Who Writes (and Reads) Sexually Explicit Fanfic?

Scientists investigate why people consume fandom-related sexy artwork.

Posted May 11, 2017

Source: vimba.ru/Flickr

Let’s start this blog with a confession. When I was a teenager, I produced reams and reams of fanfic about my favorite science fiction shows. That’s right: I’m a total dweeb.

Fortunately, very few people have seen my adolescent scribblings. But now that aspiring authors have access to the internet, finding a global audience of like-minded fans has never been easier. For instance, if you want to read about the adventures of Harry Potter in an alternative universe in which his father is Severus Snape (and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t), a legion of creative Potterheads have got your back.

But a quick Google search for fanfic soon reveals that quite a large proportion of what’s available is sexually explicit. Who would have guessed? “Internet Implicated in Porn Shocker” is not a headline you are likely to encounter any time soon.

Fanfic writers who wish their favorite fictional characters were embroiled in steamy relationships concoct stories to fulfil that fantasy. This is known as “shipping” (a word derived from relationship). Harry Potter fans “ship” Harry and Hermione, even though in author J. K. Rowling’s official version of the story Hermione ends up with the ginger one whose name I’ve forgotten. And since the 1970s, Star Trek fans have been churning out so-called “slash” fanfic, in which Kirk and Spock get freakier than a Klingon swingers’ party.

For some, writing fanfic can turn from a hobby to a lucrative profession. E. L. James’ Fifty Shades series is famously a kinky riff on the Twilight saga, in which a sparkly vampire romances a glum emo without once inviting her into his spanking cupboard (that’s what happens in 50 Shades, right? I wouldn’t know because I definitely haven’t read it. Not even once, in secret).

Sexually explicit fanfic, along with related “fanworks” such as fan-songs, fan-videos, and fan-artworks, are usually thought of as a fringe interest. But are they? How many people make— or consume — these sexy creations? Two psychologists from the University of New Brunswick in Canada decided to find out.

A Study of "Online Erotica"

Yvonne Anisomowicz and Lucia O’Sullivan recruited over 800 men and women to take part in a study of “online erotica”.

Most of the volunteers — almost 80% — confessed to viewing online sexually explicit material of any kind, although only a few (~5%) said they had created such materials. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men were more likely to report viewing any form of explicit material over the web: 88% of men versus 67% of women.

Both men and women were most likely to have watched pornographic videos rather than any other type of sexually explicit material. However, men were more likely than women to consume webcam videos, nude images, and sexualized video games. Women were more likely than men to read erotic fiction.

Sexually explicit fandom-related materials were consumed less often, but were by no means unpopular: around 14% of men and women reported getting their rocks off to fanworks.

Fanfic was the most popular form of fanwork: of all those who had consumed some form of sexually explicit fanwork, almost 60% of men and 86% of women said they had read sexually explicit fanfic.

Meanwhile, 67% of men admitted to viewing sexually explicit fan-art (only 40% of women said they had done the same). Images of “cosplayers” — fans wearing the often skintight and revealing costumes of their favorite pop-culture characters — were viewed by 42% of men but only 12% of women.

Perhaps predictably, far fewer of the respondents claimed to have created sexually explicit fanworks: 2% of men and 3% of women. And why were they motivated to create these fanworks? About two-thirds of the creators said they wanted to impress others, and significant proportions of respondents (between 30% and 50%) also said they were motivated by a desire to arouse themselves, to facilitate masturbation, or to generate fantasies for masturbation at another time.

Contrary to the researcher’s expectations, women were not more likely than men to use fandom-related sexually explicit content. However, over 30% of users identified as bisexual or gay: perhaps bisexual and gay persons turn to fanfic because they are less likely to see their sexual fantasies depicted in more mainstream artworks.

It’s worth noting that everyone who decided to participate in this study was willing to answer questions about their use of online erotica and so, as a group, they are probably less prudish and more internet-savvy than the average man or woman on the street. It’s therefore unclear whether Anisomowicz and O’Sullivan’s results apply to the general public. Also, because so few of the participants were creators of sexually explicit fanfic, the researchers were not able to conduct detailed analyses of their behavior (such as testing for sex differences).

These are interesting questions for future research. But that’s for another time. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to dust off my 1990s electronic typewriter and get back to my steamy mashup of Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5.

Londo Mollari and Major Kira stepped into the holosuite. “Is that a self-sealing stem bolt in your pocket” said Major Kira, “or are you just pleased to see me?”…

For an audio version of this story, see the 9 May 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Anisimowicz, Y., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2017). Men’s and women’s use and creation of online sexually explicit materials including fandom-related works. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(3), 823–833. View summary

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