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The Erotic versus the Realistic: Sex in Slash Fiction
by Morgan )0(

Can someone explain to me what the big deal is about realism in slash sex? I've seen so many posts and rants on this subject lately, beating the drum of realism in slash. I have to confess, I don't get it. 

I understand that there's a suspension of disbelief issue. I know that it's hard to find a sex scene sexy if the contortions are so extreme you know the plumbing couldn't possibly hook up, or if there’s some other reason you’re sitting there thinking, Nah, that’s impossible. I am aware that men don't generally have multiple orgasms and that when they do the second one ain't worth much. I know that an anus isn't a vagina and doesn't work like one, and that spit makes a lousy lubricant. 

I know all that, and I respect it. But there's a difference between believable fictional sex and realistic fictional sex. 

Slash is not about gay men. Most of the time, it's not even about men (which might shock the hell out of some slash writers, but it's true just the same). It's about fictional characters, fantasy figures, nominally male and nominally human, but basically non-existent. This holds true even in RPS, as the stories in RPS fandoms bear very little resemblance to the subject’s real life. This is an essential point that I think some slash fen seem to be missing. These people are not real, they don't live real lives and they don't live in the real world. In the real world Colonel Jack O'Neill wouldn't accept a civilian archaeologist who can't stop sneezing as part of his team on what was supposed to be a suicide mission. In the real world Blair Sandburg could never be partner to a real cop (a three-month ride-along, maybe, but not a four-year partnership). If Immortals existed in the real world, Methos would have taken Duncan's head under that bridge. If there were real vampires and real Slayers, Buffy would have stayed dead the first time, let alone the second. Real life works that way. It's messy, it's unpleasant and Murphy's Law is a law of nature.

Fan fiction automatically starts with an unrealistic premise (whatever the canon might be) and slash moves even further away from the land of realism by placing the characters in a homosexual relationship. With very few exceptions, these are canonically heterosexual characters. Yes, yes, I know there's rarely ultra-specific canon on sexuality and just because he’s been married or has ex-girlfriends/current female lovers in canon doesn't that doesn’t justify the automatic assumption that he's straight. Sure, and I'm Mary Whitehouse. Look, I'm willing to concede that the presence of female love interests doesn’t make these characters canonically heterosexual. But the absence of homosexuality does. At least in a TV canon set in the modern world.

[Disclaimer: in the following three paragraphs, I’m discussing principles that apply to modern, Western society. These things may not have been true in all ages past so if your BSO is Methos, you can just skip ahead. You have a free pass. Neither can I claim these things are true in every nation on Earth today and likewise they won’t apply to fandom sources set way into the future, or in alien universes. So Jean-Luc Picard and Scorpius also get free passes. But these principles are true here and now.]

Let’s look at some facts. Gay men (and women, come to that, but we’re discussing men here) tend to define themselves as gay. Their sexuality is a dominant part of their self-image. For some, it's the dominant aspect of their self-perception. This is true in "Western" culture, in this decade and for several decades prior to this one. It's true because our so-called enlightened society does not approve of homosexuality. Things may be better today than they were a hundred years ago...or that may be only wishful thinking. My own experience: well, I live in a place where I don't hear much overt homophobia around me any more, but it's there just the same. More subtle, more quiet, that it was even fifteen years ago, but it’s still omnipresent. If a human being is made to feel other than "normal" (whatever the hell that means), the abnormality will eventually become a defining factor for that person's self-image. This is simply human nature – whether the perceived abnormality is sexuality, race, weight, bra size...anything. Of course, by that standard no one is "normal"...but that's sort of my point. The difference, in this case, is homosexuality can’t be cured by a diet, or a makeover. A gay man or woman has to accept their “abnormality”* as part of him/herself...or go nuts. That means incorporating it into one's self-perception, and this has a significant effect on a person. In every gay person I know well enough to make a judgement, this path to self-acceptance has left a clear mark.

The TV characters we love to slash show no signs of having been through this.

To take a popular slash fandom as an example, Jim Ellison does not define himself by his sexuality. He defines himself as a cop, as a Sentinel, as a warrior...and as a man. Not as a gay or bisexual man. For someone who is, canonically, uncomfortable with self-examination, and with the things he perceives as "abnormal" in himself, I have difficulty swallowing the idea that it's realistic for him to commence a passionate love affair with his male roommate and to instantly become completely happy and comfortable with it.

But in a slash story that level of realism isn't necessary. A slash author gets a lot of kudos for acknowledging that the transition from overtly heterosexual (he has been married, and canon has involved him in a number of heterosexual relationships) to privately or publicly homosexual (i.e. in a monogamous sexual relationship with a man) will not be an easy one for Jim, but she need not go into the months or years of angst he would realistically go through on the path to this hypothetical true love. The slash reader accepts it as a given that the men in the story can admit to this forbidden love, or lust, and get on with the bedroom business as if it's just another day-in-the-life.

Similarly, we are used to accepting totally unrealistic scenarios as part of the canon of whichever show we love. A police detective finds a headless body in a warehouse and has proof that a man he's suspicious of was there...and he doesn't make an arrest? Give me a break. A gang of terrorists holds a group of police officers hostage, and finally escape in a helicopter. Instead of calling SWAT to bring 'em down, a lone detective grabs onto the rail as they take off and handcuffs himself to the helicopter as it flies over the city. And he survives the experience with barely even a bruise. Very realistic, isn’t it? A young woman who has sole responsibility for her teenage sister dies and is buried in a public cemetery and social services fail to notice the child is now guardian-less and living with a lesbian couple who are absolutely no relation to her. Only in Joss’ dreams.

Do I really need to go on? I'm sure there are exceptions, but as a general rule, the sources of the largest and most active fandoms are a long way from being realistic.

So why on Earth is a similar level of un-real-ism unacceptable when it comes to the sex?

Real sex isn't the stuff of fantasies. It's awkward and sweaty and messy. Condoms are major passion killers. Sleeping in the damp patch is uncomfortable. Male genitals are not objectively attractive. I tend to agree with Kryten (from the BBC comedy series, Red Dwarf) who referred to it as "the last-chicken-in-the-shop look". Yuk.

But the objective of a sex scene in a slash story is to be erotic. You don't get eroticism by being ultra-realistic. You get it by taking all the things that are unpleasant or awkward about real sex and transforming them into objects of desire. Preferably the reader's desire. Sweat can't be stinky and sticky and disgusting, it has to become musk or salt. Semen (now “his seed” or “cream”…or “cum” spelled the Anglo-Saxon way for those who prefer dirty-talk) becomes "the evidence of his passion", or some other sweet euphemism. “His brains all over the sheets” may be closer to the reality, but it doesn’t cut it in a slash sex scene. The last-chicken-in-the-shop may be the easiest and also the...ahem...hardest thing to transform. But we do it. With varying degrees of success, I grant you.

Slash writers love to push the boundaries of the erotic and many do so successfully. But there are very few female readers who would find realistic gay sex with all its potential hazards erotic. There's the cleanliness issue, for one thing. Then there's the very real risk of disease (again, slash writers give it a nod, but almost never does slash sex cover all of the necessary precautions. There's more to avoiding AIDS than slipping on a condom just in time for the main event. If it is the main event). There are more STDs out there than just AIDS, too. There's blood and pain and allergies to spermicides used in condoms. There are certain health issues that tend to affect men later in life. There's the embarrassment of natural bodily functions at inappropriate moments. And the list goes on. That level of reality isn't erotic.

We all have different comfort zones, and suspension of disbelief stops in different places for different people. I personally have no problem with multiple sex acts, but I do like to be able to visualise whatever is supposedly happening as physically possible. When I'm reading slash starring non-human characters (Teal'c, Hercules, Angel, Methos, maybe Jim Ellison) I like authors who play with the boundaries of what may or may not be possible for them. It's fun. It’s sexy. But

Realism is not what slash is all about.

* I’m using "abnormal" where in an academic essay I would use "anomic". The latter is the more accurate term, I believe, for the concept I'm trying to express but for the sake of clarity for a non-academic audience, I hope you’ll forgive the admittedly more homophobic word choice. No offence is intended. [Back to text]

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