When I was a kid, the Internet sucked. I mean, really sucked. It was slow, hokey, full of gifs of skeletons smoking spliffs, and sounded like demons screaming in Hell whenever you fired it up. A typical day on the Internet was you waiting three hours to watch a fifteen-second clip from Star Trek and then getting kicked off the computer because your mom needed to make a phone call.
I say this for the benefit of anyone under twenty-five who happens to be reading this blog. Another thing I’ve done for your benefit: found a sound clip of the dial-up Internet noise. Don’t thank me too effusively until you’ve actually listened to it. Christ what a racket.
Erotica and the Early Internet
Needless to say, the Internet of the late-90’s was not the virtual flesh market it is now. Don’t get me wrong–it was still full of pornography–but one’s efforts to access it were often stymied by poor connections, insane site layouts, and whatever virus came with that HOT!HOT!HOT!AshBangsPikachu file you downloaded off Napster. This was a transitional time when middle school boys still kept adult magazines under their mattresses despite having the World Wide Web at their fingertips.
“What about middle school girls?” you ask, with a not-at-all-creepy gleam in your eye. “What did they do?”
To which I reply–after submitting your name to whatever shadowy organization maintains the government watch list–thusly: “We didn’t need the Internet or the skin mags. Not when our mothers had these…”
Trashy Romance Novels
…the harbingers of puberty for decades before the Internet made its big debut. My friends and I used to pass them back and forth beneath a cloak of utmost secrecy, referring to them only by their code name so as not to tip off our parents. That code name was “sand toys,” which meant that we spent an awful lot of time saying things like: “Let’s go to my house and check out some sand toys,” “Did your mom buy any new sand toys?” and “The trick to getting the most out of your sand toys is flipping to a page approximately three-quarters of the way through and scanning for the word member.”
Romance novels had their drawbacks: they were long, poorly written, and relied heavily on turns of phrase like “his penis was a magic wand from which tiny stars floated.” They were also fairly sexist. Often, they featured a virginal heroine who was raped by a lusty rogue and then spent the rest of the novel falling in love with him. The way women were portrayed in these books was only a small step above the way they were portrayed–the way they’re still portrayed–in modern heterosexual porn. More on that in a second.
Here Comes Fanfiction!
Somewhere around the year 2001, I logged onto the Internet and discovered a thing called “fanfiction.” I subsequently learned that this thing had existed for…oh, quite a little while.
My thirteen-year-old self was entranced. Someone out there had thought to combine my two favorite things: television shows and overly-detailed descriptions of physical intimacy! What could be sweeter?
(For an in-depth analysis of fanfiction’s illustrious (no, really!) history, check out this excellent little article over at The Mary Sue.)
The fanfiction community–mostly young, mostly female–trundled along in its own strange, lovely, strangely lovely corner of the Internet, unnoticed and unremarked upon by the mainstream media. Until this last half-decade, that is. At that point, the outside world discovered it, and sh*t exploded.
Fanfiction and the Media
Blame it on faster Internet connections, increasing ‘net literacy, or the advent of sites like Tumblr and An Archive of Our Own. Whatever the reason, entertainment journalists have discovered fanfiction–more particularly, slash fanfiction–and are having a field day with it. Some of their antics are affectionate. Some of them are not.
To cite one example, in January 2014 journalist Caitlin Moran asked the stars of the BBC series Sherlock to read fanfiction aloud at the season 3 premier. It was intended to be a comedy bit–let’s have a laugh at these weird girls and their dirty stories!–but it fell flat. The author of the story in question, who did not give permission for it to be used that way, was mortified.
“What do you think about fanfiction?” is fast becoming a staple question in interviews with actors and show creators. And while their responses are often very accepting, the premise of such conversations is a bit creepy: let us (mostly middle-aged men) discuss how fanfiction writers (mostly young women) choose to express their sexuality. As if a young woman’s sexual expression is theirs to judge or comment upon.
Honestly, the demographic that writes and consumes fanfiction is a demographic that already gets picked on. Can you think of anyone who garners less automatic respect than a young woman? Young women have to deal with harassment from young men, sexist school dress codes, a world that dismisses their opinions with jokes about menstruation and hormones. They don’t need half the entertainment media snickering at them on top of everything else.
That’s why I’ve put together this helpful F.A.Q. If you’re a journalist who’s interested in knowing what’s up with those crazy broads and their pervy stories, please consult this instead of asking some middle-aged actor his opinion.
Why do young women read and write fanfiction?
Because they enjoy something–be it a book, a movie, a TV show, or whatever else–and they want to engage with that thing instead of merely consuming it. I don’t know why passive consumption is considered more socially acceptable than active engagement. Perhaps most people lack the passion or creative fire to really get involved with the things they love. That’s not the case with these women.
Why do young women read and write dirty fanfiction?
The biological mandate to reproduce gives rise to this nifty thing called the “human sex drive.” Unless you’re asexual, you have one. Surely no further explanation is required?
Why does it have to be fanfiction though? Wouldn’t more traditional forms of erotica suffice?
Firstly, fanfiction is more traditional than you think (click the link to that Mary Sue article above). Secondly, “traditional erotica” (i.e. Internet porn) isn’t aimed at young women. The women in pornography are treated deplorably: think of all the slapping, spitting, and abusive language they’re subjected to. Imagine trying to scratch that sexy itch while watching the person you identify with being thrown around like a sack of subhuman garbage.
Lastly, many young women find it easier to care about the–*ahem* proceedings–if they’re familiar with the participants. These are people they know and love, characters with whom they’ve forged a connection, in whose (sex) lives they’re actually invested. In short, they actually care if these people get laid.
(If you think it’s funny to get that invested in a person you’ve never met and never will meet, try hanging around hardcore sports fans some time.)
Why does it have to be gay?
That’s an interesting question, and the answer is probably complicated enough to serve as the subject of a doctoral thesis. I’ve heard everything from “one penis good, two penises better” to “it erases the power differential that characterizes straight erotica.” I think a lot of it comes back to the nastiness prevalent in heterosexual porn. It’s nasty, you guys. It’s just mean, mean stuff.
I think slash fanfiction is silly.
It is silly. Porn is silly. Sexuality is silly. Humanity, with all its hang-ups and pointless striving, is terribly, terribly silly. To be alive is to be silly.
I think it’s weird.
It’s no weirder than any other kind of erotica. It only seems that way because we usually see human sexuality presented in a male-centric context. “What men do” is generally considered the norm, which means that the way men get their rocks off is considered more typical than the way women do the same. Additionally, women’s sexuality is so often commodified that when we see it unfolding in a way that can’t be manipulated or sold, it can be somewhat jarring.
I think it’s gross.
You’re probably only defending it because you write loads of dirty stories yourself, you big weird virgin.
I don’t, that’s the thing. I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to put myself out there like that. I’ve written fanfiction before, but generally on request. And no one’s requested anything naughty. Yet…