(Alternate Title: Everything I Know About Sex I Learned from Fanfiction)
In Dan Savage’s most recent podcast he interviews Cindy Gallop, creator of the (somewhat misleadingly titled IMHO) organization Make Love Not Porn ( www.makelovenotporn.com). Gallop talks about how she realized that many people, especially younger people, are getting a lot of their sexual education via pornography and, absent any alternative sources of information *cough cough actual, comprehensive sexual education cough*, are coming (hehe) away with a lot of misconceptions that can get in the way of a healthy, fulfilling sex life. MLNP is an effort to provide a more realistic alternative and in essence to encourage critical porn consumption. People in general, especially younger ones, are much more media literate than they once were (though they could definitely stand be more so) but for a variety of possible reasons (because watching porn is stigmatized so we don’t like to think about it, it taps into our lizard brains, etc.) not many of us apply those skills to porn. Gallop thinks, and I agree with her, that that should change.
Listening to her talk about all this on the podcast, what was the first thought that sprang to my mind? Thank G-d for fanfiction! It sounds strange, but the truth is, a lot of what I learned about sex and sexuality came from reading fanfic as a young teenager, and it has proven a much better textbook than the porn vids many of my peers apparently learned from. After all, no one in a written story is contorting themselves to get a better camera angle, and since fandom isn’t driven by profit no one is trying to reach the largest possible audience so authors are free to express and indulge in all the diversity of real-world sex and sexuality. Fanfiction is where I learned about safewords and negotiation, it’s where I first started figuring out what gets me going and what does nothing for me. It’s also where I learned that some people not only aren’t disgusted by things like female pubic hair and love handles, but actually find them appealing. Fanfiction told me that not everyone wants the same things in bed or looks for the same things in their partners, a revelation after a lifetime of bombardment with identical, airbrushed bodies and interchangeable sex scenes.
Fanfiction also differs from straight-up porn in that the sex isn’t artificially isolated from the rest of the narrative. In porn, sex serves one purpose exclusively: to arouse the consumer. It can serve that purpose in fanfic as well, but it can also facilitate character development, advance the plot, or illuminate the relationship between characters. All this is a lot closer to how sex functions in the real world; no one leaves their personality, history, and relationship at the bedroom door. This also opens the door to a different kind of sexual diversity: in quality. No, it doesn’t happen often, but characters in fanfiction do occasionally have *gasp* bad sex. As do those of us in the real world.
Being exposed to all this during my sexually formative years has given me what feels like a relatively solid foundation for my own sex life. It’s made me better at asking for and articulating what I want and what I don’t. Unlike some peers I’ve talked to and those Dan and Cindy spoke about, I don’t spend all my time self-objectifying and frantically evaluating my performance visually. That’s not to say I’ve been spared entirely, nor that I would want anyone to get their information about sex and sexuality EXCLUSIVELY from fanfiction (there are an awful lot of straight women out there writing some very painful-sounding gay male sex scenes). Nor is it to say I’m completely sexually liberated, lacking in self-consciousness, and free of hang-ups and body image problems, or that fanfiction is completely responsible for my relative health, but I am better off than many others, and fanfic deserves some of the credit for that.
One further note: during the interview, Dan Savage says that he’s noticed an undercurrent of anger and resentment threading through a lot of straight porn, but he doesn’t think it’s about misogyny or sexism. It’s just about men wanting women they can’t have, so the porn is doubling as a revenge fantasy. Sorry Dan, but I’m not buying it. If it isn’t about gender, then why don’t you find it in gay porn? Surely there are gay guys out there being rejected and resenting it too? Yes, anger is a natural response to rejection for many people in many situations, but I think patriarchy shapes pervasiveness and expression of this particular anger. If men didn’t feel generally entitled to women’s bodies and sexuality then I don’t think there would be this level and intensity of rage. Add to that the evident desire to punish women sexually, with rape and humiliation, and any argument that this isn’t misogyny gets pretty shaky. That’s my take on it anyway.