For many, media portrayals of sex can seem unlikely, even unrealistic. The artfully lit fireside rug, the extended eye contact, the guaranteed orgasms: Mainstream depictions of sex hardly seem to be created with the fantasies of anyone other than a cisgender man in mind. This biased portrayal is reflective of our culture's male gaze—women's bodies should be feminine, and heterosexist narratives of desirability and pleasure should be registered as the norm.
It's a view of the world that fan fiction writers have been subverting for decades.
Far from being the pastime of obsessive fans with nothing better to do, writing fan fiction can be a radical act. In writing fan fiction—in particular, erotic fan fiction—fans of marginalized identities—cis women, trans and non-binary folks, people of color of all genders, and anyone who doesn't identify as a straight, cisgender man—carve out a small space in which to center different, at times highly personal, narratives. Fan fiction writers take a lived experience of sexual objectification and instead create a space for sexual subjectivity.
According to Deborah Tolman, a professor of social welfare at Graduate Center of the City University of New York, sexual subjectivity is "a person's experience of self as a sexual being who feels entitled to sexual pleasure and safety." It is, simply put, the realization that you are the protagonist of your own sexual and romantic story. Sexual subjectivity is arguably one of the most foundational steps to the development of a healthy sex life, but for marginalized folks it is a realization that must be made without much societal guidance: There are rarely any depictions of non-objectified, authentic experiences of sex and pleasure in mainstream culture.
The concept of sexual subjectivity is also ignored by mainstream sex education. At its best, sex education focuses mainly on pregnancy and disease prevention—safer sex methods that aim to get young people thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions. At its worst, mainstream sex education leaves out or actively victimizes many adolescents who diverge from cisgender and heteronormative narratives. In three states, for example, it's not only OK to teach that same-sex relationships are damaging, but required; only nine states require including anything about sexual orientation in sex education curricula at all.
Sex education isn't the only realm in which people of marginalized identities are excluded. As conversations about representation and diversity grow louder, each new book, television show, or movie franchise that centers anyone other than a cisgender white person feels like a gift rather than a given. The difference with fan fiction is that, often, the creators are of the very same marginalized identities that mainstream media ignores. While white people are still by and large the gatekeepers of the stories produced in Hollywood and the literary world, anyone can be an author on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan-created and fan-led hub of fan fiction.
For those who find sexual subjectivity in fan fiction, a few similar themes tend to resonate: visibility and self-image, in terms of race, gender, and sexuality; consent and trauma; fan fiction as a means to control the narrative in order to heal from this trauma; and, most plainly, fan fiction as a safe and creative introduction to the sex that some of us would later be having.
"Fic helped me come to myself as an asexual person. That's the biggest reason why it is so important to me," says Canada-based writer and scholar Ashley Caranto Morford. "Asexuality is not often talked about in the mainstream media. Many people have not even heard the term 'asexual' and don't even know it's a sexual orientation. Mainstream media silences, erases, and invalidates asexuality."
Caranto Morford finds that fan fiction, however, "is a genre that writes against the mainstream." She points out that many works write against Eurocentric standards of beauty that uphold cisgender white women as the most beautiful and desirable; and against normative compulsive heterosexuality, with rigidly defined gender roles in which men are the active, subjective participants, and women are passive objects to be wooed, won, and saved. Fan fiction, she says, "has the ability to disrupt, unsettle, and to represent those of us who have been silenced by other forms of writing."
Another writer, Jo (not her real name), has this to say about the role that fan fiction played in their understanding of their identity: "My writing about trans characters helped me figure out that I myself am trans. Fan fiction was a safe place for me to put those feelings when I couldn't articulate them to anyone else in my life."
For Jo, fan fiction also normalized happy gay relationships, whereas mainstream media tended to focus on the Bury Your Gays trope—when one member of the gay couple died tragically, largely to further the plot of their partner, or the plots of straight characters in the show—when gay relationships were depicted at all. It's something that is easy to take for granted, if you're someone who is used to seeing reflections of your own experience in a plethora of rom coms year in and year out. But for a young queer fan, the persistent message that the queer relationships end in tragedy can result in internalized homophobia, fear, and shame; at the very least, the lack of a happy ending can be a painful, unspoken absence. Fan fiction, on the other hand, provides a place to heal—and often, a supportive community along with it.
The lack of comprehensive and inclusive sex education means that there is no reliable context for the media that adolescents consume—and fan fiction can be no different. "Fan fiction can make very unhealthy relationships very attractive, and that's the flip side, because barely anyone knows you're reading it," Jo said. And because, for Jo, there were no physical books to leave around the house featuring trans and genderqueer characters, "any advice I got was for the wrong gender, half the time, and out of touch with what I needed."
But even the fan fiction that doesn't immediately educate, that gets it "wrong" with regard to how relationships are depicted, or how certain sex acts are depicted, can have value too.
Whitney, a writer and editor in her twenties, acknowledges that, in some ways, it's important to take some of the themes in fan fiction with a grain of salt—something that can be challenging, when the reliable forms of sex education are so few and far between. Fan fiction, after all, is as much of an exploration of the author's views on relationships as it is a portrayal of relationships unfolding between characters. There are no season constraints to fan fiction, however, or funders with their own agendas to push: just fans, motivated by love of their respective 'verses and a desire to see themselves reflected in the art that already means so much to them.
"So many fics are a portrayal of queerness in action," Whitney says. Having access to those stories helped her explore her own desires and sexuality, consider more deeply what she wanted from a partner, and even normalized the awkwardness of queer relationships that can be overlooked or ignored onscreen.
"I don't use it as a Guide to Sex With Ladies," she says. "But reading it has helped me feel less anxious, because, guess what! I read [fan fiction] where a person had no idea and it was OK and didn't ruin anything! And those narratives are good to have too."