October 22nd, 2004


Some thoughts on slash

Slash is a subject that causes incredibly strong emotional reactions in people. Having engaged in numerous discussions about this, I've been thinking about why this might be, partially because it keeps cropping up on my friends list and partially so that I can get something vaguely final down in words and stop it going round in my head.

I'll be taking my definition of slash as 'Fiction written by fans of a work in which characters who are not canonically gay are written with the assumption that they are'. I would like to point out in advance that this isn't intended to come out either in favour of, or against slash. I firmly believe that people have the right to freedom of speech, and if they choose to write slash then that is their prerogative. I'm merely interested in why slash affects people the way it does, and why it's previously caused the reaction in me that it has.

Now, some people claim that they merely find the idea of slash to be a waste of time, but people waste time in many thousands of ways, and most people have nowhere near the amount of emotional reaction to golf that they do to slash. This argument is therefore easily discounted.

Slash has a tendency mocked in a juvenile "Ewww, that's gross" manner which would tend to indicate that the mocker finds gay sex to be intrinsically gross. This could, indeed, be a major source of the objections people have. It should be noted, however, that this doesn't automatically indicate a homophobic intent - people who aren't interested in sex tend to find the whole area of sexuality pretty icky - only changing this feeling when the instinct to engage in it overcomes them. Without the urge to engage in particular sexual acts, it's entirely possible that those acts still cause the same reactions - a pointer in this direction can be gained from the fact that many gay men find the idea of heterosexual sex somewhat disturbing.

However, this cannot the only reason. After all, I have had no problem with homosexual characters and situations in other works of fiction where they were intrinsic parts (most recently The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where one of the major characters has his life grimly affected by the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in 1930s America), but I have still had a negative reaction to slash. Nor can it be purely because most slash is erotica - there are many, many sites out there specialising in erotica and while there are people out there who do react negatively to gay porn, it's not something that I encounter nearly as often as people's reaction to slash.

People have an almost personal reaction to slash - as if some part of them had been violated. I believe the only way to explain this is to look at the way that people react to fiction and the characters within. People form emotional connections with the characters in their fiction, along with internalised ideas of who they are and how they behave. We feel (to a certain extent) as if they know them as people. After all, why would people watch most TV shows if they didn’t care about the characters and in some way empathise with them. When these characters then behave in ways that are perceived as uncharacteristic, people feel as if you’re portraying their friends in manner which is just plain wrong. The reaction here is probably somewhat similar to that evoked in horror movies where the characters are replaced by someone (or something) that acts almost, but not quite, the same as the original person – a feeling of unease and wrongness.

When we watched the last episode of Angel, green_amber was extremely upset at the act of one character, when they shot another one. She felt emotionally betrayed by the act – that character would _never_ act in that way. Never mind that the character doesn’t actually exist, or that the correct act for a fictional character is whatever the writer chooses for them to do, the way that the character had been written felt so wrong to her that she became quite irate at the way it was portrayed. I believe that it’s this reaction that is seen when most people encounter slash-fiction.

The question remains, however, why does homosexual sex seem so out of character for people that they have this strong reaction? It is, of course, not just possible but likely that there is some latent homophobia in the reaction – Kirk and Spock are heroes, manly men and gallant adventurers, thus obviously not homosexual. The fact that real-life adventurers and ‘manly men’ such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had homosexual relationships is beside the point – surely Kirk and Spock wouldn’t do such a thing!

This reaction is seems obviously homophobic. If you don’t have a problem with homosexuality, why do you have a problem with your heroes engaging in it? But this response seems oddly simplistic – after all, the reader may not have a negative response to characters originally written as homosexuals (although there aren’t many of those about to have encountered). And if, after all, the character has never been shown to have any homosexual leanings, surely assuming their heterosexuality is perfectly reasonable?

Which is where the other part of the puzzle comes from – personal identification. People don’t just like Kirk – they want to be him, delivering two-fisted Kirk Justice, saving planets and kissing green-skinned women. They want to embrace the whole Kirk way of life. Suddenly discovering that this also means embracing Mr Spock comes as a bit of a shock. It’s as if the slash is telling them that _they_ are homosexual.

And again we come back to asking – if these people aren’t homophobic, why can’t they identify with people who are homosexual? If, after all, we can identify with people who are balding, a bit tubby around the middle and Speak!…Like!…This! then surely we can identify with someone who has sex with men? The answer seems to be that none of those other things seem as intrinsic to our personalities as our sexual identity is – people can base huge decisions about their lives (or, indeed, their whole lives) on their sexual identity, it’s something they care deeply about, and in the majority of cases seem to have little control over. Sexuality seems to be something you are, not something you do, and thus when made into an overt part of a character is too prominent to simply glide past.

This overtness also seems distinctive to slash – while I have encountered a few instances of heterosexual Trek fanfic, it seems much, much rarer. The occasional kiss or ellipsis seems to be all that fans require in the way of sexual content. It’s possible that most people don’t want to think of their heroes explicitly sexually _at all_, and that this also contributes to their reaction.

So the answer seems to be that slash takes characters we emapthise with and/or identify with and changes the depiction of them to act overtly in a way that many of the people encountering it find impossible to empathise/identify with. It’s likely that the strongest reactions (that aren’t merely coming from actual homophobes) will come from those people who are unused to thinking about their role-models in a sexual way at all, let alone in a sexual way that they themselves do not feel any affinity towards. Those people that have less of an emotional attachment to heterosexuality, or who care less about fictional characters will have a correspondingly lower negative reaction to it.

The question remains – why are so many of the slash writers women? Any suggestions?

Hormone and brain development

I've ended up with a whole sprawling mass of links for this one, each with interesting information. I started with a New Scientist article which contained:

Levels of hormone exposure in the womb helps determine which academic discipline researchers work in, a new study suggests. Perhaps surprisingly, a "female" pattern of exposure was common in scientists, while a "male" pattern dominated in the social sciences.

The survey compared the length of people's index (first) fingers with their ring (third) fingers. This comparison is thought to indicate prenatal sex hormone exposure, probably because some developmental genes control the formation of both the reproductive system and the digits.

Hormone levels also appear to predict which discipline researchers work in. Staff in the departments of chemistry, computer science, mathematics and physics all had average ratios of over 0.995 - close to the female average - despite 81% of those subjects being male.

In contrast, the staff of the social science departments of economics, education, management, social and policy sciences had an average ratio below 0.98, the male average, despite only 66% of this sample being male.

I'd heard the finger-length one before - it turns out to be links to the HOX genes, which regulate body shape - these are the same throughout everything from fruit-flys to people. Some more digging turned up a link between this and sporting ability, links with depression and also seems to affect sexuality. What's interesting is that the level of prenatal testosterone seems to be affected by several things, including the number of older brothers you have - older sisters seem not to affect testosterone levels, but the womb does seem to be affected in this way by boys gestating in it.

Of course, this is all just tendencies - there's nothing saying what any individual will do. Still, interesting stuff.

I'm a party animal

So, I arrive at Guy's flat for the party, chat to people for ten minutes and then he hits me up for a favour....

Could I set up his new ADSL router for him?

Can I go _anywhere_?

Fifteen minutes of much swearing later, I realise his username (supplied by Pipex) spells xtreme without the leading e.

I wonder how many people have spent hours swearing at their PCs because Pipes thought it'd be kewler to leave the e off?

I now return to Irn Bru and conversation, you may carry on with your day.