Gay male erotica is relentlessly popular, its authorship notorious for being majority female and queer varieties of straight as well as its readership. From “slash” to the Boys Love comics of Fumi Yoshinaga to the novels of Charlie Cochrane, Cooper Davis, and other women authors who use both masculinized and feminized handles, the vast amount of cis women and professed feminine queers who enjoy the genre have clearly carved out popularized male-on-male literature as a female erotic space.
Not only females find themselves drawn to this space. Many queer males are turned away from male-penned male-male erotica by the sexual fetishizing of the gay male body (Fessenden, 2014, para. 10). Reading the works of female authors to fulfil some liturgical need for romantic connection is the alternative place these readers go in a convoluted sexist logic that female women are somehow better at writing romance. This idea has roots in a social subtext where females are discouraged from sexual overtness and encouraged towards addressing their own bodies as objects of the heteromatrix.
To be clear, male bodies still endure objectification in female-authored gay erotica. From experience, most main characters and their erotic interests in gay romantic fiction written by women (besides being almost all white) are developed with a feminized physical presence (lean, longer hair); a glamorous, even supernatural, aura (green eyes, inexplicable draw towards sensitivity); and an uncontrollable hypersexuality (based on unfulfilled sexual desire edged with desperation in being surrounded by unresponsive straight males). Viewing gay males as exotic Others is a response to hegemonic masculinity and the objectification of female bodies that fuels it (Santos Fermin, 2013). (Postcolonial analysis of the objectification of gay male bodies is applicable because gay male culture and codes have been assimilated into popular culture as well as because gay male sexuality is viewed as nonthreatening to females.) As Others, as bodies and cultures that females will never experience except through distilled and bodiless forms, gay male spaces are idealized and cherished, seen as a free state not controlled by straight masculinities and the institution of marriage.
Illusion and escapism dominate this genre. In his blog post about his opinions on women writing male-on-male fiction, Jamie Fessenden (2014) offered invitation to the community of straight women who write these novels on behalf of his (the gay male) community. His intentions are not criticized here but the assumption that these authors want or even need authenticity in their works. The genre is driven by fantasy, by manipulating the sexualities of the characters and the emotional or sexual responses of the readers in the effort to gain material on behalf of the writer. If a reader can escape their material exist through reading the book, the author has succeeded.
The dynamics of isolationism and community feed the desire to escape into these novels. Queer people are defined by not being born into and not having the chance to grow up in an environment that intimately knows how to cope with their identities, resulting in queer people reaching out for media that has any sort of non-normatized character (Shaw, 2010, p. 29). In the gay erotic novel, the character always experiences his gayness as an isolating feature, always searching for a kindred spirit while denying the potential queerness of all those around him except for as a possibility in his sexual interest. For females, who are gendered as women but do not express womanhood in the same way (if at all), many of whom are sexual but treated as sexually dormant, the “kindred spirit,” the sexual equal, is the eroticized gay male, an appropriated medium between the female bodies of the writer and the reader.
The erotic gay novel is an interactive experience. In sex scenes, the reader has the luxury of fluidity, participating as one of the sexual beings or as a voyeur (Foster, 2015, p. 518). The reader is the tender objectifier, imbuing care for the characters and their marginalization into the multidimensional sexual environment that begins on the page and physically manifests in the responses of the reader. The gay male is the object of the female reader’s sexual satisfaction.
Gay erotica written and consumed by females queers female heterosexuality. Despairingly, Foster (2015) asked readers of his paper if a straight woman could “ever desire in ways that are not straight, and that do not correspond to the gendered morphology of her actual body, or her genitalia,” if “a so-called woman can be straight in her conscious life but be a gay man in her fantasy life” (p. 521). Foster’s straight woman is faced with these identity-disarming questions precisely because she finds an outlet to her desexualization in the hypersexualized gay male who would never downplay her sexual autonomy because he is constantly fighting against its influence on his sexual activity. Females who write gay male erotica are trying to communicate to other (mostly straight) females that pleasure and passion can exist in the reality of the heterosexual female.
A space created for heterosexual females through gay male erotica also invites queer females like myself. I am one of Shaw’s uncultured queers; one function of the male-male erotic novel for me is to locate the codes of a community that is supposed to incorporate my sexualized and gendered identities. Butch Lesbians and transmasculine folks are also drawn to erotic gay male novels written by women because of the heterosexual perception of masculine female sexuality as threatening, thereby rendering it not profitable to present in any sort of erotic novel (Halberstam, 1998, p. 28). Female-assigned people interacting with/in male sexualities, writing about them and even going as far as taking on masculinized names to entrench themselves in this erotic space, are seen as a threat to femininity and the role of women according to hegemonic masculinity as well as the integrity of the gay male identity. Especially for the transmasculine person involved with a masculine sexual partner, the erotic gay novel is the only place where we can locate our sexual realities being played out and celebrated, our idealized masculine/male bodies being objectified so we can see ourselves as others will see us if we did/when we do transition—as one dimensional, as gendered and embodied and unquestionable.
The gay erotic novel creates an optimistic space for female readers. Female heterosexuality is becoming increasingly queer as the objectification of female bodies leeches into every medium the modern person interacts with on a daily basis. As “female sexuality” becomes a queer subject position, the responding objectification of male-on-male sexual practice by women-penned gay erotica talks back to the normalization of straight male sexuality as well as observing that it is possible to be successfully erotically queer. As non-erotic fiction has started to incorporate queer themes into novels, its lack of sex-positivity and interactivity has left this new exploration dissatisfying and not as effective as gay male erotica. To finish off with this quote from Jamie Fessenden (2014):
“Mainstream gay fiction is still out there. It’s actually expanded a bit to include lesbian and transgender fiction. But I confess, I still find much of it dreary. I picked up a book not long ago that was was [sic] full of critical accolades in the first pages. I read the first chapter, grew suspicious, and flipped to the end. Yes, the love interest was dead, the victim of a gay-bashing. Of course.
I don’t need that crap.” (para. 18-9)
Fessenden, J. (2014, June 28). My take on women writing MM romance. Retrieved from https://jamiefessenden.com/2014/06/28/my-take-on-women-writing-mm-romance/
Foster, G. M. (2015, December 5). What to do if your inner tomboy is a homo: Straight women, bisexuality, and pleasure in M/M gay romance fictions. Journal of Bisexuality, 15 (4) (pp. 509-531). doi: 10.1080/15299716.2015.1092910
Halberstam, J. (1998). Female masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Santos Fermin, T. A. (2013, October 6). Appropriating Yaoi and Boys Love in the Philippines: Conflict, resistance and imaginations through and beyond Japan. ecjcs, 13 (3)
Shaw, A. (2010, December 12). Identity, identification, and media representation in video game play: An audience reception study. Publicly accessible Penn Dissertations (Paper 286)
(updated 26 July 2017)