Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

What slash fiction tells us about female sexuality

To boldly go...

Slash fiction – a branch of fan fiction that imagines straight heroes getting together – is strangely popular among straight women. Helen Joyce examines the light it sheds on female sexuality

Slash fiction – a branch of fan fiction that imagines straight heroes getting together – is strangely popular among straight women. Helen Joyce examines the light it sheds on female sexuality

Helen Joyce | August/September 2016

It all began with “Star Trek”, or more precisely with James T. Kirk, the captain of the Enterprise, and his first officer, the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock. The show, which debuted in 1966, was no immediate hit: it was nearly cancelled twice before finally being taken off the air just three years later, after 79 episodes. But throughout the following decade, as it was endlessly repeated, a cult built up around it. Films and new series followed. Now, a half-century later, its influence on popular culture is clear. Its catchphrases (“Beam me up, Scotty”; “Live long and prosper”) have entered the language. Its adventures are entwined with real-life space exploration in the public’s mind.

The show’s creators thought Kirk – handsome, outgoing, irresistible to curvaceous aliens – would draw female viewers. But many women found the slight, buttoned-up Spock at least as appealing. Some perhaps identified with the difficulty of being a Vulcan in a man’s world, or his struggle to repress his emotions (Vulcan hyper-rationality is actually a species-wide convention to suppress passions so turbulent they would otherwise tear society apart). But above all, female viewers were intrigued by the relationship between the two men. They risked their lives for each other, and stuck together through thick and thin. They were clearly more than colleagues. Were they, perhaps, more than friends?

For some female fans, the answer was clear. In “slash” fan-fiction, as it was known by the end of the 1970s (for the punctuation mark in Kirk/Spock, or K/S), they made explicit an erotic bond between the two men that the show’s creators had not intended to imply. They wrote slash in fan-produced magazines, or fanzines (the first, launched in 1967, was named Spockanalia) and shared their obsession at “Star Trek” conventions. Some soft-core, some highly explicit, these stories circulated via invitation-only mailing lists or could be bought from dealers who kept them under the counter at conventions. Even mildly suggestive slash was seen as more transgressive than the steamiest heterosexual pornography.

Two “Star Trek” plot devices proved a gift for writers struggling to bring their avowedly heterosexual heroes to a mutual understanding. As a half-Vulcan, Spock is able to establish a telepathic link with others simply by touching them (the “mind meld”). In one slash fic after another, some emergency makes it essential that he mind-melds with Kirk – and the pair discover that their passion is reciprocal. Pon farr, or “mating time”, is an aspect of Vulcan biology: every seven years, Vulcans must mate or die. Leave the two men stranded on an uninhabited planet; put the Enterprise’s transporters out of action – and let Kirk’s concern for his first officer do the rest.

Charlotte Hill (a pen name) started going to “Star Trek” conventions with her mother as a teenager in the 1980s. She read her first slash fic, “Long Way Home”, aged around 16, in an anthology called “The Sensuous Vulcan” that she picked up from a box hidden under a dealer’s table. Kirk is planet-side, bored and drunk, when Spock comes to take him back to the Enterprise. “Spock and me. It could happen,” thinks Kirk. It took the teenager a few seconds to work out what “it” was. “Then I thought: ‘Oh my gosh! It not only could happen; it should happen!’” she recalls. She has been reading and writing slash ever since.

In the decades since the first K/S fic, both fan-fiction in general and slash – now meaning any story about male characters who are not gay in the original – has exploded. Huge fan-sites have replaced the slow and costly business of copying and distributing fanzines. Fanfiction.net and Archive­OfOurOwn.org (Ao3), two of the biggest, have more than 2m stories each, in hundreds of fandoms (the films, shows and books that provide the source material). Stories can be filtered by explicitness, character, pairing or plot element (in “hurt/comfort”, an ill or injured character is cared for by another; in MPreg, a male character conceives a child). Inexperienced writers can dive in without exposition or character-building; readers’ familiarity with and affection for the show help to compensate for authorial shortcomings. More accomplished writers can stretch themselves in crossovers (Sherlock Holmes as a vampire roaming the world of “Twilight”) or alternate universes (Holmes and Dr Watson as coffee-shop baristas; the cast of “Twilight” no longer as vampires and werewolves but as corporate raiders).

Some fans write fic to help them cope with between-season blues. But often, the motivation is to fill in what is missing or right wrongs in the original – in particular, to flesh out on-screen relationships or unite couples they think should be together (known as “shipping”, from “relationship”). And a large number of the couples shipped are slash. On Ao3, stories shipping Harry Potter and his friend Hermione do not even make it into the top ten relationships (in the original, the pair never date and both eventually marry other people). The top pairing, with nearly 15,000 stories, is between Harry and his hated Slytherin rival, Draco Malfoy. Of the ten pairings with the most stories in the “Harry Potter” fandom, five are slash. The share is similar in other big, popular fandoms, for example Marvel’s “The Avengers”, where Steve Rogers (Captain America)/Tony Stark (Iron Man) comes top with 13,000 stories, 2,300 of them rated explicit. Most “real person fic” – invented stories about real people, often singers – is slash. (Pretty much every pairing between members of One Direction, a boy band, is hugely popular.)

Most fic is written under pen names. But those who study the genre, like Anne Jamison, the author of “Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking over the World”, say that a big majority of both readers and writers are women. Without agents or publishers to convince, and with no money changing hands, fic offers a chance to peer into women’s desires, unmediated and unfiltered. What does it mean that so much of it is about erotic relationships between two men?

Well before the Enterprise and its crew first boldly went where no man had gone before, a perceptive literary critic had given, perhaps, an early clue. In “Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck honey!”, an essay published in the Partisan Review in 1948, Leslie Fiedler examined “Moby Dick” and “Huckleberry Finn”, among other canonical American novels, and found at their heart a pair of heroes turning their back on domesticity and striking out into the wild together. Even odder, the central relationship was often inter-racial. “At the focus of emotion, where we are accustomed to find in the world’s great novels some heterosexual passion…we come instead upon the fugitive slave and the no-account boy lying side by side on a raft borne by the endless river towards an impossible escape, or the pariah sailor waking in the tattooed arms of the brown harpooner on the verge of their impossible quest,” wrote Fiedler. These relationships, he thought, combined “immaculate passion” – a perfect, innocent love between the protagonists – and “astonishing reconciliation” between white men and those of other races that they had injured.

In her book, “NASA/Trek”, Constance Penley, a media theorist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, points out that Spock’s alien nature means that K/S fits rather neatly into Fiedler’s schema. But his discussion related solely to male writers and their readers. K/S is written by women, for women – and plenty of it is far from immaculate. Penley concludes that female fans of “Star Trek” were reshaping the canonical homosocial coupling observed by Fiedler into a form more to their taste. She describes K/S as an “ingenious melding” of the American adventure novel, centred on an intense, often inter-racial, male relationship, and the domestic or sentimental novel written and read by women.

Filming techniques added to the apparent intensity of the relationship between Kirk and Spock. In “Enterprising Women”, her book about female “Star Trek” fans, Camille Bacon-Smith analyses the scenes the pair shared. In the films, and even more in the television shows, she points out, interaction shots are often composed with the characters standing very close to each other, well inside each other’s personal space. Reaction shots close in on the eyes. And the male gaze, it turns out, has special erotic significance for women. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, two neuroscientists, analyse the text of romance novels in their book, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”. It is striking how many words are given over to the hero’s eyes and where they are looking. His eyes are intense and blazing; his gaze pierces, fixes or burns the heroine. At the book’s climax, the pair’s eyes lock. As K/S fans often said, the relationship was right there in front of them.

In an influential essay in 1985, “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love”, the late Joanna Russ, a science-fiction author and feminist theorist, argued that the characters in slash were “not exactly male”. The sex scenes were often vague about what exactly was being penetrated, and the feelings and emotions of the receiving partner were reminiscent of those of a woman making love with a man. The constant references to the characters’ genitalia, Russ thought, were disguises: badges that said: “Hello, I have a penis, I’m a man.” The “endless hesitations and yearnings” of the plots resembled the manufactured misunderstandings of the romance genre. This raises the question: why project it all onto male bodies? “Why don’t the women who read [slash] simply read romances and be done with it?” she asked. “Why the ‘drag’?”

Russ concluded that K/S allowed its readers and writers to imagine a relationship that combined the sexual intensity and everlasting love that are the ideal of the romance novel with the excitement and meaningfulness of men’s activities, in this case interplanetary derring-do. The love between Kirk and Spock was also blissfully egalitarian, she noted. A love story about a man and a woman, she thought, would inevitably get caught up in sexual politics and rigid gender roles.

And Trekkies who might have preferred to write about heterosexual couplings were handicapped by a shortage of decent female characters. Kirk’s alien hotties are perfunctorily drawn and disposable. The main regular female characters are Nyota Uhura, a communications officer, and Christine Chapel, a nurse. Both have their charms, but neither gets much screen time or is particularly interesting (though Uhura was notable for being the first non-menial character played by an actor of African descent in an American television show). Turning to slash allowed fans to “explore the possibilities of a romantic or sexual pairing in the context of a long-term, complex relationship between equals: a structure mainstream culture was nowhere offering,” says Jamison.

Nowadays, though most of the best characters in film and television are still male, there are some strong female characters for fic-writers to draw on. Skylar Dorset (a pen name) started writing fan-fiction a decade ago about Doctor Who and Rose Tyler, the Time Lord’s first companion in the BBC’s 2005 revival of the show. Her motivation for writing, she says, was that she “was only being told half the story”: the pair care deeply for each other, but their on-screen relationship lacks passion (unsurprisingly in a show aimed at kids). A million words – around ten novels’ worth – later, she had given her couple three children, all grown-up and well settled. With her characters “in a happy place”, there was nothing left to write.

By then Dorset had read widely across other fandoms. She moved on to her first slash pairing: John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. “I didn’t go in search of a slash pairing; I went in search of a good pairing,” she says. “Johnlock”, as it is called, is a perennial favourite, and was further boosted by the current BBC series starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. As a teenager she had read and loved the novels, and recalls being fascinated by the central relationship. “I shipped them, only I didn’t have the vocabulary to know that was what I was doing,” she says.

It is tempting to make up for the lack of strong female characters by creating your own. And indeed such “self-inserts” feature in many first attempts at fic. But as the writer will quickly discover, they are despised by other fans, who call them “Mary Sues”. The name comes from the heroine of a short story lampooning the genre published in a fanzine in 1973. Mary Sue is the youngest lieutenant in Starfleet, aged 15 and a half. Kirk is smitten by her; Spock admires her brilliant mind. She frees the senior officers from an alien prison and runs the ship when other crew members fall ill. After receiving the Nobel prize and Vulcan Order of Gallantry she dies, to be mourned by all. Such transparent adolescent wish-fulfilment is embarrassing to read, and gave all self-insert fic a bad name.

Fic writers who abandon the attempt to find or make an acceptable heroine may be surprised by how little they miss her. In “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels”, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan explain that it is the hero, not the heroine, who makes or breaks a book. The heroine, all too often, is a pain. Readers may identify with her, in which case they will be picky and unwilling to overlook any flaws in her character. They may find her irritating (she is often silly, clingy or ridiculously perfect) or boring (her main role is generally to choose the right man). If readers really like the hero, they may feel jealous of her. So why not dispense with her altogether and double up on the essential ingredient: the hero?

Rather surprisingly, having two heroes rather than a hero and heroine can make plotting easier. Back when love between Protestants and Catholics, or Montagues and Capulets, was taboo, romance authors had ready-made ways to maintain sexual tension for page after page. Now, it is hard to spin out plausibly for the length of a book. And what “Beyond Heaving Bosoms” refers to as “the Big Mis[understanding]” – a central plot element of the classic romance novel – is hard to engineer in an age of sexual licence and information technology. If the hero sees the heroine emerge from a restaurant with a handsome stranger he can find out who it is (her brother? her boss?) by rummaging through her Facebook friends, rather than jump to the wrong conclusion and sulk for half a book. With an (ex-) heterosexual male/male coupling, however, there is no need for a Big Mis to keep the couple apart for as long as the author needs, and lengthy soul-searching is guaranteed.

People sometimes dismiss the “why slash” question, comparing it to men’s taste for lesbian porn. But why do men like lesbian porn? The most common answers are: because I like women and two are better than one; and I don’t like some other man blocking my view. Some men probably see the male protagonist as a rival. A woman may have similar reasons for liking slash: that two men are better than one, or because she likes to visualise male objects of desire without a woman intruding, or because she regards the heroine as a rival rather than a placeholder. Penley adds another possibility, stemming from the observation that in slash the authorial point of view typically shifts, with the writer identifying with each protagonist in turn. Perhaps its fans like to imagine what the objects of their desire feel during sex, and to identify with them as both the giver and recipient of sexual pleasure? And perhaps the possibility of a similar shifting point of view is also why some men like to watch or think about two women together?

In 1994 Catherine Salmon, a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and long-time slash fan, approached Donald Symons, an expert on sexual psychology, to supervise a research project on slash. He had never heard of slash, and so dumbstruck was he by her initial email that, as he says in the introduction to the book they ended up co-writing, “Warrior Lovers: Erotica, Evolution and Female Sexuality”, he “had to re-read it very slowly to make sure that it actually said what it had seemed to say”. Once he got over his astonishment, the pair set out to use the theories of evolutionary psychology to explore why slash might appeal to straight women. They started with the biologically driven differences between the two sexes’ mating strategies. Evidence from many cultures suggests that men and women value the same characteristics when they seek a long-term mate: intelligence, honesty and kindness are at the top of the list for both. But what appeals for a quick fling – and what strikes the two sexes as erotic – greatly differs.

For men, brief affairs with strangers are (in evolutionary terms) cheap side-bets on extra offspring. For women, they mean running the risk of bearing children, half of whose genes come from men they have not vetted and who would tie up their reproductive potential for years. As a consequence, men are far less picky than women when it comes to their erotica. They focus on appearance, youth and specific body parts, and like anonymity and variety. Women, by contrast, pay attention to a broad range of signals of quality in a potential mate: not just looks, but strength, competence, resources and status. Their objects of lust are not interchangeable.

The women in pornography act out a male version of sexuality: they are keen on impersonal, no-strings sex, need no foreplay and are focused much more on how things look than how they feel. There is no back-story or character or plot development. Erotica aimed at women, conversely, reimagines men as women would like them to be, at least in their wooing and screwing. They are tough, talented, widely admired and complex. They talk about their feelings and notice what women wear. Most importantly, they prove their worth by going through some sort of ordeal for the beloved’s sake. For women, what is erotic about the hero is the effort he puts into winning his true love, says Salmon, now at the University of Redlands, California – and here, the heroes of slash excel. “How much more could you do to prove your love than change your sexual orientation to be with someone?”

“To encounter erotica designed to appeal to the other sex is to gaze into the psychological abyss that separates the sexes,” Symons wrote. And slash, the pair concluded, was firmly on the “romance” side of that abyss. Though it was sometimes called “gay fiction”, that was a misnomer. When Salmon showed some sexually explicit slash to gay friends, they found it merely entertaining. Female romance fans, by contrast, commented favourably on a male/male romance. “Slash is romance, even though it’s two guys,” says Salmon. “They’re men who behave the same way as the men in romances.”

In “Warrior Lovers”, Salmon and Symons dismiss the possibility that what distinguishes slash fans from other romance fans is some sort of psychosexual oddity: most romance fans, they found, could identify with one or both of the protagonists in a male/male love story and enjoy reading it. They speculate that slash fans may be women who prefer the fantasy of being a “co-warrior” to that of being “Mrs Warrior”; of being a “hero who triumphs over the forces of evil” rather than a “heroine who triumphs over an alpha male”. “I think slash fans are born, not made,” says Salmon. “As children they’re really into strong buddy shows. There’s something they find tremendously satisfying about the relationship. It’s not sexual: it’s about them being best friends and doing everything together.”

As slash has expanded and evolved, more and more of it is about pairings for which the theories developed to explain the specific appeal of K/S seem inadequate. Some of today’s most popular slash is about men who barely interact in the source material, so there is no original homosocial relationship for women to reimagine in a way that suits their pleasure.

Skylar Dorset, for example, is now writing slash about two characters from “Inception”: Arthur and Eames. The film is high-concept sci-fi with a complicated plot about people who can enter other people’s dreams and steal information; she first came across it when a friend sent her an alternate-universe story, in which the characters were turned into baristas and customers in a coffee shop. Arthur and Eames have very little to do with each other in the film, and anyway she had not even seen it when she read the fic and “fell totally in love” with the couple and the way they were portrayed. “My writing isn’t plot-driven, it’s character-driven,” she says. “That’s what I’m paying attention to. Maybe I’m predisposed to find relationships.”

Megan Kent, who co-organises Escapade, an annual slash convention in California, with Charlotte Hill, is currently reading and writing slash about two “Avengers” characters: Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Phil Coulson. This slash pairing is based on an even flimsier foundation: the two never appear on-screen together, and their interaction is limited to a conversation by radio for 46 seconds in the first film of the cycle, “Thor”. Yet it is one of the most popular “Avengers” pairings; only Captain America/Iron Man has had more stories written about it.

Romance publishers are now starting to get in on the act with male/male (M/M) novels. Their heroes are original, rather than well-known characters from other media – and they are selling like hot cakes. In 2009 Harlequin, the world’s largest romance publisher, hired Angela James, an experienced digital publisher, to set up a digital-first imprint, Carina, which takes both heterosexual and M/M stories. Angst-ridden plots are certainly popular, she says: “gay for you” and “tortured coming-out” stories offer the emotional intensity and obstacle-strewn path to true love of traditional slash.

But plenty of M/M fiction is about gay men who are comfortable in their sexuality: “It’s not a whole lot different from M/F; it’s just another pairing,” says James. “The important thing to remember in M/M fiction”, cautions Josh Lanyon, an M/M writer, “is that the sex is not simply about sex. It’s about love.”

5 Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.

BabyBlainers - August 30th 2016

To Kyla61: The article very clearly states that at least until the 80s/90s slash was kind of an unspoken thing. People certainly didn't reveal their preference for it over a cup of coffee. As for Kirk and Spock, honestly? Had the show been made today (or better, 10 years from today), those two would be a couple, and there is absolutely no question about this. Roddenberry specifically created the vulcan word T'hy'la to describe their relationship, which means "friend, brother, LOVER", because there weren't strong enough words in english. References to their intimacy are all over the series. In amok time, Spock requests Kirk's presence during his pon farr and snaps out of it when he thinks he has killed Kirk. In "shore leave" kirk is disappointed when he discovers he's getting a friggin' back massage from a yeoman instead of Spock. This is also one of my favourite scenes, mostly because it's so gratuitious. In "City at the edge of forever" edith keeler states that spock's place is by kirk's side. They act like an old married couple half the time. It's there. Whether you want to see it or not, it's your business...

kyla61 - August 24th 2016

Sorry, but I don't remember female viewers being intrigued by Kirk and Spock's relationship at all, and I grew up during that time period. Did you? I do remember thinking that they were friends who truly respected one another. I didn't and still don't see anything sexual, in the least, about their relationship. Neither did any of my friends. And I still watch Star Trek every Saturday night! I believe this is a testament to how appealing the universal ideas of loyalty, bravery, and adventure are to men and women. I think the more interesting question is why do some people feel the need to sexualize the relationships between the characters? But -- each to his or her own.

htmillian - August 13th 2016

I'd like to echo both Ecker and Constant_Commenter on appreciating the thoughtful, empathetic tone of this article. I also really love the breadth of the article - from K/S to Johnlock, you've engaged with fans from a great variety of areas of Western media slash fandom. One thing I think might enhance this article's take on the "whyslash" debate would be looking at some of the recent discussions on queerness among fans themselves. These days, fans generally acknowledge that the majority of slash fans identify as some shade of queer (centrumlumina's recent demographic surveys of AO3 are great (http://centrumlumina.tumblr.com/post/94561312543/sexuality-categorisation-vs-fic-categories-this), but if you'd like a better historical take on it, melannen's looked back at surveys from a variety of different fandoms, going back to the early 2000s (https://melannen.dreamwidth.org/77558.html)). http://fanlore.org/wiki/Where_exactly_do_people_get_this_idea_that_fandom_is_dominated_by_straight_women_from%3F might be a useful jumping off point to get a sense of how fans themselves have thought about this, while Ika Willis's article "Keeping promises to queer children: making space (for Mary Sue) at Hogwarts" (which is available online) is one of the best academic attempts I've seen at taking good look at what slash is really about for queer female fans. As you can probably guess from this comment, I'm a lesbian slash fan myself, and the community, self-affirmation, and camaraderie I found in slash fandom as a lonely queer teen years ago was unmatched for years by any resources I found elsewhere!

ecker - August 11th 2016

I made an account specifically to leave my appreciation for this piece. Articles about fic-writing fandom in general and slash in particular are almost invariably cringe-inducing. Even if they're so generous as to not have that 'point and laugh at these weirdos' mockery vibe, they usually come across as not feeling right: not really understanding what we do or why, or how we feel about it. This is good stuff with a clear understanding of the art and the subculture. /salute

Contstant_Commenter - August 10th 2016

Slash fiction has inspired quite a lot of journalistic takes over the past few years, and I have to say that this is one of the best I've read. Women who read and write slash (and other fanfiction) have often discussed among ourselves why it appeals, and I think you largely hit the nail with this piece. As someone who began making up stories in my head when watching Moonlighting and Dynasty as a kid, who moved to Buffy and Spike and then on to Avengers Steve and Tony slash as mentioned, it's true that male protagonists are usually better fleshed-out, which is changing (and sometimes occurred in the past, too.) Anyway, great work.