Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture
by Sharon Cumberland

The subject of this paper is the emerging genre of internet fan fiction, and the way in which women, the primary authors of such fiction, are using the paradox of cyberspace--personal privacy in a public forum--to explore feelings and ideas denied them in the past. Its specific focus is on erotic stories inspired by characters created for TV and film that fans have appropriated for their own narrative purposes. I am going to suggest that the protection and freedom of cyberspace is enabling these writers to defy many of the social taboos that have inhibited self exploration and self expression in the past, and that the implications of this phenomenon can inform our understanding of the social, psychological, and literary uses of cyberspace.

I first discovered this emerging genre by visiting web sites devoted to my own favorite actor, Antonio Banderas. On these fansites frequent visitors are collaborating on novels, stories and film sequels. An example is Zorro Returns, a "fantasy sequel" to the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro. ( In a paper which I presented in June, 1999 at the Interactive Frictions Conference at the University of Southern California, (, I found that the ultimate function of a cultic figure, like the Banderas hero, is to provide a site upon which a web of real life friendships can be formed as the result of writing collaborative fan narratives.

On the fansites I examined, the Banderas hero becomes the vehicle rather than the object of affection. I interviewed about twenty authors of Banderas-related interactive narratives, and discovered that while they did not consciously use this form of creative writing to consruct community, the outcome of their writing in fact has been to make cyberfriends who, in the parlance of communication theory, have "migrated" to other forms of contact such as telephoning, exchanging gifts, and meeting face-to-face (Parks and Floyd). I concluded in that paper that the affection directed at the Banderas hero is somehow reflected off of the icon and redirected onto those who share him as a benevolent life force, and that once this transfer of affection is accomplished, the centrality of the icon is diminished and personal friendships takes precedence.

This displacement of affection, however, does not address the original impulse that led the fan authors and fan readers to the Banderas websites in the first place-erotic desire for the iconic figure, which in this sense consists of sexual longing projected onto a safe, distant, fantasy figure. Because of the interactive nature of the internet, these erotic fantasies can be shared with others, sometimes on comment boards, but more elaborately in erotica posted on fan websites.
For instance, as can be seen on the Zorro Returns fansite, there are red letter highlights warning of sexual content in particular scenes. These red-letter fantasies in Zorro Returns signal the phenomenon I wish to explore in this paper: the use of cyberspace by women to express desire in ways that have been socially prohibited in the past, and which continue to be publicly and generally taboo for women in our society.

My thesis is that the paradox of public access and private/anonymous identity has made it possible for women who have access to the internet to create permissive and transgressive spaces which have been, in the past, the traditional reserve of men's magazines and men's clubs. The larger question posed by this phenomenon, toward which this paper can only sketch preliminary answers, is to what degree and in what way does the openness and anonymity of cyberspace allow women to appropriate power over their own imaginations and bodies?

The Paradox of Cyberspace

Sherry Turkle, in a recent article entitled "Drag Net: From Glen to Glenda and Back Again: Is it Possible?" examines the benefits of concealing one's biological gender while participating in MUD culture. Since the characteristics of male and female gender identity must be constructed in real life anyway, she argues, reconstructing identity in a MUD by changing gender enables both men and women to escape the expectations of their biological sex and to gain insight into the opposite sex. While the authors of internet fan fiction are, as a general rule, not concealing the fact that they are women, the majority of them-especially those writing erotica-conceal their real life identities with pseudonyms. Thus one element of the cyberspace paradox-personal privacy-is achieved, and the woman author is granted a level of liberation, like those in Turkles's MUD culture, that goes beyond first amendment rights. Even though authors who publish in print media are free to write uncensored erotica, social mores inhibit most women writers from doing so. By writing on the internet under pseudonyms, women can go directly to their readers without risking their identities with editors, publishers, or-as Henry Jenkins describes in Textual Poachers -anti-erotica fans. In pre-internet times the only way to buy fan erotica was to attend conferences and buy fan 'zines sold by the authors themselves, which made the authors vulnerable to being "outed" by those who wished to discourage their use of celebrity heroes in sexually explicit stories(201).

The ability to go directly to the reader on the internet is the second part of the paradox of cyberspace. In the past, the desire or need for privacy would have either limited one's access to an audience or would have placed the author at risk of discovery. In cyberspace, however, the audience for anonymous fan narratives is huge. One way audiences find each other is through the free WebRing program ( owned by Yahoo, which allows any interested person to become a "ringmaster" by inviting others on the internet who have relevant sites to join in their particular webring. As the WebRing advertisements claim, there are "84 affinity groups (in the ringworld directory), 66,000 rings on any conceivable topic, and 1.5 million member sites." The press release goes on to say that "The WebRing system can support an unlimited number of separate and distinct Rings across the Internet."(Austin) This allows the visitor to move through cyberspace in what feels like a circular pattern, either by jumping from site to site in a designated order or skipping along the ring randomly.

I discovered that many of the fansites with iconic narratives were participating in webrings. While this approach to ordering the internet is not all-inclusive-for instance, there is no Antonio Banderas webring-it offers one method of organization that might give a sense of the extent of the audience for adult fan fiction on the internet I could only explore a fraction of the choices offered on the Adult Fan Fiction webring because of the extremely large size of the field (;list). There are 145 separate rings listed on this topic in the ringworld sub-directory. To consider a broader category, under the heading of "alternative fan fiction" (which would include lesbian, gay, and all permutations of s&m and bondage fiction) there 601 webrings, with over fifteen thousand individual sites, each one with dozens of stories-that would be over 180 thousand fan authored stories.

Genres of Fan Erotica

Clearly the internet's unique combination of privacy with access to an audience has enabled a huge subculture of adult fan fiction to thrive. Though there are many genres, as the "alternative" category shows, the three major genres of fan found on the internet are "het" or herterosexual fiction, lesbian fiction, and "slash" fiction, a genre consisting of male-on-male erotica written by heterosexual women for an audience of heterosexual women. Women who write for adult audiences are experimenting with and challenging the conventional gender definitions imposed upon them in real life society. In cyberspace, where a woman cannot be criticized-or even identified-for her writing, one can see areas of curiosity and concern that could not be seen in arenas where women would have to pass through editorial hierarchies or expose themselves to the expectations of gender roles in public three dimensional life.

For instance, at a site called Obsession-one of the hundreds of sites devoted to the characters in the TV show, Xena, Warrior Princess ( --one can both read and submit erotica which builds on the plots and characters of the series. Though there are Xena fan sites by both male and female fans of this heroic character played by Lucy Lawless, the fans are overwhelmingly women who are writing alternative fan fiction. Obsession provides a related link where the visitor can find over fifty-five authors of alternative erotica devoted to the two main characters of the show, Xena and Gabriel, as well as awards for the best fiction (the "Golden Lath Awards") and guidelines for submission of fan fiction to the site. (

One of the reasons that Xena is so popular is because she is one of the few female characters on television who is at once strong and independent and who has a female sidekick in the same way that Captain Kirk has Mr. Spock or that Batman has Robin. The owners of this site, who call themselves DAx and The Goddess, invite alternative fiction contributions, requiring only that the stories be true to the established characters of Xena and Gabriel, and that the sex scenes be embedded within "a plot beyond the moans of passion". A final requirement addresses sexual violence. DAx writes, that:

If you believe that your story needs a scene involving sexual violence or child abuse, then that is your decision. DAx does not care for it personally, even though it was a large part of Minister Of Lies. We ask that you send a brief synopsis telling us where this abuse occurs in your story, so that it doesn't hit us unaware--Including sexual violence in your stories will not stop us from posting you, but your links will be labeled with a Caution for those of us who prefer not to read it.
Clearly the fansite authors who post to this page are not limited by editorial review, and the statement itself implies experimental forays into what, in other settings, would be considered taboo topics for fiction.

There are similar het fiction pages that can be found throughout the adult fiction webring and on many other sites on the internet. These are broken down into such sub-genres of "hetsmut" "triosmut", Treksmut for Star Trek fans, and seemingly endless erotic combinations of men, women, gods, goddesses, werewolves, vampires, and aliens from outer space. "Merri Todd's Het Page," for example, is part of the Adult Fan Fiction webring, and contains the work of an individual who is experimenting with "triosmut" involving the characters from the televsion show X-Files. ( "Merri-Todd's Het Page" gives a graphic definition of the term "triosmut" and annotates each story link so that the reader has some idea of what she will encounter in its contents. This is typical of sites I have examined, in that the authors have no desire to take their readers by surprise, but give ample warning of the contents, both to comply with web conventions requiring adult readership to be 18, and to be considerate of fans who do not wish to see their cultic heroes in explicitly sexual situations. It is as though the lawless frontier of the internet is self-policed, at least in this area of woman-authored erotica, as a way of protecting the freedom that enables women to experiment with sexual possibilities they cannot-or would not wish to experience-in the three dimensional world.

The third genre flourishing on the internet is called "slash fiction." When Henry Jenkins wrote Textual Poachers in 1992 he devoted an entire chapter to slash, a genre that emerged when fans of Star Trek, the original series, began to probe the sexual implications of the relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock (thus K/S indicating sexual content in a Kirk/Spock story). Jenkins discusses the spread of slash fiction to other male program characters beyond Star Trek, slash as an expression of female erotic desire projected onto the male body, and the possible implications of slash in terms of pornography, the romance of androgyny, and other psychological dimensions posed by the depiction of male-on-male relationships by heterosexual women. Jenkins also gives generous excerpts from the slash 'zines he had collected, since it would have been very difficult for a reader of Textual Poachers in 1992 to find and read any slash fiction apart from attending a Star Trek convention or going into the underground publishing world of the specialty 'zines.

Today, however, slash has emerged as a major style of adult fan fiction on the internet, with 85 webrings consisting of 1,261 individual sites containing over fifteen thousand stories and novels. Jenkins' assertion that slash is "fandom's most original contribution to the field of popular culture" has proven to be true. (188) It is no longer a curious subset of the fan fiction phenomenon, but has become one of the mainstream forms of internet erotica.

One page, called Slash Fiction Online ( is an example of the most useful kind of site in the ringworld-those that offer glossaries and meta-critiques of fan writing so that the reader can go directly to stories that have impressed at least one other reviewer in the circle.

At this site there are 82 current listings of reviewed stories written by 55 separate authors. I visited about ten percent of these websites and discovered that each one had dozens of stories, either by the author of the story listed, or by additional authors who share the site-another indication of the extent of the phenomenon.

An excellent example of "slash " fiction that illustrates both the quality and the conventions of this genre is by a group of three women who jointly call themselves The Krell. The Seduction of the Desert Prince is an illustrated novel of nineteen chapters based on the television show The Highlander and its primary character Duncan MacLeod, but is set in an "alternative universe," i.e. a setting other than that provided by the creators of the television series. The story centers on the intimate relationship between Duncan MacLeod and a desert prince who has bought him as a slave. Typical of slash fiction, there are extended sex scenes, but they are few in number, relative to male-authored gay erotica, and they are embedded in a plausible and suspenseful plot. The characters are well developed, and they ring true to the original series, which is a primary criterion of success in fan fiction.

In email exchanges with the authors of this novel, I asked what motivated them to write, since it was clearly not financial gain or commercial success. One author who responded said that writing is a hobby and an avocation and that "doing it professionally would add levels of stress…and personal expectation that I don't have with my fan fiction" (elynross). Another of the authors told me that she wrote what she wanted to read since erotica in bookstores is focused on sex and not relationships: "I write erotic stories because I like to explore the themes of emotional intimacy, and I write fan fiction because it lets me do that with characters that already interest me" (Killasdra). This is a perfect summation of slash fiction-erotica that occurs only in the context of emotional relationships, involving familiar and favorite characters.

When asked if they would have written erotica if they had not found fansites on the net and audiences who responded positively, the authors stated that they would not. "I do think I would have written regardless, " says one, "but whether I would have written pure erotica? I doubt it. Not without the community of other women out there reading it and responding to it." (Killasdra).

These responses reinforce my findings on the Antonio Banderas fansite investigations- that community with other women, both as readers and as "migrated" friends-takes precedence over the projected desire on a hero that initiated activity on the internet in the first place. Says one of The Krell about her cyberfriends, "I'd be a little disturbed if my friendships weren't incredibly more important to me than my feelings about the fictional characters" (elynross). Clearly, for these women, erotic fantasies are made more potent by being shared with a community of like-minded women. Our notions of the relationship between sexuality and privacy are challenged by the fact that many-perhaps the majority-of these women would not have written erotica in the absence of a community of appreciative female readers. The internet fan fiction world provides these authors with a safe, anonymous, and-paradoxically-public place to meet with like-minded women in order to experiment with ideas of sexuality and gender identity that the three dimensional world does not offer or support. Says another of The Krell, "My online friends are RL [real life] friends, many closer than people I know in my face-to-face life."

To conclude this preliminary investigation into erotica on fan websites, I will end with a favorite fanfiction site of mine entitled "Torero" ( in which the cultic figure of a bullfighter from Spain-played by Antonio Banderas, of course-is kidnapped, enslaved, subjected to homosexual rape, and eventually rescued by a beautiful woman who frees him from his bonds and marries him. This pretty much sums up the slash and het genres, and acts as a metaphor for the phenomenon of women's erotica on fansites: high adventure, far-flung or historical settings, improbable sex, all within the safety of a non-judging, sympathetic, indeed, enthusiastic community. While the significance of this paradox of public access and private/anonymous identity will require much more analysis over time, it is clear that women who have access to the internet have created permissive and transgressive spaces which have been, in the past, the traditional reserve of men's magazines and men's clubs. Fan websites have, in effect, become women's clubs, where erotica can be safely explored without damage to the reputation, the career, or the domestic life.

List of Works Consulted

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Austin, Shelley. Private email and WebRing statistics, 10/6/99.

Borges, Jorge Luis."The Library of Babel" in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. New York: New Directons, 1964.

Chapkis, Wendy. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Elynross. Private email 10/3/99.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Killasdra. Private email 10/4/99.

Landow, George P. Hyper/Text/Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Marshall, P. David. Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Montfort, Nicholas A. "Interfacing with Computer Narratives: Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction." Online. 1995. (12/23/98)

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. 1997. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Parks, Malcom R. and Kory Floyd. "Making Friends in Cyberspace." Journal of Communication, 1997.

Smith, Marc A. and Peter Kollock, eds. Communitites in Cyberspace. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Snyder, Ilana. Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Turkle, Sherry. "Drag Net: From Glen to Glenda and Back Again--Is it Possible?"Utne Reader, Sept-Oct. 1998:51-55.

---. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.