Let’s Talk about Sex … and Genre

Y’all. I need to start out with an apology. Now more than a month ago, I was all super-confident that I’d be putting together these posts during my move and pre-scheduling them like a champ, thus creating the impression that moving 500 miles and doing some big renovations on a house don’t phase me at all. Well, it seems they phase me. I underestimated my ability to move furniture and lay flooring in the summer heat and still have energy left for survey work, and I just didn’t manage to get any posts pre-planned (and I still have about a dozen comments to answer!) By the time I had the chance to work again, I was frantically planning for the New York Tolkien Conference, then my family visited for a week. So. I hope I am not speaking too soon if I say that I’m back and weekly posts of survey data shall resume. I hope all are well and enjoying their summer (or winter for those of you in the south).

I hope I can at least partially make it up to you by resuming my weekly posts with a post about SEX. >;^)


 

In the popular imagination, sex and fan fiction go hand in hand. Now that the popular media has stopped openly mocking fan fiction writers, the main thing they like to talk about is how fan fiction is all about TEH SEX. It can “seem creepy, odd and superfluous” but is ultimately a “sex-positive wonderland.” It fills in the blanks left by abstinence-only sex ed for teenagers and permits exploration of “sexualities and kinks” for grown-ups too. In a lot of ways, this picks up where the fan fiction community itself has left off. I have a distinct memory of reading a post on Metafandom some years ago and feeling annoyed by the BNF from a fandom outside Tolkien who claimed that fan fiction is “all about the porn” because while there’s certainly nothing wrong with erotic fanfic, that wasn’t my fandom experience at all.

It is not so simple in the Tolkien fan fiction community, where not only is our fiction not “all about the porn” (although undoubtedly some is) but the question of writing about sex in Tolkienfic has historically been a contentious and often divisive issue for us. Anyone who has been around the Tolkien fanfic community for any length of time has probably heard comments about Tolkien “disapproving” or even “rolling in his grave” over the fact that some fan somewhere wrote about two of his characters getting it on. Early Tolkienfic groups often placed restrictions on what could be shared there, and those restrictions–even if they nominally included violence–usually had to do with sex. Not saying that it never happened, but I don’t personally remember anyone raising a stink over graphic violence in a story, unless it was someone raising a stink in the context of trying to prove the hypocrisy of those raising a similar stink over the indignity of two guys kissing in a Tolkienfic. Ai.

Hobbit Lads and Elflings, Therefore Sex?

This week I want to look at how attitudes toward sexuality in fanfic vary by the genre an author writes. I’m going to look at three items from the survey that concerned sex in Tolkienfic, beginning with what is probably the most innocuous: “Writing fan fiction lets me add sexuality to Tolkien’s world.” Choices of response were Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. There is no implied judgment, no implied motive of why the author would add sex to Middle-earth, only that they do because, well, we know there are Hobbit lads and Elflings, so there must be sex, right? Just reporting the facts, ma’am. Anyway, here are the how participants overall responded to the statement (n = 635):

Strongly Agree: 27.6%
Agree: 35.7% (subtotal: 63.3%)
Disagree: 11.7%
Strongly Disagree: 6.46% (18.2%)
No Opinion/Not Sure: 18.6%

When broken down by genre, the results aren’t especially surprising for this statement. As in past weeks, I am considering non-genre writers to be those participants who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “I identify myself as a X writer,” where X stands for one of the four genres: femslash, genfic, het, and slash.

Femslash writers: 86.5%
Slash writers: 86.2%
Non-genfic writers: 84.6%
Non-het writers: 72.4%

Het writers: 61.8%
Non-femslash writers: 
55.7%
Genfic writers: 47.4%
Non-slash writers: 39.5%

Two genres defined by the existence of a romantic or sexual pairing–slash and femslash–had authors who agreed most often with the statement. The het writers surprise me here. They agreed less often with the statement than Tolkienfic writers overall. Het is likewise defined by pairing, but it seems that this genre is less focused on sexuality within those pairings and more on romance and/or relationships. Likewise, although genfic doesn’t require a lack of sexual relationships (at least in my understanding of the term; I view myself as primarily a genfic writer, and I would have strongly agreed with the statement), it seems many people interpret it that way, including those who don’t see themselves as genfic writers perhaps because they include sexuality in their stories. I will discuss the particular connotations of the het and genfic labels a bit more below.

I Might Write It, But I Don’t Like It

Another item in the survey asked participants to respond to the statement, “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore or enjoy my sexuality.” This statement digs a little deeper than the prior statement about adding sex to Tolkien’s world: Here, authors aren’t just adding sex, they are doing so because they find it enjoyable or because it helps them to better understand their own sexuality. The results for all participants to answer this question (n = 635) are as follows:

Strongly agree: 17.8%
Agree: 28.0% (subtotal: 45.8%)
Disagree: 19.1%
Strongly Disagree: 8.66% (subtotal: 27.7%)
No Opinion/Not Sure: 26.5%

Already, we can see that fewer authors agreed with this statement than the previous statement, and more disagreed. (More also chose “No Opinion/Not Sure,” high numbers for which I have come to informally associate with statements that are slightly more uncomfortable to answer.) Here are the results, by genre, of who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore or enjoy my sexuality.” In parentheses, I am including the difference between the response to the previous question about adding sex to Middle-earth and this question, about liking to add sex to Middle-earth.

Femslash writers: 72.4% (-14.1%)
Slash writers: 69.5% (-16.7)
Non-genfic writers: 64.7% (-19.9%)
Non-het writers: 56.0% (-16.4%)

Non-femslash writers: 38.6% (-17.1%)
Het writers: 37.7% (-24.1%)
Genfic writers: 33.4% (-14.0%)
Non-slash writers: 22.9% (-16.6%)

These results are very similar to the results for the earlier statement about adding sex to Tolkien’s world except that the non-femslash and het writers swap places; while 61.8% of het writers use fanfic to add sex to their stories, but only 37.7% enjoy it. The het writers had the greatest difference between responses to the two statements than any of the genres, suggesting that this genre does involve a certain amount of just-the-facts-ma’am sex: “Sex happened in Middle-earth, and as an author, I’m reporting on life in Middle-earth, but I don’t find writing about it pleasurable or anything.” Certainly that 24.1% difference challenges the conventional wisdom that fan fiction is a hotbed of horny women writing erotica to gratify themselves and each other.

And so the het writers continue to surprise me. (Partly because, I will admit, that most of the het writers I knew or know are the most open in their obvious enjoyment of the sexual aspects of their genre!) My last post, Tolkien Fanfic Genre and Attitudes toward Fan Fiction, showed that femslash writers tend to embrace critical purposes the most, while non-slash and het writers tend to adhere most closely to Tolkien’s morality in their writing. This surprised me, since het is by definition a genre that permits the inclusion of sexual pairings, albeit heterosexual. The results for this question are very similar, but het and genfic–not surprisingly–flip-flop places, with genfic writers slightly less likely to view fanfic as a vehicle for exploring or enjoying sexuality.

At the same time, het writers still agreed with this statement at surprisingly low rates. In my last post, I proposed that het writers might be writing not because of the sex that is part of the genre and more because it permits so many canonical pairings. For example, someone who writes Aragorn/Arwen romances might do so less because she finds it exciting or fun to imagine them together sexually but because they are a canonically married couple. She’s might identify as a het writer but may not even write graphic sex–or sex at all!–between her pairing. The results this week suggest that this might be the case with the het genre, and that the personal definition I’ve been using all these years of fiction involving heterosexual sexual pairings may not in fact be how a lot of het writers see themselves.

Who/Who? Non-Canonical Pairings

The origins of the slash genre began with a noncanonical pairing: Kirk and Spock, from Star Trek. Noncanonical pairings are hardly confined to the slash genre, however: Eowyn and Aragorn, Caranthir and Haleth have enjoyed their share of attention from writers. To assess Tolkienfic writers willingness to write these kinds of pairings, I included in the survey the statement, “I enjoy pairing characters together romantically or sexually that were not paired in the books.” The results for all participants who answered this question are (n = 636):

Strongly Agree: 33.3%
Agree: 29.2% (subtotal: 62.5%)
Disagree: 14.8%
Strongly Disagree: 6.92% (subtotal: 21.7%)
No Opinion/Not Sure: 15.7%

And here are the percentage who agreed or strongly agreed for each genre:

Slash writers: 88.6%
Non-genfic writers: 86.4%
Femslash writers: 79.8%
Non-het writers: 73.0%

Non-femslash writers: 55.5%
Het writers: 50.9%
Genfic writers: 50.8%
Non-slash writers: 30.9%

It’s not surprising that the slash and femslash writers overwhelmingly agreed to this statement. There is some strong subtext for certain same-sex pairings–Frodo/Sam, Maedhros/Fingon, Eärwen/Anairë–but Tolkien wrote not overt homosexual relationships into his books. Willingness to write slash or femslash suggests an openness to noncanonical pairings.

The results for het writers are again below the overall results for all authors. They are also nearly identical to the results for genfic writers. This suggests to me that identity as a het writer often goes hand in hand with a preference for canon pairings more so than a desire to write hot opposite-sex pairings.

The non-genfic numbers are interesting here too because they suggest that writers who reject the genfic label as part of their identity as an author also tend to write noncanonical pairings. A rejection of the genfic label, therefore, seems to also be a rejection of the need to stay close to the books with respect to sex and romance. This is interesting because neither the het nor genfic genre require canon-compliance, yet both genres have come to largely represent authors who do keep close to the canon and the value of “canonicity.” This probably surprises no one who writes Tolkien fanfic, but to see the data bear out what I have believed to be true is interesting.

Sex and Genre: Two Lovers Entwined

My conclusion to all of this is that opinions on the appropriateness and the role of sex in Tolkienfic is strongly associated with genre, even when the definition of that genre wouldn’t require it to be or would suggest the opposite. Slash and femslash writers are very open to sex in fanfic, and one might say that this is an obvious conclusion: Their genres are defined by the romantic/sexual pairings at their core. But then there are the het writers, and they show how this issue is more complicated in Tolkien fanfic beyond whether one writes sexual pairings or one doesn’t.

Like slash and femslash, the het genre would suggest an openness to sexuality in fan fiction. Like slash and femslash, het has a romantic or sexual pairing at its core. This isn’t always the case, however. Het writers, in general, fell below the numbers for all Tolkienfic authors for all three statements I looked at this week. More than any other genre, they had a gap between the authors who agree that they write sex into their fanfic and the authors who acknowledge that they enjoy doing so. Coupled with previous data showing that het writers also tend to view adherence to Tolkien’s morality in their stories as important and tend to view critical motives as less important, this suggests that the het genre is less about the pairing–the chance to write romantic and erotic encounters–and more about the canonicity for many het writers. Tolkien wrote or implied a lot of het pairings, many of those pairings resulted in children, so sex must have occurred–therefore, het fanfic.

Genfic is the same. Genfic doesn’t necessarily exclude romantic elements or even sex: I write a lot of genfic that includes one or both. While genfic is the most difficult of the four genres to define, I have always thought of it as the genre where those pairings are not the center of the story. Notice how I used the word core to describe the pairings in femslash, slash, and het: Take away the pairing, and you often don’t have much or any story left. Genfic–and again, this is how I’ve come to define it–doesn’t place romance and sex at the center. They can still exist because these are still stories about human or human-like characters, and proscribing a major component of what it means to be human is a rather self-defeating approach to writing literature, but you can remove the romantic or erotic elements and still have some story left behind to tell. That is how I define genfic.

Yet the results here show that genfic has come to be associated with an avoidance of sex in one’s fiction. The so-called “non-genfic” authors are among the most open to using sex in fanfic, which suggests to me that they are possibly avoiding the genfic label for themselves because they have come to associate it with canaticism or prudishness. Even if they write genfic periodically–and I’m convinced that most authors do–they avoid identifying as genfic writers because they find those other qualities with which genfic has come to be associated to be distasteful or off-putting.

Which brings me back to my original point: The Tolkienfic community is rather obsessed with sex, probably because the Tolkienfic community has a higher-than-usual obsession with Tolkien’s morality, and the Catholic religion is itself rather obsessed with sex. We use labels for the genres that have come to serve as a shorthand for the writer’s use of and beliefs about sex in fan fiction.


Creative Commons License
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

You may use, share, repost, or reprint the statistics and information in this post in any nonprofit project. If you do so, you MUST credit me with my name (Dawn Walls-Thumma in academic/professional contexts or Dawn Felagund in fannish contexts) and link to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey category on my blog: http://themidhavens.net/heretic_loremaster/category/tolkien-fan-fiction-survey/

For permissions not covered by this license or any questions, email me at DawnFelagund@gmail.com.

See the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost for more information on this project, permissions, et cetera, et cetera.

 

 

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6 Responses to “Let’s Talk about Sex … and Genre”

  1. Elleth says:

    Interesting! Thank you for sharing these numbers, Dawn!

    One reason for hetfic being less sex/pairing-based and more interested in canonicity (especially coming opposed to femslash and guyslash) that I’ve seen raised every now and then (no sources, this is stuff that rolled past on my tumblr dashboard. If I reblogged any discussions pertaining to it, it’s probably in my meta tag, in case anyone is interested in going digging) is the idea that “the real world” isn’t short on het material. It’s entirely possible to get enough of a het fix of any rating or flavour to last you several lifetimes in the media as it exists now, and while the number of LGBT media is increasing, there isn’t only the risk of those characters dying horribly – especially women; the dead lesbian trope was in full swing recently – that adds a lot of insecurity, it’s also still largely a case of “you gotta make it yourself” especially for higher ratings (or, higher ratings that aren’t “fake lesbian” porn movies not primarily intended for a queer audience to begin with). And with a demand that isn’t catered to by the media, it makes sense for people to express that by creating fic instead; I’d see that as an additional factor to the disparity in numbers particularly when it comes to enjoyment.

  2. Oshun says:

    I Might Write It, But I Don’t Like It

    I still do not really understand the questions relating to this or the conclusions. I write it (all of the above–slash, het, femslash) and I enjoy writing it. I do NOT write it for sexual gratification, although I want the intimate parts to be appealing, warm, and sex-positive. I have not tried much very kinky stuff. It is not out of the question, depends up the character and the setting.

    The sex in my stories probably does reveal more about my own sexuality than I would be comfortable describing in a non-fiction piece, but, hey, I am not thinking about that when I write it. It’s fiction, ladies! You can’t prove anything and our sexual tastes and preferences are so individual one cannot know for sure that this is how I might feel or respond in any given situation.

    I write to make you like or at very least relate to who my characters are and how they think and survive in a difficult world. Sex and sexuality can be close to the surface in some stories and humming along below the surface in others. I basically write about the human condition, the details of daily life, the yearning and unfulfilled longing of living–pain, embarrassment, disappointment, vanity, jealousy, etc., etc. I write a lot about love–but not only romantic love–parental love, family loyalty and disloyalty, what it’s like to married or in an established relationship. Or what it’s like to be alone. And because I am an incurable optimistic, I write about the temporary incandescent moments of happiness in life. I’m writing Silmarillion fic–but for my characters as long as there is life there can be hope. Otherwise they would just stop eating and curl up and die.

    Where does sex fall into writing about life in general? It is one of three fundamental problems of human existence–basic and overwhelming for the majority of us–the other two being hunger and death. But writing it for me is not a form of jerking off. My sex life (such as it is at this point in my life, single and post-menopausal) has very little do with my writing, although I do draw upon past experience for validity and a sense of reality in what I write.

    Reading porn? Well, first try to define it–it ain’t easy–my stories which I think are broader might be considered porn to some. It’s none of anyone’s business and you didn’t even ask, but the fact is I read some fanfic just for the porn. A type of pornish fanfic does exist that appeals me. Although, I like it well written–clever and with valid characterization. And sometimes I read romance and think, “it one with it already.” Other times I read fanfiction and close down a story because–ugh, too much graphic sex, even well written, is like a diet of only ice cream sundays!

    Now if the question were

  3. Oshun says:

    Oops! Cut myself off in the middle of a sentence. Can’t remember what I meant to type!

  4. Independence1776 says:

    I have a distinct memory of reading a post on Metafandom some years ago and feeling annoyed by the BNF from a fandom outside Tolkien who claimed that fan fiction is “all about the porn” because while there’s certainly nothing wrong with erotic fanfic, that wasn’t my fandom experience at all.

    Yeah… I’ve seen an LJ icon that’s a compass rose of fandom and where you and I would expect to read “fanfic” it says instead “porn.” It’s a completely different way of looking at fandom and one that boggles me.

    Not saying that it never happened, but I don’t personally remember anyone raising a stink over graphic violence in a story

    I actually know of a couple of fics that were removed from archives because they were too violent. But that’s two fics versus over a decade in the fandom.

    Het is likewise defined by pairing, but it seems that this genre is less focused on sexuality within those pairings and more on romance and/or relationships.

    Yep. That’s my experience, too.

    For example, someone who writes Aragorn/Arwen romances might do so less because she finds it exciting or fun to imagine them together sexually but because they are a canonically married couple. She’s might identify as a het writer but may not even write graphic sex–or sex at all!–between her pairing.

    *waves hands* This is me! (Though Arwen/Aragorn is one of my go-down-with-the-ship pairings, so it’s not the best example of me writing a relationship “because of canon.”)

    The results this week suggest that this might be the case with the het genre, and that the personal definition I’ve been using all these years of fiction involving heterosexual sexual pairings may not in fact be how a lot of het writers see themselves.

    For me, genres have always been first and foremost defined by the relationships, not the sexual content.

    This suggests to me that identity as a het writer often goes hand in hand with a preference for canon pairings more so than a desire to write hot opposite-sex pairings.

    For me it does. As a rule, I don’t break up canon relationships. (I can count on two hands my non-canonical relationships in all my fandoms.) On the other hand, I’m also a femslash and polyfic writer so by definition I write and like some non-canon relationships– but those are also specific relationships and not something I do just because.

    Genfic doesn’t necessarily exclude romantic elements or even sex: I write a lot of genfic that includes one or both. While genfic is the most difficult of the four genres to define, I have always thought of it as the genre where those pairings are not the center of the story.

    My definition of genfic: the primary focus is on platonic or familial relationships while romantic and sexual relationships are backgrounded, if present at all. If they are present, any sexual aspects are kept at a Teen or below level; anything more explicit makes the fic not gen.

    Yet the results here show that genfic has come to be associated with an avoidance of sex in one’s fiction

    This goes back to my above point: in my experience, it’s always been defined that way. There’ve been arguments about whether including canon relationships makes something not gen.

    The so-called “non-genfic” authors are among the most open to using sex in fanfic, which suggests to me that they are possibly avoiding the genfic label for themselves because they have come to associate it with canaticism or prudishness.

    I’m not so sure about that conclusion. There are many, many writers who are solely in fandom for the romantic/sexual relationships to the point that they literally don’t write or read gen, so would answer the question strongly negative. I’ve also seen plenty of people call gen boring and childish because of that lack of sex.* On the other hand, I haven’t seen people complaining that gen is too close to canon (though I have seen people complaining about het that way, of the “why would I want to read or write it?” that Elleth pointed out). So I think it harkens back to the “not my experience of fandom” thing and what people are reading and writing fic for.

    *Which as a gen reader and writer really annoys me. Gen doesn’t mean light and fluffy and aimed at kids; it just means a focus on non-romantic relationships. There are fantastic Adult-rated genfics.

    I don’t even know what I’m trying to say here. I’m one of those people who doesn’t care to read or write sex (I wrote my first ever and probably only PWP a couple of months ago and it was like pulling teeth). It’s just not what I’m interested in and, quite honestly, I find it boring. But I hate the mentality that my tastes in fiction are lesser because of it– even when I write romantic relationships.

  5. Rhapsody says:

    Thou are forgiven 😉

    As some who has written a lot of het-stuff (varying from canonical to non-canon compliant), from what you’d define as genfic with a het pairing at its core to just good ol’ porn, I am just wondering if there is less excitement to explore when you write a canon-het couple of which you know your readers expect you to write how they hooked up, fell in love ect. Do not underestimate the peer pressure that comes with it, not only rules and such of an archive (makes me wonder if you included the osa readers also in this one, I would be interested to see how they reacted to this). Reading the books or having watched the movies: you know Aragorn and Arwen will hook up, eventually. So yeah, it is an established path already so I can imagine that adding sex to the equation might not be that exciting when you combine a non-canon pairing. There is a whole lot more of world building you need to do there: why, how and when. The same applies for non-canonical slash pairings. I also think there is a huge difference between the books: the Silm has less details than LOTR for example. The Silm has more textual ghosts, that canonically allows you to stay between the lines (the wives of Caranthir, Curufin and Maglor comes to mind), yet challenges you as a het writer to work more on world building. I can’t recall if the survery asked for what books a person wrote.

    Notice how I used the word core to describe the pairings in femslash, slash, and het: Take away the pairing, and you often don’t have much or any story left.

    I surely hope not. There is a vast difference between a PWP and a well developed nc-17 story with plenty of erotica in it, but that is skillfully layered. Even kink stories can carry a storyline beneath it because the psychological impact involved. But as I mentioned before, I do not define myself as pairings writer that much. For me the plot/idea should carry the story.

    Also, last week as I was writing for the bingo, I wondered if I should expand more on a possible erotic scene. I decided not to, because the genfic femslash story did not need it. That week I also read some marvellous genfic femslash, so yeah :) For another story my editor/beta encouraged me not to stop at a certain point in my femslash story, but add the erotica to it (he really surprised me there). I could edit it out and the story would still have an impact, but oh well, why not. I love writing it, weaving it into the story.

  6. […] MPTT authors agreed less often. This ties back in to the ongoing evidence I’ve found that the het genre is less about sex than about canon … although we’ve seen that OSA isn’t about canon either! My personal experience […]

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