Fanfiction has been back in the news recently after the anonymous author of the most infamously terrible piece of fanfiction ever written bravely outed herself, shared her heartbreaking personal story, and everyone took a long, hard look at themselves for making fun of others.
Then it turned out that maybe her heartbreaking personal story was in fact also fiction and everyone went back to making fun of her. All this story seemed to do was cement further the association between “fanfiction” and “terrible.”
Even if you’ve never read a word of explicit fanfiction, you’ll probably recognize this go-to description: it’s embarrassing, weird porn designed to fulfill straight female fantasies of their favorite male characters touching each other’s penises.
It is very easy to scrunch up your face and say, “I don’t get it.” It’s very easy to dismissively ask, “Why would women want to read gay male porn anyway?” And that’s what I did too, right up until the moment I found myself Googling Benedict Cumberbatch.
Almost as if I was on a path well-trodden by millions of middle-aged women before me, this perfectly legitimate Google search led me inescapably to erotic fanfiction, and it was just yet another thing on the internet which made me feel, as a mother, bewildered. Now I had this to add to my list of concerns for my daughter’s online future.
Deciding I should actually try to get to the Cumberbottom of it all, I listened to a Sherlock podcast on the subject of fans and sexuality. The hosts — a spectrum of gender and sexual identities, ages, and relationship statuses — discussed with eyebrow-raising frankness how erotic fanfiction influenced their sexual fantasies and masturbatory practices.
Reader, I tittered. Embarrassing! Weird!
But then, as I listened to the hosts continue to elucidate exactly how, when and where they liked to spend quality time imagining Sherlock Holmes between the sheets with Dr. Watson, at some point, I finally I got it.
I just completely, utterly got it. Consuming erotic fanfiction is not something a mother should be concerned about for her daughter. Quite the opposite.
When I hit puberty, I remember scrabbling around for material to add to my wank bank and coming up with some pretty pathetic material.
The source material to draw upon from the culture at large featured women whose “sexy” physical attributes were decided by heterosexual men, and did nothing but make me feel inadequate by comparison. If I wasn’t worthy of objectification, what role was left for me?
Every glimpse of the soft-porn animated gifs saved on my brother’s computer just further entangled my adolescent insecurities with my burgeoning sexuality. That I wasn’t like the women in those gifs didn’t suggest to me a problem with that content, but a problem with my ability to be sexually attractive.
I actually killed the mood in my own wank bank.
What I would give to go back in time and leave some erotic male/male fanfiction by my teenage bedside!
It doesn’t have any women in it, you say, so why would I be interested in that fantasy? That is exactly why. There are no women to measure yourself against, no women making you question what’s required of you in bed to please your partner, no women performing the role of “sexy lady” as prescribed by years of heterosexual male fantasies.
But that doesn’t mean women are absent from it.
Not only do female-identifying people make up the vast majority of readers of male/male erotic fanfiction, but they are also almost universally the creators. It is a truly female-mediated product, liberated from the very male gaze that is wielded like a weapon to define and shame female sexuality in, let’s say, practically every other conceivable context.
Put that in your wank bank.
So now, I get it. And you can say that’s weird, but I’m at least I’m not weird and alone in this.
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In a survey on fandom and sexuality run by the same podcast, respondents were asked about the perspective they assume “when engaging in solitary sexual activity with fanworks or fandom-inspired sexual fantasy.” The survey found the majority of respondents were not “interested in sharing the experience of characters with the same gender identity, nor [were] they interested in the idea of self-insert fantasy, imagining themselves physically involved in the characters they fan over.”
In other words, unless you have a sad wank bank poisoned by the patriarchy (hi!), your fantasies don’t have to be tied to your sexuality and gender. The end.
Moving on to the subject of the dudes in these fantasies. They are not just any old dudes. They are not monosyllabic porn stars or mute Calvin Klein models from the early ‘90s. They are characters in whom you are emotionally invested, who you have spent countless hours thinking about, so fanfiction draws upon what you already like. If women can use their pre-existing positive feelings towards a TV show to have positive feelings towards sex by extension, then that is both excellent and efficient.
Isn’t that neat? It seems like the output of a species so advanced in their understanding of sexual desire that it’s little wonder I, with one foot still stuck in the primeval swamp, needed a podcast to explain it to me.
It’s empowering and liberating, not weird and embarrassing. And denigrating it and laughing at it is actually just another way in which we shame female sexuality, and ensure it’s constrained to the awful confines determined by the patriarchy.
And you know what’s weird and embarrassing? How easy it is to be complicit in our own goddamn repression.
In that same survey on fandom and sexuality, the majority of respondents confirmed that sexually explicit fanfiction helped them learn about and understand their sexual preferences and sexual orientation, and develop their taste for what they’re into. Erotic fanfiction also made their masturbation more satisfying and their partnered sexual activity open to more communication. These are all undeniably Good Things.
But yet overwhelmingly the respondents reported they didn’t feel comfortable admitting to non-fandom friends that they consumed explicit fanfiction.
You know whose fault that is? Mine. Because I scrunched up my face and tittered and made women feel uncomfortable about the undeniably Good Things. And I did that because my instinct is to generously pass on the insecurity and shame I’ve attached to female sexuality.
So here I am, writing this embarrassing article about my wank bank — which will then make all my friends uncomfortable when I post it on Facebook — because I’m done with shame. There is no way I am passing that on to my daughter.
I still wring my hands when I think about how she’ll one day be a teenager set free in the wilds of the internet. There are dark corners online, no doubt, but there are also places where she will feel safe to work out who she is, and become a sexual being of her own making, without my hang-ups dragging her down.