Fanfictions (fanfics, for short) are original fiction based on the events and characters in already created popular media, such as books, movies, TV shows, anime, comics, and video games. It's difficult to determine exactly how many people write fanfiction, but there are certainly a lot of stories being churned out on a daily basis. To give just one example, in the last six years the number of stories on Fanfiction.net just about Law and Order: SVU alone, has more than doubled from 3,500 to over 9,800 (I picked SVU because that was the show I first started writing and editing fanfic for).
Although it's very difficult to get accurate demographic data, the evidence suggests that the majority of fanfic writers are women, with the age of the writer varying based on the source material (or "fandom") she focuses on. It seems most are young, including a large number of teenagers. And while many fanfics contain sexual content, the sexual orientation of the writer doesn't always determine whether the sexual orientation of the story's characters will be straight or "slash" (same-sex, trans, or queer). For example, Wikipedia states that many writers of slash fiction about male characters are straight women.
I started writing fanfic when I was in high school. In addition to writing about Law and Order: SVU, I've also been what's called a beta reader, which is essentially a fanfic editor/proofreader, for stories about SVU, M*A*S*H, and The West Wing.
I'll admit there's a lot of fanfiction that can read like sloppily edited romance novels (including my first couple of stories), and the fact that anyone can publish fanfic without having writing experience can mean readers have to wade through a lot to find the real gems. That's why, even though I enjoyed writing and reading fanfic, I was embarrassed to talk about it. Now though, looking into it, I realize that there's a lot to celebrate about fanfiction.
There's been a little scholarship done around fanfiction and gender relations. The first academic to really take up the study of fanfiction was Joanna Russ, who sadly passed away earlier this year. In the 1980s, Russ looked at Kirk/Spock fanfic (at the time, being published in fan magazines) and analyzed it in terms of imagery, sexuality, and literary theory, making a big stride forward in its recognition as a form of literature. In her landmark essay, "Pornography By Women, For Women, With Love," she illuminated the complex reasons people write and read slash fanfic.
More recent research includes Angela Thomas' work, which found that writing fanfiction allowed young women to create empowering narratives that let them feel more powerful in their everyday lives. She also found the sense of community writers got from fanfic was important, especially for teenagers who might otherwise feel excluded in their peer group.
Canadian Paulette Rothbauer's research found that some lesbian and queer youth find role models in slash fanfiction, which some found particularly important at a time of life when they may feel alone and unsupported.
Looking at another way fanfic challenges conventional gender relations, Melissa at The High Hat speculates that women writing about male slash pairings is a way for authors to "have the freedom of being male in their female bodies."
And even if there are a lot of fics that couldn't be seen as progressive, lack of censorship and encouragement from an online community is part of what makes fanfiction writing an activity that feels both safe and fun, especially to young women writers. Even the much-maligned stories featuring Mary Sues (cliched main characters that stand in for the author) could be a useful form of self-expression for the author, even if they are painful to read at times.
If people are expecting Pulitzer-caliber writing, they don't understand what fanfic is about. There are some really great fanfics and some not-so-great ones. The most important thing is the opportunity it gives people, especially young women, to explore gender identities, build a sense of community, practice writing, and express themselves without fear of censorship.
(photo by Remo del Orbe under Creative Commons license)