Today’s guest post comes from a new-to-C&K writer! I’ve followed Kelvin Sparks (he/him) on Twitter for some time and enjoyed many of his writings. I’m delighted to be publishing this essay on the history and appeal of sexually explicit fanfiction!
Erotic Fanfiction as Sexual Exploration by Kelvin Sparks
When discussions of fanfiction reach the mainstream, one of the go-
to jabs is always to talk about erotic fanfiction as a punchline in itself.
Even when fanfiction has its defenders, they often try to distance ‘the
good stuff’ from explicit works within the genre. This is something I don’t
think is fair, not just because I think erotic work is unfairly maligned in
general, but because of the history of explicit fanfiction as a safe space
for people (particularly women and/or LGBTQ+ people) to explore sexual
ideas and fantasies.
A Short History of (Explicit) Fanfiction
Although people have been a) interested in building on existing
stories and characters and b) horny for pretty much the entirety of
human history, fanfiction as we know it currently is rooted in the sci-fi fan
culture of the 20th century.
While plenty of people talk about Star Trek as having the first fandom in the 60s, many of the activities associated with this early fandom activity were derivative of more general sci-fi fandom culture. For example, Star Trek fan magazines (or ‘fanzines’) weren’t something original or exclusive to the fandom, but were simply more specific versions of sci-fi fanzines, which printed amateur writing. The difference was that Star Trek fanzines, starting with 1967’s Spockanalia, contained and popularised derivative fanfiction rather than original work.
Star Trek was also influential on modern fandom in other ways. For
one, the term ‘slash’, used to refer to same gender (primarily male/male)
pairings within fanfiction, comes from ‘Kirk/Spock’. While not all explicit
fanfiction is slash fanfiction and not all slash fanfiction is explicit, the
reputation of K/S (as the pairing was also known) fans was often as
smut-peddlers. While it’s hard to know specific details about the early
history of smut fanfiction—first-hand sources are hard to come by—we
do know that by 1978, it was prevalent enough that the editors of Star
Trek fanzine Fantasia discussed the “rift between the porn-haters and
Fanfiction—and specifically smutty fanfiction—became more visible
as internet use became more common. While internets had been used for fandom since pretty much their creation— bulletin boards and mailing
lists were promenant in the 80s—the creation of the world wide web and
more widespread internet usage in the 90s drove some of the most
prominent fandoms of the period, such as The X-Files and Xena.
For the most part, fanfiction was kept in private archives, although the creation of Fanfiction.net and LiveJournal in 1998 and 1999 respectfully changed this. Fanfiction.net banned NC-17 fanfiction in 2002, and while
Adultfanfiction.net initially filled the void, Archive of Our Own (created in
2007) has become one of the leading alternatives. While AO3 doesn’t
hold a monopoly on fandom— FanFiction.net is still under use, and other
sites like WattPad have thriving fanfiction communities—it is one of the
leading communities, especially when it comes to erotic fanfiction, which
is still banned on FanFiction.net and is less prevalent on WattPad due to
its younger demographic.
Why Do People Like Erotic Fanfiction?
The main reason that people enjoy erotic and explicit fanfiction is
pretty clear—people enjoy erotic media! The real question here is why
do people enjoy erotic fanfiction over other kinds of erotic work and art?
Written erotica in general provides a space that’s low risk while being
explicitly erotic. A fantasy or desire may feel unapproachable or anxiety
inducing in real life, but fiction allows us to play with these fantasies and
desires in a space that’s totally controllable. If you like the idea of
bondage, for example, reading erotica about bondage may feel easier
than actually attempting to act out these fantasies because a book can
be closed at any time.
Written erotica tends to have an easier time expressing emotional aspects of sex than visual erotica (which isn’t to say that either is better than the other, just that they are different mediums), and for people who experience a lot or most of their satisfaction from the emotional aspects of sex, written erotica can feel more satisfying.
Fanfiction erotica can heighten some of the characteristics that written erotica already has. Because fanfiction is derivative, the audience for it already has a familiarity with the characters involved, as well as some kind of emotional connection to them. I would also argue that the writing side of fanfiction has a heavy focus on emotional continuity. In order to write a character so that they’re recognisable as their canon self but distinct enough to fit into a new universe, a writer needs to have a good handle on their interiority, meaning that fanfiction often becomes a very character-focused and emotion-focused type of storytelling.
Both the derivative nature of fanfiction and the internal tropes of the
genre can make it feel even safer to explore erotic ideas than conventional erotic fiction. Fanfiction archives often display information about the content included in the piece of fiction. For example, with Archive Of Our Own, pieces of fanfiction are given clear warnings for content like character death or violence, and authors can choose to tag works with various bits of information about their content, such as (for example), ‘Threesome – F/M/M’, ‘Rimming’, or ‘Rope Bondage’. This kind of archive system not only lets readers know about what content they’re likely to see, but allows them to search for specific or particular themes or types of content.
The nature of romance or erotica centric fanfiction often means that readers know that their preferred pairing (or more than pairing) will end up together, but the appeal of reading fanfiction is to watch the journey unfold. This safety—as well as the community built into fanfiction as a genre—means that it can feel like a safe space to explore ideas, both as a reader and writer and not necessarily connected to erotic preferences and practices. Plenty of people I know within fandom discovered that they were queer and trans through fanfiction, sometimes discovering it was even a thing because of fic and sometimes having their first encounter with depictions of what it was like to be trans/queer in terms of internal emotion be fanfiction.
My Experience with Fanfiction
No blog post would be complete without some personal context or story! I’ve drifted in and out of fanfic circles over the years, sometimes having periods of time where I write a lot of fanfic all at once and at other times not writing it for months or years at a time.
During my teenage years, I was pretty active in fandom, and used it as a space to explore my sexuality. It wasn’t so much an exploration of queerness for me. I’d already come out as trans by the time I started
writing fic, and I didn’t discover I was bisexual because of fandom. But
fandom and fanfic did allow me to explore my sexuality in other ways.
While I was already devouring romance novels prior to discovering
fanfiction, fanfic gave me access to stories and fantasies about
people outside of the cisgender, heterosexual, vanilla relationships that
I found in my my local library’s romance section. I was able to read not only
about transmasculine characters written by other transmasculine
people, but about polyamory, about BDSM, and about fantasies I would
never have come across in other circumstances.
At the same time, the fact these ideas were explored through characters I already knew and cared about made it feel far more approachable than original work with the same themes would have. It also gave me a built in audience when it came to writing my own erotic fiction, exploring what kinds of kinks, scenarios, and emotions I found compelling.
About the Author
Kelvin Sparks (he/him) is a bisexual trans man who writes about sex on the internet. You can find him at KelvinSparks.com, or at @Kelvinsparks_ on both Twitter and Instagram.