How fanfiction is leading the way when it comes to conversations about consent

Fandom isn’t just something we all love; it’s a core part to storytelling now. Film makers, TV studios, publishers, all love fan discussions and content being spun from their stories which says quite a lot for just how far we’ve come. In the early days of fanfiction, writers used to be terrified about whether there would be any kind of backlash or repercussion for taking characters which weren’t theirs and crafting new stories. Now, fanfiction is widely discussed and read, often driving topical questions during comic-cons, and several fanfic writers have ended up with major publishing deals.

Its pull is undeniable, but what role does fanfic play when it comes to more serious topics? Fanfiction is often an escape for many, but it can also be an outlet to explore issues that can still be considered taboo. Consent is one such issue. Consent is still not talked about enough, and nor is depicted clearly and explicitly as often as it should be in media. Is fanfiction shaping the way we address consent?
Dr Milena Popova researched the relationship between fanfiction and consent. As a long-time contributor and consumer of fanfic, Milena was passionate about examining how fanfic deals with consent, and what impact that has on its readers. Just Geek Stuff interviewed Milena to find out about whether fanfic is having an influence on how we discuss, and perceive, consent.


Just Geek Stuff: Why did you choose this particular research area? 

Dr Milena Popova: A few different strands of what I had been doing came together and clicked in unexpected ways about five years ago.

I have been a fan, in the reading and writing fanfiction sense, since I was about 13 years old. One of the things that fanfic gave me (especially in my teenage years) was a space where I could express my queerness and see it reflected back. But I’m also of that generation of fandom that grew up hiding our fanfic, putting huge disclaimers on it, and generally living in fear of both the powers that be coming after us with cease and desist letters, and of anyone else in our lives finding out that we were reading and writing porn. So fanfiction getting more mainsteam attention, the Organization for Transformative Works making a persuasive legal argument against those cease and desist letters – I found those things, and how they impacted the community, fascinating.

Around the same time, I also realised that everything I knew about consent, I had learned from fanfic. Or perhaps not everything – I had hung out in other feminist spaces, read zines, been on feminist discussion boards. But fanfiction had provided ways for me to think and *feel* about consent that these other spaces hadn’t. And I had a couple of hunches in relation to this. One was that I wasn’t the only one who’d found that in fanfic spaces. Another one was that fanfic being a hidden-away thing, a community that deliberately avoided public scrutiny and exposure, had something to do with that. So I wanted to follow up on those hunches and know more.

“I realised that everything I knew about consent, I had learned from fanfic”

JGS: How is your research going? 

Milena: That particular project is now complete, and I have learned a lot from it both in terms of doing research, but also about consent, activism, and some of the problems we have with how we think about consent as a society and culture. I’ve just written a book based on some of my research: a kind of 101 introduction to issues of sexual consent, which will be out as part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series in spring 2019. I’m also currently looking for ways to take some of those other learnings into further research and activism, and to work with creative professionals in TV and games to both understand how they think about issues of consent in their own work, and to help them do it better.

JGS: Fanfiction is really at the core of fandom. Do you think fanfic can have an influence on its readers and wider fandom discourse?

Milena: This is a bit of a chicken/egg question, but the short answer is yes. One of the great things about fanfic is that these are not texts that are written or read in isolation – they are part of an ongoing conversation. And that conversation is both between texts and between people. Fanfic texts react to the source material they’re based on, but they also react to each other. At the same time, readers and writers are constantly talking to each other through and around the texts. Prompts, comments, kudos, even the tags that we use to make fanfic searchable, are all ways to conduct this conversation. And readers and writers also bring their own lived experience to both their writing and how they interpret a text.

Let’s have a look at how some of these conversations play out. One of the things that the writers I interviewed talked about over and over was how badly they felt consent was done in mainstream media. Even in the shows they loved, the shows they were passionate fans of, many felt that all sorts of potentially non-consensual situations were played off as perfectly normal, or even romantic. The occasional scene in fiction or mainstream media where consent was done well stuck in people’s minds for literally decades. And so fanfic texts react to that, and part of the conversation they have with the source material is “Hey, this is a bit dodgy, let’s explore how we can make it better.” But fanfic texts also react to each other.

So you might get a series of fics, by the same person or by different people, reacting to the same thing in the source material, exploring the same issues, but with slight differences. A different point of view character. A slight change to the premise. And so a situation ends up getting explored from many different angles, and we get to see how characters might experience something and feel about it on a deeply personal level – which is really important when you’re thinking about things like consent.

The conversations that happen around the texts are also super-important. One of the most important things to come out of fanfic, I think, is the idea of dubcon – dubious consent. It’s this label that we put on any story where we feel consent might not be clear-cut, not a matter of “these people are all equals, they all want the thing that’s happening and they all clearly say so”.  And that label functions to highlight this massive grey area that in our day-to-day thinking about rape and consent, we don’t even see.

The really interesting thing that happens then is that people start disagreeing with each other. Is this really dubious consent? Or is it outright non-consensual? And we see that not only is there this grey area, but we don’t really know what the boundaries on it are. We may never all agree on the exact boundaries and definitions – but what’s important is that we’re talking about it. And then there’s the conversation that happens between the reader or writer and the text. One of the writers I interviewed talked to me about how they used fanfiction to think through issues that had come up in their own life, how they experimented with things in fic, and then took what they learned back into their own relationship, and how they incorporated things they’d learned in their relationship back into their fic.

So yes, fanfic absolutely has an influence on its readers and writers, and on how the community around it thinks about issues of consent, but fanfic is also a key tool that that community uses to do that thinking.

“We get to see how characters might experience something and feel about it on a deeply personal level”

JGS: So much of fanfic is centred around shipping. Do you feel that consent is an issue that is well written or even examined in these works? 

Milena: It’s difficult to make blanket statements about all fanfic, or even just all shipping-centric fic. Fanfic comes in many different shapes and sizes. It ranges from bad!fic to literary masterpieces, from what I once called “the consentiest fluff” to deliberate explorations of rape. It evolves tropes and manifests sub-communities, and even individual authors’ approaches develop over time (mine certainly has!). But I do think there are some important trends or commonalities.

I think consent is of interest to many fanfiction communities, and that is reflected in both our output and fundamentally in our infrastructure. I sometimes joke that the foundational question of fan studies was “Why do straight women write about men banging?” There are lots of answers to it, including the fact that actually many of us are way queerer than early fan studies scholars assumed, but the one that always fascinated me was the suggestion that we liked writing about relationships where both partners were equal, where there were no power imbalances. At its core that is a statement about consent.

More interestingly to me, though, the minute we removed the gendered inequalities from the relationships we were writing about, we found exciting new ways to make our characters negotiate inequality. Arranged marriage tropes? Fundamentally about how you negotiate inequality and get to a point where you can consummate the relationship without one partner feeling pressured into it. Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamics? There’s a reason half of fandom calls it “Dogfuck Rapeworld”. Though if you look at it in more detail, consent is absolutely at the centre of why some of us are fascinated with the Omegaverse, and has been from the very beginning of that genre. And the works that float to the top of the pile, that get the kudos and end up on rec lists, tend to be the works that deal with consent well.

If you look at how AO3 [a popular fanfic resource] is built, consent is also at the core of its infrastructure. The concept of Archive Warnings, how it’s implemented, and the content of these warnings are all about consent. Warnings are all about allowing readers to make informed choices – to give informed consent – to the kind of content they engage with. And two of the four things you can warn for (rape/non-con and underage) are directly related to consent. The interesting thing that does is that when you are writing your fic, when you are posting it, you are prompted to think about and engage with consent issues. And if you don’t, readers will comment on that and start a conversation.

So thinking about consent is a community norm that is baked into our infrastructure.  Of course there is fic that doesn’t do it well (*cough*50 Shades*cough*), fic that isn’t tagged properly, fic that romanticises rape. But that fic exists in the wider context of a community that talks about consent all the time, and where readers and writers explore consent issues and learn together.

JGS: Fanfiction is created by people of all ages and walks of life. However, it is still heavily associated with young people. Do you think that makes it more important for consent to be examined in fanfic?

Milena: I think you’re right that people of all ages read and write fanfic – the idea that it’s mostly 13-old-girls is one of those tropes that gets used to discredit fanfic (as is, ironically, the idea that it’s mostly 40-year-old fat single women). But that also means there *are* lots of young people in fanfic, and as that post that keeps popping up on my Tumblr dash says, AO3 is very possibly giving lots of people the sex talk. In fact, most of us are probably getting most of the sex talk from various forms of popular culture, ranging from fic, to romance novels, to hardcore porn. There’s a couple of things to note here. One is that we desperately need better sex and relationships education for young people. As good as a lot of popular fanfic is at dealing with consent issues, that’s not its job. We need sex and relationships education in schools that goes beyond “abstinence until marriage” (which is what you get in large parts of the US), that covers not just safer sex practices (which you do get in Europe), but also the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and consent, in a way that is inclusive of all genders and sexualities.

“We desperately need better sex and relationships education for young people”

The other thing is that actually materials about consent aimed at adults are practically non-existent. As woeful as the state of sex and relationships education for young people is, sex advice for adults doesn’t even mention consent and in fact perpetuates a whole bunch of really problematic tropes and ideas about sex. So this is not just an issue that affects young people, and fanfic may be one way to help adults understand consent better.

JGS: Do you think fanfic’s role in fandom – or even publishing/writing – is really understood or does it face dismissive attitudes?

Milena: Oh, it is absolutely still very marginalised and dismissed. People think of it as derivative, as badly written, as produced by immature girls or lonely old women. And those are all ways to devalue it. But we’ve also increasingly seen a mainstreaming of fic, and attempts on the parts of rightsholders to co-opt and exploit it: game studios run fic competitions, Amazon has tried licensing a handful of properties to let people produce commercial fic (within strict guidelines), there’s 50 Shades… I don’t necessarily think that being marginalised is a bad thing in this particular case. Not facing commercial pressures has allowed fic to develop in directions it couldn’t have otherwise. I very much hope, in fact, that fanfic communities continue to resist pressures to mainstream them and commercialise them. It’s great that there is less shame associated with being a reader or writer of fanfiction these days, but it’s also good to have a space that is our own.

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