Plain Answers from a Het Woman
by Dark Twin
Probably every female member of the huge worldwide community of slash fans of all fandoms has asked herself this question at some point, and so have I. It didn’t happen immediately after I’d discovered the phenomenon of slash, but after merrily playing around in that world for a few months, both reading and writing, at some point I sat down and found myself wondering. I hadn’t actually noticed how much I liked slash, even it was more that I noticed that I didn’t like m/f romance in fanfic (I still don’t), and that I disliked it precisely because it was all about love and sex when the original story of my favourite fandom wasn’t. That made sense to the canon-maniac in me it seemed somehow disrespectful of the original author to throw her characters into bed together when she herself had obviously not planned for them to end up there (yet). But that seemed curiously inconsistent with the fact that I was already knee-deep into another fanfic genre in the same fandom that was all about love and sex. And that in a way that is probably even more removed from the original author’s ideas than the het fics.
Canon-mania and respect for the original author aside, it just wasn’t logical. I’m a heterosexual female. I was getting turned on by the idea of two men having sex. It didn’t make sense.
Being the analytical person that I am, I set out to explore this phenomenon, maybe in the hopes of finding answers that would set my mind at rest, maybe in the hope of distancing myself from the problem by rationally analysing it to death (I tend to do that), I don’t know. And I had to start by wondering whether I was even asking the right question.
I. Asking the right question
I’ve waded through tons of material mostly discussions and essays within the fandom, though, as unfortunately there still doesn’t seem to be much “objective” research out there. Most articles outside of the fandom are only just discovering the phenomenon and are only just starting to ask the question - far from providing answers. (And even Henry Jenkins is a slash fan himself, too.)
As far as answers go, I didn’t expect there to be only one. I also didn’t expect all the various answers out there to apply to me. What I did discover though is that while reading different people’s attempts at answering the question has been very inspiring and helpful, ultimately the only person that can answer why I like slash is myself. Which I will now attempt to do.
So this is not about “Why Women Like Slash”, or “Why Heterosexual Women Like Slash”, this is about ”Why I Like Slash.” I’m not advocating anyone’s cause except my own. So no generalisations will be attempted. But if any of this resonates with anyone who reads this, I will be happy. It’s always good to know that one is not alone.
I have come across quite a few possible answers to my question that didn’t make sense to me personally (so I called them the “Non-Answers”), but it was working through them that helped me figure out which ones did, and they may work for other female fans anyway so the way I’ll do this will be to present all possible answers that I could find, and give my own view on them.
And to get the technicalities out of the way I’m aware that the term “slash” generally covers both m/m and f/f scenarios. But it’s only the m/m scenarios that I’m interested in and that I’ll be talking about here. If you came here looking for thoughts on the appeal of femmeslash, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
II. The “Non-Answers”
Answer # 1: Slash is a socio-political statement Women are using it to promote feminism, gay issues etc.
There seems to be a connection between feminism, or at least firm belief in gender equality, and enjoying slash. The statistics pretty much point in that direction, and I fit into that pattern. I’m not of the militant, man-hating kind, but I do believe in gender equality, and traditional views of gender roles annoy me in Real Life and bore me in fiction and the mainstream media. But slash as a political statement? Not me. If I wanted to get active politically, there’d be more efficient ways of getting the relevant people’s attention than spending hours, days and weeks at my computer reading fanfic, and occasionally typing up pieces of my own.
As for promoting gay issues, I support them, but I’m very definitely heterosexual and my interest in Real Life gay issues is of a purely objective social and political kind. While reading and writing slash has certainly made me more aware of gay issues, I don’t see my reading or writing of it as a contribution to promoting them. On the contrary, I keep feeling guilty that I might actually be doing the male gay community a disfavour by writing of what I don’t know as if I did. Because how do I know I’m getting the m/m dynamics right?
Answer # 2: Liking slash is an act of rebellion it’s a cool, new subculture, and the very idea is still shocking to a lot of people, which is fun.
Again, this might be true for people who openly admit in their Real Life that they read and write slash I understand that there can be a certain sort of gratification in a shocked look on your parents’/teachers’/classmates’/co-workers’ faces. But it doesn’t apply to me for the simple reason that this interest of mine is a really, really private thing. So private that not even my nearest and dearest have a clue that I’m reading and writing this stuff. In fact, I’m terrified at the idea of them (or anyone in my Real Life, really) ever finding out.
Answer # 3: Women like slash because it’s an interactive subculture that doesn’t exploit anyone commercially or sexually, like mainstream pornography and literature tend to do.
Yes, sure, that’s all great about slash. The interactive aspect is wonderful everybody brings their own ideas to it (with very low entrance barriers both for publishing stories and participating in debates), writers get feedback and good advice, people start talking about things they’ve never dared to talk about before, lasting friendships are formed…
And also, it’s cheap, nobody exploits your obsession financially, nobody manipulates you into accepting any mainstream standard aesthetics or moral codes, no real people are treated with disrespect or even degraded to mere objects in the creative process…
… but that’s not what I was looking for when I came to slash. These are all nice side-effects, additional bonuses. But if I didn’t simply like to read and write those stories, I wouldn’t be here, for all the sense of community and solidarity and delicious subversive-ness that defines the genre.
Answer # 4: Slash is all about exploring human relationships and the underlying emotions and the characters’ personalities.
Well, it is. The characters matter. They matter so much that I, for example, really only ship one ship at all which is made up of two characters that I’ve always been a big fan of, ever since I read the book they appear in for the first time, and long before I even knew what the term “slash” meant. It was just their fascinating personalities and their history that appealed to me. So apparently it would be perfectly possible to sort through my favourite characters’ personalities and the world they live in on a deep and meaningful level without pairing them up in a romantic, sexual relationship. And lots of great fics do just that. And then, there are also many other characters in the same book that I find very interesting and intriguing and like reading good fics about, and still in connection with them, the sexual aspect never even enters my mind. So why the slash, why not stick to gen fic?
Answer # 5: OK, so then it’s all about the sex!
That’s the usual answer when people no longer know what else to say. It’s just HOT, isn’t it? Yes, of course it is but that’s simply not all, and neither does it explain what’s hot about it. Except in my fairly rare moods when I go and read a good dose of utter porn just because I need it, and things become pretty detached from the characters (I do read other pairings then, too), mere hotness or level of arousal is not all that matters. As I said, it matters who it is - in general, the idea of most male characters in my fandom having sex with any other male character is not only unappealing to me, but positively disturbing, and I’d rather not think about it at all.
So, sex or character development? Both, definitely. I believe both aspects exist in their own right in slash, and they also go hand in hand. How exactly, I will go into more detail below.
III. The narrative appeal character development, emotions and relationship dynamics
Answer # 6: Assuming that the characters are gay makes for great narrative material, especially when the story is set in a world where homosexuality isn’t generally accepted.
Yes. The good old pattern of Love in the Face of Adversity certainly works for me as well as for anyone else, judging by the enormous popularity of the theme ever since the first piece of romantic fiction was written. Think Romeo and Juliet. And the lovers being homosexual can serve the same narrative purpose as the lovers being separated by family feuds, class boundaries, cultural background etc. they have to hold on to their love against all odds, which is awfully romantic and heroic. And the typical elements of this, like separation against the lovers’ will, the need for secrecy, the fear of being discovered, being discovered, make for great thrills in a story. I’m really drawn to those. And of course these themes can turn up in a het fic just like in a slash fic, it’s just that in slash fic, they seem to turn up a lot more regularly.
Then there is also the internal process of the characters figuring out their own sexual orientation, which can be very interesting to follow the surprise at the realisation of being gay, maybe denial, the fear of being rejected by others because of it, maybe being rejected … all psychologically very interesting, and a great source of conflict and tension in stories. And statistically, this seems to be a popular theme mostly in the form of stories in which the characters discover their sexual orientation through falling in love which each other. And I love those. I don’t go along with the “they’re not gay, they’re just in love with each other!”, but I am a sucker for stories in which the characters (at least one of them) are not yet aware that they’re gay and are discovering it together. Although that’s maybe it’s just the romantic in me I’m a great believer in monogamy and faithfulness and the concept of a “one true love”, and it hurts to think of my heroes having had former relationships with other guys (unless it’s an interesting plot device and source of tension and conflict in the story itself).
This theme is not always treated with the depth it deserves, though. And it tends to annoy me when fics make too light of this. No matter what the cultural background of the characters is, I can’t imagine this process to be a conflict-free, quick and easy one.
Another suggestion that I came across was that in accepting his own homosexuality, a male character is forced to rethink his own perception of gender stereotypes and that requires an open-mindedness and a sort of courage that we women would definitely like to see more in men.
Being gay also makes a character interesting in other ways because it is unusual, different, and (still) slightly against the norm. “Rebel” characters are appealing, to me as I’m sure to many other women, and while maybe there is no act of rebellion in my picturing the characters as gay, there might very well be one in their own being gay, and the more so the less it is accepted in the world they live in. Being gay also usually comes as a surprise it’s a bit of a thrill to be challenged, as a reader, to say goodbye to your usual patterns of thinking that automatically default to “het” when you see “male”. This is even more so when the story is not only about one character’s discovery of their sexual identity, but about two characters discovering just what those currents are that run between them. It’s the transformation of a (by default) platonic relationship into a (unexpectedly) romantic, sexual one that fascinates me. After all, in a long-standing friendship-only relationship between a guy and a girl, it’s at least not surprising when a sexual aspect comes into it at some point. Between men, it certainly is.
Homosexuality also makes a character intriguingly ambiguous because their sexual orientation and the role they take on in their m/m relationship might not reflect how they’re usually perceived by outsiders. With a classic m/f relationship, the gender roles pretty much run parallel on the outwardly visible side of the relationship (who earns the money, who looks after the kids; who gets to have adventures, who sits at home and waits) and on an internal, intimate level (who takes the more active, who the more passive part; who takes the initiative and who responds). In a m/m relationship, it’s a lot harder to jump to these conclusions. And it’s this idea of “hidden” sides of a character, of picturing them in situations that are quite unlike what you’d have imagined just from what you see on the outside, in canon, that makes slash interesting to me, too.
Answer # 7: Women use slash to explore the concepts of ”mateship” and male bonding.
Yes, definitely. I really like these concepts in Real Life, too. I like that way of relating to each other. And I’m sorry to see that true, deep friendship between two men (even in a strictly platonic sense) seems to be becoming a rare phenomenon, as it’s considered to be somehow “unmanly”. That’s a shame, because I think it’s a good thing for men (any human being, really) to relate to someone else on that deep level.
But I also like these concepts because I feel, as far as I can as a woman, quite at home in them myself. That is, as far as I’m allowed into them. The majority of my good, indeed best friends are male, I tend to get on really well with men on a strictly-friendship-only level. All the same, I can’t help feeling that I’m only ever trying - and ultimately failing - to relate to them in the same way that they relate to their male “mates”. Because I am, after all, a woman. That pains me. I like to be “one of the guys”. But all the same, I always feel just a little bit deficient, like that world of male mateship and bonding will ultimately always be closed to me. So the only means I have of really going to the bottom of it, rather than just getting glimpses, is my imagination, fiction and fantasies.
But why slash? Why not just the boys’ world, but without the sexual aspect? Why sex and not just Quidditch? Well, a boys’ world without any sexual aspects at all is virtually unimaginable. And slash could be seen, in a way, as the ideal form of deep male friendship because in slash, you have this deep bond between the characters on all possible levels, in all imaginable respects, with no reservations at all - mind, body and soul. It’s this total, all-encompassing dedication of one character to the other that both warms and hurts my heart.
Answer # 8: When you pair your hero up with his best mate, there can be no third person “intruding” on their deep friendship by claiming the hero’s attention for themselves.
Well, while this statement is of course true in itself the Yoko Ono phenomenon, if you like I fail to see how this applies to slash in particular, if it is only about not disrupting the bonds of friendship and mutual understanding between the heroes. If you want to write about an ideal friendship, undisrupted by (female) intrusions, why not just write gen fic? Who hasn’t ever felt a certain regret at Sam Gamgee hooking up with Rosie Cotton in the end, who has no idea what he and Frodo Baggins have been through? But all of this doesn’t make it a necessity that the best mate becomes the hero’s love interest himself. In your fanfic, you could just eliminate the intrusion by eliminating the sexual factor altogether, and they could still have just a deep friendship, without sex.
Answer # 9: In slash, women get the chance to write male characters the way they want to see them, rather than the way men are in Real Life.
Male characters in slash fics are indeed often written in a way that makes them slightly more “female” than they are in canon, or than they would realistically be. They’re better listeners, they show more empathy, they’re more sensitive and more intuitive, they communicate differently compared to their cousins in Real Life. All those are qualities that are usually (justly or not) labelled as “female”. Personally, it really annoys me when a fic goes overboard on the feminisation of the protagonists. That’s the moment my brain kicks back in and I just want some more realism, please. But it’s a question of degrees. In moderation, I like it. Until I get to the point when it’s simply too much, I usually enjoy exploring the more “female” sides of the characters. (I usually cheat myself by pretending that it’s a “hidden” side of them that’s somehow always been there, even if the canon doesn’t suggest it or they’re only just discovering it themselves…)
But while the term “feminisation” only describes the phenomenon we end up making the male characters “more like us” - the reason why we do it, and why it appeals to me, is still unclear. It is probably two-fold.
Answer # 9 A: We feminise the male characters because it makes them more like us women, so we can relate to them better.
I don’t feel that I need to do that. I very often and very easily relate to “typically male” characters in stories, too. In fact, I probably more often find myself relating to very male male characters than to female ones, why ever exactly that is. I definitely don’t find that the more “female” a character is, the more do I relate to him/her. Maybe this has to do with my self-perception I don’t see myself as all that female either, in many ways.
Answer # 9 B: We feminise the male characters because it makes them more like we want men to be.
I’m happier with this explanation. Because, yes, I do think that men in general could do with a few more “female” qualities. Not only because I’d personally find it easier to interact with them then, but also because I think it would make the world a better place.
This is often referred to in the more academic approaches to the topic as “In slash, women re-write masculinity”. I think this is a bit of an exaggeration I don’t mean to re-write masculinity as such, nor do I mean to entirely re-write it in my fics. But in my fics, I’m free to create “ideal” characters and an “ideal” relationship - and part of the definition of my “ideal” is apparently that there should be more of an emphasis on female qualities. (Another important part is the equality issue I’ll come to that later.)
You could argue that a woman doesn’t need to write slash for that, it would suffice to just generally write male characters in the way we want them to be, in het fics and even gen fics. Why not write about a man being wonderfully understanding and sensitive and intuitive in a het relationship? Isn’t it a shame that this would obviously look so implausible, so unrealistic, that we have to resort to slash to make it work? Well, it’s not entirely unrealistic (these guys exist, thank God!). But still, after two or three thousand years of Western culture and civilisation, any depiction of a m/f relationship comes with so much cultural “baggage”, so many prefabricated role models and behavioural patterns, so many deeply ingrained biological and social codes that it’s really hard to free yourself from that and redefine the roles, because you’re not in a social vacuum. Slash, on the other hand, offers a wonderfully clean slate.
Which leads us into:
Answer # 10: Slash makes it possible to write a relationship that is entirely free of the usual gender stereotypes and traditional role models.
That’s so true there are so many aspects that make m/f relationships complicated that you simply don’t have to deal with in slash. And I don’t only mean pregnancy. (Although I do believe that anyone who writes a fic that deals with male pregnancy deserves to be shot at dawn.) The mechanics of gay sex are complicated enough in their own right to show that two guys don’t have it easier in bed than a guy and a girl.
What I mean are the underlying dynamics, the patterns that we tend to fall back on, the clichés and expectations that are imprinted on me like on most other women. Although I’m critically aware of many of them, I can’t claim to be free from them altogether.
As I have seen it put,
"It's just that at some point in m/f, you have to deal with either (1) how the relationship defies traditional m/f roles, or (2) how the characters deal with the conflict inherent to those roles. Sometimes I just get tired, you know?” (internet resource, author unknown)
I so feel your pain, sister. The way I see it, this problem really is two-fold, too it’s not so much that we want to protest but can’t, but also that we’re supposed to protest but don’t always want to.
It’s not that we all live so firmly inside the traditional m/f gender roles that we can break out of them only in fiction (although some of us may, and I hear this is the big appeal of the yaoi fandom in Asian countries). The problem is rather that we, as modern women, are always supposed to deal with these traditions actively, to say where we stand in relation to them, be it in protest or in agreement - and preferably in protest. It’s not only the traditional, conservative powers in our cultures that have their expectations of us it’s also the progressive powers. A traditionalist might not want me to read or write a story with a strong female heroine who only keeps her male partner as a decorative side-kick. But equally, a progressive person (maybe a fervent feminist) might not want me to read or write a good old traditional tale of male prowess and triumph and victory in battle, where it’s the women that sit at home and wait for the King to Return. I’m caught between the two. No matter which I choose, I’m always made to feel a bit guilty because I break the rules of tradition or because I don’t break them. Whichever way, I’m always supposed to Deal With The Issue. And like the fellow fan in the quote above, sometimes I just get tired of it. Which is where slash comes in really handy.
But that sounds a bit as if I would actually prefer to write het fic and only resort to slash to avoid certain problems. That is not true, because it’s the slash I actively seek out. So what is its specific appeal, other than avoiding some problems of traditional het fic?
Answer # 11: Slash makes it possible to write a relationship where there is true equality.
That is certainly true, and I’m sure that’s a big point why I like it. It’s the most frequently quoted answer to the question that I’ve come across, too. A m/m relationship is free from the structural inequality that biology (and consequently, society) imposes on m/f relationships. In slash, the biological outset of the characters is exactly equal, and so is their perception in society. And there are no superimposed expectations and role models to fall back onto in the way they define their roles within the relationship the characters are free to interact on an exactly equal level in a way that is rare if not impossible in het relationships. At least much harder to achieve.
Well, of course I don’t always want to just write or read about perfect, ideal relationships too much happiness and harmony in a story will bore me. But at least whenever there is conflict, whenever the characters clash, it is always because of their individual personalities, never just because of their gender and conflicts are resolved according to how it works best for them as individuals, not by resorting to a general (biologically imposed or socially accepted) default resolution. And that, in a way, is an ideal, too because that’s what I wish the world, and human relationships, were like that everyone would only be judged as an individual, as a person, not as a man or woman.
So, in essence, summarising the narrative possibilities slash offers, I couldn’t say it better than Tracy Mayo (Boston Globe 29 June 2003, 14):
It is the projection of gay men as the best of both worlds, attractive and male, while still able to be caring and share feelings.
Or, as I’ve read it elsewhere:
The “ideal” human in a misogynistic world: male body, male power, female ways of relating. (internet resource, author unknown)
As I’ve tried to point out, it’s not only these gender role-related answers that make sense to me. There are also other answers that deal with a more general narrative appeal that really resonate with me. But the thing is, I’ve never come across another genre of literature, original or otherwise, that satisfies so many of my desires and covers so many themes that I like to see dealt with in stories all at once. Slash has it all. That’s why I love it.
All right, all right! I hear you say. So that’s why slash is a great genre to write and read, and why it’s good for the soul. But why is it so HOT?
I promise I’ll come to that. There is still one more answer to be discussed in this section, but it will lead us straight into part IV.
Answer # 12: There are simply no or not enough good, strong female characters to identify with in fiction.
This obviously depends heavily on which fandom we’re talking about. I find that in my favourite fandom, there are some great female characters - strongly drawn, many-layered, intriguing, wonderful creations. No trouble either finding one to identify with. But the interesting male characters still outnumber the interesting female ones by far. That’s a simple mathematical fact. Not one of the girls gets my imagination going like the men do (not even in a purely platonic admiring-the-hero sort of way).
But I feel I’m skirting the issue here because even if there were more great female characters, would I still be as interested in them as I am in the guys? Do I want more interesting female characters? Answer, plain and simple, no. I’m happy with the guys, thanks. Because no matter how great those female characters might be, they could never let me explore what I’m trying to explore through slash. Simply because they are female. Like me.
IV. The sexual appeal taboos, fantasies, and the Safety of Fiction
Let me first come to the answer that I’ve heard most often, and that, in my opinion, goes least to the point of all.
Answer # 13: One hot man in action is good. Two hot men in action is twice as good.
Also comes in the formula “Two is better than one” or “Double your pleasure”. People often offer it with a kind of shrug as if to say, “at least that’s the best explanation I have”, admitting that it is somehow unsatisfying, and doesn’t seem to really go to the point. And I don’t think it does, either.
Obviously, I find the idea of one hot man appealing, so I consequently find the idea of two hot men appealing, too. But when these two men start getting hot together, my enjoyment of the scenario isn’t doubled, it explodes exponentially. It takes things to a whole new level. “Two hot men” is not twice as good as “one hot man” it’s three, four, or five times as good. Because what matters is not the number of people involved (Does anyone’s enjoyment of a sex scene increase simply by number of people participating? Are fivesomes by definition hotter than foursomes?). What matters is that with two, as opposed to one, you get interaction. Think that’s stating the obvious? You won’t believe how many slash fans seem to be satisfied with the simple formula quoted above, as if it’s just a matter of quantity. When there’s interaction, things start to really sizzle for me it’s seeing the deeper bond between two aesthetically appealing men expressed in erotic action, not just the aesthetics themselves, that make the appeal. So of course two are better than one alone. But not because two are twice as many as one, but because it takes two to become one.
On to another very popular “answer” that isn’t really one.
Answer # 14: Women are aroused by male slash for the same reason that men are aroused by lesbian scenes in porn.
I really don’t think so. I don’t claim to be an expert on why men like lesbian scenes in porn, but this is one of the few topics related to the slash issue that I have actually talked about with some of my male Real Life friends. What they all agree on is this: Men like those “lesbian” scenes because they know they’re a fake. They’re just a prelude or interlude to m/f sex, just two deep-down heterosexual girls passing the time and getting in the mood until the “real” action starts, which always involves a man. The underlying sentiment is always that what those “lesbians” (and in consequence, possibly all lesbians) really want is a man, after all. Only they’re so horny they can’t get enough or they can’t wait, so that’s why they like playing with each other, too. It’s not “real” sex until the man comes in. It’s complementary, additional, not an alternative. That makes it inherently different from how I see male slash. In slash, I have never pictured the protagonists to be deep-down straight although they were engaging in homosexual activities. On the contrary, half the thrill is the revelation that these characters really are gay, while in canon, they are presented as straight or at least of unknown sexual orientation (which automatically defaults to “het” in most people’s minds). That’s the exact opposite of the appeal of “lesbian” porn. I never assume that what these two hot guys really want is a girl. I’ve never seen or even heard of a slash fic that had two men playing with each other while they were waiting for the girl to arrive and the real sex to start. (OK, I don’t read threesomes except for one specific m/m/m combination, but still.)
There are a few similarities the general “otherness” and “strangeness” of the idea of two persons of the same gender together in bed appeals in both cases; and the “appeal of the forbidden” might be strong for people who have been taught to think of it as wrong; but if what I outlined above really is what men like the “lesbian” scenes for, it compares in no way to the appeal m/m slash has for me.
Answer # 15: Slash appeals because it deals with a not generally socially accepted, “forbidden” type of sexuality it allows you to break a taboo and enjoy what you usually rationally think or morally feel to be wrong.
For some people, this might be true. But my own views of homosexuality are about as liberal as they could be, and have always been - that’s how I was brought up. It has never been a “forbidden” world for me, nobody’s ever tried to make me believe that it’s strange or abnormal or disgusting, and nor do I. It is different, of course. But an act of rebellion against my culture or my upbringing or my own moral codes I can’t see in this.
Answer # 16: Male sexuality is more interesting to explore for women than female sexuality after all, women know all about that.
I would never claim to know all about female sexuality (or why else would I feel the need to write this!?). But I certainly know more about female sexuality than about the male. The female one, with all the unanswered questions that I still have about it, is naturally a lot more accessible to me. Maybe it’s even objectively more thoroughly researched but also just on a personal level, it holds fewer secrets, fewer mysteries for me. And I have a better idea where to go looking for answers if I have any questions about it. That’s all different with male sexuality. I’m about as curious about it as I am about the female (because I’m heterosexual, I suppose) and I’m curious about every aspect of it. But I lack both information on it, as well as the means to quickly ascertain whether my assumptions about it are right. After all, I can’t just try things out and find out how they feel. And while I have a few gay friends, I’m not close enough with any of them to just ask them to tell me what it feels like.
Of course we could explore male sexuality through het fic, too, writing from a male POV for example. But in slash, you get the whole thing one-on-one, unfiltered, without any female distractions, without the complicated mechanics of m/f interaction. In that sense, too, slash is something like an “ideal”, raw form of what I’m trying to explore.
Answer # 17: Slash appeals because men simply have more freedom when it comes to sex.
That’s true, in a way. They don’t have to worry about getting pregnant, for example. I don’t mean (and I don’t support the notion) that men can sleep around as much as they want while women can’t or shouldn’t - but still, just the way men can deal with their sexual experiences is so different from how society expects women to handle the issue.
Want an example? Dirty talk. A great kink of mine in fanfic, and I suspect so because I can’t really do that in Real Life although I’d sometimes like to. While usually, with most other subjects, it’s us women who are supposed to be the talk-outers and men the less verbal (or even verbally challenged) ones, when it comes to sex, it’s pretty much the other way round. Society requests women to be quiet about it (in order not to appear cheap, immoral, and fixated on it), while it’s OK for men to talk about it all the time in as much detail as they like. We could make girls in our fics be as outspoken about it as men, but it wouldn’t work the same way either because that would make them appear slutty to the reader even when they’re not meant to be, or because it just wouldn’t ring true.
Answer # 18: Women like slash simply because there is no need for jealousy - in het stories, there’s always competition!
True. True, true, true. It hurts to see a male character I’m really in love with with another girl. I obviously want to see him with someone, because I want him to be happy, and also because I think he’s hot and I want to see some action. But if that comes at the price of seeing him in the arms of another girl, I’d rather not see it at all. It’s not like I prefer picturing him in my arms instead, not literally. Most literary characters that I’ve ever been in love with I couldn’t bear being in a real relationship with, thank you very much. But even in fanfic, where I decide who that girl in his arms is, and where I could use my favourite female canon character for that role, or make up a terrible Mary Sue that is everything I’ve ever wanted to but will never be it wouldn’t work. With most canon female characters, it would make so little narrative sense, there would be so little logic in pairing them up with my hero, that I couldn’t bring myself to suspend disbelief to such an enormous degree. And Mary Sues, at least if you’re a half-way self-respecting writer, are out of the question.
So if I want to see love and happiness at all, and if I want to see some hot action, but some that isn’t a dagger through my own heart, it’s really the most obvious option to let my favourite character jump into bed with his best mate. Because his best mate is his best mate anyway. That’s established that’s someone I can’t be jealous of, because he’s just a different category to a mere love interest, someone with older rights and better rights than mine. I can’t ever come between them, nor would I presume to but the really good thing is, once my favourite character has decided to jump into bed with his best mate, no other girl is ever going to come between them, either.
Answer # 19: Slash appeals because there is not only equality between the characters on a social level, but also on the sexual level.
Of course, the “equality” issue that I addressed above in its social context has a parallel in the sexual context, or rather the social side of things stems from the sexual one.
A m/m relationship is, at least by default, a relationship of equals in the sexual sense there is nothing that one partner can technically do that the other can’t, there doesn’t have to be a fixed assignment of “roles”. There is a certain attribution of roles like “active” and “passive” when it comes to some specific practices (though not with all). But unlike between man and woman, these roles can be changed around freely - even within one and the same bedroom scene, as long as you give your boys a bit of a break to recover sufficiently. Top, bottom, whatever it’s the characters’ freedom and it’s also the author’s and the reader’s freedom. There is no default that you’re required to fall back on - both for the characters in their actions as well as the reader in their reactions. In terms of identification or self-insertion, you don’t automatically take on the female part, you chose which one you like best (generally or in the particular fic).
And some people have said it’s simply the broad range of variations on the same theme that they find fascinating in gay sex. I agree! It makes it colourful and exciting, without having to introduce any particularly exotic and extravagant practices (which I don’t really go for I’m more the “back to the basics” type). And there’s always a bit of a surprise as to what exactly is going to happen, and who is going to take which part in m/f sex, you always know how it’s going to end.
Detour # 1: But if it’s all about equality on the sexual level as well as the social one, why not explore it through femmeslash?
If slash is refreshingly and liberatingly free of the old role models, and if that’s what I like it for why is it still the male slash that turns me on? Why not femmeslash, which offers the same opportunities to re-define traditional roles and promote equality, and may deal even more directly with my own sexual desires?
I think it’s just me. I really don’t mean it in an offending way to any lesbian or bisexual women who might be reading this but I’m just not comfortable with the idea of femmeslash. Again, this is not meant to express a negative attitude towards lesbians or bisexual women. You girls please all do just what you like and enjoy yourselves as much as you can. But for me, the idea is not only unappealing, it is simply too close to home for comfort. That’s just the way I am, I’m afraid, I don’t think I can explain this any better than just say what I feel like. So quite simply, femmeslash is, for me personally, no alternative to male slash when it comes to exploring the potential of more equality and less clearly-defined roles in relationships that both types of slash theoretically offer.
Theoretically, I say, because not all slash does explore this.
Detour # 2: So what about the scenarios that don’t advocate equality, such as D/S scenarios?
Yeah, what about them? would probably be the reaction of most female slash fans to this, because this is a corner of the fandom that’s not to everybody’s taste. But I have found fics with scenarios of that type that I’ve liked, so I might as well go there for a moment.
D/S scenarios have their own thrill for me and obviously they’re the exact opposite of an equality ideal. It’s all about power play, about control and relinquishing control, and I find dynamics of this sort fascinating (in fiction this is totally a kink of mine that has no parallel whatsoever in my Real Life wishes and desires). But why not explore them in het fics then? I think it’s because in your usual m/f D/S scenario, by default the woman is in the sub role, and I hate that. Women have been made to take sub roles in all aspects of life for far too long. Arguably, we could very consciously attribute the roles differently in your own fic, but that idea doesn’t appeal to me, either. Maybe that’s because society teaches me to think of a dominant woman as automatically evil and bitchy, but if that is it, I’m afraid society has done a good job on me. In any case, whatever the roles are, any m/f D/S scenario would somehow request me to take a side, namely the woman’s side. But I really don’t want to insert myself into any of the roles I honestly can’t see myself in either. So I suppose the only way I can safely toy around with the concept is when it’s happening between two men, which makes it a lot easier not to feel compelled to identify with either party, but just sit back and observe from a safe distance.
Back onto the main track.
Answer # 20: Slash allows you to explore and test the limitations and boundaries of sexuality. It allows you to break taboos in your imagination that you don’t want to break in Real Life.
Well, so does het fic. Many things that I have enjoyed in slash fics, specifically fantasies about certain sexual practices, could be explored in het fic as well. But I think there is still a truth in this hypothesis in so far as slash is a particularly safe way of exploring taboos, for a straight woman. Slash sometimes deals not only with experiences that I don’t want to have in Real Life, it also deals with experiences I cannot have. I mean, there are certain typical elements of gay sex that have an equivalent in het sex that I could try out in my own sex life I can fetch someone off with my hands, I could give someone a blow job, I could be on the receiving end of anal sex - but maybe I don’t want to. And then there’s always the person at the other end, too, and I’ll simply never know what that feels like. So picturing these things happening to a man instead of a woman leaves me free to fantasise about it without having to try it out myself and without even having to imagine what it would feel like for me. So it can be a bit unusual, a bit shameless, a bit dangerous, a bit painful even because it’s not about me. I don’t easily associate the goings-on with any negative memories or fears of my own. It’s unthreatening, by definition: Whatever my imagination may procure, it can’t harm me not only because it’s fictional, but also because it never could, thanks to human biology, happen to me in Real Life anyway. It’s like a double safety net.
So I happily sit back and just watch the show, do I?
Um. No, I don’t.
And here is where the confusion really starts.
LJ user “orangewinters” has expressed her view of what appeals in slash thus:
Sex scenes in slash … offer sex without the objectification of either member. Women become the observer rather than the observed … Slash is easy to read and write because a woman isn’t part of the action, she can sit back and feel emotionally attached without putting herself in a vulnerable position. It’s a way to test the erotic while remaining at a safe distance.
When I read this, I initially found it very convincing. On second thoughts however, although I still think this statement is completely valid and plausible in itself, the appeal of slash, for me, doesn’t stop here.
That’s because “orangewinters” only talks about the appeal of m/m action to an observer, to someone standing somewhere outside the scene itself and only watching the goings-on. And while that may be the usual perspective taken by the reader of a story, it’s not the only perspective I ever take when I read slash, and it’s certainly not the perspective of the writer.
Let me talk about writer’s perspective first.
The slash writer (like any writer) doesn’t only watch what’s going on, she’s the one who’s pulling the strings. It’s her who makes the characters do what they do and say what they say and even think what they think within the limits of canon, of course, but those limits can be stretched pretty far. The writer is in charge and when I write, I shamelessly enjoy that. Yes, it’s about power, it’s about appropriating the characters, bending them to your purposes, making them do whatever you want them to do. And they’re so obedient. They do it all the time and never complain. They’re just happy to serve and eager to please. What a thrill.
This thrill, by the way, is something that I regularly feel when I write gen fic, too, the thrill at the power of the creator, at being the master of puppets. And when it’s about sexual scenarios, the thrill redoubles, because the more intense the scene and the emotions, the more intense the experience of creating them for the characters. And things usually do get pretty intense in sex. To a milder degree, I’ve experienced this thrill when writing scenes of violence, too, or scenes of extreme depression and despair. I guess it happens with all strong emotions.
On the other side, the reader.
As the reader I obviously don’t create on such a deep level as the writer. But I create pictures in my own head of what I read on the page or screen, which is a creative process, too, and lets me share in a milder version of the same thrill that the writer has enjoyed. Also, the reader can picture things a little differently than the writer has imagined them, to increase the thrill - mostly unconsciously, but sometimes also consciously.
So both as a reader and a writer, I do not always content myself with the role of the observer. And to my great initial discomfort, I discovered that the degree of self-insertion increases with the rating of a story, which is to mean with the explicitness of the action in it. Well - it depends on the scenario. There are some that work for me from a safe distance, and only from a safe distance, but there are also others that I definitely insert myself into and they’re not always the sweetest, most harmless ones, either.
Of course, this self-insertion is a very indirect one, since the characters are male and engaged in things that I often cannot or don’t want to engage in in reality. So in that way, even in the self-insert there’s still enough of a safe distance involved for me not to get too uncomfortable but there you are. Once the scenario looks removed enough from the experiences I’ve had or could have in my Real Life, I come sneaking back in, in the form of one of the characters participating, or sometimes both.
Answer # 21: In a slash fic, the female reader can freely insert herself into both characters and assume any part she likes.
As I’ve said, that’s exactly what I do. So which is “the part I like”?
Interestingly, when reading other people’s fics, it’s not necessarily the POV character’s part that I insert myself into. Independently of the POV, I initially used to identify mostly with the more passive part which is probably not surprising for a woman, and a woman new to the genre at that. But I think I didn’t only do it by default, because I’m supposed to automatically see myself in the passive position, or because that’s the only position I know from my own experience. I was also genuinely interested in what must be going on in a man’s mind in a situation like that, and I still am. Because to be in the passive position makes you so vulnerable, you have to pretty much let all your guards down, allow someone else take down all your barriers, mentally and physically. It strips you bare body and soul and that’s something that’s interesting to see in any character, and in male ones particularly, because for men it’s so doubly unusual. It’s something men are not supposed to do, and it’s something they consequently aren’t often faced with. It’s something they probably have no “default” reaction to, no prefabricated emotional response they could take refuge in. Which makes their reaction all the more intriguing.
I’ve seen the suggestion by a male person that explicit slash fics feature a lot more sexual practices that involve penetration than what would be normal or average in a real homosexual relationship. It seems women are fascinated by this theme particularly (I certainly am), and that’s not surprising after all that’s the defining part of female sexuality. I don’t think that my fascination with it has to do with “getting back” at men for what they do to us women in real life. But maybe it is a sign of wanting to be understood better, wanting a man to understand what a really big thing it is to let anyone do that, and how much trust it takes, and how terrible it is when you feel that trust is disregarded or even abused.
So much for the passive part. In the meantime though, I’ve branched out. I’ve come to insert myself also into the more active part (or, as you’d have to call it in some stories that I like, the aggressive part), and I’ve enjoyed that, too - for different reasons, but just as much. The first time I wrote an explicit fic from the POV of the active part was a very strange experience, actually - it wasn’t a sweet and tender bit of love-making at all, but a pretty rough affair, and still, it was so good to write it. I scared myself considerably in the process, but it was still just. so. good.
I admit that I do enjoy the idea of power, of control, of domination that’s behind it. It’s fascinating to be able to change the roles, for once. It’s liberating to be the one who calls the tune and says where things are going, for a change. And it’s so thrilling to see your favourite character from that very unusual perspective not high up there on his hero’s pedestal where you can only worship him from a distance (along with thousands of other girls), but right here, right under you, at your disposal, at your mercy. The thrill of this gorgeous character willing (or forced, if you want to take the domination extremes) to be your bottom.
As I’ve seen it put by a soul sister, "I write character X not because I want to be X, but because I want to fuck character Y." (internet resource, author unknown)
Yes, that’s me, too.
And I assure you I’ve noticed the logical incompatibility of this statement with the fact that I’m a woman and Y is a man. But in my mind, it works.
Answer # 22: So in the end, it all comes down to penis-envy, doesn’t it?
Well, Sigmund Freud would agree. So far, I’ve talked a lot about feeling “deficient”, of feeling “left out” of experiences, of my frustration at biology not allowing me to have them, or even to comprehend and realistically imagine what they feel like. And at the same time I’ve said that I want to fuck a character. I can virtually see Sigmund gleefully rubbing his hands right now. And the disturbing thing is, I get the feeling that he’s somehow right.
The inequality between men and women is, after all, structural, biological, not just a product of modern society. It’s frustrating, because while we can try to change the social gender imbalance, in a way the current state of things has biology on its side, and we can’t change that. To be dominant and to be male are synonymous in biology, and so they have become, consequently, in society. The traditional social gender roles would not have developed the way they did if nature had defined “male” and “female” differently, or if it had made all human beings of the same gender and procreate independently of each other by other means than sexual intercourse.
And am I not proving the traditional view right, am I not cementing these patterns, when I talk of feeling deficient, when I define my sexual desires and preferences only in relation to male sexuality, when I feel so lacking, so left out, that I need slash fanfic as a refuge, that I have to resort to sadly fictional scenarios to make up for that deficiency?
Hmm. Am I?
This is probably the biggest single revelation I’ve had while I’ve been thinking about this: No, I don’t think I am. Let me explain.
You see, for some reason, Sigmund Freud talks about penis-envy as if it’s a huge problem. Something that women simply have, but that can, dictated by biology as it is, unfortunately not be helped. As if it’s something negative, a shadow that biology has cast over our female sexuality and that we apparently have no choice but to suppress or ignore if we want to keep our sanity.
And here is where I say no. Maybe penis-envy is deep down at the bottom of this matter, but even if it is, see, I refuse to have a problem with it. If this is a part of my psyche, as it’s supposedly a part of every female psyche, hey! I might as well make friends with it and get comfortable with it, and find an enjoyable way of letting it out, rather than flagellate myself trying to exorcise it, or whither and waste away in denial that I have these feelings at all.
So what could help me explore and enjoy this and come to terms with that part of my psyche? It is and remains technically impossible for me to ever take the physically dominant part of a sexual act in Real Life but in my mind, in my imagination, I can go there as often and as long and in as much detail as I want. In my imagination, I can even try out things that no man would reasonably want to do in reality although he technically could. And I can try out things that probably don’t even objectively work or exist in Real Life, but that still turn me on when I imagine them. As I have read elsewhere, as far as my sexuality goes, “The female part of me expresses itself in Real Life. The male part of me expresses itself in slash.” (internet resource, author unknown)
Yes, it is fictional, but who says that’s bad? Who says that’s somehow second class to reality? In so many ways, it’s better than reality. There’s so much more freedom. In my fantasies, I’m the one in charge, unquestioned - as opposed to sexual situations in Real Life, there is no one to rival or question my utter control of what’s going on. There is also no need to consider anyone else’s feelings, or bodily needs, but my own. And once I’m free to decide what happens, my imagination easily surpasses the limits that biology imposes on me in Real Life. The sheer scope of the range of experiences that are open to me in my fantasies are breathtaking. As opposed to the possibilities that my own body offers, my imagination is limitless, it’s the place where everything that I want can happen, and if that is what I get in return for the biological lack of a penis, I thank my maker that he (or she, as I always tend to believe when it comes to this matter) made me a woman.
So, Sigmund, wake up. Of course I don’t have a cock. I’m a woman. I don’t need a cock. I have a brain.
Ultimately, it’s the wonderfully two-fold way my imagination works that makes slash so appealing to me it provides at the same time freedom and safety. Freedom to explore things I cannot, should not and do not want to explore in Real Life. Freedom from traditional role models and gender stereotypes, and even from the necessity of distancing myself from them. And all that in the safety of a scenario that is, outwardly, so far removed from any of my own (past or potential) real experiences that I need have no fear of the story coming too close to home for comfort. Freedom and safety - slash offers the ultimate combination of both.
Answer # 23: The whole question “why do het women like slash” is wrong altogether. Slash is read and enjoyed by lesbian women, gay men and bisexuals of both genders, too, so whether you like it or not is actually completely unrelated to your own gender and sexual orientation.
Probably the biggest misunderstanding I have come across in other people’s attempts at interpreting the phenomenon (not very wide-spread, luckily). It sounds logical at first but all it goes to show is that every gender and all sexual orientations have their own reasons for finding slash appealing. What exactly those reasons are for people outside my own demographic group of het females, I cannot guess. But what I’ve come to understand as I was working my way through this is: I don’t like m/m slash although I’m a heterosexual woman, I like it because I am.
It makes perfect sense.
Thanks for reading.
If you’re interested in reading up on the issue, there is too much out there to list it all but apart from the excellent other resources here on the Fanfic Symposium, here are a few more links that offer more than just opinions and assumptions and that I can recommend.
“When Frodo met Sam” from The Times
"Fantastic Voyage“ by Noy Thrupkaew, from Bitch Magazine
"Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking” by Henry Jenkins, Cynthia Jenkins and Shoshanna Green
“A Freudian Perspective on Feminine Sexuality and the “Slash” Subculture” by Seishuku Skuld
If you recognise any of the uncredited quotes that I’ve used, drop me a line I’ll be happy to credit their authors properly.