A discussion in the Guardian (http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,,2044573,00.html) of a new film about a black gay romance mentioned the topic of slash fiction and raised the question again of why so much of it is read and written by straight women. Ive only read slash fiction occasionally, but I can at least vaguely see its appeal, so here are my preliminary thoughts on the traditional male/male version. (I know there has been academic research on the subject, but Ive not looked at that).
Ive seen references to slash which imply its just a female version of male fantasies about two lesbians, but that isnt a sufficient answer. It seems to me that it is the relationships, rather than simply the sexual aspect, that is central to slash. Of course its nice to have two hunky men to describe/read about rather than one, but it is not generic men that these stories are interested in, but specific characters. Indeed, there is even slash with no explicit sex in it, which makes it rather a failure as porn.
Instead, it seems to me that romance is the key to slash fiction. Behind much of it is the old desire of romantic fiction: to find your own true love, to capture the heart of the hero. If slash includes explicit sex, it simply reflects the way romantic fiction is going these days. The sex is not casual between the characters, but is the reflection and expression of their deeper connection.
So why do women read or write slash rather than ordinary fanfic? Part of it is about role-models. The first alter ego I can remember myself having as a child was as a blond Californian superhero. This character (who still mysteriously shared my female name) was everything I was not: gorgeous, grown-up, physically invincible…and male. I think I had already realised that (at least in the early 1970s) it was better to be a man than a woman. Just as later, when I was in my teens, I wanted to be Sir Lancelot rather than Guinevere and Fred Astaire rather than Ginger Rogers.
I think its no coincidence that slash fiction originated and is still dominated by genres (such as sci-fi and crime) and series (Star Trek, Starsky and Hutch, Harry Potter) which dont have a lot of strong female characters in them. Instead, these stories often feature strong bonds of friendship between the leading male characters. In one sense all that slash fiction is doing is breaking down the rigid demarcations that buddy-buddy stories feel they must preserve between homosociality and homoeroticism. The pairings, on the whole, tend to reflect the dynamics of the original (Spock/Kirk, Blake/Avon, Joey/Chandler, House/Wilson) rather than arbitrarily impose relationships.
Slash then, can be a way for a female reader/writer to place themselves mentally in a sexual relationship with a favoured character without violating the truth of that character. A woman cannot really be Kirks eternal love; Spock can be. More than that, slash offers a fantasy about more equal relationships, ones in which the female reader/writer can continue to fight/work/save the universe alongside their lover, unrestricted by social conventions or biological realities. As long as so many popular TV shows simultaneously both attract and exclude women, I think this straight female attraction to slash is going to continue.