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Fandom 101: The Origin of the Citrus Scale

A guest post by Aeryn Jemariel Knox.

Ah, the citrus scale. It’s like a cryptid roaming the edges of modern fandom communities. Long-tenured veterans speak of it with affectionate mockery while newcomers google curiously. A relic from a bygone fandom era, the citrus scale saw a brief resurgence in 2018 during the Tumblr porn ban, suggested as a way to avoid the new bot censors trawling for posts with the NSFW tag—though never, I think, in seriousness. 

That may have been jocular and short-lived, but it does point to the reasons why the citrus scale was created in the first place. Certain fandom activities have always had to fly under the radar to one degree or another. Whether you’re trying to evade legal action or simply avoid deletion based on explicit content, a certain level of obfuscation is sometimes worthwhile.

It’s not hard to find the generally agreed-upon definitions of the citrus scale’s levels. According to Fanlore, KnowYourMeme, and others, this is more or less the “official” citrus scale:

  • Orange: Light stuff, kissing, nothing below the waist or under the clothes. 
  • Lime: Groping, implied sex without details, fade-to-black, no intercourse or intimate contact.
  • Lemon: Sex, in full detailed glory. Woo-hoo! Regardless of the actual acts performed, if you can tell who had an orgasm (or, perhaps, had an orgasm denied), how, and where, it’s a lemon.
  • Grapefruit: We’ll get into this later.

But these tidy categories are clear thanks to the benefit of hindsight. In the Wild West of the early internet, it was not so easy to pin down exactly what you might be getting into based on which term was used.

At its origin, the citrus scale wasn’t a scale at all. It has its roots in hentai (and was always more popular in anime fandoms), stemming from a specific early hentai film by the title of Cream Lemon (1984). Hentai being what it is, this led to certain subculture communities referring to any story with explicit sexual content as a “Lemon.” And for a while, that was the extent of it. Then came purging explicit content (2002), Livejournal suffering Strikethru (2007), and other events that pushed burgeoning fandom communities out of their growing hubs and back into smaller, isolated communities centered on a single fandom or pairing. In the relatively sparse early ’00’s internet, anybody could spin up an Angelfire website, pass the link around to their friends, and get a reasonable amount of traffic.  Websites devoted to the works of a single author or small group were common.

I mention this to describe the landscape in which fandom lexicons grew and evolved in the early-mid 2000s. Each pocket community had its own rules, lingo, and expectations; venturing outside of your home pocket could lead to some pretty major miscommunications. 

“Lemon” was established early and its definition has hardly shifted. It means that the labeled content (art, fic, mood board, etc.) includes sex. Intercourse, bumping uglies, etc. However, some yaoi fandom niches used it specifically to mean gay sex of the male variety. In some communities, “lime” developed as a corresponding term for feminine gay sex, while other communities brought it up with the usage that eventually “stuck,” “not quite a lemon.” Given that lemon and lime often go hand in hand when discussing actual flavors, the fact that we had some divergent term evolution is not surprising. But coming in from a different pocket of fandom and seeing “lime,” thinking you’ll be reading semi-softcore sexual tension and instead being confronted with graphic sapphic antics? Bit of a shock, I’m sure.

A more dramatic example is the rating level of “Grapefruit,” which occupies two completely different ends of the scale. In some circles, grapefruit was defined as “less intense than lime,” G or PG-rated stories that were more soft or cute than sexy. In other circles, it was used to mean the exact opposite. Kinkier than kink, smuttier than smut, grapefruit art and fic was where you went to have your eyebrows singed off. Some communities were even more specific, using grapefruit for stories featuring non-consensual sex. This was where darkfic lived – in modern day parlance, your “Dead Dove, Do Not Eat” works. To say that this usage difference caused some disagreements would be putting it mildly.

Nobody really worried about orange. Orange just existed, not bothering anybody.

When these terms were coined, the internet was not an assumed aspect of everybody’s daily life the way it is today. There was no Tumblr, no Facebook, no social media to speak of. There were no large repositories of internet lore and knowledge such as Urban Dictionary or KnowYourMeme. It was a playground. And what do you do on a playground? You make friends! The citrus scale, like so many fandom tropes and concepts, was defined by groups of friends that created them ad hoc to meet their own needs at the time. No one could have predicted that it would become so much a fandom history that it’d be enshrined, nor that I would be writing a blog post about it two decades later. From the common source of lemon, people extrapolated what the rest of the scale might look like, and there was no authority to tell them they were wrong. (Except other fans. That hasn’t changed.)

In conclusion, it’s best not to take the citrus scale too seriously. At best, it’s a cheeky way to avoid censors who try to bar a community from engaging with explicit works, but it’s also varied to a fault and open to interpretation. If you and your community have come up with a use for it that suits your needs, then congratulations: you’re part of a fandom tradition stretching back to the roots of the internet. Just don’t try and tell anybody else that they’re wrong. You might start a flame war.


Past Fandom 101 Posts:

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