It is more often than not that fanfiction is the subject most frequently associated with crazy, obsessive fans. Actors and authors on panels are constantly asked if they read fanfiction about their characters, with the motive being to make the person being asked feel uncomfortable. What most people fail to realize is that fanfiction is incredibly detailed and complex, and it takes very talented individuals to produce such quality work.
Fanfiction, for those who do not know, is fan-made works of fiction with original works of fiction (e.g. books, movies, television shows, video games) as source material. It can be found anywhere fans are, but is predominant on sites such as FanFiction, ArchiveOfOurOwn, Tumblr, and Wattpad, amongst many others.
Like most fan-made creations, fanfiction takes a considerable amount of time to create, depending on the length and content of the piece. In certain situations, some "fanfics" are even longer than the source material. The writers create works that can be either canon or AU (compliant with source material or take place in an alternate universe), with plots that are 100% their own, sometimes creating new characters or even bring characters back from the dead. Tremendous amounts of hard work and dedication go into creating these fics, and there is not even a guarantee that they will positively received-or even read.
Fanfiction is not generally created for profit, but there are some select scenarios where you can purchase a volume of works from various authors. Fandom 4 Causes and Smut to Save Lives are organizations where fanfic authors volunteer to create pieces to be assembled into a compilation that can be read if people donate a small sum to the charity of the organizations' choice.
The fanfiction community is predominantly female, especially with works of explicit content. Writing fanfiction allows women, particularly younger women and teens, to create empowering narratives that let them feel more powerful in their everyday lives. The sense of community that writers offer fosters close friendships, which is especially important for those who might experience exclusion from certain peer groups in their physical lives. As for the explicit works, affectionately known as "smut", the reason why most writers are female is simple. Most visual porn is male-oriented (see: any adult store or site) while most written porn is female-oriented.
Women like to read smut because it is more intimate. While some porn is truly beautiful, there is no narration depicting how it feels. With smut, every sensory detail is explored, leaving the reader feeling as if they're truly there in the middle of the action. Most scenarios in written porn are often exaggerated and embellished, as is also the case with porn films, which offers a brief escape from their own possibly less-than-stellar experiences. However, there are also lots of fics with realistic situations depicted that the reader can possibly relate to.
Reading and writing smut also helps a lot of women to come to terms with their own sexuality. It is no secret that there is a gross lack of sex education in schools, and exposure to materials that deal with sexual content and help start a conversation for women who have questions about their bodies and themselves. Smut also isn't heteronormative. A vast majority of pairings are same-sex or polyamorous. This also allows curious individuals or those struggling with their identities to come to terms with themselves and their sexualities in a healthy and open environment.
There is a difference between smut and erotica. Most erotic novels and stories offer little plot, one-dimensional characters, and bizarre euphemisms that are never used in real life.
Fanfiction has source material, which means the readers are already familiar with the characters and their personalities. Granted, a lot of fanfic authors change certain aspects of their own stories to make them more original, but those changes are highlighted early on so the reader can quickly adjust. There is a sense of intimacy the reader experiences while reading smutty fanfiction that normally doesn't occur while reading erotica. The readers are emotionally attached to the characters, which makes the experience more personal and altogether more fulfilling.
Writing and reading fanfiction shouldn't be a dirty secret. There is nothing to be ashamed about, and instead of making those who enjoy it feel self-conscious, it should be celebrated just as equally as fanart and cosplay. They are all means of artistic expression and ultimately show just how talented some fans are.