"I find the idea of one hot man appealing, so I consequently find the idea of two hot men appealing, too," wrote anonymous user Dark Twin in her 2004 attempt at explaining why she, a straight woman, enjoys slash fiction. "But when these two men start getting hot together, my enjoyment of the scenario isn’t doubled, it explodes exponentially." Also known as slash or slashfic, this is where fans write stories about two (often male, mainly heterosexual) characters from popular media who suddenly realise they’ve fallen for each other. In many cases, sex — and lots of it — follows. And cis women dominate the genre, from fansites to, increasingly, TikTok.
The blooming of the internet since 2004 has meant that fandoms and their slash pairings have spread far beyond the small online corner Dark Twin was posting in. Some particularly popular pairings from the last 20 years include Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter (ship name Drarry, 59,158 fics on popular fan fiction site Archive Of Our Own (AO3)) from the Harry Potter franchise; Dean Winchester and Castiel (ship name Destiel, 102,813 fics) from Supernatural; Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers (Stucky, 41,184) from Captain America; and Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (Johnlock, 58,139) from the TV show Sherlock. The most read fan fiction on AO3 ever is slash about two other Harry Potter characters: Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. Slash fiction can even delve into the more ethically nebulous territory of real people — Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson (Larry/Larry Stylinson, 39,008) being one of the most notorious. And that’s not including other sites like Tumblr, TikTok, Wattpad and Fanfiction.net.
The appeal rankles with many people outside these online communities. The idea that a majority women audience would fantasise about Lord of the Rings' Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee (Frowise, 1,136) gazing at each other or Succession’s Tom Wambsgans and Greg Hirsch (TomGreg/The Disgusting Brothers, 1,196) furiously making out is outside the bounds of 'acceptability.' Which makes anyone who enjoys it 'weird,' 'intriguing' or 'pathological.' Surely a straight or queer woman attracted to men would want erotica that includes her? Likewise, why would a queer woman who has a limited interest in or indifference to cis men want to double up on men? What exactly is the draw of slashfic? Why are so many reading it?
The number of writers and readers is only an estimate but a 2022 survey of 5,000 users of AO3 found that m/m slash was the most popular story focus, with 26% of respondents reading slashfic. The majority of these readers and writers were cis women: Of the survey's 5,000 respondents, 53.77% were cisgender women, 13.43% were nonbinary people and 8.94% were transgender (cis men made up just 5.39% of respondents). Fans and creators of slash are also, like many slash ships, often white: 77.9% of survey respondents who answered the question identified as such. (Slash pairings from popular properties in English can be overwhelmingly white, a phenomenon known as Two White Guys; other cultures have different but slash-like fiction such as yaoi, also known as Boys' Love or BL, in Japanese manga and anime.)
Surely a straight or queer woman attracted to men would want erotica that includes her? Likewise, why would a queer woman who has a limited interest in or indifference to cis men want to double up on men?
On popular fan fiction sites you can also find slash about two women together (f/f or femslash), heterosexual relationships (m/f or hetslash) and other LGBTQ+ pairings. They can even — shock — be as popular as m/m slash, with Clarke and Lexa from The 100 being a standout (12,482 fics tagged Clexa on AO3). But m/m slash (which has historically just been called slash) is the most popular. At the time of writing, there are over 5 million fics tagged m/m on AO3.
The history of slash is bound up with the wider history of fan fiction. Most point to the 1966 launch of Star Trek as the first fandom where fans started boldly reimagining the universe of the series. With that came the original slash ship: Kirk/Spock. The people imagining, creating and engaging with this were mostly women. Many were straight but many weren’t — as far back as 1993, when fic was still being compiled by hand and circulated through the mail, academics noted that this assumption dominated but wasn’t necessarily accurate.
There has been a lot of online reflection on what it is that people find hot about slash. Some try to simplify it with an equation along the lines of Dark Twin's reasoning way back in 2004: If you think one man sexy, then twice the man means at least twice the sexy. But for most people, the appeal is multifaceted.
Mel Stanfill (they/them) is an associate professor of texts and technology at the University of Central Florida and one of the researchers behind the 2022 AO3 survey. They tell Refinery29: "The big explanation that is often given in fan studies is that slash allows women to explore sexuality without the baggage of identification and the gender norms they're subjected to IRL. Because it is abstracted from themselves, it is a more open space of possibility." This could mean removing the possibility of gendered dynamics of romance or sex interfering with the fantasy, introducing the idea of at least one of the men talking about their feelings, or fixing characters from largely man-run properties under the female gaze.
Slash that focuses on known properties has an added advantage: Readers will already be familiar with the characters and their dynamics. As culture writer Michelle Santiago Cortés previously wrote for Refinery29 about smut (the term for erotic fan fiction of all kinds): "Fanfiction writers can offer complex and emotionally charged sex scenes in the same amount of time it takes a busty housewife on Pornhub to realise she has no money to pay for pizza."
The areas of sexuality that get explored can also reach far wider than many fans’ realities. Dr Lynn Zubernis, a licensed clinical psychologist, author of Fangasm and a reader and writer of slash, explains to Refinery29: "People in fan fiction explore things like violence, rough sex, BDSM and nonconsensual sex with male bodies because that's not really as threatening." Exploring the act of fucking instead of being fucked as a straight woman shouldn’t be taboo but slash fiction gives space to imagine what it would be like "to get off like a man."
But while cis women are, as Stanfill puts it, "a significant center of gravity in the slash population," a notable proportion of respondents to that same 2022 survey were queer: only 13.92% identified as straight or heterosexual, with the highest percentage of respondents identifying as bisexual (24.83%).
Exploring the act of fucking instead of being fucked as a straight woman shouldn't be taboo but slash fiction gives space to imagine what it would be like 'to get off like a man.'
This gives more dimension to the desire around slash for women and those assigned female at birth. If readers and writers are all cis, heterosexual and otherwise adhering to mainstream ideas of womanhood, the fixation on queer men can raise questions about voyeurism and fetishisation. That changes when slash is understood as something that queer people also use to explore sex and desire outside the mainstream.
Cynthia, 35 (she/her), is a bisexual woman who discovered slash through The Prince of Tennis, a manga (a comic or graphic novel from Japan) about a group of junior high students in an all-boys school, playing in tennis tournaments. Reading it while at an all-girls boarding school, the explicit nature of the stories didn’t resonate as much as the exploration of what a relationship with a man could actually look like for her. "It was a period where I questioned everything about whether I would ever be attracted to someone (a man) that I could be in a relationship with," she tells Refinery29. "I questioned whether I would actually much prefer to support people that I love to love each other, and that would be enough for my soul."
Slash also offers an accessible way into exploring and questioning gender identity. Quinn, 25 (he/him), is a gay trans guy who says that reading slashfic as a teenager "massively expanded" his world. He explains to Refinery29 that when he started reading slash, he had only just realised he didn’t have to be straight and was beginning to question if he was a woman. He found out about sex that didn’t make him feel completely disconnected from his body, and discovered all sorts of aspects of romance and desire that resonated.
"In m/m fic in particular, I was seeing love and relationships and really, really hot sex in ways that I had never considered were available to me," says Quinn. "It was love and romance and fucking in a way that made me feel seen in a way nothing had before, and I was obsessed."
Despite its invitation to sexual exploration, slash does still fall into patriarchal stereotypes. It is often pointed out that its preoccupation with penetrative sex is completely disconnected from how queer men have sex. The sex and romance can often be 're-heterosexualised' too — many stories focus on monogamous partnerships where the smaller partner is always dominated (and penetrated) by the bigger, stronger partner. This can become a significant issue when these stories start to be published and sold for profit, as has happened in the world of gay romance fiction. But when it comes to fan fiction, these explorations of desire, sex and love are not written with a purpose to sell. They are freely shared expressions of creativity and part of a 'gift economy,' meaning they are by anyone, for anyone.
As a fantasy landscape, slash in particular and fanfic more generally is far from pathological. It is a creative, unexpected and sexy world in which to explore sex, gender and relationships outside of mainstream desire. This is as true in 2023 as it was in 2004 and in 1966. What’s hot is hot to whoever finds it hot, for straight people, queer people and everyone in between. Those mocking it or dismissing it? They just don’t get it.