In Defense of PG-13 Slash
When I wrote my first slash fic, I posted an announcement on a relevant
fanlist, and added, "This story is PG-13. No porn."
The response was swift: "Slash without porn? What is the POINT, woman?!?"
And that's been a recurring theme in my slash career ever since.
This debate never seems to stop, no matter how often I go through it. In private emails, people will ask me, often more curious than judgmental, why on earth I don't write sex. Occasionally someone on a list will complain (usually mildly) about the lack of explicit sex in my stories, and other readers invariably leap to my defense. Offlist they send me assurances that I shouldn't let it bother me, I should write the way I want to, etc. Onlist, they'll point out that there are already plenty of explicit writers out there, and it's nice to have one or two demure writers providing sweet old-fashioned romance, and so forth. Only days after one such list skirmish ended, I received an email from someone I had never heard from before, who wasn't on the lists I am and was unaware of the arguments. "Nice stories," she said, "now all you need is some lemon." Even some of my most loyal readers, who consistently read and enjoy my stories, will tell me, "I think your stories are great, and if you would put some sex in them they would be perfect." It never stops.
So I thought I would state my case for PG-13 slash once and for all. Standard disclaimers: This is not intended to be in any way critical of those who do like to write or read graphic sex scenes, nor am I attempting to state that My Way Is The One True Path. This is just about why I personally am sticking to my PG-13 guns.
First, the personal reason. Essays, dissertations and books have been written about what writers get out of producing fanfic. There are all kinds of complicated psychodramas that fanwriters are playing out when they write. For many, and for an infinite variety of reasons, this involves writing about sex. For me, it involves not writing about sex. That literary chastity is what satisfies my personal inner psychodrama.
We all come to fanfiction - and everything else - looking for different things. This naturally influences what stories we're going to like. If you think that Krycek and Mulder were Meant To Be, you're not going to be real keen on Scully/Mulder fics; you likely won't even enjoy the best written ones. So part of the reason that I prefer to read and write PG-13 slash derives from what I come to slash for. Unlike most slashers, I am gay in real life. This has a definite influence on what I look for in slash. (It's no accident that my main fandom, From Eroica With Love, is one in which the gay issues are canon.)
In slash I've found certain things that I can rarely get from professionally published gay fiction. Pro gay fiction falls, broadly speaking, into two categories: the political and the pornographic. Given the persecution and discrimination homosexuals have had to live with for most of recorded history, this is to be expected, but many gay novelists are so busy Making A Statement that they neglect to tell a story. "We interrupt this story to raise your consciousness." This is frustrating to me, especially since the Statement they are making is usually something I and pretty much anyone else who's going to be reading it already agrees with, such as that homosexual intercourse between consenting adults should be legal. And pornography depicting same-sex intercourse abounds; ten minutes from my home is a gay bookstore where I can purchase literally hundreds of videos and magazines and books depicting men doing everything imaginable to other men and women doing everything imaginable to other women. Every time I pick up the local gay newsweekly to check on community events, I flip past pages and pages of pictures of men embracing each other. It doesn't bother me, but I can't say that I really feel the need for any more of it. Been there, done that, the T-shirt is now a rag I use to wax my car.
However, there are two things I can't get in abundance at the gay bookstores.
One of them is a simple portrayal of the emotional experience of being gay, the unique perspective on life that homosexuality gives you. It's surprising that this should be so underrepresented in gay fiction, but it is. Why? My guess is that the heterosexual editors at mainstream presses can't relate enough to our non-political issues to see the value in publishing them, and editors at gay presses feel it's more important to make that political stand.
So I was surprised, when I had been exploring slash fiction long enough to get past the PWPs, to discover that slash does an excellent job of portraying this. (Sentinel slash is an especially rich source of fiction exploring the emotional and psychological journeys of homosexuality.) It's especially impressive to me that so many straight women have such an intuitive understanding of what homosexuals go through. For example, many "first-time" slash fics will depict one character's fears about approaching another man. Will he be disgusted? Angry? Even violent? This is something every homosexual has to live with, the fear that his (or her) most beautiful feelings for someone else will be seen as ugly and repulsive, and that revealing them may result in the loss of a valued friend rather than the acquisition of a lover. But gay fiction seldom depicts these feelings.
Another experience ignored by most gay fiction and depicted beautifully in many slash stories is the uncertainty one feels during one's first gay experiences. Many homosexuals, myself included, spend years in heterosexual relationships before acting on our true desires. Once we start dating our own sex, no matter how experienced we are with the opposite sex, we find ourselves worrying: Am I doing it right? Are the rules different in same-sex encounters? It's almost like having to go back to adolescence all over again, with the same insecurities reprised. Most of these fears turn out to be unfounded, but homosexuals and slash characters experience them just the same. Coming out to others and reconciling gender roles and identity are a couple of other psychological issues that slash, at its best, explores very beautifully.
The other thing I can't find in abundance in gay fiction is virtually the opposite: gay love stories that totally ignore the political and psychological issues that go hand-in-hand with same-sex romance. I'm politically active in gay organizations; the political stand does need to be made. I scour the slash sites for stories that reflect my own inner experiences of same-sex desire. But there are times when I want to forget about all of that for a while and just enjoy a love story for itself, isolated from any Deeper Meanings. It's not an issue when a movie ends with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall united in a blissful embrace, it's just a story about a man and a woman who love each other. There are days when I would give a king's ransom to see a movie that ended with Lana Turner and Bette Davis in a blissful embrace. (Or Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. I'm flexible.) However, just as there are slash fics that offer a sensitive exploration of same-sex love, there are slash fics that blithely ignore all of this and simply tell a story of two people who love each other, whose gender just happens to be the same. This is something that can't be found anywhere else that I know of.
As an aside, I have to say that I prefer it when these stories take place in fandoms where it can be believed. I'd like to think that by the time the Starship Enterprise is launched, no one will care if Counselor Troi is running around with Dr. Crusher. And perhaps no one would lift an eyebrow in a galaxy far, far away if Han Solo and Luke Skywalker got close, close together. And if you're five hundred years old, maybe you've been around enough that you won't bother to ask, "Does Methos like men?" and will cut straight to "Does Methos like me?" On the other hand, late 20th-century policemen do not cheerfully leap into bed with their male partners without a qualm. It's hard for me to maintain my suspension of disbelief with such stories.
I have heard many slash readers state in no uncertain terms that they read slash to get to the sex scenes. Plot and characterization, they say, are there to make the sex scenes more enjoyable. These readers feel cheated if they don't get their "smut payoff".
On the other hand, I steadfastly refuse to write graphic sex scenes, and my personal ficlist has 70 subscribers as of this writing, so evidently there is a readership for PG-13 slash.
I'll admit that I occasionally enjoy reading sex scenes, but they're not what I read a slash fic for. And when I do read them, I feel somewhat naughty. And that's part of the fun. It makes me feel like a teenager in a less permissive era than ours hiding a novel from her parents because it has scenes which are quite daring in her limited experience. But you can only get that thrill of doing the forbidden from something you don't do very often. It has to be a rare treat.
Some people interpret a desire for sexual restraint as a belief that sex is "dirty". Well, I don't believe that sex is dirty. I think it's wonderful (under the right circumstances, yada yada). Treating sex as something daring is respectful to sex. Believing that it shouldn't be indulged in lightly, even on paper (er, onscreen), simply means that it is important. It keeps it special. And if sex became unimportant, if it were easily available in any flavor at any time, it wouldn't be much fun anymore. It wouldn't be special.
When I was fifteen or so, sex scenes in novels and movies were fascinating to me, because at that age, sex was something new and different. But the novelty has worn off long ago. At some point, I started going out for popcorn during the sex scenes, because I already knew what was going to happen.
There are, as my defenders say, plenty of writers out there already writing graphic sex. I do a lot of research for my stories. I once spent two hours looking at websites about missiles just so that one of my characters could say, "Those missiles sound like Soviet SA-7 Grails." That same week, another writer posted a fic to a list I'm on that had a couple of factual errors. Someone else pointed them out, and the writer declared that checking facts "would waste valuable time that would be better spent writing smut." So others are covering the smut territory. (Including many who do waste valuable time checking facts.)
Sex scenes are more problematic than any other story element.
I've looked over my own favorite slash fics by other writers, and there's only two of them whose plots would really lose anything if the sex scenes were taken out. For the rest, the sex is just an added bonus. In most stories, if the sex scenes don't match my personal turn-ons, I skim over them so I can get back to the story. Yes, you read that right: when I read slash, I usually skip the sex scenes.
Sex scenes tend to breed bad writing. Author Florence King said, "There are two things that can't be described, and one of them is a sunset." Sex has been pretty much the same for thousands of years. There isn't much hope of finding a fresh and original way of describing the same old acts, but that doesn't stop writers from trying, usually disastrously.
Terms like weapon, sword, pistol, and the widely ridiculed "manhood" are trite beyond redemption by now, but attempts at originality generally emerge as comical rather than erotic. Want to make a Kirk/Spock slasher laugh? Say "jade pagoda". Another is "rosebud" - okay, let's just not go there. In addition to comical, they're often nauseating. I had the misfortune to read one (very bad) fic where one character's tongue was described as "like a slice of warm apple in his lover's mouth". Pass the Tums.
Sex is subjective. Much more so than other story elements. We all have different squicks and turn-ons. Occasionally I'll be reading a nice hot sex scene, my toes are curling, I'm enjoying myself, and then - Eeeew! He did what?!? Yuck, how could he? Ick! Ick!
It's also subjective on a more subtle level. On a few occasions, I've asked other readers what their favorite sex scenes in our shared fandoms are. One friend mentioned what I personally consider the hottest scene in that fandom, and said, "That read like a 'how-to' manual." She then mentioned a couple of scenes that I found dull and slightly icky as examples of really good sex scenes. And this is not an isolated case, but a pattern I see repeated over and over. Personally, I'd rather the writer just faded to black and let me use my imagination rather than shattering my vision of the story with something that doesn't float my personal boat.
There are some cases where less is more, and I believe that this is one of them. I'd rather fill in the blanks myself, most of the time. Usually the scenes leading up to the sex are much hotter than the sex itself, the scenes where the characters are giving each other looks, driving each other up the wall just by being near each other, each trying to get up the nerve to make the first move, gradually leading up to the moment that they'll actually touch.... In my opinion, the sexiest scene in any movie ever was in The Age of Innocence, when Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoned Michelle Pfeiffer's glove and kissed the skin of her wrist. That scene still makes me melt.
Sex scenes seem to have more logistical problems, more continuity errors than any other kind of scene. In one of my own favorite stories, the author specifically states that our heroes start the act lying on their sides. Then she gives us the sentence, "His lover cried out beneath him." Beneath him? How did he get beneath him? I thought they were on their sides! A careful scrutiny of the scene does not mention any change of position. The scene contains at least two more difficult-to-visualize changes of position. Puzzling these out necessarily detracted from the otherwise very sexy chemistry of the scene. In another favorite fic of mine, while one of the characters is caressing the other's genitals, the rest of the caressee seems to vanish into thin air. A few paragraphs later when the owner of the temporarily disembodied genitals speaks, the feeling is, Where has he been all this time? This is a frequent problem - I often find myself wondering, what's the other guy thinking at this moment? What's the expression on his face? Is he making noise? Most of him seems to have evaporated.
And these are the good writers. The first-rate, most stellar writers. If they make confusing statements like these, what about lesser writers? Well, I recently read an otherwise fairly good Xena fic that included an anatomically impossible f/f scene. I skimmed it first as I usually do with sex scenes, but an illogical phrase caught my eye and I backtracked. I reread it three times to be sure it actually said what I thought it said. It did. (Is sex without a penis really that hard to imagine?) I'd link it, but I deliberately lost the link in an attempt to erase the traumatic memory. This is definitely a story which would have been better off fading to black and leaving us to imagine what went on behind the closed doors. Many of us would have imagined something that two women can actually do.