants replied to my other question:
“Do you admit to these kinks outside of the relatively safe space of fandom?”
(A note on my use of “admit”: No kinks are shameful as long as everybody gives consent, but society tends to lead us to believe they are.)
Ungodly’s answer (genderqueer, they/them, asexual demiromantic, 18-25, Argentina) – “Yes. I don’t have a giant banner that reads ‘I encourage cross-dressing and endorse to the BDSM lifestyle’ but I do talk about it with friends and family” – is one of the few in this vein.
The overall tone of the replies was: NO. Sometimes with a caveat that friends who are also in fandoms and also have a preference for certain kinks are an exception, though I would suggest these situations belong more to ‘fandom’ than ‘real life’, if one wants to make this distinction.
There were respondents who replied with “yes” in different shades of enthusiasm, and Brynna (female, bi, 30-40, Canada), who said “I am a staunch defender of BDSM to anyone who will listen.”
On the other hand, she adds: “I tend not to get into the stuff I like in fanfiction because, outside of watersports, these aren’t kinks I actually personally enjoy.” The distinction between what someone likes to read about and what someone would actually like to try in reality is important to keep in mind. Only because someone likes to read about bondage does not automatically equal a desire to experiment with bondage or similar things.
Two instances that might allow an admission to one’s kinks are future romantic partners, and respondents engaged in a relationship mostly said they had discussed sexual preferences with their partners. How safe a person feels is the second aspect:
“I would if I felt safe enough with a person and if there would be reason to talk about such things.” (GvC, female, questioning, 25-30, Germany)
“I would only ever admit my kinks in a place where every member of the conversation is on equal ground, and it’d have to be tit for tat. If I give up a secret, they better give up one, too. Even then, I’d Neff hard pressed to give up everything I think I like- especially stuff I’ve read in fanfic. Kinks are too often used to shame people.” (Tia, female, grey-a, 15-18, USA)
Here we are, then. SHAME. (No, not the film with Michael Fassbender.)
Varying degrees of shame, embarrassment, or the fear of being shamed by others keep the majority of my respondents from discussing kinks more openly.
Side note: As getoffmysheets (female, heterosexual panromantic, 18-25, USA) highlights, not every person experiences situations in which sexual preferences come up, among other because it is not anyone’s business what other people like in bed. “I wouldn’t say “admit”, haha it’s never really come up? Like, I don’t find it to be anyone else’s business.”
Another side note: The exact kind of kink also plays a role, with some being easier to admit to and other being cloaked in a veil of silence: “After rape – probably not. Everything else – easily.” (Zev, female, demisexual, 30-40, Russia)
As the following quotes exemplify better than any summary ever could, what keeps people from talking about kinks are both internal and external factors. Internal factors in terms of a personal feeling of embarrassment at enjoying certain things, probably tied to societal norms of ‘normal’ sexual behaviour vs. ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour; and external factors in terms of how others or society in general would react to finding out about the preferences of the respondent.
“Not really no. I feel like I’d be judged more harshly.” (Bennycoram, female, pansexual, 15-18, Wales)
“Definitely not. I still have trouble admitting outside fandom that I read slash at all.” (Wild Song, female, grey-asexual panromantic, 25-30, USA)
“I did once, and to a select few. I prefer not to now other than the vague ‘I could imagine handcuffs in my non existent sex life’. People already react strange to that one.” (missingnolovefic, female, queer, 18-25, Germany)
“Oh no. No. I once told a friend that I liked the teacher/student, and I could probably do it again, but not omegaverse. Something about it embarrasses me. I’m even a little shamed to enjoy it. I don’t think I could every tell my boyfriend all about the alpha/omega ways.” (Mutandine, female, demisexual, 18-25, USA)
“NO! I wouldn’t even admit them here if you followed me on tumblr. 😉 I know BDSM is quite ‘normal’ these days but I grew up in a family that never talked about sex. While I’ve learned to talk about sex, I feel really ashamed to admit that I have kinks. Not even my partner knows about my kinks.” (Charlie, female, pansexual, 18-25, Sweden)
“I admit that I’m kinky to a few select people, and some of my specific interests are listed on my fetlife profile. Nobody knows all the weird stuff I get off on. If you haven’t noticed, I’m a little ashamed and weirded out by it myself.” (Isabel, female, bisexual, 15-18, USA)
“I hardly “admit” to reading fanfiction if I can help it. It’s not like it turns up in day-to-day conversation “what were you up to yesterday? didn’t wanna go out with us?” “oh I just read this awesome 20K words fanfic where John ate Sherlocks arse like a creampie for hours, had him gang banged in their imagination while fucking him against a mirror afterwards and then had a quite good wank meself, thx.”” (Judy, female, bisexual, 25-30, Germany)
Things are easier in online fandom, or online in general. Sydney (female, pan or bi, 25-30, USA) says, “In a select group of friends, and my partner, I talk about kink, but definitely not in public. Online I supposed I’d say I engage with it more, of course due to the anonymity.”
However, this prevalence of shame in itself betrays a greater problem: discussing sex – maybe especially female-identified individuals discussion what brings them pleasure – is still very much taboo in society.
“I’m actually pretty vanilla when it comes to sex, but I don’t feel like you need to be ashamed by what you like in the bedroom. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to admit to your kinks, if anything it can help get conversations going and give kinks a better light in society.” (Natalie K, female, straight, 18-25, USA)
The asexual fallacy
As mentioned above, it is not possible to infer someone’s kinks or lack of them from their sexual orientation. Just because someone identifies as somewhere on the asexuality spectrum does not mean they categorically don’t want to read about sex. It is possible, but non-aces are perfectly capable of disliking depictions of sexual acts just as well for a variety of reasons.
However, this notion still exists, and renders an open discussion about kinks difficult.
“I do not even ‘admit’ them within fandom because I’m ace and everyone thinks I’m sex-repulsed and I’m scared of people thinking that I’m lying about being ace,” explains Jehanna (female, biromantic asexual, 18-25, Germany). NothingToSeeHere (female, asexual/hetero-romantic, 40-50, USA) also doesn’t admit to their kinks. “I am asexual and do not practice, nor discuss sex at all outside of fandom (online) activities.” This does NOT mean sex does not feature in their fanfiction experience: “My best friend in RL has read one story I wrote and was disturbed at the sexual and kinky nature of some of the scenes, but in general my real life is sex-free.”
PART 3: Squicks
A squick, in the sense that I have defined them for the purpose of this survey, is a deep-seated, visceral turn-off for the reader.
This ‘turn-off’ can be either sexual or not, yet in fandom ‘squick’ is commonly used as an antonym to kink, endowing it with a sexual connotation. Quite a lot of people – including me – use it more generally, referring to both specific sexual acts/fetishes, for example watersports, and literary aspects of fanfic, like OOCness (out-of-character-ness) or certain tropes/genres, like mpreg. It is also important to differentiate between squick and dislike, as Alice’s reply (female, straight, 25-30, UK) exemplifies:
“I wrote a list and then had to pause because I guess for me it depends how a lot of things are presented and how you mean ‘turn off’. Sexually speaking, there are a good number of things I highly dislike– pedophilia, necrophilia, shit, piss, gore, rape. But if we mean ‘squick’ how I usually use it, which is just anything I intensely cannot handle, then with some of those I can waver on the fence depending on how they’re presented in the story. I’ve read fics which include some of those ‘squicks’ but the inclusion was satirical, or comedic, or dealt with seriously and not just thrown in as sexual titillation. There’s a difference between saying ‘gore squicks me out completely and I CAN’T watch any kind of gore in any context’ and saying ‘I can watch a horror movie, but I don’t want to wank to it and the idea of using gore as porn fodder squicks me.’ and again ‘I can watch horror movies and my feelings towards horror-porn are neutral’.”
That being said, the majority of my respondents took squicks to refer to both sexual and textual turn-offs, demonstrating how blurry the line between these truly is in fanfic. The exception might be EdVos’ “Weak grammar and diction. I can’t get through the story without my eyes twitching” (female, straight, 18-25, USA), yet many of those who referenced grammar/diction also cite other, more sexual elements as squicks.
I will not list all of the named squicks, but highlight a few recurring ones that several participants of my survey share, as well as point out some unique answers that prove just how subjective this topic is. This list is not to be taken as a hierarchy or as representing the number of people who share a particular squick.
Squicks – textual, sexual and moral aspects
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.)
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.
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.”
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).
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)
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.