Thursday, August 25, 2011

Analysis: Fan fiction, declarations of love, happily ever afters and the ultimate zipless fuck

@einfach_mich asked Wednesday morning:

(For the morning crowd) Twitter Poll: Do you have to have declarations of love and HEA in your smut fic? Think hard about what you read.

A little translation here for readers who may find that tweet cryptic: HEA is "Happily Ever After," the happy ending one might find at the end of a work of fiction. "Fic" is short for "fiction" and in this particular case likely refers to fan fiction based on characters based substantively on another popular fictional work.

If I have to explain "smut," I suggest exiting this post.

As a relative newbie to the world of fan fiction, I've had my eyes opened by some of the writing published online. There's an overwhelming demand for fan fiction which is not only well-written, but includes a dose of content focused on sexuality. The most popular content bends and twists characters' emotions and responses to all manner of situations, including relationships of all depths and the sex generated in the course of these relationships. This has been a feature of online fan fiction since it began; the relative anonymity of authors allows writers to submit content that is far more diverse including depth of sexuality than fiction published in print.

Twilight fan fiction is relatively unique in the genre, in terms of interest and demand, and in terms of authors'/readers' gender. The numbers of works posted at (FFn), the largest and oldest fan fiction publishing platform, under the Twilight saga show an interest level rivaling that of the Harry Potter saga. As of today, FFn shows total Twilight works published to date now number 186,943 while the Harry Potter category -- representing a franchise with more than twice the number of books, manifold number of characters and more than twice the number of released movies compared to the Twilight saga -- now contains 542,689 works published since 1999. That's a rough ratio of 35,000 Twilight fanfics per year to 45,000 Harry Potter fanfics per year.

And the last two movies of the Twilight franchise have yet to be released; one can only wonder at the growth potential for Twilight-based fanfics over the next two years.

According to content posted at FFn, Twilight fan fiction appears to be overwhelmingly female in terms of authors and readers; the Harry Potter constituency, in contrast, appears to be more evenly distributed between males and females. This is based on anecdotal evidence. The exact numbers are not readily available as FFn's site structure does not allow for much in the way of data mining. Other fan fiction publishing sites like and also appear to support the gender bias weighting toward females in Twilight fan fiction.

These numbers make the prevalence of M-rated mature content under the Twilight category at FFn rather exceptional among fan fiction communities. And yet the numbers confirm the observations made by Asst. Prof. Sharon Cumberland in her paper, Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture (MIT Communications Forum, 1999). Her thesis:

...the paradox of public access and private/anonymous identity has made it possible for women who have access to the internet to create permissive and transgressive spaces which have been, in the past, the traditional reserve of men's magazines and men's clubs.

Cumberland used fan fiction about the 1998 movie Zorro and the actor playing the lead role, Antonio Banderas, to explore this theory. She concluded,

...This pretty much sums up the slash and het genres, and acts as a metaphor for the phenomenon of women's erotica on fansites: high adventure, far-flung or historical settings, improbable sex, all within the safety of a non-judging, sympathetic, indeed, enthusiastic community. While the significance of this paradox of public access and private/anonymous identity will require much more analysis over time, it is clear that women who have access to the internet have created permissive and transgressive spaces which have been, in the past, the traditional reserve of men's magazines and men's clubs. Fan websites have, in effect, become women's clubs, where erotica can be safely explored without damage to the reputation, the career, or the domestic life. 

Which brings us to my first proposition: online smut written by women would be the ultimate in "zipless fucks." By "zipless fuck" I refer to the phrase coined by author Erica Jong in her 1973 work, Fear of Flying, referring to "a sexual encounter with an anonymous stranger that one will never meet again, and nobody one knows will ever know that it happened." (Wikipedia). In Jong's words,

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

While Jong's main character, Isadora Wing, appears to vacillate about her expectations from life and her desires, Wing really wants it all. She doesn't want to be denied any of the choices her male counterparts have -- alone/involved, risk-taking/secure, single/married -- when it comes to relationships or to sex. Some may say character Wing feels guilty about the concept of the "zipless fuck," but choosing one means excluding another choice, cutting off her options and leaving her exposed to a notional loss.

In 1973 it would have been very easy even as a feminist of the time to feel some guilt, some loss through the exercise of choice. Choice then was being newly and quite literally shaped by the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court that year, establishing abortion's legality in the U.S. Choosing a "zipless fuck" was easier than ever in terms of dealing with unwanted pregnancy, but exercising a woman's choice of a "zipless fuck" like choosing abortion at that time would mean going against the body of American culture.

During the twenty-five year span after Fear of Flying's publication and before the emergence of fan fiction, casual sex became even more casual during the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s. The pendulum swung back and hard as herpes and then HIV/AIDS became prevalent, causing sexually active adults to change their sexual behavior with a greater preference for monogamy and increased condom use to reduce exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. The resurgence of conservatism during the late 1990s also increased the public's sensitivity to abortion while promoting a return to more traditional roles for women. A "zipless fuck" seemed less possible and probable at the turn of the millenium.

Now nearly forty years later, choosing a "zipless fuck" is different phenomenon. While women no longer feel the same kinds of societal pressures they felt in 1973 about random sexual encounters, they also have newer and different avenues to explore their sexuality in privacy previously denied them. This brings me to my second proposition: women can now choose a "zipless fuck" either as a writer or a reader in the form of fan fiction, and a safe, STD-free experience at that. No one will know that you had a little dash of slash (homosexual fan fiction)  this morning before you went to work, rode on the train or before bed, and there will be no repercussions in the form of unwanted pregnancy, clumsy contraception or STD tests. Nor will it interfere with your climb up the corporate or social ladder. Women can even order sex toys for masturbation online, delivered anonymously, to increase our enjoyment of this "zipless fuck" -- no obligations save for the credit card bill.

But this is ultimately about choice; that's the real question about the nature of smut. It's about having options, just as it was in 1973. Women no longer need a declaration of love, commitment and happily ever after to make smut enjoyable. Having the option of a completely uninhibited no-strings-attached sexual encounter or the happily ever after is the real point. It's important that women have the choice. With online fiction women co-create, women ensure that choice.

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