NSFF: How Fandom Has Censored “Mature” Material

Warning: This article is NSFW.

How we have kept “mature” sexual material out of the hands of others has evolved over time, along with our morals and culture around sex. Erotic images that were once common in Pompeii were later locked in the Secret Museum in Naples for nearly 200 years, only accessible to “people of mature age and respected morals.” In Ancient Greece, women weren’t allowed to view the Olympics, because all of the sports were done in the nude.

A vase from the collection of the Met, depicting nude sportsmanship.

While keeping mature material out of the hands of women has become less popular, it’s still very much the done thing to keep “mature” material separate from other types of media, and to put up warnings around this kind of material. While fandom is often seen as a more transgressive, permissive area of society, fandom has had its own reasons to develop and keep up methods of separating out mature material.

In the fanzine era, the concern over mature material was very practical; it was about avoiding backlash, as well as general butt-covering. When fanzines first started out, all sorts of stories could be found in all sorts of fanzines, but fans often had strong, negative reactions to coming across unexpected erotic stories, especially if they included queer content. A flashpoint in fandom came at Sek*WesterCon, Too, a convention held in 1977 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There was a panel at the convention called “Kirk and Spock: Do They or Don’t They?”, discussing the “slash” pairing of Kirk and Spock as gay lovers. There was also a panel called “Pornography and Sex in Star Trek.” While many fans enthusiastically joined these conversations, a fan named Mary Lou Dodge was furious, penning a searing open letter claiming that “the real Star Trek fans” were disgusted by the discussions of queer and sexual content held at the convention.

In the debate and fallout from the con and the letter, it became clear that, while some fans were happily exploring mature themes in fandom, there were plenty of fans who could and would object to “pornography.” In the aftermath, it became more popular for fanzines that were being reviewed or advertised in other fan publications to make it clear if they contained mature material. When the zine “Killing Time” was advertised in “K/S Relay,” itself a slash zine, the ad included this warning:

However, this novel does contain certain sexually explicit scenes — both heterosexual as well as K/S. Please bear in mind, however, that this is not essentially a K/S zine. The plot and the characters are stressed beyond per sonal relationships, but there definitely are scenes which may not be “agreeable” to the non-K/S fan. In other words, KILLING TIME contains scenes which detail the emotional and physical love which Kirk and Spock share, but the story itself does not rely entirely on that aspect alone. The inter-relationships of the characters arc secondary to the plot itself, but we believe you’ll find the story to be a fascinating one whatever your personal tastes may be in that area.
Due to the explicit scenes, however, an age statement will be required (over 18). 

K/S Relay 4, 1982

Age statements became popular as a way for editors of fanzines to cover their butts, both legally and morally speaking. For a fanzine that required an age statement, the fan would have to send in, along with the money for the fanzine, a signed statement that they met the editor’s age requirements–generally fans had to be over 18 or over 21. One of the more practical concerns was that, if an explicit fanzine ended up in a child’s hands, a fanzine editor could be charged with distributing pornography to minors, or, worse, have to deal with angry parents; an age statement could prove that the editor never intended to give the fanzine to an adult.

This is, perhaps, one of the aspects of fandom that has changed the least in the days of the internet. Archives of explicit or, in earlier days, slash material often include a landing page with a content warning, telling minors to leave the page and forcing users to click a link in order to see the material. This is another kind of butt-covering; if a user knowingly clicks through to explicit material, then the owner of the site can’t be held responsible. This is still popular on many sites, including Archive of Our Own, which generates a warning about any material marked Mature or Explicit on its site before the user can view the material. On some of these sites, including Archive of Our Own, a registered site user can opt out of the warning, but they have to specifically check off in their settings that they’re okay with viewing material flagged as mature.

But these warnings just weren’t a butt-covering tactic; they were a compromise. Part of the reason why Mary Lou Dodge’s letter in 1977 sparked so much debate was because fandom was growing, and there were an increasing number of people and perspectives coming into fandom. The compromise was, then, to move things like explicit material and queer material into its own spaces, so that those who liked it could keep enjoying it and engaging with it, and those who didn’t, didn’t have to. Considering prevailing attitudes about queer people in the 1970s, it was a surprisingly tolerant compromise, and one that allowed this queer material to continue to grow. The rise of these sorts of warnings and separation also led to an increasing use of warnings for other topics, such as violence or character death; these warnings would be used sporadically in fanzines, but quickly became the norm in online fandom. Before trigger warnings were a well-known concept, fandom was helping other fans to avoid material that could be upsetting or triggering.

Or at least, that’s one way you could look at it, and it’s the most generous way. The problem is that this compromise was specifically designed in part so that queer material was, by default, mature material. This isn’t an uncommon way to treat LGBT topics; when LGBT books are censored, they’re usually children’s books like Annie on My Mind or And Tango Makes Three. The idea is that LGBT content is somehow inherently sexual or just generally “inappropriate” for children or for all-ages content. Keeping LGBT themes out of all-ages spaces reinforces problematic ideas about LGBT people, about how and where we’re allowed to exist as queer people.

One of the early internet hubs for fan fiction, fanfiction.net, decided to purge the site of all NC-17 fan fiction (and all fan fiction about real people) in 2002, and would remove a further 62,000 stories considered “too mature” in 2012. This was in the midst of a more general crackdown, across the internet, on fandom and fan fiction. Warner Brothers issued takedown notices to Harry Potter fansites. Fox did the same to X-Files fan pages. Tripod eliminated fansites (and criticism of the Malaysian government) from their free website building service. Fandom and fan fiction were increasingly visible to the corporations hosting it, and responsible for creating the media that inspired fandom, and they were starting to wonder if fandom was “in good taste,” or even legal. Sites like fanfiction.net were, in retrospect, likely removing mature material in part to keep from attracting anger and judgment. Fanfiction.net had already removed all fan fiction based on Anne Rice’s work back in 2000 because she was so opposed to fan fiction based on her work. The idea was, like those fan zine warnings, both a legal and moral butt-covering; if a given site wasn’t host to anything that could possibly be called offensive, then it was less likely to make corporations angry. A cloud hung over fandom–what if a big business like Warner Brothers sued writers of fan fiction? What if they won, and all fan fiction was defined as breaking copyright? Better to gut mature material than to allow all fandom to be gutted by lawyers.

Nothing could completely remove mature material from the internet, any more than you can remove all the weeds from the world. But it did have an effect. It was a somewhat common practice, especially on fanfiction.net, for anything more than the most innocent slash fic to get an automatic NC-17 rating. This meant that, again, the move against mature material disproportionately affected queer content. Once again, mature and slash material had to be hosted separately from other fan fiction, and kept alive by those who were still passionate about it. It became more common for all fan fiction, mature and general, to come with a “legal disclaimer” that the fan fiction author did not own the characters and was not profiting off of them.

The removal, segregation, and warning-plastered history of mature and queer fan fiction says less about the content being warned against and much more about how fandom is not a separate society, but a community of people who come from the societies we know. Even though fandom is often a place where exploring transgressive, passionate, and transformative behavior is accepted and embraced, cultural mores about mature material, and what qualifies as mature, still exert pressure. The advent of slash stories and zines did not magically make fandom queer-friendly. Nor did even consenting adults universally approve of the idea that Spock was having any sex at all. Perhaps the best takeaway from this is that despite this, new ideas about how to read male relationships, to explore and write about media, have survived.

Despite everything, nothing can stop horny or queer people! And that’s to be celebrated.

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