Why Is There So Much Slash Fic?: Some Analysis of the AO3 Census

harry and dracoIf it exists, there’s porn of it—no exceptions. That’s actually a rule of the internet. But most often, when we talk about fanfiction, we’re talking about a relationship between two guys. This is commonly known as “slash” (accordingly, a relationship between two girls is “femslash”, etc). It’s hard to explain this phenomenon to those outside fandom: the usual explanation runs something along the lines of, “Well, there are a lot of straight girls in fandom, and they like reading about two guys together… what?” I’ve used that explanation myself when trying to explain to my brother why, upon ascending to the internet, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy can no longer keep their hands off each other. (To be fair, it was a much better explanation than the first one that popped into my head, which ran something along the lines of, “Because… shh”.) Now, however, there’s some legit data on the inner workings of fandom, and it means we might do well to rethink the assumptions that lead to this explanation.

AO3 census destinationtoastSlash’s reign as king of the internet was pretty much verified after The Daily Dot challenged someone to actually count the number of fanfics for every pairing on AO3, an extremely popular fanfiction archive. Tumblr user destinationtoast did all that and more, proving that the top ten AO3 ships were all slash and that Sherlock Holmes/John Watson far outpaced both Supernatural’s Destiel and Teen Wolf’s Sterek. They then went on to prove that M/M was the largest category on AO3, double the size of its closest competing category, Gen (fics which do not center around relationships).

To see why slash rules the internet, however, one would need to turn to the actual producers (fanfic authors and artists) who use AO3. Tumblr user centrumlumina did just that with a survey of 10,005 AO3 users. The general assumption, as we know, is that the average slash fan is a heterosexual female fan. However, centrumlumina’s results suggest that perhaps the combination of “heterosexual” and “female” ought to be questioned. About 90% of survey respondents were fans of M/M, but only 30% identified as both female and heterosexual. (If you’re confused, consider that respondents could check as many boxes as they felt represented them—i.e., both female and transgender under “gender”, both heterosexual and pansexual under “sexuality”. For this 30% figure, centrumlumina counted only the respondents who chose only female under gender and only heterosexual under sexuality.) Indeed, while most respondents were female, the majority of respondents were QUILTBAG-identifying people.

AO3 census centrumluminaThere are, of course, some limitations on centrumlumina’s survey, the most important being that there was no way to make it a random sample of users and there may have been some selective bias among those who chose to take the survey, but it does suggest some other directions from which to approach the question of “why is there so much slash fic?” If the majority of fans are female or female-identifying, but not straight, what does that mean for the assumption we started out with? Fortunately, both destinationtoast’s and centrumlumina’s works on the issue have inspired a lot of academic fandom discussion, and we already have some new theories for you.

Looking at destinationtoast’s chart of the most popular ships on AO3, it seems like there’s a sign outside TV Land that reads: White Heterosexual Guys Only! Supernatural stars three white guys, Sherlock stars two white guys, Teen Wolf… well, it ostensibly stars a person of color, but fandom has latched on to two white guys instead. Tell you what, though, let’s leave race in fanfic for another post. Either way, there’s hardly a girl to be seen among the top ten AO3 ships. And if a fanfic author wants to write romance, it’s a little hard to write heterosexual romance when no girls exist in canon, isn’t it?

AO3 census destinationtoastEven when there are ladies in canon, they often aren’t given what fans consider “shippable” relationships. As centrumlumina points out, people tend to ship characters who are close friends or characters who are rivals—in a world where most media rarely, if ever, passes the Bechdel test, it’s unique enough to see one female character, let alone two who are rivals or friends. When a woman does exist, her “other half” is a guy—think Mulder and Scully, Abbie and Ichabod, Sherlock and Joan. (This also goes a long way toward explaining the relative dearth of femslash in fandom: another topic I will leave for another post.) (ETA: I have written this post! It can be found here.)

allison and lydiaPutting aside the problems of the various source materials, some women read slash simply because they feel uncomfortable identifying with women—especially the women presented in popular television shows, who are overwhelmingly white, skinny, and conventionally attractive. This can mean any number of things, as some actively dislike the gender norms that are associated with being female (worrying about one’s figure, what one eats and how one dresses), and some dislike sex (or have traumas that have led them to be wary of sex). In any case, the characters’ maleness is a buffer between reality and fiction. Many fans read fanfiction as a form of escapism, and male characters don’t have to worry about female gender norms or female participation in sex. As one Tumblr user put it:

Reading M/M is safe for me. I don’t want to identify as the sexual person involved […] Fictional men having sex lets me relax and enjoy because I have no part in it.

This tends to echo other fanfic consumers who don’t read or write heterosexual fics:

As for het ships, I avoid them because I tend to see misogyny and abuse under every bush and around every corner, whether they actually exist within the relationship or not.  I’m too angry to be fair when it comes to male/female interactions.  It’s so much easier when potential gender-related power imbalances are eliminated.

pepper and tonyThere’s also, I suppose not shockingly, some internalized misogyny involved in the question of “why is there so much slash?” Female characters who are present in canon are often torn down by the fanbase. As Tumblr user Saathi1013 said:

[P]hysicality and gender isn’t the only component of ‘desire’ – there is also empathy and identification, and I see a lot less willingness to empathize and identify with female(-presenting) [and PoC] characters than [white] male(-presenting) ones, even when they share a lot of the same characteristics, both physically AND in personality/background/complexity.  And when I say “empathize with,” here, I mean AT ALL, not just in shipping them or including them in erotica.  I have seen people deride, dismiss, or bash a canonical female love interest as ‘a female version of [male character in popular fanon ship]’ as if the male identity is a trumping factor over the hetship.

Or in other words, fans don’t seem to show as much empathy to female characters, especially when that female character poses a “threat” to a fanon ship. Sherlock’s Molly is “useless”; Supernatural’s Lisa “has no personality”; and like Saathi1013 said, when Teen Wolf introduced Cora Hale, the fans reared up with the almighty battlecry STOP GIVING US THE STRAIGHT VERSION OF STEREK! (The capslock, was, I suppose, necessary to gauge the exact depth of their outrage.) Though there’s no concrete evidence for it, it’s not hard to draw a line connecting this subconscious attitude to the glut of white male slash. Many fans defend their slash ships by saying, “Well, there are no good female characters in canon,” which seems to mean that there’s some elusive quality lacking from the few female characters who exist; if so, I would ask why Arthur/Eames, an overwhelmingly popular ship from Inception, has so much fic devoted to it when Eames, at least, is a very, very minor character. One might as well ship Arthur and Ariadne, for all the Inception Arthur Eamesscreentime that Eames gets, but empathy for and identification with Ariadne seems to be, for the most part, missing among the fanbase. (A quick search on AO3 turns up almost twice as many Arthur/Eames fics as there are Arthur/Ariadne fics.)

Then, given that 90% of respondents are into slash and 20% of respondents identified as something other than female (whether male, transgender, genderqueer, or otherwise), it seems natural to assume that some of that 90% are not female. Male or male-identifying voices are often drowned out in fandom simply due to the sheer volume of female and female-identifying voices, but their input on this issue would be incredibly useful. Do queer men read or write slash for representation that they wouldn’t normally find in mainstream media? When straight men read or write slash, why do they do it and what are they getting out of it? What about trans fans and fans who don’t identify as part of the gender binary?

ao3 census centrumluminaOn the matter of representation, as the majority of fanfic authors identify as queer, it’s worth noting that queer women, as well as queer men, might write slash fanfic for representation despite not being men themselves. This can be both bad and good—on the one hand, slash fanfic lends a voice to a queer experience that isn’t often found in any media; on the other hand, queer women’s writing of slash fanfic has also led to claims that voices of queer men are being smothered by an overwhelming amount of queer women who might not note inaccuracies in sex between two men, as well as claims that slash is being heterosexualized (one partner tends to take the gendered “male” role, and the other takes the gendered “female” role). Whatever your interpretation of the matter, representation is also a valid reason we have to take into account when asking why so many authors choose to write slash.

While some fans do read slash because they find it erotically compelling, there’s enough evidence here to suggest that there’s a lot more to this issue than just “hey, horny straight girls like gay guys!”. For one, they’re not all straight, and for another, they’re not all girls. Authors of every stripe might write slash because they’re emotionally, not erotically, invested in the relationship. They might write it because there actually are no female characters in the source material, they might write it because they don’t want to identify physically with the characters in the story, they might have internalized society’s underlying misogynistic messages, or they might be queer and want what queer representation they can obtain from fanfic. If there’s something we can take from these AO3 surveys, it’s that more questions need to be asked about why fanfic authors write what they write, and why fanfic consumers read what they read. The answer isn’t as simple as we commonly assume.

For more information/discussion on this topic, please take a look at:

destinationtoast’s complete list of statistics and original response to The Daily Dot
centrumlumina’s complete census, specific analysis of heterosexual female slash fans, and further data analysis
A similar analysis of another popular fanfic website, FanFiction.net, although it doesn’t include sexuality as a mode of analysis
melannen’s collection of various fandom demographic polls

(And, if you’d prefer not to be quoted in this article, please let me know and I will remove your quote and name. Thank you.)

48 thoughts on “Why Is There So Much Slash Fic?: Some Analysis of the AO3 Census

  1. This is all cool stuff and provides some interesting insight, but explaining why there is so many MM-slash is simple, especially to a guy: Look dude, there is porn, which is mainly watched by guys. And one of the main pairings in porn is F/F, i.e. Lesbians, right, you love those cause there are not one but two awesome chicks?! Now, in fanfics the main recipients, maybe even more than guys in porn, are girls, sooo one of the main pairings is M/M. Makes it crystal clear to most people I talked to so far 😉
    Yes yes, there is more to it, but this brings it down to the main point in my opinion. (Please note there is some irony in how I phrased, i.e. not meant deragatory towards men, woman or other human beings… or thinking beings…)

    • I think you are right in some ways. As I was reading this, I thought; ok, I’m a woman, I like guys. And why would I want to read a guy with a woman? I have that in rl and love it, but don’t really need to read about it “g” Of course, yes, there’s way more to it than that, but this is certianly part of it.

  2. Thaniell put just a part of the fandom. Yeah, there is M/M porn, but we see tons of sentimental fanfics as well. Smut exists too, but we see lots of feelings and fluff. Sadly, for fans of femslash, most of the F/F online(that most of the world see and know) is porn :/
    Slash have people thinking like that too, BUT have lots of fluff and feelings as well shown.

    Many things here i agree indeed.
    And as fr female characters some are just the boring type 😦
    Like the frail one you know? Always the boring start of relationship.
    In Hawaii 5-0 we have Cath. She is great, but since they decided to low McDanno what they did? She more like Kono and less like herself, just to have her more to be with steve :/
    She was better being once in a while than more constantly.
    Gwen and Arthur in Merlin was boring too. She had a crush in Merlin and then a super love with Lancetot, but started to feel something for arthur(but the arthur pos-merlin). She even cheats arthur before her wedding. As for Merlin we see he always caring about arthur first. Always doing what is best for his and trusting him. And always showing him to don’t act like a prat.

    I believe that, without seeing, writers are doing like in greece: male “friendship” being epic, you know? Most, even, being like a couple(change the gender of one and many against slash would agree too).
    I don’t know if, maybe, slash is the new romeo and juliet thing(a new hardship that not just money or whatever more). Is hard to tell, but i think that slash (and femslash) can be the chance for homo couples(and bisexual couples) to exist on tv series and movies. And not just like a porn thing, but as true relationships.

    Plus i believe that slow burn helps a lot, because most hetero couples are always obvious (and kinda easy) to be together and most slash fics have the relationship going step by step.

  3. Ok. I’m gonna say it. The way femslash goes about things is hardly different from the way male slash does. As long as both fandoms have females in them, then there are similar reasons to why they like either. The numbers are obviously do to cultural influences, where traditionally the female has a submissive role, and putting a man in there is obviously more intriguing, in multiple senses, for women. That’s why it appeals so much, no matter how much femslash militants rant otherwise.

    • I really think the theory about there being more interesting male characters is more likely. Look at ATLA and ATLOK in which there are an INCREDIBLE amount of strong female characters. The femslash in that fandom is insane. I believe there’s more femslash than slash.

  4. Femslash actually has a rather large following, which is dwarfed by huge slash following. Many may be surprised to note that not all femslash is porn. Much of it is very thoughtful, in terms of how it portrays the sexuality of it’s characters.

    Unlike slash, which is written by predominately straight women, a large portion of femslash is written by lesbians. It reflects the actual experiences of the lesbian community. As a general rule there isn’t a whole lot of visibility for lesbian characters in books or on TV. Fan fiction is a safe space for people to write and read about lesbian characters. If you look at the Quinn and Rachel pairing in the glee fandom, many of the most poplar stories look at themes such as, discovering sexuality, exploring first loves and coming out to family and friends.

    Since Slash is mostly written by straight females, it doesn’t speaks to me in the way that femslash does. Most of the slash I have read just feels stilted and disingenuous.

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  14. I have never read femslash, so I can’t say much about it. I just don’t enjoy reading two women. I also don’t really love female-only leads in TV shows. The only exception was Sanctuary w AT, but there were guys involved, too, plus I really loved her in SG-1 and SGA before. I need a guy to be there I can place my heart on, at least enough to keep me watching.

    I love slash in my fandom and am a true OTP (one true pairing) girl, with exception of OT3 here and there (which involves a woman). I have never really analyzed why, it just happened. This is the second fandom I slash in, and I am not a fan who slashes in every TV Show she likes. It has to feel genuine for me and it has to be sparks and a deep deep emotonal connection between the characters – and from me to both characters. If that is not there I won’t write it or read it. I love het pairings on TV such as in Castle, Lois&Clark, X-files – but I wouldn’t read or write about them, I am just enjoying them on TV the way they are given to me.

    For me it’s all a quesiton of loving the guys and loving them being together and a hint of canon that there could be more. The porn is sometimes important, but not the sole reason for slashing. There can be g-rated slash fics that are wonderful with only as much as a kiss or a touch or a thought that gives away the relationship. I love those as much as I love porn. It just has to be about the characters for me and not about some guys wearing my characters’ names. It has to feel real for me, that’s most important.

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  16. Thank you so much for this analysis – I was pointed your way by one of my friends as I am considering writing my Masters around this topic (slash and female sexuality or something along those lines). This is definitely a good starting point and a great collection of various aspects and approaches to the topic, some of which I haven’t yet considered.

  17. So I’m interested in the aspect of how women seem to have trouble identifying with or emphasizing with female characters.

    The assumed reasoning would be that they are female characters written by male writer who therefore must be failing to write the female character well. And there is truth in that I’m sure.

    But I’m a male fan who has just as much trouble identifying with and empathizing with male characters. Certain male character can intrigue me when they are very archetypical, and entertain me when they are well acted or really eccentric.

    But it’s female character I truly identify with, often the same ones it seems female character can’t. Not every female character, but the character I do the most are always women. Padme Amidalla, Anna on TVD, Mikasa on AoT, numerous women written by Paul Feval. It’s not limited to characters written by male authors either I assure you, PLL I see myself in Spencer, and Mona and sometimes Paige or Aria. Also the lead characters of Annie on my Mind and Good Moon Rising by Nancey Garden.

    The issue of how hated female character often become is sadly I feel the result of to many women fans just accepting what the misgonist male fans keep shouting out.

  18. G.R.R. Martin was asked how he wrote such great female characters. he answered he didn’t write them as female characters, he just wrote them as persons, as he would write any male character.

  19. There is probably less het fic in general because TV is filled with hetero relationships. Every show with a male lead and a female lead will go the same way, even if they have no chemistry. There is nothing even remotely similar as far as gay characters go. No slow-burn, no great friendship to love. We don’t get that. We get to write our fic about it, and everyone else gets to see it play out on screen. As far as straight women go, maybe they’re just bored with hetero romances? They have one in their lives, and they’ve seen it play out millions of times the same way on TV. Unless there’s great, undeniable chemistry between the male/female characters in question, why be interested in it? There could also be the issue of female characters existing to solely be love interests. When the relationship happens, that character ends up being all about the male character. Suits is the perfect example of this. Donna showed enormous potential as a character in series one. Then they created a back story that has reduced Donna to nothing more than someone who pines and obsesses over Harvey. Everything she talks about is Harvey related, and every decision she makes is Harvey related. It’s a sad state of affairs.

  20. Interresting statistics and thoughts….

    The “why slash?” question has – in some corners of the net – been discussed to exhaustion for… decades now, nothing new … 😛
    I haven’t been looking for years, though. Has it been so long there’s a whole new generation?
    Are you the young fangirls I hoped would not chance upon any meta until they had the chance to have the benefit of this world, untainted by …. selfawareness as little slash fans? 😉

    I think most discussions pretty much end up along the lines of one guy, brilliant, two guys, much better! and the relief of the absence of traditional “male gaze”.

    Gender identity of the reader may be interesting as statistics, I don’t see anything surprising here… though preference is more relevant.

    One way of seeing it is that the less interrested you are in one gender (your own or not), the less interrested you are in focusing on their genitals. (And the other way around.)
    By this logic, the reader and her preferred fanfic probably move in opposite directions up and down the Kinsey scale 😉

    The “internalized misogyny” argument that you touch upon, has always been a particular non-starter with me. Just no.

    The “no females in my show” argument is not so relevant. People wander from fandom to fandom, searching out similar ships. If you are a slash fan, you are not in it for lack of “strong female characters”, though that lack is obviously a problem.

    Let’s face it, unless they are newbies oblivious to slash and fandom, they don’t start watching a show without the slash goggles, then get a sudden urge to ship the main characters… 🙂

    Males watching lesbian porn is seldom problematised, it’s not more relevant to ask why women prefer slash 🙂

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  28. Another reason is it is a way to prevent the breakup of character dynamics. What I mean is, for example, Spock and Kirk. If Spock married Uhura – things would change. Spock might leave the Enterprise. Putting Spock withe Kirk or Sherlock with John means things stay the same – even though seriously how many times does John have to say that he ulist NOT gay.

    Personally I despise it. Taking characters that are clearly not gay and putting them into such relationships. If you are going to write about someone else’s characters write about them correctly. Sometimes the relationships they do just defy all logic of the show or movie. One heterosexual Fandom I despise is when they tie Buffy and Giles. Seriously people it was made pretty clear he has a “father’s love for the child” Writing that is just wrong on so many levels.

    Plus slash takes something away. Cannot people be good friends who care about each other WITHOUT sex. Is that all you are capable of thinking of. It really takes something away from then friendship when you turn them into lovers.

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  30. I think a large part is reluctance to identify with womin, and a hatred of womin. I’ve read so so many slash fics that cannot resist throwing in misogynistic remarks, “jokes”, and stereotypes. Not to make a statement about sexism, just so the men can bond over mocking womin.

    The femails are often frivolous or villainous. In many of the better ones I’ve read, at best, they exist only to facilitate the men’s relationship as a nanny.

    I think it’s disingenuous to say “people just want to see hot men together”. That may be part of it, but as was pointed out, it hardly the only (perhaps not even the main) factor.

  31. As a writer of slash fiction I think this was a fairly well-written article. I feel the need to point out there are a myriad of depths to slash that some people tend to forgoe. There’s Pwp (porn without plot); sloppy, often poorly written one-shots that make sex between two men seem as easy as falling into a sewer pipe (i.e. unrealistic, purely “quickie orgasm-oriented” material) you have to be MASTERFUL to make a one-shot with less than 4000 words believable. This-in my opinion- is one of the main reasons for the outcry of slash being “heterosexualized.” It’s not realistic and it’s not organized.
    Then you have 200+ chapter 1 million word stories where the trope is utterly, damnably, vanilla and the main chars keep freaking out and rolling about in glorified angst and so and so cheats so he cheats and oh might as well have a threesome plus one more. This-really, really grinds the slash concept into terrible ill-reputed pieces.
    And yes, you do occasionally find that epic romance, with a believable buildup, impeccable grammar and character presentation that is utterly glorious. If you ask any veteran slash reader, they’ll tell you half the struggle is finding a decent fic amidst all the slog. Most of the slash-genres problems come from uncommitted writers who just want to see their at-the-moment chars f*ck and garner hits.
    If you’re taking it….seriously….*raises an eyebrow*, there’s an etiquette…and there’s multiple layers.

  32. There are lots of good points you wrote. I am a slash writer and am wholly incapable of imagining a het relationship. There was truth in the point that where there is slash, there is less physical emphasis. When a girl is introduced in a story, it is immediately hypothesized that there will be a pairing of some sort down the line. There is no debate, no doubt and taken for granted that she won’t remain single for long. That alone takes away half the suspense. And then when there is a relationship finally happening, the girl loses half her identity and the spunk is overwhelmed with neediness.

    With slash however, I personally like to think that the characters keep their personality much more interesting. Even when there is a sub thing, when the male is feminized it is preferred to making them a girl. I know I devour those sub stories like crazy but the instant there is gender change, I discard them instantly, no matter how good the story is.

    Then there is the fact that the whole softness of a girl frankly puts me off. Boys might be delicate as well in the stories but they are mentally strong and I like that. Maybe personal insecurity comes into,play sometimes.

    I just wanted to add a viewpoint.. Being a slash reader and writer, but the heterofemale species of..

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  34. Good points. Also, there’s the fact that many fandoms have more male characters than females so the viable pairings generally lean toward M/M rather than het

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  41. Awesome article that makes lots of interesting points. Always good to guard against making lazy assumptions, however innocently! Only aspect I feel might be at play that isn’t mentioned, (like the author leaving aside issues of race and culture), is that female-identifying slash writers are in some ways intuitively exploring the male archetypes that inform their own personalities. Their masculine sides, if you like, or what Jung would call the animus. It makes sense that these aspects of the self develop sexually as the rest of you does, and becomes more complex, and that this will happen regardless of your sexual preference or if you are cis- or transgender. It’s possible there’s an aspect of female writers choosing pairings they identify with and find appealing, and turning their presented-as-heteronormative (who knows, really?) friendships into sexual or romantic pairings in a similar way to their own sexuality forming and finding expression. No proof of any of this, it’s just a thought 🙂

    • (I mean this idea also leaves aside issues of race and culture – not that this consideration is left aside in the same way as race and gender. Ambiguous, sorry!)

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