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How erotic fanfiction lets women explore their sexuality without shame

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Welcome to No Shame November! This week we’re diving into the pop culture we love that society tells us we shouldn’t.


Masturbating to horny fanfiction makes the world a better place.

Now, before your eyebrows fly right off your face (looking at you, literary snobs), hear me out. Because I know. “Smutty” or erotic fanfiction is almost always talked about in tones of either horror or mockery.

And it’s true: In the multiplicity of fanfiction, there’s a ship (aka “relationship”) for all to sail on — including even those who gets off on Harry Potter fucking the Giant Squid.

We could waste our energy shaming, judging, and deriding the endless possibilities imagined by horny fans online. Or, we could get off our high horse and celebrate the only bastion of sexual exploration that makes a space for everyone, no matter who they are or what they like. 

Specifically, fanfiction can often be a haven for women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, the kinky, and all others whose sexual desires are all but invisible to mainstream media, from movies to porn.

Either give us gay Dumbledore, or stop retconning diversity, J .K. Rowling

Either give us gay Dumbledore, or stop retconning diversity, J .K. Rowling

“In the media, representations of sexuality are still mostly white, cisgendered, and heterosexual,” said Chelsea Reynolds, an assistant professor at California State University Fullerton studying sex in media. “For many, fanfiction represents an important site of resistance, sexual exploration, and identity transformation.”

In the mainsteam, women are rarely presented as the agents of their own sexuality. Whether they’re the damsels in distress of idyllic romance movies like The Notebook or femme fatales, we’re usually playing out someone else’s fantasy. 

LGBTQ visibility might be improving, but as Reynolds said, it’s still often queerbaiting (that’s you, Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald and Solo: A Star Wars Story). 

Otherwise, “Gay men tend to be shown as having secretive, lustful relationships, as in Brokeback Mountain, while lesbians and bi women are hypersexual womanizers, a la The L Word.”

And kink? The sexual landscape of pop culture is so vanilla we must even thank fanfiction for the one remotely kinky mainstream example, since Fifty Shades of Grey originated as a Twilight fic.

Fanfiction can be a laboratory where people can experience where their sexual limits are.”

“Fanfiction is certainly giving people something that really no other media can give right now,” said Anne Jamison, University of Utah associate professor and author of Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. From her perspective, fanfiction can be a laboratory where people can experience where their sexual limits are.”

In part, that’s why the “weird” (i.e. what lies outside social norms) tends to thrive in fanfiction. 

But the shameless sexual fantasizing fanfiction offers goes far beyond just ridiculous erotica. Women in particular dominate the community, and there’s good reason for why many feel more invited to explore their desires there than, say, in traditional visual porn.

“If you want to look at it as a cliche, it turns out women usually like being in relationships with the people we have sex with,” explained Francesca Coppa, a Muhlenberg English professor who helps run community websites like Archive of Our Own. “And that extends to fictional characters.”

Essentially, Coppa sees erotic fanfiction as a way of, “putting relationships back into the porn.” Because apparently, “backstory tends to be sexually important to women.” And fanfiction comes with characters you’ve already built a profound connection with as a fan.

In her book The Fanfiction Reader, Coppa calls this unique phenomenon in erotic fanfic “subjectification,” or the exact opposite of the “objectification” of porn reducing people to bodies.

In erotic fanfiction — even ones dubbed “porn without plot” — authors are still adding to a character’s established story and relationships. “They’re made to be more well-rounded than the average protagonist, rather than less well-rounded.”

Your welcome for 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' I guess?

Your welcome for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ I guess?

“I think it helps us achieve orgasm, knowing these people like each other, or hate each other, or know each other,” she said. Anonymous sex might be one of your kinks, “But fanfiction is actually about having sex with somebody you do know.”

Don’t get us wrong: That’s not to say fanfiction is all happy, healthy, sentimental, softcore lovemaking. Actually, much of it is the opposite, offering deep dives into what many consider the more disturbing avenues of sexuality.

But there are reasons for that, too. And Coppa sees it as part of the “fundamental feminist difference” between text-based erotica like fanfiction versus visual porn.

“You can explore things on the page that don’t hurt actual, real people,” she said, comparing that to the moral dilemmas of violent pornography. “In fanfiction, I know no physical bodies were coerced to do anything in the making of the erotica.”

That’s not to say that all porn is coercive. But even ethical feminist-made porn requires an IRL body be used in an exploration of your sexual fantasies. For those with a taste for BDSM, power imbalances, or other kinks, that raises a lot of not-so-sexy concerns.

“But fanfiction can create an environment where people can ethically have an orgasm — which I am in favor of,” Coppa said.

“Fanfiction can create an environment where people can ethically have an orgasm — which I am in favor of.”

In a similar vein, unlike even erotica in romance novels, fanfiction remains one of the last forms of media that’s not beholden to turning sexual fantasies into a profit.

“It’s a community space that we own, that’s not governed by commercial relationships,” Coppa said. “With everything else, you want a safe space to explore, but you’re always already working from a framework where commercial and capitalist interests are at play. Which is particularly dangerous when it comes to sex.”

Because for better or more often worse, money changes a sexual situation.

Another feminist difference in fanfiction comes from its relationship to the concept of consent.

“It’s not universally true by any means, but fanfiction has been way ahead of the game in presenting consent [as] part of the erotic process,” said Jamison.

A lot of even the most hardcore erotic fanfiction has, since the early days, shown how BDSM and kink (when done right) requires explicit conversations about what’s OK, what’s not OK, what feels good, and why communicating sexual limits matters.

In short, fanfiction was making consent sexy long before #MeToo or even feminist porn caught on. The use of content and trigger warnings are, generally speaking, a community standard for most erotic fanfiction websites — especially for those that are categorized as “darkfic.”

In Archive of Our Own, for example, you can search the extensive database based on gender and sexual orientation pairings, or even include or exclude stories with trigger warnings for depictions of rape, graphic violence, or underage sex. That’s all in addition to the litany of other terms and tropes authors explicitly warn readers about in their disclaimers.

Before it was canon, Jonerys was a favorite 'Game of Thrones' fanfiction ship

Before it was canon, Jonerys was a favorite ‘Game of Thrones’ fanfiction ship

Anecdotally I can say that, as a young teen who explored her own nascent sexuality through smutty Harry Potter fic, they were where my first introductions to the concepts of consent, BDSM, and kink. And also, some of the best examples I could’ve asked for. 

“In communities like mine where it’s abstinence-only education, young people are getting actual information about sexuality in fanfiction,” said the Utah professor Jamison. “Sometimes it’s the only information about sexuality they’re getting.”

For some (particularly parents), that can sound like a terrifying prospect. And of course, the ideal would be for parents to talk to young people one-on-one about these concepts. But, boy, am I glad my early explorations happened with the guidance of fanfiction writers rather than porn. 

Moral panic over what kids might accidentally stumble upon in erotic fanfiction negates the steps most sites take to ensure readers actively consent to the content. There’s often extra “lock” screens for NC-17 stories, warning readers of the type of situations they’re going to read about.

“What you fantasize about does not mean that you really want it to happen to you, or that you want to do it.”

Yet somehow, visual porn sites are still more accepted as the “normal” kind of risk that comes with letting your kid go on the internet.

Also, unlike the disturbing stuff that dominates porn, exploring rape or even incest fantasies through erotic fanfiction requires a certain level of psychological confrontation into why we like it.

“There’s no interiority in porn,” said Jamison. “So if you’re interested in working out how the interior of your body and the exterior of your body are working through issues, porn isn’t going to do that for you.”

Which is a shame, Coppa pointed out, because there’s lots to be gained from understanding common trends, like why so many women gravitate toward rape fantasies.

“What you fantasize about does not mean that you really want it to happen to you, or that you want to do it,” said Coppa. “A lot of rape fantasies are the fantasy of a guy who knows what you want when you yourself don’t even know how to ask for it.”

While that’s obviously not how real-world rape works, the fantasy gives women — often socially conditioned to repress sexual urges — the freedom to explore what they like without the shame of being a “slut.”

Not to mention that when you write your own fanfiction, “You might write yourself to be out of control in the fantasy, but it’s still your fantasy! You are always in control,” said Jamison.

Both Jamison and Coppa cautioned, however, that even fanfiction communities still doll out their fair amount of shame toward those certain genres, tropes, and ships deemed problematic.

“People want us to think responsibly about what we fantasize about,” said Coppa. “But in our quest for good representation — which is important — we’ve gotten very over-literal in our understanding of how reality versus fantasy works.”

“We’ve gotten very over-literal in our understanding of how reality versus fantasy works.”

Jamison said that, weirdly, this distinction is understood in all other types of media. No one assumes that true crime fans are murderers. “I always find it outrageous that people think your fantasy or fictional life maps on exactly to what your erotic preferences are. If that were the case, you wouldn’t find so many queer women shipping [heterosexual] ships or vice versa.”

For example: by far the most popular erotic fanfiction genre is slash fic, or stories that put canonically straight characters in homosexual relationships. Fascinatingly, gay men appear to be a minority among the writers and readers of slash. Mostly, it’s straight women and lesbians.

Coppa explained that, counterintuitively, this is because that particular fantasy, “is actually about women’s pleasure, and not really about trying to tell accurate gay male stories.”

Male slash fic dominates, but Xena and Gabrielle is a wildly popular femmeslash couple

Male slash fic dominates, but Xena and Gabrielle is a wildly popular femmeslash couple

Those stories also exist in fanfiction, of course. But generally, slash attracts women because it lets them fantasize about sex without the constraints of their gender.

“If you want to write a relationship between equals, writing about two men sort of unlocks powerful subjects,” she continued. The “sameness” of the two bodies and genders coincide with characters who have similar social, metaphorical, or physical power. “So slash isn’t about gay men, but often women’s fantasies of equality in a patriarchy.”

And, as Coppa aptly noted, “If you’re a straight woman, having two guys to look at is never a bad thing.”

“It’s OK to just read fanfiction, wank off, and not be working for justice.” 

All in all, erotic fanfiction gives women an escape from all the social inhibitions that keep us from experiencing pleasure IRL. 

“When you masturbate, you don’t want to think about all the social issues that are bugging you,” Coppa said. “Women get lot of shame sexually. Not just for being sexual, but in feeling like we always have to be doing good for the world. But, you know, it’s OK to just read fanfiction, wank off, and not be working for justice.”

But in a way, getting off to erotic fanfiction in spite of all the shame society thrusts upon you is in itself an act of resistance. 

“Imagine how mindblowing NC-17 fanfiction must be for a person with disabilities or someone whose family and social group doesn’t approve of their sexuality,” said Reynolds, the media scholar.

So many people’s pleasure is left out of mainstream media. So make the world a better place, and cum to the dark side of smutty fanfiction.

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