The Fanfic Symposium
Home | Columns | Columns by Year | Columns by Topic | Discussion LJ | Submission Guidelines | Contact

Conduit; or, Sedgwick Revisited
by Kristina

I have a particular fascination with a type of story that--following Rhiannonhero's Smallville story Cherry Blossom Conduit--I want to call conduit fic. [1] Conduit fic in its classical form is an M-F-M dynamic in which the female functions as the conduit, usually using the threesome to allow the guys the intimacy they otherwise cannot allow themselves (yet). In fact, the sex may even be purely het with the simple knowledge of the girl as stand-in or go-between (for example, one of the guys looks at the other while having sex or the woman may have sex with one and then the other, effectively being a substitute in both cases).

In these stories I gladly go het, because the serious emotional investment and attachment, all the tension, remains purely between the guys. There are quite a few first-time stories in various fandoms, where the boys slowly get comfortable with one another over or via the body of the girl (though the same dynamic actually holds true with a male as conduit as well; there the issue often is less the moving from het to gay sex as it is the emotional component).

In a way, these stories literalize Eve Sedgwick’s triangulated desire where the emotional investment is between the two men even though the apparent romantic involvements are between each of them and the women between. [2] Unlike many of the texts Sedgwick studies, however, the conduit is not written out of the text. Often it is from her point of view, so that the obvious object (to be used in a power exchange, an extended flirtation, between the guys) suddenly becomes the central focus point for the reader. That not only allows her to become a subject, to gain agency that she seemingly loses as the go-between, it also allows us the perspective that we as slash writers and readers, of course, hold: we are both voyeurs of the dynamic between the guys as well as often wishful participants who wouldn't mind being part of this.

In other words, we are the conduit, in the sense that we, the slashers, make it happen. After all, we see the subtext, the sexual tension, and bring the guys together, just like the conduit in the story is the means to allow them to touch one another, to kiss each other. At times, the conduit may be aware of the sexual tension long before the guys themselves are. [3] We tend to be physically absent from most of slashdom, but in these stories we write ourselves back into the picture with a vengeance: as an object of lust for both boys, as a voyeur to their intimacy and physical union, as an observer to their developing lust and love, as a confidante to their new and often unsettling feelings.

I love these stories for all these reasons. Yes, I like having and being the guys, but every once in a while, I really don't mind being in my own body and playing out the actual fantasies I obviously have as a slasher. I don't want the guys to fall in love with me rather than one another, but I certainly don't mind being the stand-in or go-between for just a little while.

Even in conduit fic, however, the ultimate goal is for the two guys to finally have their romantic epiphany, at which point the conduit can fade away into oblivion. Its logical conclusion, then, is where the woman ultimately is left out and only gets to watch, which leads to a category associated with conduit fic, the voyeurism fic. If the conduit fic is the story where we can project ourselves into the position of the woman (or man) between our guys, deriving sexual pleasure in their presence and mental pleasure in being the source to make them realize they belong together, the voyeurism fic is the one in which we simply get to watch.

At times, a voyeuristic scene within a story can be genuinely exciting. There are quite a few stories in which a third character will walk in on or observe our couple and stay, allowing us to watch them through his or her eyes. Many of these stories have the added benefit that the third person (often a woman, often having romantic feelings for one or the other of the men in the pairing) finds out about the true love of our heroes and as she becomes aroused by watching the guys go at it, realizes the futility of her love.

This might rear a couple of ugly 'isn't that misogynist?' heads. Why do we always eventually write ourselves out of the stories? Why are we relegated to, at best, participating while knowing we're not actually part of the true love, at worst, observing and pining? Why do we repeatedly force the women in the text out of the picture?

The one answer I have so far is the obvious one: because they are us. They are us as readers: where else would or could we be, but outside the text, looking in. The conduit/voyeur is a literalization of our position as slasher when we do not identify directly with either of the guys; it mirrors the way we actually interact with the objects of our affections and the stories they inhabit.If the conduit fic is all about the writer getting the two boys together and making them see their love and lust, the voyeurism fic is all about the reader looking in, hopefully getting off, but nevertheless mourning the fact that we can neither have any of those guys nor the ideal relationship thus portrayed.

At their best, these stories actually address our own libidinal investment. We definitely get off on voyeuristically participating in the sex and all that goes with it. We observe our characters, and if we sometimes get a convenient character standing in for that perfect and clear view of our guys, all the better. But it's too bad that these observers always lose out on love within the framework of the story. After all, the very premise of voyeurism fic and the (even if only implicit) conclusion of all conduit fic is that we know we cannot ultimately be part of the plot. We do not exist in the same universe (whether literally in FPS or figuratively in RPS), even if we like to visit there and explore our erotic desires and identificatory potentials. Then again, as much I like not being in the story, being on the outside looking in, once in a while it is nice to actually have a stand-in within the story representing me, which is why I have a particular weakness for both conduit and voyeurism.

[1] I’m not sure whether the title used an already existing term or coined it, but I hadn’t seen it before nor could I google it.

[2] Eve Sedgwick. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia U P, 1985.

[3] And here, of course, hovers the specter of the dreaded Yenta Mary Sue.

Home | Columns | Columns by Year | Columns by Topic | Discussion LJ | Submission Guidelines | Contact