Parents Didn’t Give Me The Sex Talk — Fanfiction Did
A look at all the things hiding under the surface of the complex organism that is fandom.
I have a confession to make: my first encounter with explicitly depicted sex was through Fullmetal Alchemist fanfiction.
At the time, Fanfiction.net was still the dominant platform for written fanwork, stories with sexual content were still divided between the now obsolete categories ‘lemon’ and ‘lime,’ and I still thought I was straight.
In a decade, Archive of Our Own and Tumblr have replaced Fanfiction.net as the nexus of fandom culture and output, and smut has become an umbrella term where lemon and lime once made a distinction. With the help of both of these developments, I have also learned two critical details about myself — that I am not in any way heterosexual, and that my initial disgust over that Fullmetal Alchemist fanfic was not a life-long indication of my feelings towards sex.
Regardless of how much has changed, my memory of that particular story remains surprisingly vivid. I have told friends this story multiple times over the years — how I snuck into the living room late at night, seven-years-old and unbeatable at erasing traces of myself from our lone computer’s browsing history, clicking at a Mustang/Hawkeye story that I did not foresee would involve office sex. I know the giggling and cooing this story elicits, and I know, by extension, the assumptions that fuel this laughter. I know, too, that the cooing carries some playful pity with it, and that there is genuine sympathy when people reply with sentiments like I’m sorry that happened to you. Fanfiction is an easy thing to make jokes around; it makes for a natural ingredient, especially within a generation that prides itself for being aware of how fandom works.
A generation, at least, that believes it knows what fandom is about. An ambitious sentiment, when this pop culture awareness only ever scratches the surface of the complex wirings that make fandom systems tick. In my Fullmetal Alchemist story, I present to people what they think they already know about fanfiction; when they think of fanwork, the mental picture comes with this subcurrent of inherent explicitness. Perhaps because fan culture as non-fandom spaces perceive it, on one hand, is prevalently queer, or perhaps because, on the other, it is a kneejerk instinct to equate fandom with empty-headed schoolgirl enthusiasm over fetishized relationships rooted in queerbait.
These two options are fraught with their deeper problems. While plenty of heterosexual females do indeed fetishize gay relationships through fanwork, this dismissive approach overshadows the strong presence of queer people creating queer work within fandom. A presence — worth stressing — that does not at once make fandom an innately sexual space. Queer lives are not automatically explicit content, and it is this truth for which fandom leaves space where mainstream media does not: that queer love stories deserve to be told in all the myriad of ways they can be, whether or not this involves explicit sex.
A survey conducted by the podcast Fansplaining shows that more fanfiction readers seek fluff — light, often short, tooth-rottingly sweet stories — than they do PWP, a handy term that simply stands for Porn Without Plot. Fluff also dominates in terms of trope popularity, according to the same survey, next to the ubiquitously loved bed-sharing trope and the recurring fanfiction theme of having one character hurt and their love interest offering comfort.
According to an informal Archive Of Our Own census from 2013, 62% of fanfiction readers identify as LGBTQ+. Often eclipsed by the widespread assumption that most fanfiction is merely Porn Without Plot, these numbers evince that fandom offers comfort to those that benefit from counternarratives by providing a space to write and read these loving, solace-bringing stories.
This facet of fanfiction, too, was the beginning of my long history of fandom participation. There were brief stints with all the major fanfiction platforms, from Archive Of Our Own to Livejournal. But this narrative is not exclusive to me; it has become, in fact, par for the course among queer and POC fandom participants, the bulk of us having stumbled upon our first fan-written story in our pre-teens and, in the years that follow, having found something within this practice that resonated with us at a time where trying on different labels and identities was of the utmost priority. Fandom presented something that mainstream media did not, an aspect of fan culture that often becomes buried under popular distaste for the community and its connotations as a whole.
Fandom also offered an attractive opportunity for tenderfoot writers: a space to write stories on our own terms, with absolutely zero restrictions and with a vast community to grant feedback and validation. Fanwork gave young creators room to do exactly that — create, without having to cater to industry demands, and somehow because pouring hours into work that provides no monetary or societal gain nonetheless has its own irreplaceable rewards.
That is not to say sexual content within fandom should take the backseat in these conversations. The relationship is not one-way; as much as fandom encourages and fosters creation, so, too, does it offer its fair share of information and, alongside it, opportunities for learning. Fandom has no restrictions — which means that sexual content is abound in all the forms it can exist as, and characters can be whatever they want to be and like whoever they want to like at the behest of the creator. There is no editing unit behind most of these stories either, no secondary person to censor a word or an opinion. Much of what is problematic about fanfiction stems from this nature, but much of what makes it a good vehicle for identity exploration is also rooted in this lack of censorship. Regardless of their canon selves, fan-written characters can be any sexuality, gender or ethnicity, can use any pronouns, can be of any body type — and, along the way, more often than not, serve as a needed example for a reader seeking representation or a young person exploring labels that would help corporealize their thoughts and emotions.
Beyond these, fanfiction also allows for experimenting with sex through a lens that is not often considered in conventional porn, much less discussed in a forty-minute Sex Ed class. It normalizes kinks and fetishes and what they entail where orthodox heterosexual porn would not do so for queer youth. It shows love interests of colour as desirable figures where a movie would rather they stay a sexless side character. Fanfiction, in all its questionable glory, presents a world to marginalized people where there is a little bit less fear and uncertainty about navigating these normal facets of life.
It is from fanfiction that I, 21 years old, first learned about pansexuality; I still have not seen anyone identify as such in a movie or a book. A quick roll call, then, of people that reached out to my search of similar experiences: It is through smut that Pete, 20, first learned how gay sex works, or that lube can and should be used in any and all sexual intercourse. It is from a fan comic than Enya, 16, encountered they/them pronouns for the first time and was led to discovering what being non-binary means, as a word and for themself. It is with fandom’s guidance that Claire, 24, navigated her relationship with sex as an asexual lesbian woman. It is fanfiction that introduced Tyra, 18, to BDSM and the many details behind aftercare. It is fanfiction that gave Jay, 22, inexperienced and uncomfortable with navigating porn websites and Tumblr porn blogs, room to explore kinks with his first boyfriend.
It is fanfiction, most of all, that normalized queer and POC sex for all of us.
Something so simple should not be as revolutionary as it is.
So yes, there is a lot of sex within fandom. That is not an unfounded stereotype. But while there are many problems in fan spaces, the blanket prevalence of sex is not necessarily one of them. Sex exists — our society is saturated with it, though unfortunately never in the forms that it should be. People should not be sorry on my behalf that I encountered sex for the first time through fanfiction. It would have happened sooner or later, through a misplaced ad on a torrent website or a rated movie scene. There are a lot more apologies to be said about how little attention is paid to the parts of fandom that exist underneath the surface, and about how queer people have to turn to niche spaces at all just to gain information and representation.
Fandom is safe. An ironic claim, perhaps, considering all the toxicity that comes part and parcel with such a melting pot of different identities, views and backgrounds, all with no governing body to moderate activity — but as far as being a person of a marginalized identity goes, fandom is safe because it is more often than not the only choice available that does not require more commitment and more vulnerability for which one might ever be ready.
I understand it is easy to make fun of fandom as a whole and to talk about it as though it lacks depth. I do the same. Instinctive shame always kicks in first. That is a separate discussion altogether, however. Schoolgirl enthusiasm there may be, but it is not empty-headed — and even if it was, the reflex to look down on either the innocent fun or the mere act of resistance present in fandom reeks of both misogyny and a lack of understanding of what women and queer people of colour yearn for from mainstream media.
The bigger problem is in the sentiments and connotations we attach by default to things that have been defined by its association to young girls and queer youth. The bigger problem is that people look down on fandom communities without bothering to acknowledge how minorities within it have carved out spaces for themselves and for others like them.
The internet is a vast, ever-evolving place. This is rarely ever for the best, but making jokes and condemning it for the things it carries will not magically make it go away. The internet is here to stay. So is fandom and all the people populating it. Dare I say, then, that it is time to widen the scope of the conversation around it.
Archive of Our Own — A non-profit archive for fanwork, created and run by the Organization for Transformative Works. As of 2019, it is home to over four million works, including both original stories and fanwork for more than thirty thousand fandoms. The site provides readers with the ability to include and exclude certain tropes, relationships and kinks when filtering through categories and genres, allowing for personal curation of interaction with everything on the site.
Transformative Works and Cultures — A peer-reviewed academic journal, also run by the Organization of Transformative Works, that publishes scholarship on fanwork and encourages criticism through a variety of approaches, including but not limited to feminism, queer theory, gender studies, and reader-response theory. Following its 10th anniversary volume on the future of fandom, the journal is set to release its ‘‘Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color” issue in March 2019.