Because Blogger's "Adult warning" often goes into a perpetual loop (isn't working properly), I will be making all new posts at my WordPress blog. You can follow it even if you do not have a WordPress Account. There're also my Twitter and my Tumblr blog, my Facebook and my Google+ page and my group.
(Update: Blogger hasn't fixed its problem with the "adult warning". Will go back to posting at my WordPress blog)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Power of Slash

More than half my readership is female.  And when I tell this to gay men, they are confounded.  Why, they ask, would straight women be interested in romantic and erotic stories about two men?  

To answer, I must mention 'slash'.  Slash began in the seventies.  Women who thought two men from a TV show sexy would write fanfic about them, making them fall in love with each other.  (But why? you wail impatiently.  Patience!)

Starsky & Hutch, best friends

The term itself comes from the slash between two names to indicate a pairing: Spock/Kirk for example, or Starsky/Hutch.  The essence of slash is that two previously heterosexual blokes (who remain resolutely het in the canonical versions of their stories in TV and film) become so close to each other that they fall in love.  They overcome their upbringing and the taboo against same-sex love, because they love each other so much that they wish to express this love physically and sexually.  They are prepared to ignore the opprobrium of society and to move past their own internal homophobia because of love.  Potent stuff.  And slash is written by women for women.  We men who love this style of writing are the interlopers here.

Starsky & Hutch.  Kinda intimate.
It's no accident that this emotional tension, this journey, is also a standard trope of gay fiction:  the hunky straight (he's never a hideous, pock-marked, halitotic fatso) who somehow falls in love with or has sex with our hero, and so turns gay.  For gay-shaded blokes, I suspect this reflects a kind of internalised homophobia:  we are so insecure in our sexuality that having the handsome alpha jock or sexy cop turn gay validates our own gayness.  Or, alternatively, we are only attracted to straight guys (all those personals ads for "straight-acting" men), though come to think of it, this is also perhaps partly about our own negative self image.  Whatever the reason, the stories about straight men turning gay are a staple of gay fiction.  I've written stories like that myself:  just look at Footy.  I find the emotional dynamic very satisfying to think and write about.  In my own case I would never have known I was gay if I hadn't fallen in love with another bloke, who was (surprise!) a very straight-acting surfer and rugby player.

And make no mistake:  it does happen in "real life".  I know of a couple of relationships where one straight guy has so loved (as friend, but the love deepens) another gay or bisexual man that he has set aside his straightness (if only for his friend) and entered into a profound sexual relationship.  Just thinking about it chokes me up.  But then I'm an old softie.

But why should women like male pairings?  There are a couple of answers.  One is that the women who like men find the emotional journey that straight men make when they start to love another man compelling.  It is conventional that straight men don't show their feelings and of course, like all generalisations, it's flawed.  Yet it is true that our culture, broadly speaking, doesn't encourage men to express their tenderer emotions.  In a heterosexual pairing, this is expected, this is what women have to put up with.  It's the way it is.  Asking a straight man touchy-feely questions is likely to provoke embarrassed shifting and silences.  But in a friendship which deepens to love, the two men involved are forced to come to terms with what's happening to their hearts, and this process means that they open up.  Some women like to read about this -- the kind of women who read and write slash.  It's romantic; it's not what regular guys do; it answers a need within themselves for men who are tough guys on the outside and tender and loving on the inside.  The doyen of gay writers, Victor J Banis, credits female writers and readers with rejuvenating the genre of gay writing:


[Women] came to a genre that was all but dead, and kicked some life into it. Are some of them bad writers? Of course, but they don’t have an exclusive franchise on that either, being a gay male does not automatically make anyone a great writer either. In the end, for me, it’s all about the quality of the writing. And as I’ve said, I am devoted to this genre, and I think the fact that it is now thriving in a way that it hasn’t for 30 or 40 years is largely due to the influx of women writers and readers.
The second reason why women like men who grow to love each other and then get down to the hot and sweaty is simply that women can enjoy two guys together just as some straight men find two women together sexy.  Read this piece about women being turned on by two men having sex.  And think of the relationships in Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series where a straight woman has many lovers, most of whom are bisexual.

Anita Blake with two blokes. Image from Bishonen Works


Slash was created by straight women for other straight women.  The dynamic of love conquering all, of a forbidden love nevertheless flowering between two men, is a powerful and emotive one.  Add hot sex and ...  It certainly pushes my buttons, and I won't hesitate to say that some of the most erotic and moving m2m scenes I have ever read have been written by women.  Wet eyes and wet undies.  A signal achievement.

From Strictly Male, my review of Karin Lowachee's trilogy, I say this:

I remember a western, its name and author lost in the dim shadows of childhood, where two heroes – but they were nevertheless outlaws, for reasons I have forgotten – are escaping from a posse of good and upright citizens.  One is wounded, and dying, his blood soaking into his clothes and onto the saddle.  The other, his loyal and true friend, is riding with him, risking his freedom and his life, for he could make much faster progress by himself.  At eleven or twelve years old, this was the very essence of romance to me—two strong, manly, tough men staying together out of loyalty and friendship.  To me, a lonely, bullied outsider, a friendship like that was worth dying for.

The essence of slash:  tough and gritty exteriors covering warm, romantic, loving interiors.  And utterly male, even if they have sex with other men.

Very powerful.  


[The artwork is from P.L. Nunn's Bishonen Works, with classic examples of P.L. Nunn's slash art and writings.  Read more about her and other gay-shaded artists here]

[There are a whole heap of interesting, insightful and revealing comments from female (and one male) readers and writers of m/m  below.  Be sure to read them too]

[Update:  This article discusses the issue.  M/m is becoming mainstream.]

11 comments:

C. Zampa said...

Nigel, I've asked myself this question countless times, and I still really do not know the answer.

All I know is that something deep inside is aroused by two men being intimate, of making love. There' something very primal about it, something that goes much deeper than my brain can analyze. As though, to me, there is something basic and pure about it, almost as though the coupling of two men was the original intent of creation rather than of the opposite sexes. As though, mabye, women came into the picture as child bearers, and the male creation learned to love HER over time as well as he did his own sex? There is just something TOO natural to my senses to see men together for it to NOT be a beautiful thing.

Who knows? As crazy as it seems, in my head there has to be something much deeper than just getting off to watching two men gettin getting on. It's too powerful a feeling to be explained away so simply.

Jesse Fox said...

Nigel,

As a woman who writes gay erotic romance I can say for me a big part of it is the emotional connection between the two men. Years ago my first serious m/m fiction was a crossover between two fandoms (Angel & The X-Files) and both men had lost their infant sons. For me their loses were what drew them together. Both men seeking solace from someone who understood.

Now years later I can say without doubt the seeds of my writing gay fiction were planted what seems eons ago. In Jr. High when most girls were enamored with the Harlequin Romances (late 70's/early 80's) I found them boorish and unrealistic. For me love was something far deeper than portrayed in their pages. It was about risking everything to be with a person who the world didn't get, but you did. This outlook came from watching my own parents, my father was diagnosed with mental illness & my mother defied her family to be with him. To me the love they had for one another was strong enough to survive despite what the world thought.

As I grew older my vision of love expanded including those who fought for the right to love despite race, religion, or sexual orientation. Growing up around mainly men and only having male friends for most of my life I related better to them. So it was not surprising I found myself here.

I won't lie though. Two men together in an emotional and sexual relationship is hotter than anything hetero I've read, but it is far more than just the sex for me.

Great Article!

Jesse Fox

Sarah said...

Nigel, you are a romantic! You make a convincing argument for slash, which I have to tell you, I've never heard of or read. I appreciate the idea of a love so deep and strong that the extraneous barriers fall away.

For myself, I am very interested in identity, and how identity forms and changes over a lifetime. Also, how families and communities form, especially for those on the outskirts. These two themes keep popping up in my writing, no matter how much I try to write something else. So for me, thinking about identity and belonging, my characters keep coming up gay men who are dealing with these issues. Believe me, it would be much easier on my mother, whom I love, if I could just write a decent seriel killer or two!

I didn't really come to gay romance from the romance or slash worlds, though I can see the appeal of those lessons. I like a world filled with outsiders struggling to become themselves- as I am doing- and I believe when a person becomes fully themselves, they are ripe for love. Anyway, interesting discussion! (Starsky and Hutch?! Good Lord.)

Nigel said...

Thank you, Carol, Sarah and Jesse for your comments. How interesting your roads towards reading and writing M2M stories are.

taylorgibbs said...

What a great post! Thanks for opening the discussion on such a fascinating topic.

I was mentally slashing my favorite TV characters for many years (starting around the late '70s when I was barely in grammar school). The cop drama TV shows always grabbed my attention. These men had a bond and they were putting their lives on the line. This crossed a line into hurt/comfort, where one character is injured or imperiled and the other offers comfort in any way possible. My young mind made the jump to a more intimate emotional connection.

In middle school and high school, large groups of pre-teen and teenaged girls wrote stories about their favorite characters, and sometimes their favorite musicians, in intimate connections with their coworkers. It wasn't rare in the least in my middle-class American town.

Slash fanfiction is wildly popular. I write professionally (3 books released, 2 contracted, none strictly m/m *yet*), but I also write fanfiction, mostly based around the TV show NCIS. The amount of unique page hits, feedback, and comments is amazing! If I could take 1% of my readership in the fanfic realm and convert it to pro sales, I'd be doing phenomenally well. As yet, I haven't crossed over my pen names, but I hope to sometime this year.

As for what draws the female reader to m/m, I have to say that for me, it is the emotional connection between the two (or more) characters. There is nothing sexier to me than a man who can be vulnerable in special circumstances, who can take as much as he gives emotionally, as well as sexually.

And the physical beauty of two men together, naked, clothed, touching is an image that I can't shake.

C. Zampa had some great insight about the lovemaking aspect being basic and pure, and I agree with her there. There is a certain beauty to the act.

Waterswaves said...

Great article, Nigel. I am a straight, married, woman who loves m2m and mmf fiction. I didn't come in through the slash world but I see the appeal. I started with Morgan Hawke's "Victorious Star" and was hooked from there. That particular book is mmf but it jump started my fascination for seeing two men fall in love. There are many authors, both male and female, whose m2m stories I have grown to love. Some of the books I love have the "just for you" theme but many don't. It's all about the love the characters have for each other, just as you mentioned in your article.

Speaking of love though have you seen the Youtube video of "Gay Pirates" by Cosmo Jarvis? He just released the song on itunes I think. It's the video though, which he did himself, that I really love. The whole point of the song is to show that it's love that's important, and it's ok to love who you love. Cosmo is straight but he gets it. Some people leave absolutely idiotic comments on the video, but most are really touched by it. Many of the people who love the video are women.

Thank you for such an awesome article. I'm going to keep reading m2m because I like it. I hope more women become more open minded and don't judge others for what they like to read. (That happens too. I have a couple of female relatives who would really give me hell if they knew what I like to read. Thankfully, I don't talk to them very often.) Thanks for listening.

Nigel said...

I really liked the Gay Pirates video. Great stuff.

More and more straights are getting it. Slowly but surely we're getting there.

M.L. Rhodes said...

Wow, C. Zampa put into words what I've struggled to find the right way to explain for a long time. Thank you for that, C! And thank you, Nigel, for your insightful post.

I'm a straight woman who's been writing m2m erotic romance for four years now and I came to it through slash--as a reader, not as a writer. I was writing hetero erotic romance at the time, but I remember the first m2m romance I wrote...it just flowed out of my fingertips as easily as if I'd always been writing it. And when I finished that story, I knew m2m was the genre where I wanted to be. It was the most soul-satisfying writing experience I'd ever had. I've written across numerous genres--I started off writing young adult fiction, then moved to romantic suspense, then hetero erotic romance, then m/m. This is, hands down, my favorite genre to write in, and after that first story, a novella, I never looked back.

There's a powerful emotional draw for me to write about two men coming together against all odds and finding love. Certainly putting two men together in a physical relationship is incredibly hot, but I've got to say that the sex isn't why I write it. It's the emotion, hands down. The hottest sex scenes for me are based on emotion. Guess I'm a romantic that way. :)

Osiris Brackhaus said...

While I can wholeheartedly agree with your article, Nigel, I think there can be many additional reasons for people writing slash.

For example, my wife writes and reads slash because all of the reasons you cited, but also because it is simple, naughty and subversive fun having characters act out their relationship in a way that simultaneously feels absolutely 'verboten' and yet utterly right.

Or take me, as an opposed example, to whom writing slash was an entertaining way of exorcising childhood demons. With each written page, read by other people, somehow all the fear and hurt and anger about the things that happened to me seemed to trickle away, the emotional charge draining until trauma had turned into memory.

I bet other writers have other reasons, but I think we can agree on one that's true for everyone - it's FUN.

Nigel said...

Nice to see you here, Osiris. It's been a while, hasn't it?

Are you and your lady still writing that sumptuous, sexy, moving stuff you used to?

Nigel said...

Thanks everybody for your comments. Very useful and illuminating.

I'm going to do a post of all your websites and books so that people here can see how distinguished you all are!