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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 fanfiction.net 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.

References:

Past Fandom 101 Posts:

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Recognizing AI Generated Images, Danmei Edition

Note: this is cross-posted from an account I run, mdzsartreblogs, on Tumblr. You can read the original post here.

Heyo, @unforth here! I run some danmei art blogs (@mdzsartreblogs, @tgcfartreblogs, @svsssartreblogs, @zhenhunartreblogs, @erhaartreblogs, @dmbjartreblogs, @tykartreblogs, and @cnovelartreblogs) which means I see a LOT of danmei art, and I go through the main fandom tags more-or-less every day.

Today, for the first time, I spotted someone posting AI-generated images (I refuse to call them AI “art” – and to be clear, that’s correct of me, because at least in the US it literally LEGALLY isn’t art) without any label indicating they were AI generated. I am not necessarily against the existence of AI-generated images (though really…considering all the legal issues and the risks of misuse, I’m basically against them); I think they potentially have uses in certain contexts (such as for making references) and I also think that regardless of our opinions, we’re stuck with them, but they’re also clearly not art and I don’t reblog them to the art side blogs.

The images I spotted today had multiple “tells,” but they were still accumulating notes, and I thought it might be a good moment to step back and point out some of the more obvious tells because my sense is that a LOT of people are against AI-generated images being treated as art, and that these people wouldn’t want to support an AI-generator user who tried to foist off their work as actual artwork, but that people don’t actually necessarily know how to IDENTIFY those works and therefore can inadvertently reblog works that they’d never support if they were correctly identified. (Similar to how the person who reposts and says “credit to the artist” is an asshole but they’re not the same as someone who reposts without any credit at all and goes out of their way to make it look like they ARE the artist when they’re not).

Toward that end, I’ve downloaded all the images I spotted on this person’s account and I’m going to use them to highlight the things that led me to think they were AI art – they posted a total of 5 images to a few major danmei tags the last couple days, and several other images not to specific fandoms (I examined 8 images total). The first couple I was suspicious, but it wasn’t til this morning that I spotted one so obvious that it couldn’t be anything BUT AI art. I am NOT going to name the person who did this. The purpose of this post is purely educational. I have no interest whatsoever in bullying one rando. Please don’t try to identify them; who they are is genuinely irrelevant, what matters is learning how to recognize AI art in general and not spreading it around, just like the goal of education about reposting is to help make sure that people who repost don’t get notes on their theft, to help people recognize the signs so that the incentive to be dishonest about this stuff is removed.

But first: Why is treating AI-generated images as art bad?

I’m no expert and this won’t be exhaustive, but I do think it’s important to first discuss why this matters.

On the surface, it’s PERHAPS harmless for someone to post AI-generated images provided that the image is clearly labeled as AI-generated. I say “perhaps” because in the end, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t a single AI-generation engine that’s built on legally-sourced artwork. Every AI (again, to the best of my knowledge) has been trained using copyrighted images usually without the permission of the artists. Indeed, this is the source of multiple current lawsuits. (and another)

But putting that aside (as if it can be put aside that AI image generators are literally unethically built), it’s still problematic to support the images being treated as art. Artists spend thousands of hours learning their craft, honing it, sharing their creations, building their audiences. This is what they sell when they offer commissions, prints, etc. This can never be replicated by a computer, and to treat an AI-generated image as in any way equivalent is honestly rude, inappropriate, disgusting imo. This isn’t “harmless”; supporting AI image creation engines is damaging to real people and their actual livelihoods. Like, the images might be beautiful, but they’re not art. I’m honestly dreading someone managing to convince fandom that their AI-generated works are actual art, and then cashing in on commissions, prints, etc., because people can’t be fussed to learn the difference. We really can’t let this happen, guys. Fanartists are one of the most vibrant, important, prominent groups in all our fandoms, and we have to support them and do our part to protect them.

As if those two points aren’t enough, there’s already growing evidence that AI-generated works are being used to further propagandists. There are false images circulating of violence at protests, deep-fakes of various kinds that are helping the worst elements of society to push their horrid agendas. As long as that’s a facet of AI-generated works, they’ll always be dangerous.

I could go on, but really this isn’t the main point of my post and I don’t want to get bogged down. Other people have said more eloquently than I why AI-generated images are bad. Read those. (I tried to find a good one to link but sadly failed; if anyone knows a good post, feel free to send it and I’ll add the link to the post).

Basically: I think a legally trained AI-image generator that had built-in clear watermarks could be a fun toy for people who want reference images or just to play with making pseudo-art. But…that’s not what we have, and what we do have is built on theft and supports dystopia so, uh. Yeah fuck AI-generated images.

How to recognize AI-Generated Images Made in an Eastern Danmei Art Style

NOTE: I LEARNED ALL THE BASICS ON SPOTTING AI-GENERATED IMAGES FROM THIS POST. I’ll own I still kinda had the wool over my eyes until I read that post – I knew AI stuff was out there but I hadn’t really looked closely enough to have my eyes open for specific signs. Reading that entire post taught me a lot, and what I learned is the foundation of this post.

This post shouldn’t be treated as a universal guide. I’m specifically looking at the tells when AI is emulating the kind of art that people in danmei fandoms often see coming from Weibo and other Chinese, Japanese, and Korean platforms, works made by real artists. For example, the work of Foxking (狐狸大王a), kokirapsd, and Changyang (who is an official artist for MDZS, TGCF, and other danmei works). This work shares a smooth use of color, an aim toward a certain flavor of realism, an ethereal quality to the lighting, and many other features. (Disclaimer: I am not an artist. Putting things in arty terms is really not my forte. Sorry.)

So, that’s what these AI-generated images are emulating. And on the surface, they look good! Like…

…that’s uncontestably a pretty picture (the white box is covering the “artist’s” watermark.) And on a glance, it doesn’t necessarily scream “AI generated”! But the devil is in the details, and the details are what this post is about. And that picture? Is definitely AI generated.

This post is based on 8 works I grabbed from a single person’s account, all posted as their own work and watermarked as such. Some of the things that are giveaways only really show when looking at multiple pieces. I’m gonna start with those, and then I’ll highlight some of the specifics I spotted that caused me to go from “suspicious” to “oh yeah no these are definitely not art.”

Sign 1: all the images are the exact same size. I mean, to the pixel: 512 x 682 pixels (or 682 x 512, depending on landscape or portrait orientation). This makes zero sense. Why would an artist trim all their pieces to that size? It’s not the ideal Tumblr display size (that’s 500 x 750 pixels). If you check any actual artist’s page and look at the full-size of several of their images, they’ll all be different sizes as they trimmed, refined, and otherwise targeted around their original canvas size to get the results they wanted.

Sign 2: pixelated. At the shrunken size displayed on, say, a mobile Tumblr feed, the image looks fine, but even just opening the full size upload, the whole thing is pixelated. Now, this is probably the least useful sign; a lot of artists reduce the resolution/dpi/etc. on their uploaded works so that people don’t steal them. But, taken in conjunction with everything else, it’s definitely a sign.

Those are the two most obvious overall things – the things I didn’t notice until I looked at all the uploads. The specifics are really what tells, though. Which leads to…

Sign 3: the overall work appears to have a very high degree of polish, as if it were made by an artist who really really knows what they’re doing, but on inspection – sometimes even on really, REALLY cursory inspect – the details make zero sense and reflect the kinds of mistakes that a real artist would never make.

So, here’s the image that I saw that “gave it away” to me, and caused me to re-examine the images that had first struck me as off but that I hadn’t been able to immediately put my finger on the problem. I’ve circled some of the spots that are flagrant.

Do you see yet? Yes? Awesome, you’re getting it. No? Okay, let’s go point by point, with close ups.

Sign 4: HANDS. Hands are currently AI’s biggest weakness, though they’ve been getting better quickly and honestly that’s terrifying. But whatever AI generated this picture clearly doesn’t get hands yet, because that hand is truly an eldritch horror. Look at this thing:

It has two palms. It has seven fingers. It’s basically two hands overlaid over each other, except one of those hands only has four fingers and the other has three. Seeing this hand was how I went from “umm…maybe they’re fake? Maybe they’re not???” to “oh god why is ANYONE reblogging this when it’s this obvious?” WATCH THE HANDS. (Go back up to that first one posted and look at the hand, you’ll see. Or just look right below at this crop.) Here’s some other hands:

Sign 5: Hair and shadows. Once I started inspecting these images, the shadows of the hair on the face was one of the things that was most consistently fucked up across all the uploaded pictures. Take a look:

There’s shadows of tendrils on the forehead, but there’s no corresponding hair that could possibly have made those shadows. Likewise there’s a whole bunch of shadows on the cheeks. Where are those coming from? There’s no possible source in the rest of the image. Here’s some other hair with unrelated wonky shadows:

Sign 6: Decorative motifs that are really just meaningless squiggles. Like, artists, especially those who make fanart, put actual thought into what the small motifs are on their works. Like, in TGCF, an artist will often use a butterfly motif or a flower petal motif to reflect things about the characters. An AI, though, can only approximate a pattern and it can’t imbue those with meanings. So you end up with this:

What is that? It’s nothing, that’s what. It’s a bunch of squiggles. Here’s some other meaningless squiggle motifs (and a more zoomed-in version of the one just above):

Sign 7: closely related to meaningless squiggle motifs is motifs that DO look like something, but aren’t followed through in any way that makes sense. For example, an outer garment where the motifs on the left and the right shoulder/chest are completely different, or a piece of cloth that’s supposed to be all one piece but that that has different patterns on different sections of it. Both of these happen in the example piece, see?

The first images on the top left is the left and right shoulder side by side. The right side has a scalloped edge; the left doesn’t. Likewise, in the right top picture, you can see the two under-robe lapels; one has a gold decoration and the other doesn’t. And then the third/bottom image shows three sections of the veil. One (on the left) has that kind of blue arcy decoration, which doesn’t follow the folds of the cloth very well and looks weird and appears at one point to be OVER the hair instead of behind it. The second, on top of the bottom images, shows a similar motif, except now it’s gold, and it looks more like a hair decoration than like part of the veil. The third is also part of the same veil but it has no decorations at all. Nothing about this makes any sense whatsoever. Why would any artist intentionally do it that way? Or, more specifically, why would any artist who has this apparent level of technical skill ever make a mistake like this?

They wouldn’t.

Some more nonsensical patterns, bad mirrors, etc. (I often put left/right shoulders side by side so that it’d be clearer, sorry if it’s weird):

Sign 8: bizarre architecture, weird furniture, etc. Most of the images I’m examining for this post have only partial backgrounds, so it’s hard to really focus on this, but it’s something that the post I linked (this one) talks about a lot. So, like, an artist will put actual thought into how their construction works, but an AI won’t because an AI can’t. There’s no background in my main example image, but take a look at this from another of my images:

On a glance it’s beautiful. On a few seconds actually staring it’s just fucking bizarre. The part of the ceiling on the right appears to be domed maybe? But then there’s a hard angle, then another. The windows on the right have lots of panes, but then the one on the middle-left is just a single panel, and the ones on the far left have a complete different pane model. Meanwhile, also on the left side at the middle, there’s that dark gray…something…with an arch that mimics the background arches except it goes no where, connects to nothing, and has no apparent relationship to anything else going on architecturally. And, while the ceiling curves, the back wall is straight AND shows more arches in the background even though the ceiling looks to end. And yes, some of this is possible architecture, but taken as a whole, it’s just gibberish. Why would anyone who paints THAT WELL paint a building to look like THAT? They wouldn’t. It’s nonsense. It’s the art equivalent of word salad. When we look at a sentence and it’s like “dog makes a rhythmical salad to betray on the frame time plot” it almost resembles something that might mean something but it’s clearly nonsense. This background is that sentence, as art.

Sign 9: all kinds of little things that make zero sense. In the example image, I circled where a section of the hair goes BELOW the inner robe. That’s not impossible but it just makes zero sense. As with many of these, it’s the kind of thing that taken alone, I’d probably just think “well, that was A Choice,” but combined with all the other weird things it stands out as another sign that something here is really, really off. Here’s a collection of similar “wtf?” moments I spotted across the images I looked at (I’m worried I’m gonna hit the Tumblr image cap, hence throwing these all in one, lol.)

You have to remember that an actual artist will do things for a reason. And we, as viewers, are so used to viewing art with that in mind that we often fill in reasons even when there aren’t. Like, in the image just about this, I said, “what the heck are these flowers growing on?” And honestly, I COULD come up with explanations. But that doesn’t mean it actually makes sense, and there’s no REASON for it whatsoever. The theoretical same flowers are, in a different shot, growing unsupported! So…what gives??? The answer is nothing gives. Because these pieces are nothing. The AI has no reason, it’s just tossing in random aesthetic pieces together in a mishmash, and the person who generated them is just re-generating and refining until they get something that looks “close enough” to what they wanted. It never was supposed to make sense, so of course it doesn’t.

In conclusion…

After years of effort, artists have gotten across to most of fandom that reposts are bad, and helped us learn strategies for helping us recognize reposts, and given us an idea of what to do when we find one.

Fandom is just at the beginning of this process as it applies to AI-generated images. There’s a LOT of education that has to be done – about why AI-generated images are bad (the unethical training using copyrighted images without permission is, imo, critical to understanding this), and about how to spot them, and then finally about what to do when you DO find them.

With reposts, we know “tell original artist, DCMA takedowns, etc.” That’s not the same with these AI-images. There’s no original owner. There’s no owner at all – in the US, at least, they literally cannot be copyrighted. Which is why I’m not even worrying about “credit” on this post – there’s nothing stolen, cause there’s nothing made. So what should you do?

Nothing. The answer is, just as the creator has essentially done nothing, you should also do nothing. Don’t engage. Don’t reblog. Don’t commission the creator or buy their art prints. If they do it persistently and it bothers you, block them. If you see one you really like, and decide to reblog it, fine, go for it, but mark it clearly – put in the ACTUAL COMMENTS (not just in the tags!) that it’s AI art, and that you thought it was pretty anyway. But honestly, it’d be better to not engage, especially since as this grows it’s inevitable that some actual artists are going to start getting accused of posting AI-generated images by over-zealous people. Everyone who gets a shadow wrong isn’t posting AI-generated images. A lot of these details are insanely difficult to get correct, and lots of even very skilled, accomplished artists, if you go over their work with a magnifying glass you’re going to find at least some of these things, some weirdnesses that make no sense, some shadows that are off, some fingers that are just ugh (really, getting hands wrong is so relatable. hands are the fucking worst). It’s not about “this is bad art/not art because the hand is wrong,” it’s specifically about the ways that it’s wrong, the way a computer randomly throws pieces together versus how actual people make actual mistakes. It’s all of the little signs taken as a whole to say “no one who could produce a piece that, on the surface, looks this nice, could possibly make THIS MANY small ‘mistakes.'”

The absolute best thing you can do if you see AI-generated images being treated as real art is just nothing. Support actual artists you love, and don’t spread the fakes.

Thanks for your time, everyone. Good luck avoiding AI-generated pieces in the future, please signal boost this, and feel free to get in touch if you think I can help you with anything related to this.

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How to Diversify Your To-Be-Read Pile

A guest post by Adrian Harley.

A new year brings with it new resolutions—and for many of us, that includes reading resolutions. It’s a truism that resolutions tend to fail. A local radio announcer here said that 67% of Americans have never completed a resolution in their life, and if you can’t trust a random local radio announcer in the mountains of North Carolina, who can you trust? 

I think part of the reason resolutions fail is they feel like work. And that’s especially a shame when it comes to reading resolutions. Reading is wonderful! Sitting down with a good book makes my heart sing, even when (especially when) the book makes me cry or rage at the injustice of the world or stare out the window wondering how I’ll ever be the same after reading it.

Thus, I’m afraid that resolutions to read more diversely don’t do justice to the wonder of diverse books. There are whole worlds out there that racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, anti-semitism, and other forms of bigotry keep from us. It’s amazing that we live in a time where we can peel back that dusty film between us and the wonders of reality.

That’s all well and good to say, of course, but how do you put that principle into practice? How do you resolve to read diversely without turning all that wonder into just another box to be ticked?

I think we can start by acknowledging that, as Danika Ellis puts it, “books” and “reading” are two different hobbies. 

Thinking about books, listening to reviews of books, browsing bookstores, talking about books…these are all, in some ways, the hobby of books. These funnel into the hobby of reading, but it’s not a one-to-one connection, as my piles of unread books can testify. (Both hobbies run into a third hobby of buying books, which is a topic for a different post.)

In the hobby of reading, you’ll run into limits, whether they be money, time, or the physical number of books you can carry from the library in one visit. The beauty of the hobby of books is its lack of limitations. You can dream big. This is the two-story library I would have in my home, were I rich as sin. This is the cozy window seat in which I would read this million-word fantasy series.

So, how do you diversifying your reading hobby in 2023? First, seek out diverse books in the infinite playground of books as a hobby. Search phrases like “Best fantasy by black authors,” “Best BIPOC-authored books of 2022,” “Most-anticipated queer fiction of 2023”… you get the idea. Browse them to find what sounds good to you. I keep a TBR list—have for almost 10 years—but you don’t need to keep a literal list (though you might find one helpful if you don’t already have it!). Make a wishlist on your preferred book-purchasing website. Remember the books that sing to you. You don’t need to have a responsible goal in mind, like a resolution or a book bingo, unless you want to give yourself that extra challenge. Pick books based on their covers, or because they have a cat in them, or whatever gets you interested.

When you incorporate diverse books into your book hobby, it transforms the reading hobby too. When you’re back in the real world with all its limits and you can only grab two books, you won’t think, “Oh, I really want the two books Brandon Sanderson has magicked into published existence this month, but I have to tick a checkbox.”  That way lies stacks of unread books chosen nearly at random solely because of the representation they contain or appear to contain. Instead, you will face the much better and much worse problem of thinking, “Oh, I really want the two books Brandon Sanderson has magicked up, but also Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland, but also Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, but also Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi…” 

(You think you know what it means to have too many books? You have not yet begun to comprehend too many books!)

Aside from the emotional turmoil of choosing between even more books when transitioning from your book hobby to your reading hobby, though, diversifying your book hobby has no downsides. It becomes part of your life. It lets you explore the world in full color.

And yes, it makes it easy and fun to read more diverse books. 


Want some additional support in figuring out ways to diversify your reading? Here’s some other blog posts we’ve done that relate, at least tangentially, to this topic!


Who We Are: Duck Prints Press LLC is an independent publisher based in New York State. Our founding vision is to help fanfiction authors navigate the complex process of bringing their original works from first draft to print, culminating in publishing their work under our imprint. We are particularly dedicated to working with queer authors and publishing stories featuring characters from across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Love what we do? Sign up for our monthly newsletter and get previews, behind-the-scenes information, coupons, and more.

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Fandom 101: Everything About Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics You Wanted to Know (but were Afraid to Ask)

A guest post by Aeryn Jemariel Knox.

Omegaverse, also known as Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics or a/b/o for short, is one of the most baffling paradigms that fandoms have ever invented. Even within fandom, most peoples’ reactions on discovering a/b/o range from bemusement to disgust to fascination. I’ve had some non-fandom friends ask if it’s related to the alpha male/beta male concepts that have become so popular in certain corners of Reddit; I’m very glad to say that no, it is not—that is an example of convergent language evolution. At best, they both call back to the same misunderstanding of wolf pack dynamics, but the typical “Alpha Male” would be cast as a villain character in most a/b/o stories, if he’s present at all.

At heart, a/b/o can best be categorized as a science fiction sub-genre. Yes, really. It’s speculative fiction that examines current societal assumptions, problems, and fears through a lens of alternate physiology. If you thought a/b/o was just an excuse for porn, well… being honest, most of my best and deepest stories start out as “an excuse for porn.” My thoughts on that are best saved for a future blog post.

The most common defining feature of a/b/o is right in the name—humans are biologically stratified into two or three sub-, or secondary, genders: alphas, sometimes betas, and omegas. Alphas are typically described as socially dominant, physically strong, and they have certain physiological traits that we’ll get into later. Omegas are generally assumed to be socially submissive and physically weak, though in most a/b/o stories there is some element of challenging those assumptions.

A/b/o has its roots in the “kink meme” days of the late 2000s and can more-or-less be traced back to tropes common among people writing werewolf erotica. Lots of early a/b/o has a significant focus on pack dynamics and more “wolfy” characteristics. This is still an element of a/b/o as it’s currently written, but it makes up a smaller percentage of the overall works produced than it once did. A reader can see these roots in genre tropes such as children being referred to as “pups” in most a/b/o stories. The first a/b/o fic—as far as anyone in my social circles has been able to determine—was a Supernatural RPF AU story, and, even in the genre’s inception, there is an element of challenging assigned gender roles. The assumed roles of an omega are present and accounted for: that they belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, that they should be relegated to caretaker roles, that they shouldn’t work, etc.—think every stereotype of a 50s housewife. Similarly for an alpha: that they are hyper-sexual and domineering, to be feared by most omegas, inherently predatory, etc. But the characters who are the focus of the story deliberately and obviously go against these trends, expressing their individuality and bucking what their society expects of them. In a very 2010 sort of way, they are “not like those other girls.” There are critiques to aim at that trope as well, but the point stands: subversion has been a part of a/b/o since moment zero. Not every author chooses to lean into this aspect of the genre but, in my opinion, subverting the genre tropes makes for the most interesting a/b/o stories.

It’s tempting to describe a/b/o as a setting, but that’s not accurate. It’s more like a toolbox from which an author can pick and choose elements to add to any setting they are writing their story in, then use those elements to help them tell their particular stories in a unique way. I’ve read historical a/b/o, fantasy a/b/o, modern-day a/b/o, canonverse a/b/o, science-fiction a/b/o, western a/b/o… you name it, it’s probably been combined with a/b/o. And not all authors will apply the same level of focus to any given aspect of a/b/o: just because you add some cinnamon to your chili doesn’t mean you’re suddenly making a dessert. Every author puts their own spin on the world—that’s part of the fun. 

So, keeping in mind that hardly any a/b/o stories will use every single genre trope, here’s a list of some of the most common features that make a story recognizably a part of this genre.

Societal stratification: To varying degrees, societies in most a/b/o stories are divided by secondary gender. This can mean anything from “omegas experiencing easily recognizable misogyny or other discrimination,” to “cultures that have strict hierarchical structures in which omegas are segregated, barred from certain social opportunities, or kept as property.” How many people are born each designation (a term often used to refer to the types of sub-genders in the genre) varies widely depending on the story. Sometimes, all humans are either alpha or omega and there are no betas; sometimes, alphas and omegas make up only a small minority of the population. Sometimes only men are divided and women are all betas, if they’re incorporated in the sub-gender system at all. (If there is one major weakness to a/b/o, it’s the lack of focus on how women are affected by this social structure, but if I get into that, we’ll be here all day.) Depending on the author’s goals with the story, these social structures may be used to make commentary on our modern society, to create obstacles for our heroes to overcome, or it may be leaned into by people who enjoy the power dynamics and differentials that result from the a/b/o set up. Other works have egalitarian a/b/o societies in which the different genders are treated equally! Oppression and discrimination are not a requirement of the genre, it’s just an often-seen element.

Pheromones/Scents: One of the many physiological differences often present in a/b/o is that humans give off pheromones or some otherwise-defined personal scent. These scents serve a variety of purposes: they’re linked with attraction; they often indicate where an individual is in their mating cycle (see the next paragraph!); they aid identification since each person has their own individual scent; and more broadly one can usually tell who is an alpha, an omega, or a beta) by their scent. Often, someone’s scent gives clues to emotional state, especially extreme distress or sexual arousal. A compatible pair may know instantly that the person they are scenting is their “true mate,” or may be particularly attracted to this person’s scent. Betas may or may not be able to pick up on these scents and may have a “neutral” scent or no scent to speak of. Scent blockers may or may not be used in polite company, and even if scent blockers exist in a specific a/b/o ‘verse, they may fail at narratively appropriate moments. It’s a frequent genre element that scents emanate from a “scent point” on the characters’ necks, and that the spot in question is especially sensitive to touch/kissing/etc.

Mating cycles: Likely the most well-known aspect of a/b/o is the hormone- and/or pheromone-driven mating cycles. Omegas experience an estrus or “heat,” and sometimes alphas also experience “rut” though this is somewhat less common. A person’s secondary gender is often a mystery until they “present”—usually marked by going through their first heat or rut—sometime during puberty. Pheromones given off during these times can have a disproportionate effect on people of the “opposite” secondary gender who happen to be in the vicinity; in some stories they provoke such a powerful reaction that omegas cannot leave the house during heat for fear of sexual assault. This is where the genre starts to display some of its more non-consensual elements, which are not always present; sometimes heat just makes them horny. But sometimes they absolutely must, er, resolve their heat with an alpha, which leads to a “Fuck or Die” situation—a trope as old as slash fanfiction itself. 

How frequently heats and ruts occur varies by story; the most common are monthly (mirroring human menstruation cycles) or every three months, six months, or year, mimicking various animal species (for example, dogs go into heat every six months, so stories that emphasize the wolfy aspects of a/b/o often have heat cycles on a six-month pattern). Trying to figure out how to navigate a life/job/family while working around mating cycles is a frequent feature of a/b/o stories.

Mpreg, which is genre-speak for “male pregnancy:” In most a/b/o stories, omegas of any primary gender have the ability to get pregnant and carry children. It’s a mainstay of the genre, but like any other trope in the a/b/o playbook, the level of focus on it varies from author to author. Sometimes, it’s glossed over entirely or deliberately omitted. Sometimes, it’s only suggested for the sake of—for lack of a better phrase—“breeding kink.” But some authors use this genre to tell stories about familial relationships and explore the emotional and physical journey of pregnancy through the eyes of their favorite (generally male) characters. Mpreg stories can also incorporate lactation and may follow the characters’ post-pregnancy lives to segue into the kidfic genre. The extent of the omega male character’s feminization often increases in proportion to the focus on mpreg in the story (though, as with all of these tropes, I am wary of making sweeping generalizations because a writer is absolutely free to write an mpreg story where the pregnant character remains thoroughly masculine throughout). Note that a story including mpreg doesn’t automatically mean the fic is a/b/o. There are other fandom tropes that can result in mpreg, but the most common trope that leads to mpreg in modern fandom is a/b/o.

Medicines: As part of mirroring regular society, it’s also common for a/b/o stories to incorporate elements of genre-appropriate birth control and other types of medication. For example, scent blockers have already been mentioned; scent blockers are often incorporated to enable an alpha, beta, or omega to navigate society without people judging them based solely on their scents, or to enable them to present themselves to the public as a sub-gender different than their birth sub-gender. Another common medication is “heat suppressant,” which is what it says on the tin—an omega on heat suppressants won’t go into heat (until they fail at a narratively appropriate moment, anyway…noticing the genre trends yet?). On the flip side, “heat inducers” are also absolutely a genre feature, with obvious results.

Related Genres: As said earlier, a/b/o can be combined with any other genre. But it does have some sibling tropes that are more often coupled with a/b/o for fiction-writing purposes. When I first started reading a/b/o, there was a heavy emphasis on the power dynamics inherent in the existence of “dominant” alphas and “submissive” omegas; that made it feel close to the biological Dom/sub genre (a sub-genre where being a Dom or being a sub is inborn and is essentially a sub-gender in a similar way to a/b/o). That seems to have been a feature of that particular fandom, though, which leads me to wonder how different a/b/o looks in different fandoms. (Full disclosure, most of my experience has been in the Supernatural fandom.) A/b/o stories set in modern/contemporary settings tend to be more common than other types (such as science fiction, fantasy, etc.), though that’s been changing as a/b/o continually ripples outwards into more fandoms. In stories where omegas are considered property, they heavily overlap tropes with slave fic; some more romantic a/b/o can read like a soulmates au, with people recognizing “the one” immediately by scent and a focus on true mates and/or the formation of a strong mating bond, usually for life. 

Of course, coupling a/b/o with these tropes isn’t required. Nothing in a/b/o is required. These are all simply options; as I say, it’s better to look at the aspects of a/b/o as toys in the toybox—play with the ones that appeal to you, ignore the rest.

Other Anatomical Differences: This is where I cannot avoid getting sexually graphic, so for those who’d rather avoid an explicit rating, I’m putting this section at the end (under a Read More on platforms that include that functionality).


So, what’s the point of all this?

If you ask a hundred people why they like a/b/o, you will get two-hundred answers. Some people come to the genre for the primal, animalistic appeal of heats and ruts, pheromones, and the, uh, anatomical differences. A lot of people enjoy  the “he couldn’t help himself” trope in fiction; non-con fantasies are extremely common, and the fantastical elements of a/b/o make it a great way to explore them at a safe remove from real-life situations. Or perhaps you’re drawn to the opportunity to explore pregnancy in a safe way with your favorite characters, or maybe you really enjoy the strict societal structures and the obstacles they create. Maybe you love that moment when the omega realizes that this handsome alpha is his true mate and they live happily ever after.

For me, as may already be clear, a/b/o is strongest when it’s used to shine a light on the oppression of marginalized classes and the ridiculousness of strict gender expectations. Over and over, a/b/o stories focus on omegas overcoming their oppression and empowering themselves. But my favorite corner of a/b/o that I’ve found, my weird little a/b/o niche, focuses not on alphas or omegas, but on betas.

There was a time when I wondered to myself, why would anybody focus on betas? Why would you write an a/b/o story and then focus on the people who don’t experience heats and ruts and mating cycles? Who don’t have a scent? In a world where all interpersonal relationships are defined by this rigid structure, why would you focus on the people who are outside of it?

And then I realized that I had to write a story about betas.

The result is the most personal story I have ever written, which gets deep into my experience of being nonbinary (or genderqueer, or gender fluid, I’ve used all those labels at different points of life) through the lens of somebody who is neither alpha nor omega, but is instead distinctly “other.” The joy of using a/b/o to tell this story, and what makes a/b/o such a strong vehicle for telling subversive stories of all stripes, is that it magnifies everything about gender and sexual attraction, making it all bigger, brighter, more obvious, which lets you dig into the nuance of an character’s experiences when they don’t fit the status quo. 

The number of people who have read this story and said “I’m not genderqueer, but I relate to Dean’s struggle of feeling other” has been hugely rewarding. In the end, that’s the story I was telling, through my own experiences but with the personal “serial numbers” filed off, which allows it to be a story accessible to anybody. That’s the beauty of using a fantasy or sci-fi language to tell a real story: when it doesn’t directly reflect anybody’s exact experience, it’s easier to see yourself in the mirror.

Whether you decide to dive into this genre or not, I hope this has been useful in understanding the, er, ins and outs of this strange little world that we, as a community, are continually collectively creating. Happy reading!


Did you scroll down to read the naughty stuff? *cough* As it were. We’ve got you covered. Be forewarned, there’s NSFW text describing unusual genitalia ahead:

THE PORN PART:

Okay, so let’s talk about knotted dicks and self-lubricating asses.

…that’s it, really.

Alphas generally have a “knot” of extra erectile tissue at the base of their penises that inflates and becomes firm during orgasm with the intention of locking their penis inside the omega’s penetrated hole (which is usually, but not always, the anus). This is where the werewolf origins of a/b/o are the most obvious, because yes, this is modeled after canine genitalia. The knot inflates to a size that makes removal impossible or highly painful for the omega, although if left it where it is, being knotted is generally described as highly pleasurable. Most of the time, the alpha can enjoy multiple orgasms while he’s in there, and ejaculate tends to be, uh, copious. This lasts for as long as the author decides is narratively appropriate and provides a great opportunity for post-coital conversation, either awkward or heartfelt depending on the story. Because the knot means the penis grows quite large, a common a/b/o sexual trope is size kink; less common but still fairly frequent is “inflation” or “bulge” kink—which is a kink related to the feeling of being “full” of a partners ejaculate to the point of feeling swollen (in a good way), and also being able to feel or see the penis moving within the bottoming partner when looking at the bottom’s backside and/or belly.

Omegas, on the other hand…

There’s much more variety in omega biology. On one end of the spectrum, you have male omegas who are written as having both a penis (sometimes smaller than human average) and (usually) testicles and a vaginal opening located somewhere around the perineum. Sometimes, a male omega won’t have any penis at all. More commonly in the a/b/o that I, personally, have enjoyed, the omega has a fully functional penis and testicles (sans knot), but when aroused, he will produce personal lubrication in his anus, which is the intended orifice for sexual intercourse. This personal dampness is usually called “slick” and has a habit of popping up at the most inconvenient of times and staining one’s underwear and/or being noticeable by scent. When an omega is in heat, this slick becomes copious and uncontrollable, often to the point of requiring rubber sheets on whatever unfortunate bed the omega has confined himself to. Generally, slick is described as having a similar aroma to the omega’s scent, but more concentrated, and also as being delicious to the alpha. Rimming is thus quite a common sexual act in a/b/o fics, more common in a/b/o than in other mlm genres.

It’s also worth repeating, while discussing sexual kinks in a/b/o, that due to the “uncontrolled sexual need” aspect of omega heats, consent issues are common in a/b/o. Rape/non-con are mentioned above, as the omega-in-heat becomes irresistible to the alphas around them; however, even in a/b/o stories that don’t utilize that trope, omegas in heat will often desperately plead to be sated. Consent can be dubious at best for either or both partners; it’s common that the couple settles those consent issues after the act, when they’ve both calmed down enough to discuss what happened and offer up their mutual expressions of “no, you didn’t hurt me, I would have wanted you anyway.”

In spite of all the relatively high-minded ramblings above, there is a huge amount of totally valid a/b/o that is pure, unadulterated smut, and if you happen to enjoy these kinks, you have a plethora of options to pick from. (Trust me, they are much hotter in context than when laid out bare like this.) The beautiful thing about fanfiction is that we don’t have to choose between interesting, empowering, subversive stories and sizzlingly hot filth. They frequently go hand in hand, and in no genre  is that more evident than in the wide, wild world of a/b/o.

Thanks for reading!


Now that you know the basics, ready to read some a/b/o? Check out the oh-so-erotic “Heated Desperation” by Aria D. Leren.

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