is fan fiction ethical?
Fan fiction is a way for many teens to express themselves creatively and navigate their sexuality. But when the imagined erotic scenarios involve real people without their consent, things are more complicated.
Fan fiction is far from a new phenomenon. It’s been a part of the internet for almost as long as online has existed. The term refers to written works based on fiction (or in some cases, reality) that use already created characters in new stories - either continuing from the original piece or in a new setting. Think Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy going to an American high school and being in a secret relationship. Then consider this pairing being written into extremely explicit erotica. Erotica written primarily by teenage girls, who dedicate hours of the day writing up and reading their friends’ slash fan fiction.
Fandoms -- the name for fan communities of specific bands, tv shows and films -- a hardcore stan culture of obsessive young girls is nothing new either. From Beatlemania to the MCRmy, these fans reign over discussions of their chosen loves, both online and in real life. But with the explosion of online stan culture it's easier than ever for young fans to have access to celebrity lives, and to reimagine those lives in any context they want. In fact, when it comes to erotic fan fiction, many stars have spoken out about how these imagined relationships can ruin their relationships with friends in real life. In 2017, One Direction's Louis Tomlinson spoke out about how the Larry ship (shipping, in this case, means imagined relationship between two people; Larry is shorthand for Tomlinson and Harry Styles being together) ruined his friendship with Styles.
“It actually felt a little bit disrespectful to Eleanor, who is my girlfriend now. I’m so protective over things like that, about the people I love,” commented Tomlinson in an interview with The Sun. The fear of fuelling this assumed romance made the pair become distant, he explained, "It created this atmosphere between the two of us where everyone was looking into everything we did. It took away the vibe you get off anyone. It made everything, I think on both fences, a little bit more unapproachable."
So, if imagining real life people in fantasy erotic situations can lead to very uncomfortable and negative IRL repercussions, it’s worth asking whether there is an ethical problem in making up relationships and writing erotica about celebrities without their consent. Fantasising about strangers, celebs and exes is a common part of life, but doing so in a public arena where others – including the people discussed – can interact with it is a murky area of morality.
“Fantasising about someone without their consent is a private act and I don’t see ethical issues if you reserve your fantasy for yourself,” explains sex psychologist Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of Drive Him/Her Wild video series. Often enough, through daydreams, minor crushes and teenage obsessions, everyone ends up imagining shagging someone when they have no idea you want them – if they even know you exist. The difference, however, is when these fantasies enter a public forum.
O’Reilly asks fan fiction writers to consider the the outcomes of their online narrations – not just any legal repercussions, but the ethical ones. “How might is make someone feel? How would their parents, partner(s), kids or friends feel about reading it? How would they feel if their friends and family read your work?” She says. “How would you feel if someone published a similar story about you, your child, your partner, your best friend, your sibling or someone else you love? I’m less concerned with the legal consequences and more concerned with the human ones.”
When it comes to celebrities, however, overexposure in the public eye makes it easier for fans to separate their 'famous identity' with that of an actual, tangible human persona. With the development of social media and with it unprecedented access to celebrities' personal lives, it’s easier than ever to idolise and dehumanise the celebrities fan fictions are based on.
15-year-old Zak has been a fan fiction stan for four years, both as reader and author. He tells i-D that over that time, he's stopped seeing the celebrities he writes about as real people anymore. “I know and have written a lot about the members of My Chemical Romance," he says. "But somewhere along the way, I sort of disconnected from writing about Frank and Gerard themselves, rather, I wrote about the versions of them that I made up in my head. To me, they're just storybook characters now, not real people.”
Kyra of the Slash & Burn: A Gross Journey Through Fan Fiction podcast doesn’t think that those partaking in writing about celebrities sexually should be specifically ostracised. “People are strange and obsessive about celebrities in so many different ways, I don't see why this is worse than anything else,” she says. “The only place I think it crosses the line is when fans start harassing the actors who play these characters. But again, that applies to any weird behaviour people have towards celebrities, really.”
How does writing erotica about a celebrity compare to other online writing about them? Is it any more or any less harmful than a media circus debating infidelity in your relationship or the following meme accounts mocking it? “Some people argue that celebrities are public characters of themselves and therefore not ‘real’ people. I’ve heard others argue that celebrities have chosen to be famous and are therefore fair game for real-person fan fiction of any genre,” considers O’Reilly. “Celebrities have opted to live part of their life in the public eye, but this doesn’t mean that they want their entire life publicised or that they’re comfortable with all public representations.”
Even outside of the consent issues that come with writing about real people, the very desire to write erotic -- and often homoerotic -- fiction by teenagers is a phenomenon worth exploring on its own. While some may dismiss the questions against teenagers writing fan fiction as society simply hating teenagers, there’s a darker side of these communities that aren’t often explored by those outside of the fandom. Zak comments that in the four years he’s been a part of the fan fiction community, he’s “stumbled across many screwed up stories about underage children and kidnapping/rape.”
Kyra, however, who still writes and reads fan fiction in her mid thirties explains the urge as simply wanting to continue a story where the author has finished it. “It comes down to not seeing the relationship resolutions I want in the canon of the show/movie/book/etc,” she explains. “If the original content doesn't give you what you want from the characters, you can just go to the internet and find (or write) what you're looking for. If you have a particular sexual kink and you want to read about it, why buy or write an erotic story about a bunch of random characters with no relatable backstory when you can read about characters you already know and love?”
O’Reilly offers a number of psychosexual reasons young straight women may find allure in their slash fan fiction, but one strikes true in an over-sexualised world where these women find themselves. “The appeal of gay sex between men may be rooted in a writer’s self-removal from the scene itself. They may look on as a spectator as opposed to having to participate as a sexual agent or object,” spells out O’Reilly, “In a world in which young women are objectified and/or told that they ought to have sexual agency and skill, these scenes may offer an escape from these limiting roles.”
There can be a comfort in writing about sexual experiences a teenage girl cannot experience herself and it’s easier to explore issues within relationships, sex and sexuality by using characters -- whether they be fictional or non-fictional -- the person already knows and has a sense of love for. Considering how emphatic fandoms and fan fiction readers can be, there is also a sense of community found in sharing these stories and others finding enjoyment in your fantasies. In doing so publicly, however, the risk remains that this fiction finds its way into damaging real people’s actual relationships, sex and sexuality. As with our dirtiest dreams and desires, fetishes and fantasies, it seems fan fiction really needs to remain in the private, fictional realm rather than the public eye.