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Members of the K-pop band BTS have been the subject of much steamy fanfiction. Photo: Getty Images

K-pop’s gay-themed ‘Real Person Slash’ fanfiction: an escape from reality or sexual exploitation? South Korea’s not sure

  • Fictionalised depictions of same-sex relationships between K-pop singers in popular bands like BTS draw charges of exploitation
  • But fans of the stories, called ‘Real Person Slash’, defend them as part of the culture surrounding the K-pop industry
K-pop idols

It’s moving-in day for students at an unnamed university in “an alternate universe” and things are already heating up in the boys’ dormitory, although the issues at hand are hardly academic.

The freshmen – first-year students who in this case are far from home and looking to form fraternal bonds to get them through the first rough weeks of school – meet their new roommates and dorm neighbours in the tried and true method that has worked for ages: hanging out in each other’s rooms.

But one of the students who has apparently been assigned a single room decides to visit the school administrator to ask for a roommate. After confessing to the administrator that he cannot sleep alone, he is put in a room with a fellow student who has insomnia.

Things have gotten better in South Korea in terms of homophobia, but there’s still a long way to go
Paul Han, 6Theory Media

After a hectic day filled with classes and studying, the two settle into a cosy chat in their room that runs into the night, with their heightened emotions fuelled by alcohol.

After much earnest discussion, the new roommates discover that they can help each other in adjusting to college life and the circumstances they find themselves in.

And as their tête-à-tête dissolves into a simple state of being and stillness, one of them runs his hands through the other’s hair, his fingers lingering. Soon thereafter, they have fallen asleep in each other’s arms.

This is not a scene from a new drama on television or Netflix; instead, it is part of a fictionalised narrative written by one of the millions of fans of the popular K-pop boy band BTS. It has been viewed almost 495,000 times on the fan-created and fan-run US-based website Archive of Our Own.

The site boasts around 3.3 million users and has 41,370 “fandoms” – devoted fan bases of certain celebrities or groups.


South Korean leader of online sexual blackmail ring sentenced to 40 years in prison

South Korean leader of online sexual blackmail ring sentenced to 40 years in prison

Lavina, a college student in India and fan of the South Korean-Chinese boy band Exo, says the most popular K-pop fanfictions – like the story above – involve the pairing, or “shipping”, as such relationships are referred to in fan-fiction lingo, of two same-sex members of particular K-pop groups.

“When these fans ship these particular members together, they want to make up stories and romantic moments about them,” Lavina said. “It’s for fans to fulfil their imaginations and fantasies.”

In South Korea, the fanfiction genre known as Real Person Slash, or RPS, has generated heated interest on online forums among Korean fans who had never heard of the term until a few weeks ago, with much of the interest owing to the fact that the fanfiction pairings of real-life K-pop stars involve same-sex relationships. The “slash” in the term represents the combinations of preferential pairings of famous individuals.

The controversy surrounding RPS is rooted in male-dominated online communities such as, where some users have compared the emergence of RPS to the notorious “Nth room case” – where young male South Koreans were charged with filming and distributing crude and cruel sexual videos of girls through the Telegram messaging app.

More than 240 suspects involved in the blackmailing of victims have been detained by the police in the case, with the 24-year-old alleged ringleader, Cho Ju-bin, in prison while he appeals his 40-year sentence.

The popular Korean rapper Son Simba has publicly condemned some of the RPS circulating on social media, saying it “depicted perverted sex scenes” sometimes involving underage boy band members, and was “another internet sex crime like the Nth room case that our society needs to take out by its roots”.

South Korean rapper Son Simba has publicly criticised Real Person Slash as sexually exploitative. Photo: Cheers Music Production
After several online news sites wrote about Son’s criticisms, a national petition was soon sent to President Moon Jae-in’s office last week with the title “Severely punish RPS users who use underage K-pop boy band members as sexual toys.”

The petition came with over 211,000 online signatures, making it obligatory for the office to respond in some form to the request. In addition, a National Assembly member visited a Seoul police station last week to formally request an investigation into 110 online users of various fanfiction websites who had either produced or distributed RPS content.

Meanwhile, Son Simba and other South Korean musicians who are now pushing to regulate RPS content have themselves been bombarded with hate comments online.

Female K-pop fans in particular have criticised Son and other male critics for not being truly concerned for the K-pop boy band members depicted in RPS, saying they instead are simply showing their homophobic tendencies.

And thus, the debate about RPS has been framed: should it be respected as part of the culture of K-pop fandom, or should it be viewed as a form of sexual exploitation?

For Lavina, the RPS stories offer her an “escape from reality” – just like other forms of fiction.

“Just like in movies, books and media contents, it should be OK to have sexual content in fanfiction as long as the people writing and reading the content are of legal age,” she said.

Jungkook of BTS features prominently in RPS stories. Photo: Twitter

Fanfiction websites like Archive of Our Own have a rating system that includes “mature” for explicit content. According to Lavina, there have even been instances when the website has taken down some stories that were “too graphic” and went “against the rules” of the fanfiction community.

Paul Han, the co-founder of 6Theory Media, which owns the popular K-pop website Allkpop, thinks the country is going through a phase that the United States went through decades ago with fanfiction, which is also known as Real Person Fiction.

“Around 20 years ago, the Real Person Fiction issue was very controversial on the American-based site to the point that there was a ban on such fiction on the website,” because of fears about being sued by real-life celebrities depicted in the stories on the site, he said.

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“It’s probably more controversial in South Korea than in other countries due to the conservative culture,” Han said. “Things have gotten better in South Korea in terms of homophobia, but there’s still a long way to go.”

But K-pop groups and their agencies have stayed quiet on the issue of whether the RPS stories can be viewed as a form of sexual exploitation, and no K-pop groups or K-pop group members have filed libel suits against the creators of the RPS.

In fact, some boy bands have even gone out of their way during concerts and TV specials to re-enact scenes of popular Korean drama series, with members acting as the male and female characters involved in romantic relationships. There have been other instances of K-pop agencies hosting fanfiction contests as part of their marketing blitzes.

Choi Kyu-sung, a popular music critic who is also an advisory committee member for the Korean Music Awards and the K-pop Museum, said that despite the burgeoning popularity of fanfiction and RPS, it is not a major part of the K-pop industry itself.

K-pop star Sunmi. Photo: Instagram

“Most of us first heard of RPS and fanfiction just recently,” he says. “It’s a small subculture of K-pop that I think only a small portion of the fan base in South Korea has become interested in.”

While he says that the K-pop industry has been heavily criticised since the early 2010s for over-sexualising young boy and girl band members, its image has evolved and matured.

“K-pop artists are now known for their music and distinguished styles rather than the extremely short miniskirts that created such controversy in the past,” he says. “I don’t think you can tie in the sexual fanfiction with how K-pop stars are portrayed in the public eye.”

Han, from Allkpop, said that for now, the battle lines have been drawn over RPS, with a 50-50 split between those who like it – and its sexually charged nature – and those who don’t.

“It’s more of a particular niche,” he said. “Over time, I think it will become less controversial, but at the time being, some things are best left in your personal thoughts.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Gay-themed fiction that pairs boy band singers stirs debate