Image: Mat Yuhico
Fan fiction has come a long way. In the 18th century, there were retellings of literary classics and folktales. In the 60s, they became popular thanks to Star Trek fanzines. And in the 90s, fan fiction turned mainstream through the internet. Sub-genres emerged throughout those years and, eventually, fan fiction wasn’t just about made-up characters anymore, but real people too. These are fan-written stories about celebrities known as “real person fiction” or RPF, and the most popular ones are all about sex. This is true for most fandoms — see posts about singer Harry Styles and actor Tom Holland — but especially in the massive K-pop community. Fans “ship” their idols with one another in plot lines as varied as coffee shop romances and steamy enemies-to-lovers relationships.
Ana*, an 18-year-old from Spain, is a dedicated fan of boy band BTS. She is behind some of the many “imagine” videos on YouTube, a form of fan fiction that puts fans in various scenarios with their idols, usually using existing video footage. Creators add fake English subtitles to the clips, making it seem as though the celebrities are talking directly to the viewer. “I used to be an avid fan fiction reader when I was younger. The fact that I can take it to another level, turning them into small movies and involving the viewer in a never before seen way, captivated me from the first moment [I started making these videos],” Ana told VICE.One of her videos is a wholesome 11 minutes of BTS member Jungkook confessing that he has a crush on the viewer. As of writing, the video has over 4,000 views. But these “imagines” can get really racy, really fast.Another one of Ana’s videos involves clips of Jungkook edited to seem like he is spending the night in a hotel room with the viewer. After photos of the singer, it cuts to a black screen with dirty talk displayed through the subtitles. This video has about 13,000 views, as of writing. Ana said that she had no ill intentions behind the video. “We all have fantasies, and fan fiction just translates them into stories. This may sound toxic or delusional to some, but I think that as long as you watch them with a healthy, realistic mindset, it can be very fun,” she said.
Despite their popularity, sexualized fan fiction is a controversial subject among fans. Some, like Ana, think they’re harmless, while others find them problematic and are vehemently against the idea of sexualizing real-life K-pop idols. “It’s basically sexualization of a real person. It’s weird and uncomfortable. Imagine being in their shoes and having thousands of people, who don’t know you personally, out there, creating erotic content about you,” Nur Lutfiah, 21, a fan of the group Seventeen, told VICE. “It’s quite dehumanizing when someone puts their whole energy into writing sexual fantasies about a performer whose works aren’t sexual and are mostly targeted to young people, especially minors. Idols did not go through years of intense training for them to be fetishized,” said Afiq Batiah, 21, a fan of girl group LOONA. In South Korea, critics of erotic fan fiction started a presidential petition last week, calling for punishments against those behind “real person slash (RPS),” a sub-genre of fan fiction involving celebrities of the same sex. Petitioners are disturbed by the graphic nature of the content, especially because many sexualize underage idols — a concern artists themselves have voiced out.
Many RPS stories are violent, with explicit scenes involving the rape and abuse of artists without their consent. This becomes especially problematic because most fan fiction is shared on public websites. In South Korea, people are free to post fan fiction online in the name of freedom of speech, but some say some content could be violating laws against sexualizing real people and minors.And yet for others, prohibiting all kinds of RPS — and not just violent ones — is both sexist and anti-LGBTQ. The genre is most popular among women and the queer community, groups that have historically been kept from exploring sexuality. They highlight that not all fan fiction is RPS and not all RPS is pornographic or violent.Ana’s videos, for example, are mostly romantic. She believes that there’s a place for fan fiction online because they help people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ, discover their sexuality. “Why is it reprehensible to imagine sexual scenarios with an idol, but it's normalized to fantasize with your friends about your high school crush?” she said. Dr. Tom Baudinette, an Australia-based researcher of East Asian pop culture and lecturer at Macquarie University, agrees, saying that fan fiction provides fans a safe space to discover themselves.
“Sexual minority communities live in a heteronormative world. …When queer men and women encounter fan fiction, it’s kind of a revelatory experience. There’s this idea that this is OK and there are people that are OK with exploring male-male love or female-female love,” he told VICE. However, he noted that it is important to distinguish fans that make sexual content, like fan fiction, from people who create deepfake porn, another issue that has plagued the K-pop industry. These videos digitally manipulate existing porn to include K-pop stars’ faces. “The issue of deepfake pornography is tied to a pre-existing problem when it comes to women in the public sphere in South Korea. …There’s creepy men trying to sneak photos of women in changing rooms or toilets and there’s also revenge porn, which is another very serious issue in South Korea.”He said the difference lies in the intention. “When it comes to fan fictions, some of which are romantic and some of which are sexual, it comes from a different space. It comes from women exploring their sexuality in a society where their sexual agency is suppressed.”K-pop fan Noelle*, 21, writes erotic fan fiction for groups such as NCT, Monsta X, and Pentagon. To her, sexual fan-made content only becomes a problem if they're posted on platforms that idols are active on and include images of their faces. “As long as writers aren’t pushing their works to be seen by that particular idol, I don’t think any boundary has been crossed,” she said.
Ana said this is why she explicitly states that the videos she makes are fake. “I've never intended to hide it,” she said. “While one comes from a place of harmless sexual desire, the other [deepfake porn] is twisted and takes it too far, intending to break the barrier between reality and fiction and tricking the viewer into actually believing their eyes.”Unlike fan fiction about made-up characters, the line between the real and imagined world is more blurred in ones about public figures. The nature of celebrity culture makes fans feel at once extremely close and removed from their idols.“Some fans treat them [K-pop celebrities] as characters because they’re so untouchable and we idolize them. They aren’t real to us,” BTS fan Minh Tan, 19, said.And some believe this is where the problem lies, potentially leading to dangerous behavior IRL.*Name has been changed for privacy.