A Manifesto for Queer Slashers
Above: The shock of encountering slash fanfiction is a meme unto itself.
My personal experience as a fledgling queer slash fan, livejournaler, and message board moderator in Harry Potter fandom from 2003-2009. Also, many scholarly sources which will be described in-text, because let's face it, I'm a PhD student.
The Problem: Why Slash? (Or if you're uninitiated: "WHYYYYYYYYYYYY")
Women's erotic fantasies are a perpetual mystery to mainstream cultural critics. Do "women like porn?" The conventional answer is yes and no: as evolutionary psychology treatment A Billion Wicked Thoughts (Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, 2011) would have it, "women" do like porn. They just like "stories" rather than "images" or "video." Conventional romance novels and slash, or erotic stories written by women about sexual relationships between men, are supposed to be the two sides of this femerotica coin.
Evolutionary psychology thinking, including Thoughts and Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality (Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons, 2003) suggests that slash fanfiction is in fact just another flavor of romance novels, enacted through male characters from mainstream media and posted online. Warrior Lovers argues that slash fans just don't identify with the position of being the "lover of a warrior," and prefer to think of themselves as "co-warriors." Casting themselves as a male in their own heterosexual fantasies helps them, through fantasy, overcome the gender inequity they perceive in their relationships with men. Thoughts links the growth of erotic online stories, including slash fanfiction, with the increasing popularity of e-book editions of steamy romance novels. Apparently, women prefer to read their romances incognito.
Janice Radway's classic work Reading the Romance (1991) takes a slightly different approach to the romance novel. Rather than considering romance novels simply as "porn for women," Radway discusses the social structure within which women are reading romance novels, seeing them not as evidence of women's investment in misogynistic and patriarchal sexual fantasies, but as a part of a set of tactics housewives use to steal time for themselves in a structure where their own emotional needs are not being cared for.
As for slash, Constance Penley has emphasized the erotic aspects of slash, while Henry Jenkins's chapter on slash in Textual Poachers (1992) emphasizes the lure of genderbending in women's fantasies of relatively impenetrable, hypermasculine characters from mainstream media exploring their more sensitive and penetrable sides.
As someone who came from the more overt ("queers") slash culture of the Internet, I have gravitated more towards Penley's approach, particularly her decision to publish explicit slash fan art, complete with Vulcan dick. However, as my intermittent clashes with oldschool zine culture have demonstrated to me, there was once a deeply entrenched culture of passing in slash fanfiction. The outing of slash corresponded with a simultaneous ousting, whereby fans who began online were completely unfamiliar with the many years of work done in print before them. Essentially what this paragraph is trying to say is RESPEK for oldschool zine pioneers, forbears, elders, and (s)experts.
More recently, a new group of scholars has conceptualized slash in terms of a mode of spectatorship. The most direct manifestation of this mode is the practice of "vidding." By re-editing existing video texts to make explicit the implicit sexual tension slashers see as radiating from the screen, women's erotic voices can be heard in a way that sidesteps the question of being seen themselves (where "being seen" = "OBJECTIFICATIONNNN"). The "in practice" dossier in Camera Obscura 77 on vidding, written by Kristina Busse, Francesca Coppa, Alexis Lothian and Rebecca Tushnet elaborates this position on viewership and vidding. Julie Levin Russo's work extends this concept beyond binary gender and heterosexuality to conceive of slash as part of larger patterns of lesbian participatory culture.
BUT THE QUESTION STILL REMAINS: WHY IS SLASH HOT?
For me, no scholarly treatment of slash fanfiction has adequately answered the (perhaps tactless and definitely essentializing) question on every straight male geek's mind when it comes to slash: why do people like it? Especially when it's just so gross, right? (Please say you detect my sarcasm.)
To this question, I have produced an answer(S), derived from my own personal experience as a queer female slash fan, whose friends were all queer female slash fans. My answers describe every conceivable level of eroticism that may be experienced by readers and writers of slash fanfiction, slash vid producers and consumers, and slash fan artists and fan art buffs.
Side note about queer slash:
In a personal conversation with Constance Penley, I asked why oldschool slash theorists always emphasized that slash writers and readers were predominantly straight. Is that just another part of zine culture I don't get? Penley responded that what was surprising to these early analysts of slash was precisely that straight women would respond to it, as opposed to gay men or queer women of some stripe.
I believe, however, that while slash may be enjoyed by women that consider themselves to be straight, slash itself is queer. In the context of queer theory, the term "queer" has been defined broadly, to include practices, identities, and modes of thinking that challenge the categorical division of gender, sex, and sexuality into neat segments. What it means to be queer, therefore, is to exceed description. And slash is fabulous at exceeding description.
Therefore, please take this list as a set of ideas one, both, some, all, none, halfway, multiple, diagonal of which may apply to slash reading/writing/fantasizing/imagining/seeing experiences. If you cannot hold all these ideas in your head simultaneously as one sensation, you are not "down" with queer theory. Please question your gender and sexuality some more. May I recommend an excellent book by Kate Bornstein, My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, A Real Woman, the Real You or Something Else Entirely? Alternatively, apply to become a contestant on RuPaul's Drag U regardless of your chromosomes or embodiment.
//////////// THE QUEER SLASH MATRIX ////////////
1. Men are hot: The old adage about man-loving women being slash's audience still holds. At least, slash readers love some hot mansex.
2. Being a man is hot: All the same, the idea of being a man is not so shabby either. Everyone has fantasized about having a big, long, hard dick and sticking it in something. Right?
4. Sharing an author's erotic fantasy is hot: Slash fanfiction writers are actually writing lesbian love letters. For every female writer and female reader, the two women are sharing each other's erotic fantasies, turning each other on. Hot.
5. Imagining a perfect relationship is hot: Male characters in fanfiction are actually women. Or men. Or manwomen. Or womenmen. Or non-gendered. The relationship dynamics of many pieces of slash fanfiction are either derived from, or projected onto (by readers) real-world lesbian relationships. As a result, my coming-out experience was exactly the same as Remus Lupin's in The Shoebox Project.
6. Being gay, or imagining you might be gay, is hot: To read slash fanfiction that explicitly deals with issues surrounding queer identity (aka: almost all slash fanfiction) is to get a trial run on your homosexual lifestyle. In some world somewhere, Sirius Black lost his gay virginity by picking up a guy in a men's restroom. Inspired, I lost my gay virginity in a women's restroom. Gay life offers a billion hot possibilities. Thinking you might pursue them is hot.
7. "Gay for Pay" (forcing supposedly straight men to be gay for your pleasure is hot): How many times have you watched Star Trek and said to yourself: on the surface, this may be really sexist and really heteronormative, but in my mind, Kirk loves his ass to be pounded by hot Vulcan dick? My personal answer is in the neighborhood of 178. But I'm not a big Trekkie compared to some. In a class on fan culture, I had a gay guy friend of mine say he felt really uncomfortable about straight women appropriating gay men for their own sexual fantasies. He knew, as I know, that there is a significant element of conceptual rape involved in the act of slashing. Like the term implies, slashing is violent.
8. You are the Biggest Pervert on the Internet: Transgression is hot: Until the advent of furries, slash fanfiction was the true redheaded stepchild of Internet culture. My admission that I enjoyed slash fanfiction usually brought about a "you're one of those" type of facial spasm from people familiar with online life. The Internet is such a hotbed of perversions that to have even one person believe that you and your peers are the biggest perverts on the Internet is intensely erotic and satisfying. I suspect that for some, this is one of the many pleasures of being a furry.
9. You are the Ultimate Pervert (child porn is hot): Typical Harry Potter fanfiction can easily be described as child pornography on several levels. First, it often places minors (even as young as 11 or 12) in explicitly sexual situations. Second, intergenerational romance, such as Snape/Harry, is common, as well as wildly popular. Third, a child may have written the porn you are consuming. Or, of course, you may be a child. The ultimate in child pornography may be a story written by a 13 year old about a 13 year old Harry fucking a 45 year old Snape, being read by a 13 year old. Particularly if a 13 year old also drew the sexually-explicit illustrations. Gayle Rubin argues ("Thinking Sex," 1984) that intergenerational romance lies at the nadir of the hierarchy of sexual proclivities, and that anti-child pornography and pedophilia laws are the lynchpin of the system of sexual oppression that places gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, nonmonogamous heterosexuals, BDSM enthusiasts, etc etc etc "below" monogamous, married, and reproductive heterosexuals. Thus, if you like Harry Potter slash fanfiction, not only are you the biggest pervert on the Internet, you may also be the BIGGEST PERVERT IN WESTERN CULTURE. Hot.
10. You are the Ultimate (Female) Pervert (perversion is accessible to women): Rubin also argues that anti-porn feminism's tendency to associate "undesirable" sexuality (with the exception of monogamous lesbianism) with male dominance and male privilege stems from the fact that perversion has been historically inaccessible to women. Slash fanfiction allows a predominantly female population to claim a spot among the most depraved perversions of all, and, tentacle-like, to worm its way into the mainstream media being widely disseminated within our culture, even to children. A queer aesthetics of shame may apply here (see Chad Bennett's "Flaming the Fans," in Cinema Journal). However, for fans identifying with feminine gender expression, the distinctive pleasure of being recognized as a pervert may be shamelessly, erotically, enjoyed.
Conclusion: I have been writing versions of this blog post for my whole postpubescent life.
This post is like my coming-out story: an explanation constantly in the process of being constructed. Why explain, you ask? Once, another queer woman told me that my desire to hear a professor's coming-out story was "profoundly anti-Foucaultian." A high insult. Worse, I think she thought I was assimilationist! Diana Pozo: labeled for liking labels.
But we're scholars of discourse and narrative, here in the humanities, and deliberately constructed narratives can be very powerful. Why claim the joy of perversion? the concept of simultaneously wanting to be and wanting to be with a man? the idea that Snape/Draco is child pornography?
When sex radicals, like producers and consumers of slash, explain their proclivities by claiming to be "just like" some mainstream phenomenon (slash is "just like porn for women"), the radical threat is drained out of their practice. In other words, it is possible to cease being queer if you just wish for it hard enough, contrary to popular belief. Being queer is a practice, like gender performance, that must be constantly reproduced. That is why, as a queer pervert and a sex radical, I argue that the pleasures of slash exceed and overflow all explanations that have so far been offered, including mine. The ten-item list I have provided is intended more as an exploratory provocation than as a comprehensive taxonomy (or demonology).
It should also be taken in the context of the online permutations of semianonymous sexuality (and social interaction in general) within which my generation has come of age. Many of us engaged in underage cybersex or viewed online pornography before we ever experienced "real world" sexuality. As the endless call of "faggot" on XBox Live and in online culture seems to indicate, the Internet makes us all queer. Or, Wizard of Oz-like, does it merely reveal that we were all queer all along?