Should Fandom Include Adult-Only Spaces?

It always makes me just a little bit more sad each time the ‘grown-ups shouldn’t be in fan spaces’ argument pops up again. A couple of posts crossed my Twitter feed recently proving that the argument still hasn’t died and that there are still some folk who think that anyone old enough to be a parent should immediately log out of AO3, put away their art supplies and go join the local bridge club. As if we are suddenly meant to  stop enjoying certain things the second we turn 25.

I’ve already written about entitlement to fan spaces and why it’s not okay to ask adults to turn those spaces over to younger fans. But today I want to take it a step further and suggest that not only do adults deserve access to fan spaces as much as young people, but also that adults need adult-only fan spaces.

Immediately, I know that this is going to set alarm bells ringing for a lot of people. It doesn’t help that ‘adult-only’, for some, seems to mean ‘because of sex, violence or disturbing content’. 

Offline, we designate places as ‘adult-only’ to protect children from sexual or violent content or to restrict access to alcohol. But that’s not all those adult-only spaces are for. Adults do more than just drink alcohol and watch/engage in sex and violence.

Whether we want it or not, as adults we have a collective social responsibility to safeguard minors and vulnerable people. It’s why films have age-ratings (and why cinema staff have to enforce them). It’s why TV channels have watersheds, before which certain content can’t be shown. It’s why some magazines go on the top shelf or have their covers concealed. It’s also why it’s considered inappropriate for adults to swear or talk about certain topics in front of children.

But it goes even further than that. We’re expected to look out for young people who might be in danger or who might have wandered into a restricted space by accident. We’re expected to moderate our conversation if there are children around, even in what should be an adult space. In my day-job, I frequently see adults who leave their kids unattended while they shop, and whether I like it or not, I then have a responsibility to keep an eye on those kids in case they do something they shouldn’t (they frequently do) or in case they are in danger. I didn’t ask for that responsibility and by heck do I resent being given it, but if I don’t keep an eye on that kid then there could be serious consequences for them and for me.

That social responsibility.takes mental effort, and we all need a break from it. The place where I work is considered a public space, but everything that happens in it is ultimately my responsibility. It should not fall to me to watch out for someone else’s kid, but I do it in those situations because it’s my social responsibility as an adult (and especially as the adult in charge of the space).

That responsibility is tiring. I don’t like having to take it on because someone else stopped paying attention to their kid or didn’t teach their older kid to behave appropriately in public spaces. I don’t like that it takes my attention from what I’m actually supposed to be doing instead.

As adults, we take breaks from that collective social responsibility by going to designated ‘adult’ spaces. But those ‘adult’ spaces are becoming fewer, as more pubs and restaurants are expected to admit children, and as fewer children are apparently taught how to behave appropriately in those spaces. I might go to a pub with adult friends to enjoy a drink and have a conversation where I don’t have to monitor myself the way I would at work or around young people. Or I might go to a coffee shop to relax, to read or do some writing in a relatively quiet space. When people start bringing children into those spaces (or when young people bring themselves and don’t behave appropriately) it changes the atmosphere, meaning that suddenly everyone has to monitor their speech to protect impressionable children, and that childish behaviour (especially loud or attention-drawing behaviour) has to be tolerated even though it disturbs the quiet.

No one could expect to ban children from those spaces – nowadays, in the UK at least, it’s only nightclubs, casinos, betting shops and sex-shops that are able to restrict entry. But it’s reasonable to expect young people to behave appropriately, and to expect parents/carers to take responsibility for them.

Except we know that doesn’t happen. My weekly Sunday morning coffee shop visit is regularly disturbed by toddlers shouting and running around, just as the tram-ride to get there is likely to be disturbed by teenagers who swear loudly, block doors and aisles and are generally inconsiderate of other people using the same space, and are likely to react poorly to anyone challenging their behaviour (I speak from experience). It’s becoming so that the only real adult-only spaces are those restricted for inappropriate content or our own homes. I don’t want to spend my time in casinos or nightclubs, and I don’t want other people in my home very often. I am running out of spaces where I can relax and enjoy myself without taking on social responsibilities.

The same seems to apply online.

There are sites aimed specifically at young people, where adults are expected to stay away: just as young people have youth groups and playgrounds in offline life, so young people on the Internet will have whatever the current version of Club Penguin or Neopets is, and all-ages spaces can have content filtered to restrict inappropriate content being accessible to minors. And there are spaces created by adults, for adults, but where there are more and more young users appearing and expecting to be provided for and looked after (and in some cases expecting to take ownership of the space).

When we post fan works, we are expected to tag certain content so it isn’t viewable to minors or anyone who chooses not to view that content. That is our social responsibility in online spaces. Not tagging/labelling content, or deliberately putting that content where minors or other vulnerable people can see it is inappropriate behaviour and frankly makes you an utter twat. It’s like leaving a porn mag on a bus seat where anyone can see it (instead of in the woods or on railway sidings, where you’re supposed to leave it*).

Like our coffee shops and restaurants, fan spaces where adults have been the majority users and young people are expected to behave with respect and consideration are increasingly being viewed as family-friendly, all-ages spaces, simply because young people are demanding access to them. 

Some fan spaces can be all-ages spaces, but that requires constant upkeep of that social responsibility, that need to tag/label/monitor certain content, and in some cases, censorship. But once again, that social responsibility is an effort from which we sometimes need a break.

That ‘break’ doesn’t just mean ‘a time to post content that’s sexual/violent/disturbing’. It also means a time when we, as older fans, can talk from the perspective of being an older fan with all the experience that entails. And yes, that does include venting about kids, just as kids have spaces to vent about the adults in their lives. And it includes having the freedom to reach out and talk to someone new without fear of an inappropriate age-gap.

Adults need to safe-guard ourselves as much as we safe-guard younger people. Adults also need to be able to connect with people of a similar age, and it’s harder to do that in fandom once you pass 30. How many of us are cautious about talking to a writer or an artist we’ve admired because we might unknowingly be starting a conversation with an actual child? Or at the very least, with someone who actually doesn’t connect with us because they don’t have our life experiences or our perspective on things?

Part of the problem is an apparent lack of people willing or able to make such spaces. It’s not just about the initial set-up – there’s the time and effort required to moderate and maintain it. How many adults over 30 have time to do that? I certainly don’t. 

Then there’s the ‘how’ of keeping it exclusively for adults. How do you monitor the age of users? How do you deal with the inevitable backlash from younger fans who either want to be included or want to tell you you’re a loser for still being in fandom?

The Internet, as a massive collection of ‘spaces’, is a bit of a free-for-all, and for the most part, it’s a positive and useful addition to daily life. I certainly don’t want to go back to the days before Google Maps and online shopping. But while some of those online services and sites absolutely should not have restricted access, there are certain spaces where the creator or moderator has the right to restrict access if they choose. Fandom as a whole exists in spaces created by adults but where younger users have access. The creators of those fan spaces can, if they see fit, ask everyone to exercise their social responsibility to protect minors and vulnerable people. They can, if they choose, designate those spaces as ‘aimed at adults’, with appropriate warnings, and place the responsibility on users to self-censor and self-moderate viewing, as is the case with Archive Of Our Own.

Each space is almost like someone’s house, where users are invited guests, house rules apply, and the owners can kick out anyone they want because they own the space.

But as we older fans seem to be sharing our spaces with more and more young people who take ‘make yourself at home’ way too literally, Many of those younger users expect the same freedoms that adult fans have but don’t necessarily understand the responsibilities that adults have, or are willing or able to behave in the way that adults do in those spaces. Adults can end up feeling like intruders in the very spaces they created for themselves. I think it’s important that we are able to claim back at least some of those spaces for ourselves. 

At least, once we’ve had another coffee. And maybe a nap. And after we’ve done the laundry and cleaned up a bit. But not on Wednesdays because we have book-group and we have to take the cat to the vet, and not after 9pm because we have work the next day. And not…well, you get the idea.

* Author’s note: this is a form of comedy joke and not the writer’s actual opinion. Please do not tell me off for leaving porn mags on railway sidings.

Do you agree? Are you an older fan lamenting the loss of adult freedom in fandom? Maybe like me you’re finding it harder to connect with other fans your age. I’d love to hear your stories and experiences – tell me in the comments, or via the ‘contact’ page if you’d prefer. And if you know of any adult-only fan spaces I’m missing out on, let me know!

2 Comments

  1. Boy do I have some thoughts on this piece. Enough where I should probably write my own at least lol. But largely I do agree! It’s a bit ridiculous that there are so many ‘fans’ who are against older fans being in their fandom. It’s a weird moment of people not connecting that without older fans… there wouldn’t be fandom spaces. That in the age of the early internet, you spent hours crawling around online trying to find a place where someone had a similar interest and maybe a website. If there wasn’t a website, then you had to make your own!

    So many younger fans forget that the internet wasn’t always a thing, and we weren’t so carefree online about disclosing ages and such. I’ve seen a larger and larger increase of younger fans lying to older fans so they can get into these ‘older’ spaces. While it’s in a very warped sense flattering; it’s still wrong. I don’t want to talk to someone whose nearly ten years younger then me. That’s my personal choice. I am a firm believer that people should have friends who are a variety of ages, background, races, genders, etc. But I put a fine line with how young I will interact within my fandom. It’s a very strange and tricky situation, but again its important food for thought. Thanks for writing such a great article about it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve seen the same kind of thing happening, too. Probably because of my interests, I’ve see some different causes than you’ve talked about, but what I’ve seen augments what you’re talking about (instead of contradicting it).

    I remember a colleague lamenting that her children could so easily go on the internet and find naked pictures of women. When I asked her how they did that while she was supervising them, she got kinda indignant and said she didn’t have the time or skills to do that.

    So she expected “the internet” (site owners, ISPs, or whoever) to do it for her?

    Trouble is, I’ve met far too many people who think like her. In the US, they vote for people to campaign on cleaning up the smut or whatever. But — exactly as you pointed out — it’s not that adults are looking necessarily for porn or other content that could be harmful to minors. It’s that we need to have someplace to share our perspectives, which could include political perspectives.

    And those people campaigning to clean up “smut?” They seem to have discovered that the mechanisms their constituents let them put into place are really, really handy for doing more than suppressing naked pictures.

    The trouble with handing the State the tools to suppress speech is that they will use it to, well, suppress speech. And the on-line places we can go contract. It doesn’t even have to be by law. Those folks like the colleague I mentioned get really vocal, maybe emboldened by the people they vote into office, and they make demands like the ones you described.

    And yeah, I’d do more about it, but my laundry needs done, too, and there’s grass to mow. And trash to take out. And…

    Liked by 1 person

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