Candace Covington’s voice giggles when she describes her favorite fictional couples. Her favorite ship — a term to describe imagined romances — is between Remus and Sirius from the Harry Potter series, although, she confesses, fanfiction written about Lily and James Potter was what first familiarized her to heterosexual sex.

“I remember that moment so vividly,” Covington says, recalling the first time she stumbled across sexually explicit fanfiction, or “smut.”

In the literary world of fanfiction, authors base their stories around pre-existing characters and narratives. They use their imagination to create new scenes and storylines for these fictional characters.

When Covington stumbled upon this world, she was 14, living in a conservative part of Iowa and enrolled in abstinence-only sex education. Her class consisted only of biological technicalities, glossed over with the basics of drugs, alcohol and STDs. In hindsight, Covington says fanfiction presented her with an idealized understanding of sex, one where all sexualities and interests were socially accepted and consequently normalized.

As a literary genre, fanfiction is not wholly sexually explicit. But its ability to be presented and marketed on free online forums allows it to contain erotic content not commonly found in published romance novels, says Anne Jamison, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah. For young women like Covington in fandom, these stories serve as gateways to informal sexual education and exploration.

For women, by women

In traditional media, such as cinema and photography, women have been historically portrayed through a male perspective, which feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coins as “the male gaze” in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Due to the gender imbalances of the film and television industries, Mulvey writes that men have projected their sexual fantasies onto female characters, crafting scenes that focus on women’s legs or breasts.

With fanfiction, Jamison argues that women have more control in shaping a story’s narrative and characters’ interactions.

“[Fanfiction] is erotic content that’s largely written from the perspective of the female gaze and female desire,” Jamison says, although she notes that data into fanfiction’s demographics remain academically incomplete.

Informally collected data by the podcast Fansplaining and other online forums have shown that readers are predominantly female, although there is a subset of non-binary, genderqueer readers and men in fanfiction.

Perhaps the most famous and controversial adapted fanfiction of all time, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” brought immense public attention to BDSM, sex kinks and erotic literature with its depictions of romance and sexual consent. The novel was originally written as Twilight fanfiction, according to the author’s agent in an interview with Deadline, but was published with original characters and plot.

“It’s the go-to example for many people, although it got everything wrong,” says Katherine Larsen, a professor at George Washington University and expert in fan theory and culture. Still, Larsen thinks the series’ popularity drew women in by encouraging them to explore their sexuality.

“They feel safer reading about and understanding through the fanfic that other people have written,” she says. “No matter what their age, it’s a way to experience situations that they might not feel completely comfortable experiencing in real life.”

While there is a subset of reader-insert stories — works in which readers immerse themselves as a character of a fanfiction, colloquially called “fic” — a majority of the sexually explicit stories are written about popular fictional characters that readers are already familiar with.

As readers become immersed in a character’s sexual experience, some find the character interactions before and after the sex scenes, including acts of foreplay, aftercare and post-sex dialogue, particularly valuable.

“The emphasis on foreplay is validating for the female experience at least,” Covington says, noting how mainstream media’s approach to sex is usually through male penetration.

Fics, like most written works, follow a storyline, which can culminate with characters falling in love, kissing or having sex. Beyond the sexually explicit content, Sheilla Avryanki, a 19-year-old Indonesian fic author, found herself most fascinated by the interpersonal relationships characters developed.

“I like to read about aftercare, or how they deal with the aftermath of intercourse,” she says. “[Sex] is not really what I’m looking for when I read fics.”

In most fandoms, “slash” fics — stories that contain gay male pairings — are the most popular (making up 42 percent of the fic archive) despite the dominant female fanfiction demographic, according to a 2013 analysis of the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own. The top 20 most published pairings of 2017 on the site are also all-male.

Elizabeth Carissa, a 17-year-old Indonesian fan, attributes her understanding of LGBTQ issues to the multitudes of slash and fem-slash fics she has read.

“I grew up very tolerant,” Carissa says, adding that she started reading fics at 11-years-old. “But it’s very hard for my friends to come out [as gay or lesbian], even towards their own parents because of their religious standards.”

For Avryanki, who identifies as a bisexual woman, fanfiction helped her cope with her own internalized homophobia. “I just think it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t stumbled upon fandom and fanfiction in general,” she says.

“Once you’re in the community, it feels like a safe space to be able to read what you want and express your thoughts,” Larsen says. “But, you might stumble upon things on the more extreme ends of the fanfiction slash spectrum.”

Some fics have sexual subplots that contain bestiality, orgy scenes or non-consensual sex, she adds.

According to Jamison, who is also the author of “Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World,” fanfiction is a crucial tool in representing sexual and gender minorities in pop culture. In the 1970s, fics served as a creative outlet for female Star Trek fans, who crafted stories for characters they adored based on their own plot preferences.

Parallels to porn

In Indonesia, Carissa says her community still remains conservative on same-sex relationships and sex-ed in general. Fanfiction has freed her from the taboos rampant in her community, she says.

“I do read fanfics and I have watched porn,” she says. “But in the case of porn, I feel like it’s something you go to for when you just have the need. But for fanfiction, I feel it’s more of a thing you do constantly because you feel more connected to it. You know who’s involved in it.”

Although pornography and fanfiction do draw parallels — both are widely distributed online and contain sexually explicit content — Jamison warns against comparing the two so closely. Besides being on two different mediums, the emotional connection and characterization before, during and after the scenes sets them apart.

“The people who are reading it are bringing in all this characterization that they know from reading or watching the source material and all the fiction that is based on it,” she says. “So, it is really different from pornography in that regard even when it is explicitly sexual.”

Yet fanfiction can offer an overly idealized version of what sex should look like, Covington says. She also acknowledged that there are specific sexual sub-genres readers can gravitate toward, such as alternate universes and kinks.

“I feel like consent has gotten better in fanfiction lately,” she says. “I would say it’s better than porn, but it’s not perfect, since it’s not regulated in any way.”

Fanfiction isn’t perfect, and misinformation about sex could spread, but stories don’t exist in a vacuum, according to Jamison. Attached to these popular fandom communities and fanfiction is a robust online culture where discussions are being made and readers are engaging with one another, through platforms like Tumblr, Twitter and LiveJournal.

“It’s important for people to understand that as young people go in and read [sexually explicit] stories, they’re also going to be engaged … and see a lot of discussion of the ethics of representation and sexual ethics,” Jamison says.

And if that concerns those unfamiliar with the genre, she has one suggestion: “You might want to go read some fanfiction.”

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