A casual search on the popular fanfiction site Archive Of Our Own will reveal a trend that—while unsurprising to the fandom community—would be somewhat baffling to the casual observer. A search of standardized tags on AO3 indicated that nearly 63% of all the romantic and/or sexual fanfiction published there is classified as male/male (i.e. “slash”), compared to about 30% in the female/male category and a scant 6.6% in the female/female (“femslash”) category. Based on a survey of fanfiction.net, another popular fanfiction website, FFN Research estimates that 78% of fanfiction writers identify as female. Myriad explanations try to account for this: the most popular is that girls just like to fetishize gay men, but some contend that it’s partly an empathetic reaction to media dominated by male characters; others speculate that it is a way for women to write romance while removing objectification from themselves. As other LGG&F writers have speculated, the real explanation is probably a combination of these motives, as well as innumerable others.
As a genderqueer person I’m fairly certain that my own experience with slash fanfiction differs somewhat from the norm. Only recently have I begun reflecting on how formative both writing and reading fanfiction was at a time in my life when I felt isolated and frustrated by my own seemingly incongruous feelings. Knowing now that there are a surprising number of people for whom the gender binary doesn’t hold true, I like to think that for some small portion of the fan community fanfiction has been an important tool for self-discovery, as it was for me.
Let’s talk about genitals real quick (I know, right out of the gate, hot damn): I am biologically female with some minor sexual birth defects thrown in for laughs. Strangely enough, sex education was so lacking in my ultra-Catholic upbringing that I didn’t realize there was anything physically unusual about me until I visited a gynecologist in college, who explained that such abnormalities are usually caused by hormone imbalances during development. Most people would be devastated to realize that any of their body parts were atypical, but I had quite the opposite reaction: I was relieved. I felt validated. It was nice to have a biological link to the gender “mood swings” I had been trying to repress since age five when I first tried to pee standing up (it didn’t go well).
It was only after this great epiphany that I felt safe embracing the fact that some significant parts of my psyche—whether for biological reasons or not—were fundamentally male, and that was okay. I found communities online where other people had similar experiences with their gender identities, I learned about the trans spectrum and the ways of describing in-between genders, and while the discrepancies between my mental image of my body and the physical reality of my body can still be difficult to deal with, I generally feel comfortable and accepted. This comfort, however, came only after more than a decade of struggling to understand why I felt so different, and the first solace I found was in fanfiction.
Being a “tomboyish” child had had its ups and downs, but it was nothing compared to navigating puberty with the intermittent, inexplicable feeling that I had the wrong junk. After a period of intense denial between ages twelve and thirteen when I grew out my hair, wore an obscene amount of makeup, and purchased a number of colorful bras, I made a discovery that would change my life: self-insert fanfiction on Quizilla.
I know, it sounds dumb; Quizilla isn’t even officially a fanfiction platform and doesn’t even exist in the same form today, but I was obsessed with Yu Yu Hakusho at the time, and that was where I first found fanfiction, in the form of choose-your-own-adventure “quizzes”. Strangely, though the point of self-insert fanfiction is to—eponymously—insert yourself, I imagined a male version of myself nearly all the time. I did it instinctively, without conscious choice, and when I stopped to think critically about what I was doing I was both baffled and slightly alarmed, but not alarmed enough to stop. Puberty being what it is and Quizilla being as cumbersome as it was, I started creeping into racier, more sexual material, which brought me to fanfiction.net. I deliberately looked for heterosexual fics at first, adamantly sure that it was what I was supposed to be interested in, but slash kept creeping into my searches somehow, and before long I couldn’t help but click on it.
I told myself I was just in it for the cutesie romances. I don’t know who I was trying to fool. My interest in slash was very much not voyeuristic. I chose pairings with a character I identified with in some way and lived the story, the romance, and especially the sex through that lens. Through fanfiction I was vicariously living out significant parts of my adolescent sexual awakening as a gay man. In some ways it felt perfectly normal, but logically and morally I tore myself up about it.
As I mentioned, my family and education was deeply Roman Catholic. Homosexuality was a subject broached only awkwardly, with much shaking of heads and clearing of throats, and being transgender was not even a concept I was aware of. I had no idea how to process my sexual feelings. I was pretty sure I was gay, but also convinced by biology that I was female. I tried out femslash and discovered very quickly that—based on what I understood sexuality to be—I was definitely not gay. Nothing made sense. I was sure I was going to Hell but not entirely sure on what grounds.
Ashamed but addicted, I started writing my own fanfiction and even some original fiction at age fifteen, all of it rather sexual and all of it very, very gay. It didn’t help my moral conundrum, but it did force me to make peace with the fact that my ideal expression of my sexuality was as a male with another male, and because I couldn’t crush that desire, the only way to maintain my sanity was to embrace it. It was around this time that I started cosplaying male characters, something I had aggressively refused to do up until that point, for fear of making things worse. On the contrary, it allowed me the same sort of outlet for self-expression that fanfiction had. I could be male for a few hours at a time without ridicule or fear of judgment.
Through cosplay, fanfiction, and the anonymity of the internet, the fandom community became the only place I felt free to be myself. Roleplay was commonplace, gender-bending was accepted and even encouraged. I was praised for my fanfiction, and rarely did anyone ask my “real” gender or my “real” name. It would be many years before I felt safe enough to express my gender identity in everyday life. Even now I am not “out” to my parents or even some of my friends, but though it may seem infantile to anyone outside a fandom community, fanfiction was fundamental to my sense of self for a very long time. Coming to terms with my masculinity made it easier to accept my femininity as well. I now enjoy the occasional heterosexual fanfiction and on the rare occasion that I can find a decent trans fic I practically high-five my computer. I no longer feel afraid or repressed or confused, and for better or worse, I owe part of that to whoever it was in 2004 busily writing Quizilla fic about two dudes from a poorly-drawn 90’s anime aggressively getting it on.
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My roommate my senior year of college, upon realizing I read and even wrote some fanfiction, mentioned to me that as she was a lesbian who grew up in rural western Massachusetts, fanfiction was pretty much the only place she could find non-heteronormative relationships portrayed and so she did appreciate the medium a bit, even if she had outgrown it by then. I’m not sure if she read slash or femslash or both I think identifying with characters through fanfiction is a powerful thing that many of us do in one way or another, even if we all do it for a variety of different reasons. Being drawn exclusively to femslash seems to be relatively rare but I’m sure it happens and it is a valid experience for some people. 😉
I’m a cis-female wtfromantic asexual girl who thought she was heterosexual (possibly? probably? because of heteronormativity) for a long time.
I started reading (and writing) fanfiction around age 20 which is a bit late to be coming to the game, I know. Most people do fanfiction around age like, idk, 13, lmao. I was involved in fandom stuff via FunTrivia.com quizzes since I was 14 or 15 years old and I especially was just addicted to vidding on YouTube – I started when I was 16. When I started these things, this was at the height of my mother’s abusiveness. Fandom was an escape for me, complete with an online community of friends when I really never saw any friends outside of brief interactions at school like at lunchtime. My mother would make me cry, but vidding required such a focus and almost instantly my awful feelings were replaced with empathetic feelings for Rory on Gilmore Girls as she was torn between two guys or whatever I might have been vidding at the time.
I didn’t discover that I was asexual until age 23, and while part of that delay in realizing I was different is a normal thing that many asexual people go through, I also think a part of it certainly may have been that I had bigger things to deal with in my life – at least when I was still in high school – namely, my mother’s abusiveness. When I finally did start reading fanfiction, I started with Rory/Jess (male/female aka “het”) fanficton, and I think it wasn’t necessarily all about me simply “shipping” them, although I did (and do) feel like I “ship” them and wish they ended up together on the show. I think what drew me to reading fics about the ship, however, was that I related to both Rory’s and Jess’s characters in some deep ways.
Rory’s entire personality had quite a few things in common with mine. Plus, Rory acted fairly asexual in the early seasons of the show and even when I didn’t yet realize I was asexual, I think some part of that resonated with me on a deep level. Rory was also very sexually inexperienced, and even when people wrote her in an M-rated fic, she was usually losing her virginity to Jess or something and again I found that kind of story a lot easier to relate to given my own lack of sexual experience. But I noticed when reading a lot of Jess Mariano fanfiction that ways this guy, Jess, would act and feel in fanfics also resonated DEEPLY with me. His mother was so awful and he didn’t feel like he loved her and gosh I related to that. I remember actively not saying “I love you too” to my mom on purpose when she’d told me she’d loved me, and there was a fanfic I was reading where Jess was doing the exact same thing. (Some of these fics were “Gen” and not “Het”… and “Gen” fics are typically my faves, personally, which also is unusual, I think. Gen fics often are categorized as “het” if the background ships are canon or something though, which also can be confusing and skew data samples. But now that I realize I’m asexual, my fascination with friendship and family based fics makes a lot more sense…)
A while before realizing I was asexual I also started loving fics about Karofsky on Glee and all of his internalized homophobia. I loved reading about him wanting to feel sexual attraction for women, him trying to force himself into it with his beard relationship in Santana, and I think now that I’m identifying actively as asexual, it all makes more sense to me. Sometimes these fics that I was drawn to were male/male slash (Kurt/Karofsky), but mainly they were “Gen” type fics including Kurt & Karofsky only as friends or Karofsky/Santana “gen” fics (that might get accidentally classified as het). I think, in retrospect, that I was drawn to these fics because I identified on some level with Karofsky. I was not a closeted gay, but as an asexual with some internalized acephobia and allonormativity and whatnot, many of my experiences were similar to his character’s – I didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel toward guys even though I was still identifying as a straight young woman, and he didn’t feel the way he wanted to toward women even though he was in deep denial about being gay. As I was on my journey to discovering that oh, I have never felt sexual attraction in my life, reading Karofsky fanfiction was enlightening, because authors would blatantly contrast “This is what finding a guy sexy feels like, these are the thoughts in his head that he CAN’T DENY even when he wants to, etc.” with “This is what a guy who wants desperately to find a girl sexy but JUST DOESN’T is thinking and feeling”. And I was confused about what sexual attraction was. I had no idea I should have been familiar with the feeling by age 23. I needed these things spelled out for me. Deep down, I think fanfiction helped me on a subconscious level as Karofsky came to terms with not feeling sexual attraction for girls and as I came to terms with not feeling sexual attraction for ANYONE.
Why, however, didn’t I read fics about Santana being in denial about her feelings towards girls? Why would I be drawn more to the slash than the femslash side of “characters not feeling sexual attraction toward a gender but wishing they did”? 😛 I ended up supporting that “everyone reads m/m slash” statistic as I couldn’t resist reading stuff about a canonically gay male character. Within the same fandom there was a female option. You’d think, since I was female, I might be more drawn to her. I thought I was straight, for crying out loud, yet in actuality I wasn’t sexually attracted to men! 😛
Santana, as the lesbian on the show who had been in denial, would be perfect for me to relate to – wouldn’t she?
She was a girl, and I was a girl. She tried to be with guys but apparently they weren’t for her! The thing is, I also related to Kurt in a lot of ways (his mother’s dead which means he only has a great dad, and I have cut my abusive mother out of my life and also only have a great dad… and his personality just really resonates with mine much like Rory’s did in Gilmore Girls), whereas Brittany was never a character that felt realistic to me, much less relatable. Santana… was very sexually active, both with guys and with Brittany on Glee, and as a somewhat sex-averse asexual, even before I had realized that was what I was, I think that made me feel distanced from Santana. I couldn’t relate to how she just found herself in all these sexual situations – Karofsky having never had a girlfriend or a boyfriend yet was much more the place I was at in my own life. And as the show went on, we found out that Karofsky’s mom is kinda awful (albeit in a different way than my abusive mother) and he seems to have a kinda great dad, whereas Santana’s mother is wonderful and her dad never seen… and again I have more parallels in my own life to Karofsky, regardless of our differences, than I do to Santana.
I’m sorry my comment got so long. I just felt like sharing my own perspective. Because I too feel like I have had a unique experience with fanfiction.
I remember Quizilla fanfics. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your experience.
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I’m so glad that I’m not the only DFAB genderqueer person that read slash fics as a way to self-insert!! The way you described your awakening as a gay man is exactly what I went through, the confusion included
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