This column arose from a mini survey I carried on amongst readers and writers of my acquaintance who were enjoying slash 'darkfic' at its darkest. For the purposes of this survey, I defined darkfic as anything from dubious non-con to out and out rape. There are, of course, many shades of darkfic, but I chose to concentrate on the darker end of the spectrum on this occasion.
Whilst my survey wasn't about pornography, or not just pornography (sensitive readers please transplant the word 'erotica' if preferred), this was my main finding - the impact and 'meaning' (if any) of darkfic depends on the reader's interaction with it, what they bring to the fic as a fan, as a reader, and as an intellectual and sexual being.
Darkfic crosses fandom and it's clear that some readers will seek it out, regardless of whether or not it's written in their fandom(s) of choice. This pursuit may be prompted by a strong recommendation from a respected writer or reader, but it can be triggered by mood. Unanimously, readers insisted the fic must be well-written to hold their attention. The link cited between slash and darkfic is intriguing, as one reader put it, "Slash for me has always been about rebellion and secrecy, and serious kink just makes it better."
More than one reader who responded to my survey wanted to stress that reading darkfic did not stop her reading/writing/loving vanilla porn. The two extremes are by no means mutually exclusive. Contrary to popular myth, darkfic does not have the power to corrupt or obsess its readers or its writers. In my experience, fans of darkfic enjoy a broader canvas than those who insist on drawing lines around what they will and won't read/write.
When asked about their motivation for reading darkfic, a few said they used it to challenge their emotional and moral response to disturbing material. Another few said they read darkfic to get aroused. The majority occupied a more complex middle ground, liking darkfic for its unrivalled ability to explore and expose layers of intimacy between and within characters - breaking them down, building them back up again. Most people felt there was an enjoyable element of catharsis involved, for the readers as well as the characters. As one reader put it, "(Darkfic) takes one for an emotion ride and yet still leaves the reader content."
At its best, darkfic has the power to evoke a complicated and multi-layered response from its readers. I can't put it better than this reader did:
"There is nothing more intimate than seeing someone in pain and responding to/dealing with that pain (physical or emotional). Pain strips the person right down to their bones. And there is nothing emotionally more stirring than knowing that another person in that scene/story has the power to ease that pain, or to make the pain worse. IMO that's one of the big appeals of darkfic. It's a deeply intimate view into a character -- or, two characters (if you have the one in pain, and the Other). The fact that darkfic is deeply intimate tends to make it sexual as well -- there are always (for me) sexual overtones in darkfic, even if the outright events aren't explicitly sexual."
Not surprisingly, there tends to be a link between the length of time a reader has been exposed to darkfic and her level of comfort with/acceptance of it. Those in the early days of toe-dipping may be intrigued by their own response (where this is ambivalent) and a little disturbed by it or by that of others where the response strays into outright arousal. Readers who've spent any length of time with darkfic tend to have come to terms with their own reaction to it, and to feel at ease with the response of others. As one reader said, "I do constantly find myself challenging my own "fandom" morals, and this is a part of it. But I'm not ashamed to say what turns me on and what doesn't."
The survey asked whether readers preferred to keep their taste for darkfic secret from their online friends, and/or those close to them in real life. Most people said their online friends knew their preferences even if they didn't share them. Nearly everyone said that they wouldn't want their real life friends to know they read darkfic. But it was perhaps an unfair question. After all, "real life" is usually cited as an intruder in fandom, and it's just as likely that we'd hide some of our vanilla fanships from our real life friends, not least because fandom is commonly seen as an escape route from real life, rather than an appendage to it. Or, if not an escape route, a slip-road where we're at liberty at explore aspects of our identity and taste.
Of those writing as well as reading darkfic, most said they set out to make it arousing for their readers. Some authors write for select audiences and tailor their fic to known kinks. Feedback matters hugely to some; hardly at all to others. One writer said she needed feedback as confirmation that she hadn't gone "too far" or "squicked" anyone. Another said she thought there was a buzz in being the first to write a new kink or to push past a traditional boundary. A couple of people said they'd like to write darkfic but were nervous of the reception it or they would receive. It's hard to imagine any of these factors coming into play for writers of vanilla fic. All writers may feel anxiety, from time to time, as to how their fic will be received. But darkfic gives rise to unique inhibitions, and can place unfair constraints on new writers who would otherwise find the experience liberating.
The survey asked whether darkfic fans felt they were in a minority. The mixed response was, at first glance, bewildering. Reading some of the comments, I got the impression that finding darkfic was like looking for a needle in a haystack, that well-written darkfic was rarer than hen's teeth. Other people said they read darkfic because it tended to be more skilfully written than other brands of slash. But there is an opposite argument, which is aired on a fairly frequent basis in several fandoms, that darkfic attracts the worst writers; it's clear some fans avoid it for fear of finding the content squalid, squicky or downright illiterate.
Some of those responding to my survey claimed we're in a minority; others that the internet is awash with darkfic enthusiasts. A quick search of meta databases confirms that there are plenty of us around, spread across a wide range of fandoms. As a recent convert said, "...I think everyone... has an interest in the darker side of the world." At the same time, it's pretty clear that not everyone wants or chooses to de-lurk in this particular regard. Remaining anonymous is rife, in darkfic circles.
For me, although this isn't the whole story, all slash is subversive and darkfic takes the game to the next level. Moreover, it can lend a fandom an alluring sense of exclusivity, which can add to the overall frisson of the experience.
Which brings me back to the opening thesis about Porn as Pot Noodle. In my experience, readers and writers are interacting to create fic which is arousing or challenging, intimate or disturbing, exclusive or inclusive, depending on your reaction to it - the bottle you bring to the party.
I'm going to round off with the traditional reference to why women interact with slash. By which I mean, why they write it, read it, get off on it, worry about their reaction to it and what it says about their sexuality and morality - the whole kit and caboodle. I keep coming back to two things:
1. Would a man analyse the act of masturbating over lesbian twins? If popular culture is to be believed, it's more or less compulsory for heterosexual men to masturbate over lesbian twins. It's like the litmus test for machismo. Assuming they achieve the dizzying heights of this uber-wank, the last thing men are expected to do is question their sexuality, or morality. If a woman cites gay men as her trigger, and adds 'dark' to the mix, she can expect to never hear the end of it, from herself apart from anyone else.
2. Conversely, if 'dark' is a part of a man's triggers, he's highly unlikely to find a forum in which he can openly discuss it, without fear of reprisal or revulsion. Since women began 'claiming back their sexuality' (or whatever post-feminist phrase you wish to adopt to describe our newfound freedom), we've been allowed a hell of an amount of license to discuss what turns us on (and what doesn't). If a straight man fantasises about het rape, he'd damn well better keep it to himself (the consequences of which I leave to your imagination).
The fact that so many women spoke so candidly in my mini survey about what is, on the surface at least, still a dodgy subject for lots of people, made me grateful for my friends, for fandom as a forum, and for the fact that I'm equipped to analyse and enjoy my sexuality to the extent that I do.
A final thought:
What, if any, are the chances of a backlash against the 'modern' trend of encouraging women to discuss and indulge their sexual preferences, including those that stretch in a dark direction? Thirty years ago, men were allowed their het rape fantasies (watch any cop show from the early '70s and you'll soon seen how true this is). Since the advent of the 'new man', a certain shackling has taken place, and now the debate about men's sexual preferences is less open than it once was, or at least more cautious than it once was.
Laurence O'Toole - porn apologist - treads with care when it comes to discussing dark pornography, preferring to posit the view that porn is about consenting sex of a non-violent nature, so its opponents can get down from their high horses. That may be true, in a general sense, but where does it leave the women and men for whom 'dark' does the business? Will the 'new woman' be expected to put her less savoury playthings back in the cupboard, once this mini revolution is out of the way? Or are we always going to approach pornography/erotica/what you will differently to men and fight to protect our right to personal proclivities?