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Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction

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Browsing through the Guardian today, I came across this article by Ewan Morrison on the history and popularity of fan fiction, with eventual, inevitable reference to Fifty Shades of Grey. The essay is something of a hodgepodge, to say the least, containing multiple glaring inaccuracies (slashfic, for instance, is rather restrictively called a "sub-genre in which buddies from classic TV become gay lovers," while the origin of the Mary Sue moniker manages, rather bizarrely, to get the name of the titular character wrong -- Morrison has her named after the author, Paula Smith, instead of, as one might reasonably infer from the trope itself, Mary Sue) and dabbling in outright negative bias, with crossover fics and mashups described as being "aesthetically bankrupt," consisting of "convoluted, meaningless mergings" that lead to "an incomprehensible mess."

Now: while I could easily spend a few thousand words doing a line-for-line crit and debunk of Morrison's piece, pointing out the mistakes he's made, the problematic nature of his biases and all the relevant questions he's managed to ignore or elide -- such as whether or not the constant mainstream rebooting, reappropriating and remixing of old stories and franchises actually counts as a form of fan fiction in itself, as per the latest James Bond films, TV series like Once Upon A Time, graphic novels like Bill Willingham's Fables, Gregory Maguire's Wicked and every recent incarnation of Sherlock Holmes -- what I really want to talk about is sex. Because while an undeniably massive proportion of fan fic deals with romance, relationships, non-canonical or otherwise impossible pairings and -- yes -- spectacularly detailed pornography, the titillating novelty of this fact is such that few people often bother to stop and ask why this is. And right now, that seems like a much more interesting question than whether or not Ewan Morrison actually knows what he's talking about.

Not long ago, I wrote a piece on why YA sex scenes matter -- in a nutshell, because they're pretty much the only form of sex-positive, female-centric sexiness on the market. In that context, then, the fact that the vast majority of fan fic writers are understood not only to be women, but young women -- something Morrison utterly fails to mention -- cannot help but be intensely relevant to any discussion of sex in fan fic. Culturally, we've spent thousands of years either denying, curbing or vilifying the female sex drive, to the point that even now, the idea of pornography geared towards a female audience is still fundamentally radical. More than that: the modern porn industry is actively hostile towards women, treating them as identical, interchangeable sex objects who exist to be the subjects of desire and lust, not its instigators -- and that means that, 99 times out of 100, if women want to arouse themselves, their first port of call isn't going to be mainstream porn, but rather a medium that actually takes their desires and personhood into account.

Which, of course, the rest of the world still tends to find ridiculous: Romance novels have always been sneered at, while the new vogue for disparaging various sexy, successful books as 'mommy porn' always makes me want to stab things -- not necessarily in defense of the books themselves, but in outrage at the need to establish adult female desire, and particularly the desires of mothers, as being somehow comic, diminutive, novel. It's a species of sexual condescension -- oh, you're 40, female and fond of orgasms? how quaint! (or how disgusting, depending on the level of misogyny involved) -- that's so entrenched we've almost ceased to recognize it as such. But once you stop to contrast Internet and magazine porn with the sex scenes of romance novels -- or, as we might cautiously venture, to contrast male-oriented porn with female-oriented porn -- there's a single, massively significant difference between the two forms above and beyond the obvious: The presence of actual, mutual desire in the female-oriented media.

To quote the wonderful Caitlin Moran:

Imagine if pornography was not this bizarre, mechanized, factory-farmed fucking: bloodless, naked aerobics, concerned solely with high-speed penetration and ostentatious ejaculation. Imagine if it were about desire.

Because the one thing I couldn't find, that night as I glided around the Internet, was desire. People who actually wanted to fuck each other. HAD to fuck each other. Imagine watching two people screwing at that early, white-hot stage of attraction when your pupils dilate just looking at each other, and you want to melt each other's bones so bad you're practically eating each other's clothes off the minute the door closes.

Which brings us back to fan fiction, and the reason why it's so heavily saturated with sex: because when you take two people you already care about, whose stories you already know and whose attraction has either been long-established in canon or the detailed subject of your own imaginings, then any romantic or sexual interaction between them comes freely imbued with white-hot, ready-made desire. These aren't just strangers we're perving on purely because we like their bodies (although that can certainly still be part of it); they're characters to whom we feel a strong emotional connection and in whose relationships we're invested, such that watching them have sex, regardless of the quality of the prose, is guaranteed to be about a thousand times more arousing than the sight of yet another anonymous blonde get screwed by some faceless, grunting goon on the internet. Sex in fan fiction matters because it's a glaring representation of everything that's missing from mainstream porn, and because it stands as evidence of the wealth of female desire -- and particularly young female desire -- that's barely being acknowledged elsewhere, let alone catered to. It's also relevant that, whereas romance novels require the lust-seeking individual to read effectively a whole book before the payoff -- the better to build both a sense of climax and a relationship with the protagonists -- fan fiction can provide (ahem) a quicker release, simply by virtue of the fact that, as the reader already knows the characters, they can skip to the main event without compromising that crucial sense of desire.

Which isn't to say that all sexy fan fiction is either female-authored or sex-positive; as Morrison himself repeatedly points out -- with a certain morbid, voyeuristic glee, in must be said -- there's a lot on offer that's non-consenting, pedophilic, creepy or otherwise downright disturbing. That being said, however, I'd certainly much prefer that whatever percentage of the populace likes that sort of thing is getting their rocks off to material that, by virtue of being written, doesn't require the actual sordid debasement of actual human beings in order to exist -- because the alternative doesn't bear thinking about. What I'm getting at, though, is that the presence of sex in fan fiction is something most commentators tend to grossly misunderstand, preferring to wave their hands in pretend shock that such weirdness could ever exist without bothering to look to at the underlying reasons.

And at the end of the day, while a lot of fan fic is either sex-heavy or written with audience arousal firmly (heh) in mind, it would also be wrong to define it purely on those terms. Caring about stories is human nature; we invest in them, in their worlds and ideas and characters, and we retell them endlessly, because that's what people do. In his rush to establish the parameters of fan fic as a term belonging only to the period after both fans and copyright came to exist, Morrison misses the importance of those earlier, more fluid means of storytelling, viz: that borrowing, altering, undoing and remaking stories has always been a fundamental part of human culture. Contexts and nomenclature might change from era to era, as do the most common means of production and dissemination, but the fundamental drive -- to retell our favourite stories in ways that show our love for them -- remains constant.