eruthros: Jamie and Adam from Mythbusters, drawn by Tardis80, text: "busted". (Mythbusters!)
eruthros ([personal profile] eruthros) wrote2009-08-31 06:52 am

please don't take the fanfiction survey

Please don't take the fanfiction survey that is going around (the one with the big fancy banner).

Here is the deal: the people who wrote that survey pm'ed me, as one of the mods of [community profile] kink_bingo, while I was out of the country. In their pm, they (unintentionally) made it quite clear that their intent in their project is to talk about human universals -- to use our fannish experience, our erotics and our desires, to reinforce ideas of universal, hard-wired, biological desire.

They are outsiders to fandom. They are outsiders to fanfiction. They are outsiders to slash. And they haven't tried to learn, or to understand, or to think about fannish communities. Instead, they have made assumptions about who we are, about what we read, about what we find hot; they plan to use those to explain what makes women tick, what our brains make us do.

They do not believe that culture mediates our desire at all1; they don't believe that we are shaped by our communities and our experiences; they want to put us into neat, biologically determined boxes. We declined to participate, and figured that was the end of it -- we didn't know that there was going to be a survey, which is why I'm posting publicly. (I'm going to put that pm, and the subsequent conversation [personal profile] thingswithwings and I had with them, under cut-tags at the end of this post if you're interested.)

All of those problems are present in the survey itself. If you read through the comments on their Q&A post, you'll see a number of people challenging the questions, the answers, and the ideas behind the survey. Reasons include heterosexist language, which presumes that anyone not marked as queer must be straight; the language of the questions about participants' sex, gender, and sexual orientation, which presumes that people are either male or female; and the language of their description of slash, which presumes that there is one definition of slash. [personal profile] torachan further explains some of those problems here.

And all of these problems are present in their About This Survey page:
The structure and activity of our subcortical circuits are shaped by neurohormones such as testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin, progesterone, and vasopressin; these circuits function differently in men and women. As cognitive neuroscientists, we draw upon a wide variety of empirical data sources to model these circuits, including brain imaging studies, primate research, cognitive science experiments, machine learning algorithms--and behavioral data. The Internet offers large, unprecedented sources of data on human activity: one of these data sets is fan fiction.

We're deeply interested in broad-based behavioral data that involves romantic or erotic cognition and evinces a clear distinction between men and women. Fan fiction matches this criteria perfectly.
Guys, that is their explanation of their project: that they want to look at how we are hard-wired different.

It's the same old sociobiological bullshit, the same old attempts to universalize and naturalize their ideas of gender roles, the same old approach that makes us nothing but a data set. Please don't take this survey.

If you have already taken this survey, I don't know what to tell you -- I'm sorry that I didn't post this earlier. I don't know what would happen if you demanded to have your answers taken out; I don't know what sort of IRB/human subjects research board preparations they have done.

Their first pm to us:
Hoping for help with mainstream science book

I'm a cognitive neuroscientist at Boston University writing a book for Dutton (an imprint of Penguin) about how the Internet reveals new insights into some of the oldest circuits in our brain which control romantic attraction and sexual behavior. I was very much hoping you might be willing to chat about Kink Bingo. You can real the deal blurb about our book here (search for Ogas):

For our research, we're quite interested in learning about how people creatively use text and fiction to express and explore sexuality. We're utterly fascinated by Kink Bingo, and would like to ask you questions about it, and about adult fanfic in general. If you'd like, we'd be happy to include a positive mention of you and/or Kink Bingo in the book (or respect your privacy, if you'd prefer). If you have any questions about our research or book, please don't hesitate to ask! I look forward to hearing from you! :) Dr. Ogi Ogas Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems Boston University

Note that the link above takes you to a site that requires a login to get any information.

Our reply:
Dear Ogi,

We have absolutely no desire to be interviewed by you, or to help you with your book project. We're both fairly well-read in fan-studies, and your project – what little you've deigned to tell us about it, including a link to a book blurb that isn't visible to us, since we don't have a publisher's marketplace subscription – sounds like one of the worst kinds of projects dealing with fandom and fanfiction. Here are the reasons we have for turning you down:

1) We don't know how aware you are of your subject, but there have been multiple studies on fanfiction done over the last thirty years, and few if any of them have represented the community in an accurate or complex manner. Studies of fans, particularly female fans, tend to follow in the long history of pathologizing women's behaviour and women's desire, the history of male scientists objectifying queer/female desires in order to subjectivize themselves, the history of othering and shaming the weirdos as a form of boundary-policing. There is a similar history in relation to studies on kink, or on other communities relating to queer sexuality: policing, othering, pathologizing. And even in studies that don't think of themselves as policing, othering, and pathologizing, there is still a note – a note that is audible in your brief message, in your "fascination" with kink bingo – of a nineteenth century scientist with a particularly interesting bug under the microscope. We're not interested in being your bug.

2) We have become convinced, after years of reading horrifying interviews and studies that purport to know something about our communities – fannish communities, queer communities, kink communities – that the only way for these communities to be fairly represented is for them to represent themselves. We trust the folks at and we trust the folks at the OTW and we trust acafans like Alexis Lothian, who participate in the community as fans. We trust our fellow fans who are anthropologists and our fellow fans who are IT specialists and our fellow fans who are historians and our fellow fans who are literary critics – we trust these people with the chronicling of our history, because they are part of our community. We do not know you, and we do not trust you; we have good reason not to trust you. You sent us a private message from a dreamwidth account that had obviously just been created; it's clear that you have no actual interaction with the larger communities of which kink bingo is a part. Why should you be the one writing a book on us? You know nothing about us. We're not interested in being part of yet another inept, inexpert, hastily-researched study that tells the world how utterly fascinating we are, or how our patterns of desire prove your bullshit pet theory about desire and the brain. You seem to think that the promise of a "positive mention" in your book will thrill and convince us, but such thinking is based on the assumption that we care about our image in the popular media, or that we care about explaining ourselves to the wider world, or that we long for fame, or something. The last thing we want is more cognitive scientists breathing down our necks while we try to form a safe space for kinky fannish expression.

3) We're not particularly encouraged by your connections to Homeland Security. We shudder to think about what a cognitive scientist might do in the cause of "anti-terrorism," but we don't want anywhere near it.

4) We are disturbed by the political implications of your study. Kink bingo is a political project with a basis in queer theory. Kink bingo attempts to redefine kink, to question the naturalness of our responses to certain kinks, to reclaim desires and pleasures that are marginalized, ignored, and maligned in the popular press. Our organization of kink bingo is not just a project in writing kink, it is an attempt to interfere in the discourses that produce the ideas of "kink" and "vanilla".

Cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology and projects like yours – "the oldest circuits of the human brain" and biological adaptation – are participating in, reinforcing, and reaffirming these same discourses. Your field is part of the discourses that make kink bingo kinky.

Your field, and others like it, rely on "biological adaptation" and the evolution of an efficient, adaptive brain to produce concepts of universality and universal maps of human behavior, unmediated or minimally mediated by cultural practice. Biological adaptation means that evolution has shaped our brains, and that culture does not – no matter how much neurologists talk about experience continually re-shaping our brains. We are not denying biological differences and biological realities; we are asking why some biological differences become differences that matter. And it is fairly clear that they become defined as differences that matter as the result of cultural discourses – and that you are reinforcing those definitions. (See, for example, Butler on pregnancy and the definition of sex.) And these biological adaptations of sexual behavior, biological differences that you have defined as important, lend support to the "naturalness" of certain categories of sex practice. They mean that heterosexuality is normal and understandable and biologically necessary – after all, evolutionary success can only mean genetic success can only mean only having heterosexual intercourse in the missionary position. They mean that homosexuality and kink practices are not only deviant, queer practices in American culture, but that there are underlying biological reasons for the perception of homosexuality as deviant. They reinforce our position as objects of fascination; they reinforce our political status as secondary citizens; they reinforce violence and certain kinds of violent response against the sexually deviant ("gay panic"). When we are in the DSM, when we are objects of fascination, when we are biologically determined as deviant and queer and perverted, you have taken popular discourses of sexuality and made them concrete and real. And we want to make trouble in those discourses, to point out the problems and the flaws, to stand outside categorization and to make you work to fit us in. We're not going to do that work for you.

We are operating in discourses with tremendous institutional and institutionalized power – your power, your medicalizing discourses, your determinations of what is natural and normal and what is deviant and unusual and fascinating. The subject position you are trying to retain in your query places you in authority, and places us (women, kinky, queer) as the objects of your fascination, unable to speak for ourselves, and grateful for the slightest hope that someone will speak for us. And so we decline to be interviewed by you; we decline to be the objects of your fascination; we decline to be naturalized; we decline to allow our political project to be cited in support of the very discourses we are trying to question.

If you would like to read more from this critique, we recommend Butler's Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, Foucault's History of Sexuality, and Edelman's No Future.

If you want to use this letter of refusal in your book, you have our permission to do so only if you quote the entire letter, in its totality, without amendment or alteration.

thingswithwings and eruthros

Their reply, attempting to convince to participate after all:
I'm Sai Gaddam, a co-author on the book with Ogi Ogas. Ogi is away on vacation with his family at the moment and has requested me to reply and thank you for your very detailed and thoughtful response.

Firstly, sorry about the registration only link; we hadn't realized the announcement section was gated too. A brief announcement is now listed on our agent's page (second in the list here )

I hope I can clarify some of the words we used in our initial introductory message. This is not to persuade you to change your minds, but only to clarify that we are aligned with many of the opinions you voice.

Let me give a brief overview of our scientific perspective and how it will inform the book. As cognitive neuroscientists, we are respectful of the fascinating diversity of the neural landscape. And this diversity, we believe, is reflected in the terrain of erotic fantasy.

Now this fascination is decidedly not the kind that is on display in Mary Roach's book Bonk, where the narrative seems to flit from one interesting observation to another without going deeper and understanding the common strains that unify us all.

This fascination is not fetishistic in that we are not concerned with acquiring titillating descriptions for various labeled sexual behaviors. These labels are artificial constructs that perhaps reflect our weakness in comprehending fluidity in concepts. Unfortunately, comprehension seems to only follow after a primal stage of labeling as deviant otherness; Homosexuality was in the DSM until 1972. With our work, we also hope to, at least implicitly, demonstrate that the next stage of understanding the commonality and connectedness of desire is here. Labels are not useful in our narrative.

We also agree that biological adaption does very little in explaining how our worlds are arrayed out today. That our pre-frontal cortices are developed enough to "argue" with more basic impulses should be obvious, but somehow slips out of the equation when describing the world with the blinkered view of evolutionary psychology. We are sophisticated enough to
take the prevailing cultural winds into account when reacting to impulses. The 'naturalness' of heterosexuality under the evolutionary psychology rubric is already quite suspect in linking sex strongly to reproduction. Sexuality of all hues is observed even in our primate cousins as part of a toolkit used in maintaining harmonious relationships at the individual and societal level. We are, in any case, not interested in stretching out the hooks in this study to the survival of all humankind. We'll pay more attention to evolutionary psychology if someone can come up with a convincing explanation for at least the cultural distribution of

When we talk about the 'oldest parts of the brain', it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.

The book is not simply about sexuality, it is about fantasy and some of its more commercially viable strands, if only because they offer us more historical data for observation. The internet and e-publishing now allow for a revolutionary and unprecedented disclosure of all our fantasies, not just those decided as marketable and mainstream for print. Digital publishing seems to have lead to an explosion in the array of fantasies we can now experience and learn from; the loop of imagination, desire, and actuality is now tighter. We want to explore what this blossoming of fantasy means for us as individuals, and as a society. How does this access to all manner of fantasies imaginable change our brains (if it does)? For
instance, how do open-ended virtual worlds like Second Life allow for a freeing of the human mind in its consumption of ideas that were previously held up for inspection only in one's own fertile imagination. Do virtual worlds offer a richer exploration of fantasy and its sharing, and are broadly similar motivation and mindsets at play in the appreciation of worlds crafted in text.

We did not intend to dangle the promise of a "positive mention" as a lure. Please view that as an awkward and hasty phrasing of our intention to convey that we did not mean to treat kink bingo as a funky new bug under a microscope. We view kink bingo as part of the unified fabric of human desire. Yes, we are very naive in our understanding of it and not members of the fan community. We only recently created log ins not to hastily research and write a report, but to quickly get in touch and learn from informed people like you. We hope to come out as better educated outsiders (in the sense, not of boundaries, but of being part of the fan community),
and not as poseurs or fake experts.

We deeply appreciate your response.



Our reply, in which we got angry:
Dear Ogi and Sai,

It is obvious that we disagree on first principles. We do not believe, as you believe, in the existence of a "unified fabric of human desire" - a term you use several times, and that we assume isn't yet another unfortunately awkward and hasty choice of phrase. We believe that the attempt to scientifically create something called a unified fabric of human desire is a creepy, undesirable, potentially harmful project. Directly harmful to people like us - fangirls, kinky people, queer people. We believe that othering is inevitable in your project, not because of some made-up "primal stage," but because of the manner in which you conduct your investigation, the assumptions you have already made about the terms and subjects you are discussing, and the manner in which your particular branch of science is conducted generally.

Also, we do not want to help outsiders to learn more about us. How many times do we have to say so? We insiders are not interested in educating you outsiders. A project like this SHOULD NOT BE WRITTEN BY OUTSIDERS AT ALL, and we would encourage you to seriously reconsider exactly what right you think you have to tell the story of other people - people who have, historically, been unable to tell their own stories, who have historically had their stories told by scientists and non-participant anthropologists.

Some helpful tips for luring unsuspecting minority groups into being the focus of your studies in the future:

- don't consistently refuse to actually tell them what your book is about (the announcement on your agent's site isn't exactly informative)
- don't repeatedly refer to your own research methods as hasty
- don't ignore the signs that the people you're communicating with might not be merely objects of your research -- when we say we are queer theorists, you might want to look that up and realize that we are aware of the historic DSM criteria for homosexuality and the continuing DSM criteria for paraphilias


thingswithwings and eruthros

Um, we were maybe a little angry here.

1Note, for example their answer in their Q&A to someone who brought up these issues: "we are pursuing our own research questions, which are not cultural in nature."

ETA: The survey has been taken down, at least temporarily. The text on the survey site now reads:
We're revamping some of our survey questions based upon the first round of feedback we received! Please check back again soon to take our survey!
There are a number of interesting comments on their post announcing the removal of the survey.
alchemia: (WTF?  (Princess Bride))

[personal profile] alchemia 2009-08-31 04:44 am (UTC)(link)
I wouldn't trust them to remove your answers if you asked.

I found that you can go back to the survey and write in (wherever there are fill-in-blank options) answers so outrageous that they should throw your answers out all together (eg: "i started to read slash when I was 174 yrs old. My current age is 2. My race is "green". etc)
theleaveswant: text "make something beautiful" on battered cardboard sign in red, black, and white (collar)

[personal profile] theleaveswant 2009-08-31 04:49 am (UTC)(link)
I think we should all do this. Spam them with BS. Show them that we will play our own games and damn their rules.

(Anonymous) 2009-08-31 12:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm definitely with this. Let's just all spam them as much as we can, I just identified my gender as sparkly poo :P Should teach them to mess with fandom.

[personal profile] krazycat 2009-08-31 06:14 pm (UTC)(link)
I was doing that, and now the survey doesn't work.

"We're revamping some of our survey questions based upon the first round of feedback we received! Please check back again soon to take our survey!"
tangent_woman: (Default)

[personal profile] tangent_woman 2009-09-01 01:00 am (UTC)(link)
To be really perverse, fail to be "fascinating".

They want outliers, so instead of giving them outrageous and impossible responses, maybe taking the survey and giving them responses which are 100% mainstream, vanilla, conventional and so forth would make the data useless.

Gender identified as: "sparkly poo" is sensational, therefore marketable. "heterosexual" is of no use to them in making their pseudoscientific insult of a book.
clavicular: (Default)

[personal profile] clavicular 2009-09-02 07:40 am (UTC)(link)
I agree with this, but in regards to the specific example, a) part of the reason this is sensationalisable is "straight women like watching gay guys wot?!" and b) cisgendered female would be gender, rather than heterosexual.