Why I Love Erotic Fanfic and What I Learned From It

Fanfiction has a historical relationship to erotica and porn Slash: the subset of fanfiction that now encompasses all sorts of queer relationships that originally denoted a sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock through punctuation (K/S) as opposed to other punctuation markers which denoted friendship or non-sexual relationships (K+S). But contemporary mainstream media, thanks to stories like 50 Shades of Gray and the forthcoming After, which have their roots as explicit fanfiction, continue to characterize fanfic as primarily sexual fantasies — and weird ones at that.

But what mainstream media doesn’t say, what they probably aren’t even aware of, is that when fandom moved from print to online in the early 90s, a generation of fangirls discovered fanfiction as not only a creative outlet, but an erotic outlet.

The incredibly Brenna Twohy.
The incredible Brenna Twohy.

For many, fandom wasn’t just a way to explore the impossible; it was also a safe space where people could talk frankly and honestly about sex. It’s one of the few spaces where people could talk about preferences and kinks and not feel judged for them. YKINMK (your kink is not my kink) wasn’t just an expression to let people agree to disagree, but explicit acceptance.

It’s no surprise that through fandom and fanfiction, we learned about all sorts of sexual identities, acts, and kinks. But we also challenged our preconceived ideas about what sex could be, about things like the height rule. In a world where sex education typically means passive instruction, fandom made it a conversation, and through it, we learned about ourselves.

How old were you when you started reading erotic fanfic?

Ray Sonne: Thirteen years old. Is that young? My mom thought it was too young. It didn’t matter; I continued to sneak around and read fanfic when she wasn’t paying attention and my sexual personhood grew up without her approval.

Meg Downey: Oh, god. I think I was around 13 too. I didn’t really set out looking for erotic stuff on purpose or anything but I stumbled into it on fanfiction.net and decided to be ~*rebellious*~ by clicking through the age warning on things that were restricted. It kind of snowballed from there.

Kate Tanski: Fourteen! And this was 1995, so before the days of Net Nanny or fanficition.net. My younger sister (who was thirteen) was the one who showed me the Sailor Moon Romantic Fanfic Archive and also a Beatles archive.

Insha Fitzpatrick: I believe I was around 12 or 13. I started out with fan fiction about pop-punk bands then moved into my other fandoms effortlessly. Just like Meg, I felt it was pretty rebellious to read this stuff. I felt the quiet little rush pushing the IF YOU’RE 18, ENTER sign. I was a whole other world and I enjoyed it.

Jen Grogan: About 14. I was a bit of a late bloomer.

Cathryn Sinjin-Starr: Latest bloomer! I think mine was around 15 or 16. I think it was FictionPress.

Did fanfic play a role in your sex education? What are some things fanfic taught you? What are some things fanfic misled you about?

Ray: It played a major, major role in my sex education. We didn’t have a great sex education program in my hometown, but we had a decent one in comparison to the garbage most of the US offers. They scared us with pictures of STDs, taught us how to check for cancerous lumps on your breasts/testicles, basic anatomy, and the different types of birth control. Among the important things that they didn’t teach us: if you stimulate the nipples the same time you stimulate the genitals, you will probably orgasm better; people have different erogenous zones, like the earlobes or spots on their thighs; anal sex is this huge process but is worth it for many people; and varying levels of BDSM can be pretty cool.

What fanfic didn’t teach me: lube makes things more fun even if you’re having vaginal sex. I found that one out later through other sources.

What fanfic misled me about: all people are ready to go at all times, especially conveniently in that moment when it’s needed. Let me tell you, no fanfic has ever helped me with my performance anxiety.

It also taught me that penis-to-orifice penetrative sex is the best sex. This is not true, especially for women. Oral > all other types of sex, generally.

Meg: Honestly it probably played too much of a role in my sex ed. Like Ray, my formal education was really limited and perfunctory—and really, very fear based which didn’t help me at all.

For a long time I was deeply self conscious about my fanfiction education, but now I’m pretty grateful for it.

I think fanfiction misled me way more than it aided me at first, though. I’m an only child and a person who largely identifies as gray asexual, so for a really long time my only encounters with sexual anything were from fanfiction, so I spent the vast majority of my adolescence with only fanfic and like, horror based erotica (things like Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse). I didn’t consume any porn or ever seek out personal sexual experiences so my idea of sex was … colorfully unrealistic, I guess is the best way to put it for years and years.

The thing about it is, I’ve learned now that I don’t really mind the colorfully unrealistic stuff now. For a long time I was deeply self-conscious about my fanfiction education, but now I’m pretty grateful for it. For as disinterested in actual real life sex as I am, it’s fun to enjoy and consume it as fantasy.

Kate: I’m not sure if fanfic has misled me about anything. I feel like I walked into reading fanfic with my eyes wide open in terms of what was fantasy and how this related to reality. I do think that it’s interesting that in the past 20 years since I’ve started reading fanfic, fic writers have gotten more and more progressive as society has gotten more and more progressive. Safe sex (with condoms and actual lube) is the norm now, not the exception, thanks to a lot of people who were open and educational about how the mechanics of gay sex worked. It’s definitely not something that was ever addressed in my school district.stanass

I feel like fanfic often works against misinformation—or at least the best examples of it does. But there’s also a lot of really bad sex in fanfic or anatomically impossible/improbable sex that is probably best embodied by this gif.

Ray: Man, condoms in fanfiction? Maybe I’m conservative after all, because that seems so weird to me. I’ve seen a seamless mention of condom use in a fanfic maybe once; it generally disrupts the fantasy aspect for me.

Insha: It played a very big role in my sexual education. There was no one to talk to about anything sexual going on around me. I’m panromantic demisexual now, but when I was a kid I was oh so curiously to find out, so I had to take that journey myself. As an only child myself, my parents wanted to keep me under a close leash and withdraw information from me. I also went to Catholic school for my entire life where everyone was engaged in some sexual activity, but the fear based teachings was there. So … for awhile, I was completely lost without fan fiction for that sexual guidance I needed

Fanfiction taught me two very important things that helped me later developed my sexuality. One was sexual identity and the other was the description of different types of things you can engage in.

The only thing I think fan fiction misled me in was the mechanics of all types gay sex. I used to always turn my head and go, “Would … would that a comfortable position for anyone?”

Jen: Honestly, I was pretty innocent, so I think a lot of it was just getting a concept for, like, seriously that’s something people want to do? Not sex in general, but I remember a friend printing out (yes, it was that many years ago) a pile of fic for me to read, and I was reading it under the table in my home economics class and ran straight into some pretty wild foot stuff. Which to this day would probably make me blush, so I’m astounded that the teacher didn’t catch me. My face must’ve been glowing like the surface of the sun.

Cathryn: I’m seeing a pattern here … Massive role. Probably one of the biggest. My school operated under abstinence-only, and I never had “the talk” with my parents, so erotic fiction taught me pretty much everything.

Do you read fic to explore things you wouldn’t be interested in real life? For example, you’re straight but love lesbian fic? Or ace but love erotica?

Al Rosenberg: I usually read gay male erotica when I’m looking for erotica. I’m a lesbian.

Ray: I also usually read gay male erotica, but as a bisexual woman, can’t possibly partake in it in real life. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t inspired me in other ways, however.

Meg: I teeter back and forth between identifying as ace and as gay, but I almost exclusively enjoy gay male erotica. I think for me it’s more about removing myself from the “fantasy”? I guess? I’m so disinterested in my own sex life that it really does nothing for me to be able to identify with the experience being written about. And I tend to gravitate more towards male characters in media anyway, so that probably influences what stories I hunt down too.

Kate: So much! For me, fanfic is a judgment-free space filled with incredibly kinky stuff. I’m part of the generation that invented the kink meme. I have zero interest in personally experiencing probably 90% of what I read, but I definitely enjoy reading characters I love enact all kinds of kinky fantasies.

For me, fanfic is a judgment-free space filled with incredibly kinky stuff.

Insha: I read a lot of dom/sub (not exactly BDSM stuff, but just control) fanfic, but I have maybe 30% of interest in it in real life, because I would have to find someone really trustworthy to engage in that stuff with. Mostly I read a lot of gay male erotica as well. It always seems like the most fun kind to read.

Jen: Totally! In reality my tastes are fairly vanilla, but in fiction, especially in fanfic, I find I can play with a lot of concepts and possibilities that just plain wouldn’t interest me in real life. Also, as a bisexual woman in a committed and monogamous relationship with a man, I do find lesbian fic to be a good outlet. I don’t actually want a poly lifestyle, so it feels good to have a fantasy life that includes options that otherwise wouldn’t be open to me.

Cathryn: Absolutely. Some of it is wish fulfillment for things I can’t have or experience at all (gay male, for example), and some is just downright interesting, but not on a personal level. I really like reading from a variety of situations, orientations, fetishes, etc.

Do you also read “pro” erotic writing or watch porn? Does fic occupy a different mental and emotional space for you?

Al Rosenberg: I used to watch porn pretty regularly when I was a teenager. PornHub was a big thing for me. I “liked” videos that were really demeaning to women. Then I grew up, realized how messed up a lot of what I was watching seemed to be, and looked for alternatives. Which is when I started reading more “pro” erotica. Or fiction with heavy erotic portions. Women by Chloe Caldwell, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, and Shoulders by Georgia Cotrell are not erotica per se, but their sexy sections are important to me. Eventually I also found the Crash Pad Series, which has transformed the way I watch porn.

Ray: Porn always scared me. I was always afraid that my computer would get a virus or that someone would catch me looking at it. Erotica is so much easier to hide — as far as anyone knows, you’re reading an innocent news article. I never moved over to “pro” erotica writing because it always seemed so cheesy to me. Fanfiction has its basis in characters that I am already familiar with in a non-cheesy setting (and I’m probably using it to try to gain some type of closure about the original material as well), so it’s always been my one and only.

Meg: It was the same for me, Ray. For the longest time I was scared of porn because I thought it would get me arrested or my computer infected with something horrible. Places like fanfiction.net or Livejournal were much safer. I didn’t start really consuming legit porn until college when I moved out and felt I had more privacy and even then it never really did a lot for me. Now I actually get more out of porn GIF sets on Tumblr than I do from proper porn videos. I think it’s just all about contextualization. Real bodies are great if I can associate them with people who are fake.

For the longest time I was scared of porn because I thought it would get me arrested or my computer infected with something horrible. Places like fanfiction.net or Livejournal were much safer.

The only “pro” erotic I really consume is horror-based. Like I mentioned before, books like Exquisite Corpse were big deals for me growing up, but I don’t think it was really the sex part that sold me on it and more the fact that the whole thing was one giant taboo, full stop. I don’t really seek out erotic novels unless they’re sold to me some other way. It’s just easier to connect and enjoy fanfiction, because I’ve already connected to the characters or the content.

Ray: I have to agree that Tumblr porn GIF sets are pretty awesome. I follow a few Tumblrs focused solely on sex, and they are so much better than trying to navigate porn sites.

Kate: Tumblr GIF sets are awesome! I definitely follow a few blogs for that reason alone. I think for me, when I watch porn, I’m aware that it’s a male space and very misogynistic. I found the same disconnect when I would try to go to “pro” erotica websites like Nifty or AdultFanFiction.Net. It’s not just about words for me. It’s about an emotional connection between two people — or two characters. I think that’s why Pro porn doesn’t interest me most of the time, with a few exceptions like Porn Stars in Love. Maybe if they were better actors they would sell me … I don’t know. But in fanfic I get good erotica and characters that I’m already invested in.

Jen: I have precisely zero interest in video porn, but I do sometimes read pro romance novels and erotica. I also work specifically with some erotica writers in my freelance-editor life, and my experiences with erotic fanfic have been a huge help there. So thankfully most of that stuff comes to me; I don’t have to go looking for it much!

Cathryn: I don’t know if I’ve read any of what’s considered pro erotica, but I definitely dabble in physical porn, as well as animated porn, games, and comics.

What do you look for in erotic fic?

Al Rosenberg: Lots of narrative. Words turn me on more than images.

Ray: Perhaps counter-intuitively, plot. Sex scenes are really just the release to a plot-filled build-up. The more relationship growth and tension, the better. As for the sex scenes themselves, I look for writers with excellent prose who don’t pay too much attention to what the bodies are doing and incorporate the sex seamlessly into the emotions the characters have during it.

Meg: Characters, absolutely. I’ll read or try just about anything with any warnings if it’s about characters I really love. (Or characters I really hate, sometimes! It depends!) I just really like being able to make that connection or association before I get into something. A great narrative and a really engaging plot are big bonus points, though. But I’m totally not above trashy PWPs if it’s for a pairing or character I’m super into.

Words turn me on more than images.

Kate: Depends on my mood. PWP, Tumblr prompts, and kink meme fills are what I go to the same way other people go to porn websites. My moods also vary in terms of pairings, like if I’m feeling Destiel or Sterek tonight. I’ve been rereading McShep and early Smallville Clex fic recently too, which I haven’t read in years. But I know these characters so well and I’m emotionally invested in them, so I don’t need 400k of slow build to get back to them. I still read the 400k slow build fics, but in those, the sex is usually secondary to my favorite characters getting their shit together and actually getting together to live in domestic bliss happily ever after. I’m a big sappy sap.

Insha: AU, characters and kinks. If you can get away with it. I want to read it. I am complete and utter trash for a couple who has a strong connection throughout. My favorite type of fanfics are ones that have a lot of tension and sexual buildup that just explode on one chapter. I also love writers who can work a cool AU into an already established story. Someone write me Hannibal and Will in Hogwarts. Seriously, go.

Ray: Me, pick me! I’ll write it!

Jen: I look for characters I love most of all, and then good writing. There’s only so much bad grammar I can take before I’m out. I tend to be pretty picky about the narrative, not really so much into PWP, but if I see a kink meme fill that I can’t resist, or a really good vignette that skips the introduction, that’s cool. Really, the writing quality is hugely important to me. And I love love love when writers can capture the tone of whatever the book or TV property is and really run with it. Also I’m a big sap, so I love fluff and relationship stuff and lots of dialogue. If it takes ages for the characters to get to sex, that’s fine by me as long as the build is fun to read! … And seriously, Ray, if you write that Hannibal and Will at Hogwarts AU, send me the link, because I am IN.

Insha: Please, Ray. You’re our only hope!

Cathryn: I’m more with Kate — depends on my mood. Sometimes, I want something with sweet developing characters that smolders and then culminates into “the moment.” Other times, I just want them to get down to it already! As I said before, I’m into many different scenarios, but one of my big things is passion. I love a story where the characters just NEED each other — whether it’s romantically, physically, or mentally. It may be a frenzy of banging to the break of dawn. It might be two people falling in love hard, but respecting each other’s boundaries and trying to take it slow. And it might be calculated BDSM scenes where both parties are fully invested into giving each other a wonderful experience. It’s the passion that really gets me going.

Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.
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