The Joy of Slash

Why do women want it?

As an occasional, casual reader of online fanfiction, I was always fascinated and confused as to why male “slash” (gay sex couplings) was preferred over “ship” (heterosexual sex couplings) by women writers who were predominately straight, lesbian or bisexual. I always imagined that gay women would be more interested in female couplings, or straight women into het couplings. I guess because since I’m straight myself, and although I appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the female form, I’ve never had the desire to have sex with a woman. And although I can also see the appeal of two men in a sexual/romantic entanglement, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why so many women out there — lesbian women, mostly — not only preferred to write m/m slash, but even considered it superior in nearly every possible manner to m/f or even f/f fiction.

One of the most interesting things that I’ve discovered was that many of these women weren’t even sure why they write m/m slash — that it’s been something that’s plagued their minds ever since they first became obsessed with it. One gay woman even said that she was intensely aroused by m/m fiction, the thought of beautiful men’s bodies in the throes of passion, but she herself couldn’t stomach the idea of even getting to second base with a man unless she made herself very drunk or stoned first.

So what was the appeal of men for women who normally don’t want anything to do with men in their own sexual relationships? What about straight women who didn’t even want an identifying female character in their stories to pair with their males?

One of the things I’ve learned that, as fanfiction is based primarily on television shows, most television shows as a rule (until maybe recently) have not had any really interesting female characters for women to identify with. Most of the earliest fanfic dates back to the ’70s, when “Star Trek” fanzines would publish heaps of Kirk/Spock sex pairings. Some folks may say that straight women fell in love with these characters and wrote about them being together sexually or romantically with other men because they didn’t want the threat of another female to come between the writer and the object of her desires, but I think it goes deeper than that in most cases. “Star Trek,” despite the fact that the show always featured women in powerful, sometimes leadership positions, these characters were rarely ever that interesting or dynamic. Lt. Uhura and Yeoman Rand were often there specifically to look pretty, show their legs, and run into the captain’s arms when they were in danger.

Captain Kirk, however, was a charismatic swashbuckler who didn’t take no guff from anyone, and although he had many sexual encounters with beautiful women all over the galaxy, he was rarely able to connect emotionally with any of them. Spock was a half-human half-Vulcan who was always struggling with his detested emotions, and at the same time his deep friendship for Kirk drove most of the more emotional moments in the programs’ series.

So, between the men and the women on “Star Trek,” who appear to be the more interesting characters? Yes, suddenly I could understand the appeal of writing for the male protagonists in a television series.

But does the same television world that gave us “Star Trek” still exist in the medium today? I use the modern cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as another example of a program that inspires slash fiction from a largely female fan base. Buffy is a show about women — strong, powerful, intelligent, interesting, dynamic women. Nearly every female character on the program, in contrast to “Star Trek,” is well written, creatively constructed, and physically and mentally capable of handling themselves without the men coming to the rescue at the end of every episode. In fact, the men on the program are often more in the background supporting the women, cheering them on or lending a hand when they are capable. The men are still well-written characters, but they often play the part of the female roles that are typically written for women on most television shows, as the strong yet secondary supporters to the lead characters.

The strange thing that I found, however, that out of all the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fanfiction I perused online, a large percentage of the slash fiction was centered around the male characters of the show. As lesbian writers, I had imagined there would be thousands of opportunities to explore the relationship of Buffy’s lesbian couple Tara and Willow (or Tara/Willow in slash parlance), or perhaps connect two other females together with their potential for sexual tension, such as Buffy/Faith or Willow/Anya perhaps.

Instead I saw hundreds of Spike/Angel couplings, or Spike/Xander, or Xander/Andrew or Angel/Wesley, or just about any variation of two men together that could possibly be done. Why was it that gay women who were given a show full of interesting active females still gravitating towards the slightly lesser male characters? Again, I received mixed answers, but a large portion of the gay women that spoke up about this topic commented that they didn’t feel a connection with many of the female characters in a way that some had determined with a term they referred to as gender “coding.” Few connected with Buffy herself, a blonde skinny Barbie-doll straight male fantasy girl. As for resident gay couple Tara and Willow, some also mentioned that their “coding” was off as well. They could easily accept Tara as a lesbian, since she had been introduced to the show as a lesbian. Willow, however, never felt “gay” to some of them, because she started out as an aggressively straight girl mooning over boys to suddenly dating one girl and bam — she’s full-on lesbian, and men just don’t appeal to her any longer. This rang a little false to a lot of women, and although they enjoyed watching the characters and loved them all, they felt these women didn’t really connect with them on a personal level as someone to identify with. Many of the women, however, did agree that some of the male characters like Xander and especially Spike were internally coded more like females, and therefore they felt a stronger connection to them than they did to the women on the show, and therefore they enjoyed writing about the men in romantic/sexual situations more often than they did with any of the creatively well-written females.

So what then do these women really look for in the male characters that they love to write about? Are they attracted to the active maleness of Captain Kirk on “Star Trek”? Or the relatively sensitive femaleness of background (male) character Xander on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? Frankly I was more confused than ever.

But what really hit home for me was something that one particular writer — a straight woman — said as to why she writes m/m: “The joy of being in a body that does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, no holds barred — just seems intrinsically male to me.”

And then it hit me, for the first time, what the appeal of writing men is for a woman. I was reminded of my childhood, when all I ever dreamed of being was a boy. I wanted to be a boy so badly, I even used to beg my mom to let me have a sex change (“Maybe when you’re older, dear,” she used to say offhandedly). It wasn’t that I was gay, or identified as a male, or was attracted to girls (I was about 8 years old at the time, and I was blissfully ignorant of All Things Sex). I wanted to be a boy because boys got to do things. Boys got to have adventures, get dirty, be capital-A Active. Active became synonymous to me with being male, whereas girls were expected not to do anything that might undermine their serene femininity, so they remained as motionless as possible. Don’t get dirty and ruin your new dress, Melissa. You can’t race Matchbox cars with us, Melissa, because you are a girl. Go sit in the corner quietly and comb your doll’s hair. I wanted to be Active, and only boys were allowed to be Active without having to explain themselves or fill out the proper forms in advance. And in my mind, that’s how it was, that boys are Active, girls are Sedentary.

And women’s bodies, unlike men’s, come with so many real and invisible shackles. Most of us as women have looked in the mirror and despised something about our physical appearance. These bodies are also prone to hindrances in their sexual liberty like pregnancy and the ability to more easily catch an STD, due to the nature of the vaginal design.

And then there is the universal desire to control women’s bodies for their own purposes or agendas. To quote another fanfic writer:

Women’s bodies are baggage. Battlegrounds for every political yahoo that comes along, property of the state or your ethnicity or religion. Every institution in the world has a say on what gets into your cunt — are you marrying an Italian, is he Catholic, you’re going to have babies for your religion and your country, right? Pro-choice! Anti-choice! Keep your rosaries off my ovaries! Life begins at birth! Hey baby, wanna ride?

Even gay women aren’t completely liberated from the restrictions of the female body. No matter if you are straight or lesbian, we all get those changes in our bodies every 28 days.

Men, as far as I can see, have been spared from this stigma that women from all cultures appear to identify with in terms of their bodies. Women, including myself, can identify the liberty that must come from having that kind of freedom of “body baggage” that men must have, and that freedom certainly reflects on the way men indulge in their entitlement to be Active, especially sexually, but also in pretty much everything else they do.

But getting back to identifying with male characters. When I was little I once created a dance routine for me and my friend Sheryl. A ballet of sorts, with a prince and a princess. I played the prince, wearing a bright, vibrant red tunic. Sheryl, the princess, wore a delicate powder blue robe that reached the floor like a long gown. My dance steps required me to jump, kick, spin and leap in the air and assert myself in front of the princess, whose only steps required that she walk quietly and serenely back and forth across the stage, careful not to trip over her long cumbersome gown. In my mind, as it was in all fairy tales, the male character was always Active. My friend Sheryl was giving to the job of only looking beautiful and being the object of affection for the prince. And even as a girl myself, the whole time that I was playing the prince I remember I kept thinking to myself, “Glad I’m not the princess in this ballet.”

But even later in life, in my early teens as I started writing and drawing my own comic books, I looked back and discovered that every last one of my stories had male protagonists. Granted, I knew where that all came from, in a sense. When I was 12 I fell in love with a comic book character and became so obsessed with him that I ended up sublimating my love for him in every male character I created. That was one reason for it. But was there another reason? Was it the fact that, again, I identified with men in the sense that they have always been the more interesting characters in the history of western-world fiction? My own desire to be Active? Because I envied men’s bodies and longed to have the freedom that automatically comes with having the unrestricted, unfettered male form?

Suddenly I think I understood the appeal of male characters to women writers. It struck me dumb to realize that all this time that I was trying to understand, I had been basically doing the very same thing creatively for as far back as I can remember. I spoke to a few of my own close female friends, none of whom are fanfic writers, and they gave me their own examples of how at some point in their lives they longed to be male, even if they had only dreamt it just for a moment, and how they had used that desire as either fuel or as an impetus for their art. And the reasons they gave me were often for the same reasons I desired to be a boy as a child: To wear the loose red tunic instead of the cumbersome blue gown, to be physical without having to compromise my feminine serenity. We all wanted to be the Dragonslayer. To be the Hero. To be Active.

Perhaps that is what these women slash fiction writers are searching for — to have the freedom of being male in their female bodies. To feel physically and sexually liberated yet still be the women that they are.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the entire issue. Maybe the aesthetic appeal of two attractive men in a sexual situation is universal to women both straight and gay, and to question that is to question the very issue of what makes us the sexually focused creatures that we are. As long as there are good writers out there doing good work, I don’t care who’s nailing who. A good writer can make anything enticing, and this fellow sexually focused creature is merely a sucker for excellence.