Content warning: this essay focuses on depictions of sex in fanfiction, and as such refers to topics such as kink, fetish, BDSM and various sex acts.
There’s a lot of debate about how much fan works can impact on people’s perceptions of the world, especially in regards to sex and violence. For those of us who consume a lot of fanfiction, on a par with the amount of professionally produced media we read or watch, I think there definitely is an argument to be made for those works influencing us. Certainly, there are sex acts I first learned about in fanfiction. I know it’s not the sole source of sex education for anyone, but when it comes to learning about the…shall we call it, ‘fun’ side of sex rather than the basic biology and ‘what goes where’, for a lot of young people, it’s an eye-opener if nothing else.
Transformative works can be a great opportunity for readers and writers alike to explore sexuality and relationships in a safe way that is mostly about hypotheticals and fantasies. Reading or writing about a particular relationship dynamic or act can allow someone to test it out alone and in relative safety, to decide if it appeals.
At the same time, though, I think fanfiction should be regarded in much the same way as any other erotica or pornography, and that means careful consideration of its effects on both readers and writers when consumed regularly or in large quantities. Especially when it comes to depictions of unusual or ‘non-vanilla’ acts, i.e. kinks and fetishes.
Please bear in mind that I have absolutely no objection to either kink or fetish play between consenting adults, or accurate depictions of such in media (including fan works). What concerns me is the growing trend in fanfiction for including kink and fetish as a standard, expected part of adult relationships. Particularly when these depictions are unresearched (and therefore lacking awareness of the full implications) or are present because fandom has replicated the idea that kink, power-play, humiliation and violence are the standard for adult relationships.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m defining ‘kink’ and ‘fetish’ thusly:
- Kink – an ostensibly non-sexual thing that someone finds arousing, e.g. wearing a particular fabric or shoe, using particular language, non-sexual acts such as urination or eating, or non-sexual objects such as knives or guns.
- Fetish – when a kink becomes either a necessary part of sex (the person cannot become aroused or climax without it) or it replaces sex altogether.
I’ve mentioned, in other posts here, that smut-fics aren’t something that I especially seek out when reading fanfiction, but I have over the past twenty years read a substantial amount of fanfiction, much of which featured sex scenes. This increasing trend for the ‘standardisation’ of kink, fetish and BDSM (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘normalisation’ because normal is subjective and has connotations of acceptability and ‘good vs. bad’ which I don’t agree with) is something that I’ve noticed happening over the course of several years. I can’t say for certain either when it started or the exact moment that I first noticed it, but the fanfiction landscape certainly feels different than it did ten years ago.
It started relatively small, with a noticeable number of stories featuring the use of sex toys, by both couples and individuals for solo play. Now, again I need to reiterate that I have no objection to sex toys and don’t see their use as anything unusual or bad. But what I noticed was a tendency to write about sex toys as a standard – the idea that all queer couples owned and used sex toys regularly, that single queer people always owned a collection of dildoes, plugs and vibrators, or (most startlingly) that teenage queer characters bought and used sex toys. This was why I first really started to think about how some writers replicated ideas about sex based on media consumption rather than personal experience; the idea of someone still in school being able to buy sex toys, when they would not be able to enter a sex shop and would be unlikely to have a debit or credit card to make online purchases that would go unnoticed by their family. Also, sex toys are pretty expensive! Few school-age people would be able to afford the collections that some characters are given in fics. There was never any mention of toy care or cleaning, and I often encountered stories which featured characters imitating fellatio on toys for personal pleasure, which seemed odd.
Not that all depictions of sex should be realistic; I just find noticable lack of realism pulls me out of a story and makes me stop to question if the writer really knows what they’re writing about, and why they chose to include something. Were writers using these tropes because they genuinely enjoyed them, or because they had ‘learned’ what was sexy from their own media consumption and were replicating what other writers did?
From there, I started noticing a trend for writing sex scenes that included spanking. I understand the enjoyment of pain-play as a means of varying sensations during sex, but it’s never presented that way. It’s almost always written as a spontaneous act without a request for consent. It’s often accompanied by either violent or degrading language, and not once have I ever read a fic where someone spanks their partner and the act is questioned or rejected. It’s become standardised, as though it’s something all sex-partners do as a matter of course.
Scenes where a character ejaculates on their partner’s face are equally common. It feels like it’s an act that’s been replicated, without thought, from straight pornography; as if people have assumed that, if it’s in porn, it must be sexy. Admittedly, I’m writing this from the perspective of an asexual person, but even then, I’ve heard enough allosexual friends complain about eyes stinging from badly aimed ejaculate and absolutely zero real people talk about how much they want their partner to come on their face (did you know you can contract STIs from getting semen in your eye?). Do people actually enjoy getting their partner’s bodily fluids on their face? I feel like it’s an act that’s included because of an assumption that it’s viewed as sexy, rather than because so many writers actually enjoy it in real life. After all, so many anime fans feel uneasy about images of the act’s aftermath on ahegao shirts. What pleasure would the fictional ejaculater get from seeing their bodily fluids on their partner’s face? Quite often, these scenes include language suggesting the ejaculater enjoys seeing their partner ‘dirty’ or ‘messed up’, implying an enjoyment of degradation and humiliation.
There’s also been a noticeable rise in the number of stories tagged with ‘daddy kink’, where characters engage in a Sub/dom relationship with elements of age-play and incestuous role-play. Some of these stories feature caring relationships, while some see the kink come out during sex, with little prior negotiation or aftercare. There’s often a hint of a power-imbalance, and occasional moments of ‘punishment’, usually spanking.
This inclusion of kinks in fanfiction, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem (a concern, definitely, but it’s not one unique to fanfiction). After all, most of us feel fairly secure in knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Although I find it telling that there is a lack of knowledge and awareness of the subject, easily seen in the number of writers who confuse kink and fetish, and who assume that all fetish play is done with the goal of sexual climax, which is not the case for many real life fetishists.
What concerns me more is the recent prevalence for including more dangerous acts in a way that presents them as a common and expected part of sexual relationships. Acts such as choking (sometimes called ‘breath play’), bondage, or verbal humiliation, which create a power imbalance but are often written in without characters discussing the act or seeking consent. They sit alongside an increase in fics which depict other taboos such as incest, or adults in sexual relationships with minors, and sometimes it’s difficult to establish the line between ‘exploring boundaries’ and ‘fetishising or normalising illegal acts’. Some things are taboo for very good reasons.
Again, this by itself is not the entirety of the issue; fictional sex is not real sex, and there is nothing wrong with glossing over the unglamorous aspects of sex to make the prose more titilating. But, having worked with teenagers and taught sex ed in schools, I know first hand that young people gather as muc, if not more information from their peers and other informal sources than from anyone trained to teach honest and factual sex ed. Where might one learn, for example, about the importance of cleaning prior to analingus, which I think I’ve seen precisely once in fic – I cringe (and sometimes even close the tab) if characters jump straight to eating ass without caring to wash first.
The choking stories are the ones that worry me the most. They almost always happen spontaneously, without prior discussion, and without any indication that characters are concerned for each other’s safety. They also don’t make any attempt to describe how the submissive partner actually feels during the act, or why they enjoy it (whether it’s the physical sensations or the power-play that prompts the act). This is what makes me think that these writers are replicating other people’s ideas of ‘sexy’ rather than writing their own personal fantasies or fantasies appropriate to the characters.
This is not fandom’s fault; fandom is not responsible for educating anyone. But without reliable and healthy education at timely points in their lives, I can’t help wondering how many young people are learning about the fun and romantic aspects of sex from fanfiction and seeing these acts as standard and expected? We already know that young people often encounter pornography before their first sexual encounters, and that seeing violent or mysoginstic acts in porn can affect how young people feel they should behave in sexual situations.
I don’t intend to imply blame on the part of any fanfiction writer, or expect anyone to change what they write; so many writers will themselves simply be reproducing what fandom has told them is sexy in order to figure out whether they really do like those things, just as some young people (and adults) experiment with things they have seen in porgography.
It’s concerning, though, especially when considered against recent cases of alleged ‘sex games gone wrong’ in which women have been choked by their partners during sex, and have actually died as a result. This piece from The Guardian poses the question: why are potentially dangerous sex acts becoming more commonplace? One only has to look at mainstream media’s changing attitudes to sex and relationship roles; we still have music videos where men spank the behinds of half-naked women as a show of power and domincance, placing the women alongside their material posessions like cars and jewellery.
We know that there are trends when it comes to sex. ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey (not only initially a transformative work, but also one with an infamously inaccurate portrayal of BDSM) inspired not just a slew of copycat novels, but also a push on a toned-down, marketable version of BDSM, with fluffy handcuffs, blindfolds and riding crops making their way into high street shops like Ann Summers, typically seen as the giggly, girly, non-threatening side of sex. In just a few months, BDSM was suddenly something that all couples were supposed to try, to stave off bedroom boredom and avoid the dreaded ‘vanilla’ label, as though regular romantic sex wasn’t enough anymore. Every newspaper and glossy magazine ran articles about introducing BDSM into the bedroom. ‘The Office’ featured a (brief) scene with a character becoming aroused listening to a FSOG audio book while at work. What once was a topic kept for bedrooms and age-restricted parts of the Internet was suddenly on prime time TV, on the high street, and in our daily newspapers.
Equally, fanfiction has trends, both in formats and in topics and themes. I remember fandom before A/B/O stories were a thing. When most m/m scenes started with frotting instead of jumping straight to anal. I’d never heard of intercrural sex until it became a fanfic fad a few years back.
So what does it mean if more and more fan writers are including dangerous or violent acts in their work? Honestly, I can’t say. I don’t have the research or statistics. I can only comment on current feelings in the fandom culture. As an older fan who’s been around for a while and seen a lot of trends come and go, it feels like young writers replicate what they’ve seen and read, both in fandoms and other media, in order to make their work appeal to readers filtering by particular tags or seeking out specific kinks. And it feels like fandom depictions of sex are becoming more like imitations of straight porn and other provocative media made for men. There’s more emphasis on penetrative sex in slash fiction instead of things like frottage, mutual masturbation or oral. There’s more degradation in acts like verbal humiliation and ejaculating on faces. More demeaning language, and men referring to each other as ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and ‘bitches’. There’s more violence, in acts like spanking and choking. There is also, and this is the thing I frankly find more confusing, a strange insistence on feminising gay and bi men, dressing gay male characters in lingerie, giving them the role of the omega ‘bitch in heat’, or giving them ‘embarrassing’ hormonal episodes in mpreg fic.
Again, it should be noted here that I have no objections to any men who choose to dress in lingerie, and I see nothing wrong or degrading in typically feminine traits or behaviours. But when female writers put gay or bi men in these roles for the purposes of entertainment, that is crossing the line into fetishisation, a different but equally concerning issues. It also implies a huge misunderstanding of gay men in general, suggesting that writers feel gay men are aroused by the same things straight men are; lacy lingerie, ‘feminine’ posing and behaviour, and submissiveness.
My point here is not to condemn any of this or to suggest a solution. Mostly, I simply want to draw attention to the issue, to this large-scale recycling of other people’s ideas of ‘sexiness’ and the ongoing shift in what constitutes expected or healthy behaviour in sexual relationships.
I do wonder if, perhaps, there is worth in some experienced fic writers making an effort to include more blatant kink negotiation and consent-seeking in our writing (including scenes of boundary-setting). In recent years I’ve seen more writers showcasing condom use in their stories (no dental dams, though!) along with the tag ‘consent is sexy’. How about more stories involving researching kinks, more characters discussing what they do and don’t find sexy, and more depictions of aftercare? I can envisage whole fic events devoted to stories that show kink negotiation and conversations about sex. The question, though, is how well they would be received and how widely their reach would be. I’ve written kink exploration and negotiation myself, and felt those two particular stories were some of the best written and most romantic works I’ve produced. But they received few hits and fewer comments and kudos, despite being centred on a popular pairing. Instead, smut and PWP seem to get the hits and the attention.
So are writers actually reproducing other people’s ideas of eroticism for hits and comments? That might be slightly more reassuring than the possibility that they’re recycling tropes for personal interest, but on the whole, it still all adds to this culture of presenting violence, degradation and lack of consent as part of common, everyday sex. And while this is in no way exclusive to fandom, as stated above, transformative works when consumed regularly or in sufficient quantities can have as much impact on a reader as any other medium. It’s why we push so much for positive representation of marginalised groups in all media; representation matters, whether it’s representation of people or of behaviour.
I have no intention of attempting to censor anyone’s work, or of discouraging people from reading such stories. Rather, I feel somewhat like a time-traveller wondering how a society reached this point, and trying to guess what will come next. Perhaps there will be a push back from kink-positive writers who will produce more works with overt kink negotiation and consent-seeking. Perhaps fandom will just move on to the next trend, whatever that is. Perhaps we’ll see another round of mass account purges of any depictions of sexual violence (not from AO3, where anything goes, but anywhere that hosts art depicting bondage such as shibari, or perhaps those artists and writers will create a new adults-only space for such material)? Who knows?
But it cannot be denied that, just as with professionally produced content (both niche and mainstream), fandom’s attitudes to sex and relationships are ever changing, and what once felt risqué or taboo has now become the standard, to the point that it feels like we’re running out of taboos. I’m always pleased to see a writer taking care to show their characters giving consent and practising safe sex (more dental dams, please!), but if I read one more “choke me, daddy,” I might just have to call it a day.