Alexus is a 15 year old who writes fan fiction for fun. Her favorite fandoms include Supernatural, Legend of Zelda, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. She is currently working on an alternate first episode of Sabrina, in which the title character, also aged 15, is preparing to be inducted as a witch. In the series, she is cautioned by her aunts that their coven’s Dark Lord requires her to remain a virgin ahead of the ceremony, and she bids her boyfriend Harvey a tearful goodbye in the forest. But in Alexus’s version of the story, Sabrina and Harvey have sex in that forest, and the Dark Lord’s plans are foiled.
There’s nothing unhealthy or age-inappropriate about Alexus writing such a story. But should she publish and share it? She faces real risks if she does. Writing stories about relationships between fictional characters—“shipping” those characters, in fan parlance—is seen as unacceptable by many fans if the relationships depicted would be illegal or immoral in real life. Shipping characters who are under 18, or defending those who do, is a particularly sure-fire way to attract the ire of these fans.
Harassment and abuse of creators
In May 2019, queer comic creator Kate Leth endured a campaign of harassment for “defending child pornography,” due to a tweet simply asking, “Not to be entirely out there today but you ever think about how messed up it is that queer artists have decided that all other queer artists have to be morally and artistically pure now to be acceptable”? Under the weight of hundreds of abusive replies, Kate finally deleted the offending tweet.
Apparently, some of those in this online pile-on had wrongly assumed that Kate was defending another artist, Michelle Czajkowski, who writes a comic called Ava’s Demon. Michelle had endured suicide-baiting and death threats simply for having privately published some custom illustrations of adult (“aged up”) versions of two of the teen characters from her comic.
Two months later, another queer female artist, Hannah Ayoubi, who writes for the animation series Amphibia, was taken to task by an online mob for creating “child pornography” in the form of a sketch of two characters from the show: a fully-clothed teenager being carried by a frog.
In addition to hate campaigns against popular artists, lesser-known artists and fans are regularly targeted for abuse in fandoms such as Rick and Morty, Voltron, Star Wars, and Devil May Cry, for promoting ships that other fans regard as taboo. In addition to concerns about characters being too young (or having a large age gap between them), shippers may also be targeted for writing ships that are regarded as incestuous, non-consensual, or “fetishizing.”
These campaigns of harassment are intended to do more than merely shame the creators concerned; they are also targeted to result in the censorship of their works. The tactics used to that end, which have included sending fake take-down notices to authors, and reporting their hosting platform to the FBI, are very similar to those used to silence journalists, artists, and authors. That’s why we are talking about it during Banned Books Week.
Where does purity policing come from?
Since it is so disconnected from any real-world sexual abuse, this kind of toxic behavior seems incomprehensible to many outsiders. Yet it has become an inescapable part of the online experience of many fans. The motivations of those who engage in it seem to be diverse and complex.
In a detailed account of how this “purity policing” or “anti-shipping” movement developed, fandom historian Sean Z argues that complaints about “pedophilia” or “child pornography” in shipping are often manufactured as a pretext for fans who are heavily invested in a particular fandom pairing, as a potent way of undermining “rival” ships.
Purity policing has also been visibly influenced by other social movements outside fandom, who join pile-ons and shape the “discourse” by which it is justified. These movements include anti-porn feminism, pedo-hunter vigilantism, and even the intolerant Christian right, which regularly attacks pop culture properties such as Big Mouth and (yes) Sabrina for promoting masturbation or the “transgender agenda.” These make odd bedfellows for purity policing fans, most of whom profess to be pursuing their agenda from a “social justice” orientation.
Sexual abuse survivors position themselves on both sides of this debate—some declaring that the ships that they write and read are cathartic and therapeutic for them, while others counter that pro-shipping survivors are either mistaken about the therapeutic effects they report, or that they are not entitled to a form of catharsis that triggers others.
These justifications for the censorship of fandom ships don’t hold water—as we will explain in the concluding section. As well, there’s one more serious justification that anti-shippers give for their harassment campaigns that deserves to be treated in depth, because it’s particularly important to our work in child sexual abuse prevention: that underage ships indirectly cause child sexual abuse.
Does fan fiction cause real world abuse?
The concept, in short, is that fan works that romanticize or eroticize abusive relationships may have a negative influence on the real world behavior of those who consume them. Although the methods that anti-shippers stoop to in censoring such works are unjustifiable, the concerns that motivate them are important, if true. These concerns are expressed well here:
This sexualisation of children has a subtle but profound impact on social attitudes. Though it is true that most people continue to believe that adults should not have sexual contact with children, they are also more accustomed to seeing depictions of child sexuality in everyday life. Though someone without predispositions toward sex with children may be able to draw a line between media and appropriate conduct in “real life,” for those harbouring such predispositions, this distinction is considerably more problematic. Such persons may interpret the popularity of media with sexualised depictions of children, or adults dressed to look like children, as indicative of social support, or at least tolerance, for sexual activity with children.
This explanation wasn’t written by an anti-shipper. It was written by a child protection organization, ECPAT, to justify that organization’s position towards the criminalization of what it calls “virtual child pornography”, which includes fan fiction and artwork featuring underage characters, as well as cosplay, ageplay, and “barely legal” pornography featuring adults. It was ECPAT that managed the consultation process for a United Nations recommendation treating art as child pornography, that will be officially launched this week.
Its similarity to anti-shipper discourse is no coincidence, since it is based on the same theoretical foundation that unites them with anti-porn feminists and the Christian right. As such, anti-shippers have seized on such statements as justification for censorship, reasoning that fans should defer to “child exploitation experts — with vast knowledge on what directly causes child sexual abuse, what indirectly perpetuates it, and what creates legal loopholes for pedophiles to operate under.”
The thing is though, that these theories—as far as we know—are wrong.
Anti-shippers are right about one thing: fiction, particularly in the mass media, can have an effect on society; this goes without saying. But it isn’t necessarily the relationship that we might expect.
In 2010 when the Danish Ministry of Justice was considering whether to ban “virtual child pornography,” it took the sensible step of asking the Sexological Clinic at the Psychiatric Center Copenhagen whether it would actually make any difference to rates of sexual offending against children. In a letter exclusively published by Prostasia Foundation, the Center responded, “There are no scientific studies related to the question asked.” That remains the case today, almost a decade later.
This isn’t to say that we don’t have studies that point in the general direction of an answer. For example, studies have shown that frequent indulgence in sexual fantasies about children is not significantly related to offending even among minor-attracted persons. It has also been found that access to “virtual child pornography” is not associated with attitudes that sex between adults and real children is acceptable.
Although not directly related to virtual pornography—the study relates to real images—there is even evidence that the availability of such content as a sexual outlet may decrease rates of sexual offending against children. Importantly, this last study doesn’t just address the impacts of pornography on individual behavior, but rather its impacts on society as a whole. This is exactly the type of effect that ECPAT claims exists—except that it goes in the opposite direction to what they predict.
These studies are a good start, and they strongly suggest that the anti-shippers’ mission is misguided—but they are not conclusive. Prostasia Foundation believes that more research is needed to determine with certainty whether sexual outlets such as stories, cartoons, and dolls are an indirect cause of sexual offending against children, or whether the opposite could be the case, and they might actually have a preventative effect.
That’s why we are the only child protection organization that is raising money for such research. As of the date of this blog post, we have reached 10% of our fundraising goal for the first phase of an independent scientific investigation of this important and under-researched issue.
On a societal level, it doesn’t seem that shipping has the effect that anti-shippers believe it does. But many anti-shippers are also worried about the effects of fiction on a more personal level. In particular, while acknowledging that child sexual abuse survivors or teenaged fans such as Alexus may have their own reasons for writing underage fiction, they worry that the circulation of such fiction within fan communities may attract undesirable elements (read: pedophiles) into the fan base.
Like the concern about society-wide effects, this concern is a valid one. But as we have seen, claims of “pedophilia” leveled by anti-shippers are frequently misdirected, mostly at women who almost certainly don’t have pedophilia. If pedophiles constitute about 1-2% of the population, then there are likely to be some of them in every fan community.
But assuming that we can hunt pedophiles out based on the fiction or art that they like is dangerous nonsense, which risks harming those who are already sexually stigmatized. Queer artists and fans are often the first to be falsely stigmatized by association with pedophilia. For those who claim to be progressive, hunting down and outing fans as pedophiles based merely on whether they ship underage characters is a path fraught with risk to minorities.
Primary prevention is more effective than censorship
There’s a better alternative, and it’s called primary prevention. Rather than assuming what we don’t (and can’t) know about those who enjoy taboo fiction, a better approach is to ensure that the entire community is made aware of the difference between what they enjoy as fantasy, and what can happen in reality: simply put, that child sexual abuse is wrong, and that it can be prevented.
This doesn’t have to involve censorship. Quite the contrary, by allowing controversial works to remain available, we create more space around them for thoughtful discussion and criticism, which might include discussion of how realistically they portray the effects of real-world abuse. Fan communities should also have rules in place to ensure that abusive behaviors are not tolerated, and that support is available for those who need it. Beyond this, fans can contribute even more directly to child sexual abuse prevention; for example, it is common for fan groups and events to directly support children’s charities.
Another new way that fan communities can adhere to best practices in child sexual abuse prevention is by becoming a participant in Prostasia Foundation’s new certification program, No Children Harmed, which we will be officially launching soon. Building on what we know about child sexual abuse prevention, and on our consultations with industry, this program provides an easy way for websites, publishers, vendors, and event organizers to affirm that they are taking reasonable steps to avoid harming children without resorting to censorship.
Archive of Our Own
Thankfully for Alexus, there is a way that she can publish her Sabrina fan fiction safely, and without exposing herself to abuse and harassment. It’s by publishing her work on the community fan fiction archive, Archive of Our Own, also known as AO3, which celebrates its 12th anniversary this month.
As other histories describe, Archive of Our Own came into being precisely because of the censorship of other fan fiction websites and communities such as LiveJournal and fanfiction.net. Managed by the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works, AO3 was designed as a safe space for fans that would be impervious against the attacks of would-be censors.
For writers, the site ensures that their fiction will remain online, regardless of complaints that anti-shippers may bring against it. It also provides them with a way to receive feedback on their work by allowing comments—but these can be moderated to screen out abusive messages. Writers are also empowered to write under any number of different pseudonyms (“pseuds”) that are not linked to their real world identities.
For readers, AO3 provides an expansive system of content tags that ensure that they are not exposed to themes or situations that they do not want to encounter. Although most of these are optional, there are explicit warnings for some of the most triggering types of content: major character death, underage, rape/noncon and graphic violence. A story that contains these must either be tagged as such, or be tagged as “Choose Not to Use Archive Warnings,” in which case the reader proceeds at their own risk.
How Internet companies can do better
Larger commercial platforms have failed to offer anything approaching this level of granular control for creators and fans, and this failure has been one of the factors driving the excesses of the anti-shipping movement. Twitter, for example, allows you to flag that your own account “May contain sensitive content,” and gives you the option to show or to hide content from other users who have enabled this flag. You can also mute or block other users, and mute specific words from appearing on your timeline. But these are account-wide settings, and there is currently no way to flag sensitive content in a particular tweet.
In May 2019, Prostasia Foundation brought Internet companies together to talk about ways they could do better dealing with sexual content online. Although we didn’t talk specifically about fan fiction, we did cover the Japanese cartoon art genres of lolicon and shotacon. Our summary of that discussion concludes thus:
Ultimately the decision on what to accept lies with private actors, and the context in which the depictions are shared will be relevant to their decision. But although it’s easy to say no, we should also consider that when extreme content is banned from major platforms, it doesn’t disappear altogether but just ends up in darker, less well scrutinized places. Consistent with their obligations under the law and to their business partners, allowing it under clearly defined terms may be the least harmful option for platforms to take.
Providing such a clearly defined way for creators of taboo fiction to safely share it with those who wish to read it is a challenge that AO3 has risen to with much greater success than larger and better resourced commercial platforms. We’re calling on Internet companies, small and large, to look at our draft recommendations on the moderation of sexual content to see what they could be doing better.
On both sides of the shipping debate, it is agreed that our society has a problem with child sexual abuse. A large majority of fans, also on both sides, would like to be part of the solution to that problem. For those who are offended by fan works that depict minors and sex, it’s easy to see the attraction of censoring such works as an easy solution—and why the harassing fans and artists can be seen as morally justifiable.
Unfortunately, the evidence that we have suggests that it isn’t a solution at all—and that it may actually make prevention harder. Censorship based on this shaky foundation is more a reflection of society’s moral panic over child sexual abuse than a legitimate response to that problem.
Writers and fans are entitled to reject the narrative that fan fiction “normalizes” child sexual abuse and to declare that it doesn’t do so unless we allow it to. Through their efforts to address abuse in their own communities, and their advocacy for child safety in the wider world, fan communities have shown that they are not minimizing or excusing child sexual abuse simply because of their tolerance for free speech.
Banned Books Week is a week in which fans and writers stand in solidarity with each other to oppose the censorship of the written word. Criticism of fiction, even robust criticism, should be welcomed—but abuse should never be. The toxic behavior of the anti-shipping community, especially towards women, is an attempt at censorship that we should not tolerate.
The good news is that there are better tools to address the most serious concerns that anti-shippers raise and that the online communities of fans and authors are already their leading practitioners. Rather than directing their anger at their fellow fans, anti-shippers would do better to demand that Internet platforms provide better support for these tools, such as tagging and content warnings. The idea that creative freedom can co-exist with concern for children and survivors doesn’t need to be just a fantasy.