This is part of our Summer Slowdown program of revisiting the archives, and was originally published in May 2009.
You don’t even have to know anything about slash to get a few giggles and more than a few eyerolls out of this interview with evolutionary psychologist Don Symons, author of Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality [eta: see comments 1 & 2].
Like all good evolutionary psychologists who focus on gender, Don hasn’t bothered to talk to any actual *whispers* women. Especially not to any women who write and/or study this, erm, *whispers* smut. Because women can’t define their own experience, can’t tell their own stories, can’t have any useful insights into their own motivations. Because women’s fan academia doesn’t really exist in any meaningful sense, not until chest-beaters come along and put their stamp of Knowledge onto it. Because women’s culture is there to be picked apart with tweezers and analysed with a touch of distanced fascination, a modicum of distaste, and a whopping serve of wilful ignorance. For lo, he has Teh Magick Testicles of Perspicacity. Here, let him show you them.
I found myself interjecting a little while transcribing.
Host: You remember Spock and Kirk? Star Trek? There are groups of women who write stories about them… with a twist. That Spock and Kirk were gay. There are stories about them travelling throughout the universe, and exploring their gay relationship. Anthropologist Don Symons has written a book about it that tells us the story of this group of women.
Don Symons: Slash fiction is a kind of romance fiction that is written by and for heterosexual women …
Symons: …in which the two lovers are both men.
…and for it to be true slash, the male pairing has to be expropriated from some kind of media. So, that’s where slash started actually, it started in the 1970s with women Trekkers starting to write fiction, …
Apparently wrong, though I don’t have any first-hand knowledge here. (Readers?)
…their own fiction, about Kirk and Spock in which the notion is that Kirk and Spock become lovers. And the word “slash” refers to the punctuation mark that separates their name, so Kirk/Spock slash is “Kirk Slash Spock” or “K/S”.
“I read a FAQ somewhere, and I’m inordinately proud of the fact.”
Here’s an example of something that seemed to me really bizarre. I had no explanation for it.
“And I have an explanation for everything, so this was very discomfiting for me.”
And it wasn’t something that one women or two women did, once it started, once the ball got rolling, really women fans of virtually every cop and spy and sci-fi and adventure series that had two buddies, women fans would start to write slash. So for women to write slash, they have to be fans of the show, and they have to find at least one of the pair attractive.
…and they write slash from the point of view of the other one…
…um, and. Anyway, you have lots of women doing this. You have this large international community of women who are reading and writing slash.
“The wimminz are talking to each other! Run for the hills!”
…if you put slash into any search engine you get hundreds and hundreds of sites with just every possible kind of pairing. There’s Holmes and Watson slash!
“This is the most bizarre pairing I could find. Can you imagine it? Holmes and Watson?!”
I was intensely curious about it when I discovered it…
“I discovered it! Me! In my tall ship and my tricorn hat, sword at my side! Ahoy!”
…because I couldn’t see any reason why any woman would ever want to read or write slash.
“And I know everything about women. Any fule kno that the throbbing members of their husbands should be enough for all women.”
My take on it was…
Host: Given that you’ve written a book. So you’ve obviously got from dumbfounded to insight.
Symons: Well, I figured that there’s more in female sexuality that was dreamt of in my philosophy, and I wanted to find out what aspect of female sexuality managed to stay under my radar all those years…
“Because there’s only one. And now that’s solved.”
…and one of the things that struck me first about them was that they’re really not that difference from mainstream women’s romances. That many of the same characteristics come up again and again…
“I feel much better now that I’ve managed to re-interpret this bizarre and deviant phenomenon in a hetvanilla way that makes me feel comfortable and unthreatened.”
…Uh, it’s actually fascinating. I mean, it’s a fascinating topic.
When I first started reading it, things just jumped out at me.
“And none of those things were my erection, oh no.”
One is, it was clear to me, in some sort of psychological sense, that in these long descriptions usually of anal intercourse, that the basic fantasy wasn’t anal- anal intercourse. The basic fantasy, I believe, was vaginal intercourse.
“See? Hetvanilla! Nothing to see here! It’s all about penises in vaginas!”
…but it was played out on male bodies. And in fact if you go back to the very early days of slash when these women Trekkers were the only slash writers, they were making all kinds of mistakes. They would have, uh, anal intercourse would be conducted without any lubricant…
“Which is something that never, ever happens in het erotica or erotica written by men.”
…and multiple orgasms, simultaneous orgasms, things that really weren’t likely to happen in male-male sex…
“Because men can never both come at the same time, not like with penis-in-vagina sex where such things are routine.”
…and when these things were pointed out to them, they read The Joy Of Gay Sex, and they became sophisticated, and they started writing much more realistic sex scenes. And so a tube of lubricant would just happen to be in the bedside table when it was needed, and so forth.
“I just read about lubricant last week at Scarleteen. My knowledge, let me show you it.”
But if you read it, it seems clear to me that the underlying psychology is still the same.
Host: And that appeals to prototype female interest?
“Because we all know they’re all the same. Amirite, blokes?”
Symons: Romance heroes, whether they’re of mainstream romances or slash fiction, are in a sense warriors. They may not literally be warriors, but they have the qualities of successful warriors, and they have the qualities that our female ancestors would have admired in a male throughout the long course of human evolutionary history.
“And now I’m just blathering and hand-waving on my pet made-up subject. Evidence? How do you spell that?”
So what happens in a mainstream romance is that the heroine overcomes all these obstacles and eventually captures and marries this, uh, superb Mr Warrior. The slash fantasy is not of being Mrs Warrior, it’s of being a Co-Warrior. It’s having shared adventure, risk-taking, danger. But also, this permanent monogamous union.
And that’s a key element that is always emphasised in slash…
Erm, no, it isn’t.
…that this is monogamous, and it’s nothing like real gay male sex is.
ETA 8 May 2009: Several readers have pointed out that Symons co-wrote Warrior Lovers with Catherine Salmon, who introduced him to slash fiction in the first place. Note that he completely obliterates her contribution in this video interview, using “I” throughout, and never mentioning a co-author. Note also that she is an evolutionary psychologist just as he is, not an English literature or history or women’s studies expert.
Almost every assertion of “fact” he makes in this interview is incorrect. Not only incorrect, but readily debunked with barely a few hours of fandom research. It is as though his “research” consisted of only talking to a single person with limited knowledge about one slice of slash fandom, then leaping on that as Truth. All he seems to have done is engage in just enough inquiry to confirm his assumptions about women’s sexuality and experience, then designate those data as universal and his interpretation as correct – because they reinforce his own prejudices. (Another possibility is that he did collect more data in the research phase, then carefully ignored all source material that didn’t reinforce those prejudices.)
This is the standard modus operandi of gender-based evolutionary psychology, as you’ll see from the other Hoyden About Town posts on the subject. It’s Tinkerbell academia, lazy and intellectually dishonest.
All you have to do to learn about women’s experiences and knowledges is to sit down and listen to them. And actually listen.