Here’s a story we’ve often heard: you grow up in a conservative family; you hardly hear the adults around you even mention sexuality, let alone educate you about it.
And here’s the familiar continuation of that same story: you’re bombarded with mixed messages from popular culture, peers, from the world at large; you take refuge in the Internet.
What comes next, varies. There’s porn, of course, the age-old source of fascination and recourse when it comes to exploring one’s sexual curiosity. There’s also erotica, illicit chat rooms, and a billion other ways (some trustworthy, some far from trustworthy) in which the Internet fills the void your conservative social and cultural environment cannot.
For me, it was fanfiction.
I was thirteen when we first got broadband, and, being the only somewhat technologically-savvy person in the house, most of its use happened through me. A socially anxious introvert who was more content left to her own devices than being out and about, I was totally immersed in soaking up any and all popular culture I could find. And the Internet only enabled this, propelling me headfirst into the world of online fan communities where I could discuss my favourite books, films, and TV shows with fellow “fans” of said favourite books, films, and TV shows from all over the world. And in these fan communities existed “fan works” – which is nothing but derivative works based on the pop culture you’re a fan of – among which, fanfiction was dominating the scene.
Fanfiction was more than just writing your own stories about the characters or the setting of your favourite book or TV show; it was a questioning of the dominant mainstream pop culture narrative as a whole. My entry point into it was the Harry Potter fandom,where the fanfiction re-imagined scenes from the books having different outcomes, rewrote certain scenes from a different character’s perspective, thought up alternate universes where a certain plot point occurs differently or doesn’t occur at all. But most importantly, it made the characters queer. Or rather, imagined straight-coded characters to be queer, having queer story lines and queer love stories.
This form of fanfiction – the one where canonical straight characters are rewritten as queer – is called “slash” (the lesbian version of it often called “femslash”). Slash fanfiction is subversive in multiple ways; not only does it challenge the notion that heterosexuality has to be the default in any pop culture love story, but it almost normalises queerness. The two characters in a piece of fanfiction may fall in (queer) love without it being a big deal – i.e, without them having to overcome big societal obstacles to their love or without them having to undergo any large-scale tragedies like death or separation (both of which are often themes we see in queer stories in mainstream popular culture). In fanfiction, the queer love is treated like it would in any other mainstream narrative of heterosexual love. In fact, fanfiction writers often revel in employing popular “romcom” tropes – like an “enemies to lovers” story, like a story with “mutual pining”, and so on.
But what fanfiction does even more expertly is to normalise queer sex. Not only is the sex often depicted in meticulous detail – and in a way that does justice to it instead of fetishising it – but there is also a healthy exploration of things like kink (and BDSM), consent, and safer sex practices.
Imagine me, a teenager who had so far been told that sex is something ‘scandalous’ and queerness even more so, being exposed to an entire body of fiction where I got to learn about not only how queer sex works, but also that it’s completely healthy, completely normal to desire it – it was revolutionary. To this date, I have learnt more about the use of condoms and lube, about STIs, about the various kinds of kinky sex and BDSM dynamics, about polyamory, sex work, and so on, from fanfiction than from any other source. Over the years, I have been part of multiple online fandoms, consuming fanfiction extensively and eagerly. It has helped me reconcile myself with my own sexuality, has helped shape my value systems, has fuelled me to do more independent research about the very things I have read about in fanfiction, and has helped me unlearn all the stigma and conservativism around sex and sexuality that had been internalised within me as a kid. It helped me believe in the existence of regular, healthy queer love stories and queer relationships in a world (and in a popular culture) which often tends to paint these stories as either straight-up negative, or too full of struggle.
It’s not that struggle does not exist in the real world with regard to queer love, and it’s not that fanfiction, which often tends to gloss over the realities of homophobia and transphobia, has not been criticised quite a few times for doing so, but it’s just heartening to read a sweet queer romcom (or accurate, non-judgmental depictions of sexy queer sex) which lets you hope, which makes you realise that happy endings aren’t just for heterosexual couples.
Slash fanfiction is the safe, happy place I escape to when I’m overwhelmed by stories of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people in the real world; it’s also where I escape to when I’m frustrated by the lack of responsible queer representation in mainstream media. In so many ways, it is a powerful, subversive counter-narrative. It is a diverse, sex-positive challenge to heteronormativity; it is queer happy endings.
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