This article was originally published here.
It is a summer night in 2010 and my parents are asleep in the next room. In the sweltering darkness, I sneak out of bed and boot up our dusty living room desktop computer, logging onto my clandestine Livejournal account. With bated breath, I click through to a page with a grainy image of two men standing too close to each other for it to be considered purely platonic, the words “Cas x Dean” scribbled on top. And scrolling further down unravels an endless expanse of the “erotic”, an endless reservoir of stories waiting to be told, waiting to be read; my earliest reckonings with a world where desires that were considered forbidden within my lived realities could be realised and normalised in fiction.
Around this time, Livejournal, an online forum where users could create virtual “communities” of their own, was the primary site of “fandom” activity. A fandom is nothing but a community of ‘fans’ of a particular piece of literature or media, and, because the usage of social media then hadn’t spread to the extent it has today, Livejournal was the most common and accessible sphere where these fans (or fandoms) could interact. Soon enough, fans began using this platform to also regularly create and publish ‘fanworks’ – i.e, creative content deriving from, or paying homage to, the popular culture these fans consumed. In the quest for greater representation, or, perhaps, in the quest for projecting repressed desires, this fan-driven creative fiction was predominantly queer in nature, i.e, the most common thrust of fanfiction was to re-imagine so-called “straight” characters from popular media or literature as being in queer relationships. But even more predominantly, this queer fanfiction was sexy, never shying away from vivid, detailed explorations of sex and sexual dynamics.
That particular week of 2010, during which I snuck out of bed every single night to peruse page upon page of erotic fanfiction, was an especially exciting time on the Livejournal fan communities dedicated to the popular TV show Supernatural (the very same show in which ‘Dean’ and ‘Cas’ were two of the often-homoerotically-coded male protagonists). It was the week of ‘kinkfest’ after all, a fandom event that took place only a few times a year,and as a result, I simply had to be online at ungodly hours to consume every single morsel of sexy content it offered.
Notions of fandom and the body of literature that subsequently emerges out of it – namely, fanfiction – has since, become a little more mainstream. Partly because of the expansion of social media and its accessibility, and partly because of the evolution of popular culture itself – especially the willingness of pop culture creators to engage more directly with fans and fan-authors, queer fanfiction isn’t shrouded in as much of an air of shame and secrecy as it used to be in its early days (though, of course, misconceptions around it and objections to it continue to exist). But back in the early to late 2000s, fanfiction was as niche and secluded as it could get, functioning in obscure corners of the Internet almost as this fantastical domain where one could imagine the queer happy endings that weren’t always available in real life. It was where one could project non-normative notions of sex, sexuality and sexual identity on the mainstream pop culture narratives one either wasn’t happy with, or wanted to see oneself in.
And in those early days, it was ‘kinkfests’ that opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities around sexy writing, and revolutionised the way queer sex could be depicted in online literature.
A ‘kinkfest’, organised by specific fan communities during a specific time period, was a fandom activity in which people could anonymously write erotic fanfiction in continuous comment threads. A caveat here is that the word ‘kink’, especially in the 90s and 2000s, had a much looser definition in fan communities. Often, fans would club any and all explicit depictions of sex under ‘kink’, though it also included within its ambit sexual acts that would qualify as BDSM, or acts that fit into present-day connotations of ‘kinky’. A typical ‘kinkfest’ would begin with someone from that fan community posting a ‘request’ for a specific piece of fanfiction,offering a ‘prompt’ – i.e, the basic premise of the plot they’d like to see written. These prompts could range from something as vague as ‘character x and character y have anal sex in a public bathroom’ to requests for detailed settings, relationship dynamics, a certain sexual act or a certain non-vanilla kink (examples: humiliation kink, shibari, daddy kink, etc) to be written. Then, someone else would “fill” that prompt, i.e, they would, in the comments under that post, actually write fanfiction based on the premise described in the prompt. The resulting piece of fanfiction could be written over a series of comments, or in one single comment.
Since kinkfests allowed for, and even encouraged, anonymity, this often became a space where one could create and consume stories without any inhibitions. Stories that one would otherwise consider scandalous or outrageous were regular fare – queer characters engaged in a wide range of sexual activities, subs and doms and switches and masters and slaves, bondage and breath play and spanking (and various other sexual role plays) all coexisted. Every sexual scenario you could imagine, every fantasy you’d wanted representation for in fiction, could be ‘requested’ for and there would be someone writing it. Nothing was out of reach.
In a society where queer sexuality had been demonised in not just mainstream fiction but also mainstream culture, the erotic fanfiction that emerged out of kinkfests became an important source of queer sex-positivity. Since nothing was out of bounds, narratives where queer characters pursued pleasure that didn’t fit into neat, palatable boxes were in abundance, to the extent that it was totally normalised. You could log in any day and find a 10,000-word story where two queer characters engage in intense sexual ‘play’ and it wouldn’t be something alarming or embarrassing. It would be just another ordinary Tuesday.
When I, still struggling with my own sexuality and stuck in a conservative environment, found little to no positive, sexy depictions of queerness in every other sphere of art or culture (or life), the fanfiction I consumed via kinkfests became my source of comfort. They became the sexually-affirming queer narratives that I sorely needed in order to hope for a better, stigma-free existence. They became the narratives that enriched my understanding of sexuality and the complexities and diversities within it, the narratives that helped me detach the shadow of shame and morality from pleasure, and specifically, queer pleasure. And that’s exactly what erotica is supposed to achieve, isn’t it?
Fanfiction has been historically looked down upon as a medium of literature perhaps because its very nature is so democratic and free from censorship or control, because anyone can write it and read it, because it endlessly appeals to people belonging to sexual minorities, who see it as one of the freest modes of sexual exploration. And since erotica has, despite its controversies, still found literary legitimacy in a way fanfiction has not, classifying sexy, queer fanfiction as ‘erotica’ might become a contentious association. But eroticism is essentially born out of desire which subverts the socially acceptable, which emerges from a human longing that is primitive and irrational, which cannot be and should not be contained within binaries and conventions. And erotica is nothing but an expression of that very desire, a plunge into domains heretofore unexplored in traditional understandings of sexuality. So to my mind, queer fanfiction – specifically the kind that thrives in kinkfests, where the democratisation of fanfiction-writing and reading is at its most potent – is as dynamic, as powerful, as revolutionarily non-normative as any other form of ‘literary’ erotica.
That said, kinkfests aren’t always ideal utopic spaces rife with subversion. Kinkfests often feature predominantly queer male fanfiction, which is a product of the fact that queer male ‘pairings’ (or couples) that are written about in any fandom space outnumber queer female pairings or non-binary and trans characters, leading to an uneven gender representation. Though ‘gender bent’ fanfiction – in which either the two male characters’ genders are miraculously (through magic or happenstance) swapped to female or where two male characters are re-imagined as being queer and female from the start – also exist in these spaces, it has had a history of furthering heterosexist stereotypes, or containing transphobic tropes.
But despite these problems, there is no denying the unbridled power of queer erotic fanfiction. In 2019, fanfiction communities have largely migrated from Livejournal to Archive of Our Own, which, unlike Livejournal, is dedicated solely to the writing, reading and discussing of fanfiction, rather than being a space for a larger variety of fan interactions. As a result, the traditional format of the kinkfest has evolved into various other forms of themed fanfic-writing ‘fests’ on this new platform (though, of course, some kinkfests still continue on Livejournal, despite its shrunken user base in recent years). But what remains the same is the sex-positivity, the challenging of mainstream sexual norms, and the normalisation of queer sex and kink. Fanfiction has tremendous potential to challenge and fracture heteronormative canons of popular literature and media and represent a wider range of experiences. And simultaneously, it also has the infinite breadth and capability to broaden the very notions of the erotic and divorce these from the narrowness of ‘propriety’ and ‘acceptability’.
Cover Image: Dean and Castiel