The Surprising Way Erotic Fan Fiction Is Helping Young Women

January 15th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Erotic fan fiction is an easy target for snark. Its sexually explicit, far-fetched fantasy narratives borrow characters from preexisting popular works, and are published in insular online communities that can appear bizarre to those outside of them.

When the genre is mentioned in mainstream media, it usually serves as a punch line or an example of an absurd, lowbrow literary form.

But fan fiction can also be a powerful tool, empowering young women to explore sexual fantasies, identities, and desires outside of mainstream pornography and popular media.

Female Character Flowchart

Fan fiction encourages women to define their own identities.

In her paper "Fan fiction online: Engagement, critical response and affective play through writing," scholar Angela Thomas asserts that fan fiction can play a critical role in the identity formation of young women, allowing them to recast themselves as strong characters in their favorite stories. This both provides a forum for self-expression and teaches women to view popular media critically at a young age.

"In their fan fiction, they are able to counter this marginalization by creating the action chicks they expect to see, reflections of both themselves and their female icons," Thomas writes.

Women remain greatly underrepresented in popular media. In 2012, only 28 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films went to female actresses, according to a 2014 report by the Women’s Media Center.

Women's Speaking Roles In Film

Research suggests that the majority of fan fiction authors are female, so fan fiction may be a way of pushing back against the erasure of female stories and perspectives, rewriting stories through the eyes of dynamic female characters, queer people, and women of color.

Erotic fan fiction challenges mainstream sexuality.

The dynamic, participatory nature of erotic fan fiction encourages women to define their own sexual roles and fantasies, rather than simply accept those most visible in pop culture and mainstream heterosexual pornography.

For authors like Anna Andersen, the slash fiction genre in particular — erotic stories about same sex characters — is a way of voicing sexual fantasies and relationships that don't appear on television, film, or in pop-lit.

"For young people curious about issues related to their sexuality, the fan fiction provides a medium for exploring these issues and for seeing themselves reflected in texts which might otherwise marginalize them," Angela Thomas writes.

Fan fiction breeds smart media critics.

For young women, fan fiction can be a way to recognize gaps, flaws, and exclusions in their favorite popular works and enjoy them in a new way.

"Sometimes the things we love just don’t fit into our feminists practices." Ally Boguhn writes on EverydayFeminism.

While it's easy to write off fan-fiction as "thoughtless worship of a given piece of media," Boghun explains, just as often, fan fiction gives voice to marginalized groups and provides a forum to not just explore sexuality, but also alternate narratives, characters, and worlds.

“One tends to think of it as written by total fanboys and fangirls as a kind of worshipful act,” adult fantasy author Lev Grossman tells Indyweek, “but a lot of times you’ll read these stories and it’ll be like ‘What if Star Trek had an openly gay character on the bridge?’ And of course the point is that they don’t, and they wouldn’t, because they don't have the balls, or they are beholden to their advertisers, or whatever. There's a powerful critique, almost punk-like anger, being expressed there — which I find fascinating and interesting and cool."

Behind the stigma.

The stigma about fan fiction may be a feature of how easily and routinely teenage girls and their tastes are dismissed by "serious cultural critics."

In a 2014 piece on Rookie, Hazel Cills rightfully bemoaned the "praise" frequently received by the publication and its young, female writing staff.

"'Whoa, impressive taste for a teen-girl mag!'

"This comment, in one form or another, often gets directed at us on Twitter, especially on Friday nights, right after we post our weekly playlists. It’s also something I hear a lot in real life when I tell people—especially grown men—who I write for. 'Wow!' they’ll say. 'Good work, ladies!' Their surprise might be based on our staff’s working knowledge of punk rock history (yes, we know who the Wipers are) or on the fact that Rookie’s articles are actually thoughtful and well written, but it’s always condescending and insulting, and never itself much of a surprise."

Just as the phenomenon of teenage fandom is often set as counterpoint to meaningful cultural work, fan fiction is more frequently equated with ridiculous fanaticism than critical writing or thinking.

Creating safe spaces.

Beyond the personal value it provides young women and marginalized individuals, fan fiction creates safe and approachable spaces where self-expression and experimentation are encouraged and intertwined.

"Fan fiction is a genre that literally anybody can create and distribute," Boguhn writes. "Within fan fiction, there are infinite opportunities for marginalized people to express themselves, share their own experiences, and create a sense of community."

These communities provide crucial forums where they can connect, create, and experiment with sexual fantasies and creative forms in tandem.