Fanfiction: an alternative pornographic history

Words: Kalli Dockrill

Now twenty-one, Kenzie has been writing fanfiction since she was fourteen. Her most recent fanfiction is based on the show Supergirl and features a relationship between Wonder Woman and Leah Luther.

“I started reading fanfiction exactly in my moment of crisis when I realized I was queer,” says Kenzie. “Who I was, the reality of the crushes I had. I was going through all of it in the moment and I couldn’t tell anyone else in my life.” In fanfiction, queer relationships were not alluded to through innuendo: they were described vividly and explicitly. “I jumped head first into really explicit fanfic,” says Kenzie. As her only sexual outlet fanfiction taught Kenzie what a lesbian relationship might look like, and her own writing allowed her control in understanding her sexuality. 

For many adolescent girls, fanfiction is their first exposure to explicit sex. Wattpad, a popular fanfiction site, had over sixty million users in 2020, approximately seventy percent of which were female, and ninety percent of which were Millennials or Gen Z. Written by the consumers, fanfiction gives agency to adolescent girls in a world trying to determine their sexuality for them. In this way, fanfiction is a perfect primary source for historians of sexuality – even if it doesn’t resemble pornography in the traditional sense.

The varying nature of pornographic material is not a new concept to historians who have used seventeenth-century erotic poetry and 1930s strip-teases to analyse sexuality. However, many historians, such as Ian Moulton, have falsely assumed that pornography is always created by men, and for men. Catherine MacKinnon argues that porn always acts upon women, rendering them passive objects of sexual desire. These definitions leave no room for female desire; strikingly heteronormative, this analysis of pornography ignores female agency in constructing sexuality. Fanfiction created by adolescent girls of all sexualities is the perfect challenge. There are no restrictions on fanfiction. As an uninhibited expression of sexual self-discovery fanfiction positions young women as sexually desirous and acts as a window to understanding how their sexuality is developed.

Aiysha Younas started writing fanfiction at thirteen. Younas’ writing used the indicator y/n – or “your name” – instead of a protagonist’s name, allowing readers to insert themselves into the story. There was no shying away from the explicit for Younas, who once wrote a Justin Bieber sex scene which took place in a bathtub. “I didn’t even know what I was talking about,” she says.

For many fanfiction writers, these online stories were their only form of sex education. “I had zero anything,” Younas says. “I never got ‘the talk’ from my parents, I never talked about [sex] with my friends.” In her day-to-day life, Younas was hesitant to express herself as a sexual person. It was only through fanfiction that she could be curious about sex.

Kenzie had a similar experience – one heightened by the lack of queer relationships presented in mainstream media. When she first discovered fanfiction, Kenzie was at a Christian school in India and had grown up in conservative Tanzania. “People still get executed in Tanzania for being queer,” Kenzie emphasises. “I really didn’t even know that [my sexuality] was a thing to be okay with.” A census on popular fanfiction site AO3 from 2013 shows that 29.8% of fanfiction creators identify as bi-/pansexual women. The stories these creators wrote were Kenzie’s first exposure to queer representation. 

Fanfiction, as Kenzie describes, is often constructed in opposition to mainstream popular culture, allowing individuals to have more agency in developing their sexuality. It’s tempting to consider sexuality as learned from popular media rather than innately understood, but fanfiction perfectly exemplifies the latter. Fanfiction, although influenced by popular franchises and public figures, considers sexual relationships outside of prescribed narratives.

Fanfiction is a window into the minds of young women just realising what it means to be sexual, and in some ways is therefore a form of micro-history, which allows historians to consider the gaps in individual knowledge at a specific moment.

On Wattpad, #FreetheLGBT, a hashtag pushing increase LGBTQ representation in fiction, saw an average thirteen-million minutes of monthly reading in 2017. Queer character pairings, like Hermione Granger and Pansy Parkinson, indicate that while popular media is a launchpad for sexual exploration the influence is not direct; instead, individual sexuality projects onto popular franchises, reframing characters in terms of the writer’s own self-discovery. “We want representation that the show will never give,” Kenzie says of the Supergirl fandom she writes for. “We see these two characters on screen and we see them with chemistry […] but the showrunners constantly mock the queer relationship and deny it.”

Without mainstream references, fanfiction communities become self-teaching. The reliance of teenage girls on each other for information mean sexual fantasies are free from outside influences. However, Younas emphasises that a lack of proper education can be harmful when young girls who have never experienced healthy relationships run wild. “[We were] never taught things,” she says, “and you can’t always trust online sources.”

Without proper teaching, some of the more harmful things Younas read materialised in her adult relationships. “There was a lot of BDSM [but] none of the communication; it was always in terms of ‘I own you.’” Younas describes how the majority of fantasies were mixed up in the idea of being wanted, and “nothing else mattered.” Reflecting on her adult relationships later in life, Younas says, “I got into a very bad relationship, but to me I didn’t understand why it was so bad because it was sort of mixing into the things that I had read.” The ideas Younas had explored while writing erotic fiction became a real part of her sexual experiences.

Historians may see parallels between the fanfiction Younas references and erotic romance novels written by women in the 1920s, both of which used abusive sexual relationships as a mode of exploration. The Sheik, written in 1919, featured a protagonist who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped. Written at a time of relative public chastity (as well as serious orientalist racism), the passive role of the protagonist allowed women to explore sexual desire while not actively admitting to wanting sex: it might not surprise you that she ultimately falls in love with her abuser.

Younas expresses similar feelings of shame around her sexuality, sharing that reading fanfiction felt like a secret. On the brink of puberty, sex, to Younas, was not yet a comfortable topic of discussion. Like fanfiction writers, adolescent girls used aggressive sexual encounters to navigate the taboo topic which they weren’t ready to accept as part of their identity in their everyday life. 

What’s intriguing is the similar strategy of exploring sexuality in periods with very different narratives of ‘liberation’. Attitudes towards sex in the 1920s were still heavily policed, with abortion and contraception topics of taboo. In contrast, sexual liberation in the 2000s was the name of the game: sex was in TV, in films, in adverts. But individual expressions of sexuality in fanfiction remain coloured by shame and escapism; in that, fanfiction can be used to challenge the assumption that historical sexual liberation is experienced uniformly across women of all ages and sexualities. 

It’s tempting to centre mass popular culture, electoral politics and liberation movements as the defining features of an era. Highly visible, these moments are generalised and used to characterise entire generations. But fanfiction, like many forms of erotic material, allows insight into sexuality on an individual level. It’s a window into the minds of young women just realising what it means to be sexual, and in some ways is therefore a form of micro-history, which allows historians to consider the gaps in individual knowledge at a specific moment. By bringing fanfiction into our examinations of pornographic material, we reconsider female agency in the construction of our own identities.

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Originally from Canada, Kalli Dockrill is an undergraduate studying History and Politics at the University of Oxford. She is a student journalist with by-lines in The Oxford Student and The ISIS and has been included on a PressPad UK list of exceptional student journalism. You can read her past work here.