Reading for Pleasure
If you write it, they will read it (fanfiction, that is)
One of the few instances I’ve witnessed a group of women chatting about erotic fanfiction in an open and comfortable setting was the summer Fifty Shades of Grey came out; all my aunts had packed it as their beach book and lined up along the sand in their colourful fold-up chairs. I remember watching in horror as their eyebrows raised with each synchronized page flip and knowing chuckles were passed between sips from their thermoses of white wine. “Oh my god,” I thought as I dove into my own towel, “how disgusting!” Curled up just six feet away, I proceeded to read my own 16-page Sherlock/John fanfiction that I painstakingly printed out from Archiveofourown.org and stapled together three days before we left for the cottage (the actual text is 156,714 words long, so I imagine I only had enough paper for a chapter or two). It was an AU (alternate universe, a fanfiction in which the author has changed the universe of the original text) where Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are actors starring in a film together, and—as you could imagine—they soon find themselves falling in love. Go figure.
Fanfiction, specifically erotic fanfiction, still makes people cringe. Who would spend all that time writing out those cliché, dirty stories? It can be upsetting to discover that your beloved fictional characters have been stretched and contorted by the imagination of basement dwellers into worrisome sexual shapes. For those of you who don’t know, Fifty Shades was based on a Twilight fanfiction that the author had posted online and reworked, sans copyrighted material, for her own book deal. “What a sad life they must live,” you might think, “just copying someone else’s work to stitch together their own nasty fantasy.” To all these pretty standard complaints against fanfiction, I will often nod noncommittally while sneaking a peek at my phone battery, making sure I have enough juice to finish another chapter on the bus ride home. Essentially, those judgments are phooey to me. Yeah, fandom culture can be incredibly toxic at times, and sure, writing Draco Malfoy as a bushy-tailed furry seems pretty unethical to me, but beyond that, most of those complaints are steeped in misogynistic judgments and misconceptions. I’m here to reveal the community-building and shame-defying aspects of erotic fanfiction, and why you should probably be reading some.
Fanfiction, or fanfic, is a fictional text inspired by an original work, created by its fans. Fanfic authors usually use the original characters, setting, or wider canon (the officially accepted material in the original work’s universe) for their stories, but then veer off into their own worlds with their own creative take on characters. These stories are often categorized into accepted themes or genres, such as angst, fluff, hurt/comfort, or crossover (featuring multiple fandoms). Even with the aforementioned AU genre, there are standard tropes, such as the coffee shop, bookstore, or high school AU (imagine the Avengers reimagined as a school football team hoping to win the big game. What fun!). These stories range in size and type, from one-shots (one body of text, which can be as short as a paragraph) to multi-chaptered Les Mis-sized novels (I’m not kidding). Nowadays, you can find fanfic on websites such as Archive of Our Own, Tumblr, Wattpad, Commaful, or Fanfiction.net. Before such resources, stenciled Star Trek zines were being mailed out as early as 1967 (give Spockanalia! a quick Google). With the rise of the web, however, fanfic’s popularity and accessibility soared as folks were able to share their stories without having to be part of a tight-knit offline community. These websites allow readers of fanfic to interact with authors through comments or faves, and often relationships are built between the creator and reader so things like updates re:new chapters are advertised cordially, and friendly conversations that transpire between reblogs can lead to significant plot changes.
As you can see, fanfiction is a huge space where fans can come together as a community in appreciation and for creative inspiration. One thing that is fairly universal amidst this complicated niche of fandom culture, is the focus on relationships between the characters in the stories themselves. Before categorizing these stories by their genre or content rating, the first thing one searches for is which characters have been paired together. I’m talking about shipping, y’all. Shipping refers to a fan’s desire for two or more people to be in a relationship, and in fanfiction, it is a quintessential element, as most stories are a focus on a particular “ship.” This focus can be broken down further by the type of emotional or romantic relationship within a preferred fandom, such as man/woman, m/m, f/f, etc (homoerotic texts are known as “slash” fics). Historically, this has always been an instrumental element of fanfiction, with Kirk/Spock from Star Trek leading the ship (heh!), however, the term wasn’t coined until the mid-90s, with everyone’s favourite alien hunters, Fox Mulder/Dana Scully from X-Files, from the original term “relationshippers.” While “to ship” two characters means to enjoy their pairing, the act of “shipping” is more robust, as it includes involvement with an active community that regularly updates its content and engages within itself, through things like forums, comments, or reblogs.
Sexuality and emotionality ebb and flow in, out, and between these stories; most of the previously mentioned genres all depend on the relationship arc the story provides. That arc has tropes in of itself: friends-to-lovers, slow-burn, friendshipping; even specific things like unlikely bed-sharing, or fake relationships (a personal favourite of mine!). For specifically sexy content, there’s smut or “lemons” (purely erotic fanfiction), from which you can search for whatever kinks or concepts your heart desires. It is here, in this textual space, (where setting and characters are already provided and fleshed out by the original work) that the fanfic writer can take the feelings the original text inspired and use their imagination to manipulate and explore those voices within new narratives, be it through a sweet platonic friendship or a dirty boink. Good chemistry between characters is tantalizing, and fanfic writers, along with their surrounding community, have reworked stories from every possible perspective to investigate the multitude of ways that chemistry can survive and flourish.
Knowing all this, it’s important to note that fanfiction, and thereby erotic fanfiction, is predominately managed, written, and read by women, queer folks, and racialized people. Since its birth in the late 60s, this transformative genre has been a lady-zone, while other more curative aspects of fandom (more knowledge-based, canon oriented) have been overwhelmingly populated by men. Harken back to that annoying dude in your bio class unwelcomingly quizzing you about The Justice League because he saw your Wonder Woman pencil case. While he’s busy busting his butt over whether you can name all of Superman’s dogs (he only has one and his name is Krypto, you obnoxious jerk), those on the transformative side of fandom seek to go beyond the original work. This means fanfic is a genre of literature where change happens, and this can come about for reasons of dissatisfaction with the original plot, creative exploration, or an opportunity to depict representation that you’d otherwise never see.
These communities of marginalized folks adopt culturally significant stories and investigate what they have to say about inclusion, social values, and power dynamics, and seek to rework them in ways that challenge the overarching lens of the patriarchy in the media. The eroticism inherent to these stories is an extension of this transformative work, where sexuality can be explored outside the “male gaze,” and reimagined to include elements and representation outside conventional sexual content. This is evident when you consider that the bulk of fanfiction is stories centered around consent, mutual pleasure, queerness, emotionality, and healthy relationship building. Yes! That 15,000 word long Harry/Louis One Direction huddling-for-warmth fanfic is doing important work!
Another, more intimate, benefit of erotic fanfiction is that it acts as a safe and open tool of sexual exploration for women. Look, I’m not trying to shit on everyone’s favourite “tool of sexual exploration,” but I am totally trying to shit on everyone’s favourite tool of sexual exploration. Porn videos can be difficult to enjoy due to the confusing clash of gendered stereotypes and misogynistic values (am I a slut? Or am I a good girl?), while on the flip side, enjoying porn videos can feel weird because, to quote literally every dude on the planet, “I thought girls didn’t watch porn.” While it’s true that the sex-positivity movement made moves to reclaim the term “slut” and made space for sex workers to create feminist sexual content, folks still feel trapped in a precarious position when figuring out how to explore their sexuality in a healthy way. Starting from the age of 12, men from all walks of my life had no issue bragging about their porn viewing and sexual investigations to me—as if they had ownership of themselves and of sex in general, while I was an outsider to the knowledge of its canon. What makes my aunts enjoying a book on the beach so much worse than these men? What is so cringey about women using a medium to explore their sexuality in a safe and fun way?
At 15, I was clearly harbouring internalized misogyny by holding those around me accountable to a men-oriented rubric, while independently (albeit, shyly) discovering transformative content that allowed me to find my own sexual independence. Now older, I can tell you that such scrutinization tends to melt away in the face of the solace you can find within the confines of fanfiction. It’s juicy eroticism. Historically, it’s been a tool made for women by women, wrung through its constant shifts and upheavals, made to tell stories about stories we love, where investigations of emotionality and sexuality are encouraged and appreciated. Sure, it’s sometimes silly, but you can explore any fantasy, to any degree, with any persona, built around stories you know and love, in a community of kind and thoughtful people. Now that’s sexy.