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Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters

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Abstract

Fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia are terms that have recently become popular in online environments as indicators of strong and lasting feelings of love, infatuation, or desire for one or more fictional characters. This article explores the phenomenon by qualitative thematic analysis of 71 relevant online discussions. Five central themes emerge from the data: (1) fictophilic paradox, (2) fictophilic stigma, (3) fictophilic behaviors, (4) fictophilic asexuality, and (5) fictophilic supernormal stimuli. The findings are further discussed and ultimately compared to the long-term debates on human sexuality in relation to fictional characters in Japanese media psychology. Contexts for future conversation and research are suggested.
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ORIGINAL RESEARCH
published: 12 January 2021
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575427
Edited by:
Marco Salvati,
Sapienza University of Rome, Italy
Reviewed by:
Mara Morelli,
Sapienza University of Rome, Italy
Ilaria Giovannelli,
University of Perugia, Italy
*Correspondence:
Veli-Matti Karhulahti
vmmkar@utu.fi
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Gender, Sex and Sexualities,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 23 June 2020
Accepted: 30 November 2020
Published: 12 January 2021
Citation:
Karhulahti V-M and Välisalo T
(2021) Fictosexuality, Fictoromance,
and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study
of Love and Desire for Fictional
Characters.
Front. Psychol. 11:575427.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575427
Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and
Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of
Love and Desire for Fictional
Characters
Veli-Matti Karhulahti1,2*and Tanja Välisalo1
1Contemporary Culture Studies, Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyvaskyla, Jyväskylä, Finland,
2Department of Media Studies, School of History, Culture and Arts Studies, University of Turku, Turku, Finland
Fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia are terms that have recently become popular
in online environments as indicators of strong and lasting feelings of love, infatuation,
or desire for one or more fictional characters. This article explores the phenomenon
by qualitative thematic analysis of 71 relevant online discussions. Five central themes
emerge from the data: (1) fictophilic paradox, (2) fictophilic stigma, (3) fictophilic
behaviors, (4) fictophilic asexuality, and (5) fictophilic supernormal stimuli. The findings
are further discussed and ultimately compared to the long-term debates on human
sexuality in relation to fictional characters in Japanese media psychology. Contexts for
future conversation and research are suggested.
Keywords: fictophilia, fictional character, parasocial relationships, sexuality, media
INTRODUCTION
This article provides an explorative analysis and conceptualization of a recently established notion
that has at least three popular labels: fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia. All these labels
point toward a strong and lasting feeling of love, infatuation, or desire for a fictional character.
Since our analysis is not limited to sexual or romantic feelings alone, we choose to use the more
general label, fictophilia, henceforth (-philia from Greek φιλ´ια, ‘friendship’ or ‘love’). The study
is based on a qualitative analysis of 71 related online discussions, the implications of which are
ultimately discussed in wider cross-cultural contexts and Japanese media psychology in particular.
Accordingly, the goal here is to better understand what fictophilia is.
Before moving onward, we highlight that fictophilia, as we approach it, is a phenomenon
distinct from immediate human media responses such as motor enactment, embodied involvement,
and pre-reflective simulation processes that occur during consuming fiction (see Power, 2008;
Kuzmièová, 2012;Kukkonen and Caracciolo, 2014). Whereas consuming related fiction belongs
to fictophilia, its defining feelings go beyond the act of perception, as people ‘attach’ to characters
for a significant length of time.
Second, the present intention is not to propose fictophilia as a problem or a disorder. At
the time of writing, fictophilia is not recognized or proposed as a specific diagnostic condition
by the World Health Organization (ICD-11) or the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5)
(but see ‘paraphilia’ in both manuals). Our findings do not indicate a need to change the current
state of affairs.
Lastly, whereas the feelings that determine fictophilia may not be common in terms of
prevalence, they may exaggerate what most humans experience to lesser degrees, with the caveat
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that future research is needed to better understand how fictophilic
emotions and feelings overlap with everyday human social
attachment. In this regard, Vygotsky’s (1933/1978) observation
that “imagination in adolescents and school children is play
without action” (p. 93) may turn out as a valid position from
which to explain fictophilia as a developed form of ‘pretend play’
also in older populations (cf. Piaget, 1951/2013;Pellegrini, 2009;
Karhulahti et al., 2019).
The next section “Background” provides a brief overview
of the most relevant existing psychological theory related
to fictophilia. Thereafter we introduce the method and data
(section “Method and Data”). This is followed by presenting the
results (section “Results”) and contextualizing them in previous
research on parasociality and sexuality (section “Discussion”),
which especially in Japanese media psychological and psychiatric
literature have been discussed before (section “Coda: a lost
chapter of Japanese media psychology”). Conclusions end the
article (section “Conclusion”).
BACKGROUND
In a seminal monograph Imaginary Social Worlds,Caughey
(1984) tracks the Western history of what he calls ’fantasy
relationships’ all the way down to the lifelong bonds that people in
different cultures have conventionally had with gods, monarchs,
spirits, and other figures that they may never have had the chance
to meet in person. Proceeding with the bonds that people built in
relation to 18th century drama, musicians, and celebrities alike –
with more than 500 American informants as a sample – Caughey
ends up with the trends of the time that are characterized by a
specific romantic or sexual interest:
Most of my informants explicitly described their relationships in
romantic terms. They were ‘infatuated with,’ ‘fixated on,’ ‘obsessed
with,’ ‘crazy about,’ or (most commonly) ‘in love with’ the favored
media figure. Erotic attraction is a basic part of the appeal (p. 41).
The increasing prominence of romance and eroticism in the
‘fantasy relationships’ of media-consumption during the 20th
century was not limited to the US. Shamoon (2012), for instance,
observes a shift in the context of Japan during the Meiji period
(1868–1912), as Western ideals of combined intellectual-erotic
affection started proliferating in Japanese media. The idea of
‘falling in love’ with fictional and media characters, as Caughey’s
informants often put it, arguably begun to multiply – following
the historical-cultural invention of romantic love from 13th
century Europe (see Hazan and Shaver, 1987) – in both Japan and
the US somewhere in the early 20th century to eventually bloom
and expand further, along with the emergence of explicit celebrity
worship and fan cultures (see also Shim, 2001).
Three decades before Caughey’s notion of ‘fantasy
relationship,’ media psychologists Horton and Wohl (1956)
had established a parallel discourse under the concept ‘parasocial
relationship,’ i.e., the “face-to-face relationship between spectator
and performer [that] may be governed by little or no sense of
obligation, effort, or responsibility on the part of the spectator”
(p. 215). None of the initial research lineages on parasocial
relationships made significant efforts on mapping out parasocial
relationship types, nonetheless.
As to the above research gap, Tukachinsky’s (2011) work on
‘parasocial friendships’ and ‘parasocial love’ (also ‘para-romantic
love’) as special types of parasocial relationship is an important
contribution: whereas parasocial relationships may indicate any
kind of one-way bond that an individual has constructed with a
relevant character, parasocial friendships point at those explicit
cases where the character is perceived as a supporting companion
or peer, and parasocial love to those relationships where the
individual’s emotions toward the character are governed by
romantic or sexual qualities.
Another related psychological concept through which ‘more
than friendship’ parasociality has been discussed is ‘parasocial
attachment,’ which Stever (2017) has coined as a non-
reciprocated attachment to a familiar other when one finds “safe
haven and felt security through a relationship that is with a
person not known in a real life face-to-face way” (p. 96). This
notion draws directly from attachment theory that was originally
developed to describe infant–caregiver relationships (Bretherton,
1992), but has also been applied to adult relationships (Feeney
and Noller, 1990). Notably, parasocial attachments may but need
not include romantic or sexual qualities.
Lastly, McCutcheon et al. (2003) have found three stages
of ‘celebrity worship,’ which they describe as ‘entertainment-
social,’ ‘intense-personal,’ and ‘borderline-pathological.’ In this
classification, the first stage reflects sharing experiences (learning
about celebrities and discussing them with friends), the second
stage reflects intensive or compulsive feelings (frequent emotions
and thoughts), and the third stage reflects erotomanic-like
obsession (delusions and risk behaviors). Whereas some of
these stages might be compatible with or related to the
parasocial concepts described above, they mainly constitute a
pathological scale.
So far, the related research has been almost exclusively
concerned with celebrities such as actors, rock stars, and
other famous people. For instance, in a recent comprehensive
multidimensional model for Adolescent Romantic Parasocial
Attachments (including emotion, cognition, behavior, and
fantasy components), Erickson et al. (2018) mention, the scholars
mention only once in passing that the objects of attachment
may also be fictional. However, when discussing behavioral or
fantasy components in a person’s parasocial attachment, there
are good reasons to believe that such components are largely
dependent on whether the attached figure is a living human peer
(e.g., musician) who can be seen (e.g., in concert), touched (e.g.,
when asking for an autograph), and followed in real-time (e.g.,
by social media) – in contrast to a fictional figure (e.g., anime
character) that lacks material existence somewhat completely.
What are the emotions, cognitions, behaviors, and fantasies that
constitute parasocial attachments to figures that are fantastic by
definition? Next to the dozens or hundreds of studies concerning
human-human parasociality (e.g., Auter and Palmgreen, 2000;
Madison and Porter, 2016; see Dibble et al., 2016 for a
review), few have identified let alone explicitly investigated
the parasocial characteristics associated with fictional characters
(cf. Hoorn and Konijn, 2003).
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One notable exception in this regard is the model developed by
Giles (2002), which distinguishes between first-order (human),
second-order (character acted by human), and third-order
(fictional character) parasocial interaction. Reasonably, Giles
points out that third-order encounters, while parasocial, cannot
be social in the conventional sense of the term since a social
relationship with a fictional figure is impossible. We agree
with this observation to a large extent and note that whenever
(rarely) scholars have discussed fictional parasocial relationships
in particular, theoretical and methodological challenges have
been present due to the research base deriving mainly from
celebrity parasociality. For instance, when Schmid and Klimmt
(2011) conducted a survey study on the cultural differences in
parasocial relationships with Harry Potter, the instruments had
to be adapted to accommodate the unique circumstance (lack of
homophily, human counterpart, etc.).
Considering the state of the art, there is an obvious need
for more in-depth studies on parasocial relationships with
fictional characters, and fictophilia as its unique instance. In
this study, the theoretical ground derives from Tukachinsky’s
parasocial love combined with Giles’ third-order parasocial
interactive features. Accordingly, we approach fictophilia as
an intense long-term parasocial love or desire relationship
between a human individual and a fictional character. Again,
the words ‘intense’ and ‘long-term’ should be given special
attention, as the usefulness of conceptualizing fictophilia depends
on its distinctiveness in comparison to ephemeral feelings.
Additionally, whereas the ontology of fictional characters poses
numerous philosophical dilemmas that the present space does
not allow entering (e.g., Aarseth, 2007;Boellstorff, 2016;Varis,
2019), let it be clarified that the objects of fictophilic interest
may or may not have physical counterparts and they can
also appear as dynamic virtual characters (as in videogames)
that are capable of responding to individuals’ interaction by
some concrete means.
METHOD AND DATA
Method
Due to the explorative nature of the study, we chose to employ
a systematic analysis of online discussions related to the subject
matter. Although the popularity of online-ethnographic methods
keeps increasing in psychology (e.g., Davey et al., 2012), the
specific topic-driven large-scale charting that is employed here
has not, to our knowledge, been carried out previously in the field.
All procedures were performed in accordance with the Helsinki
Declaration and its later amendments. The ethical self-review was
consistent with the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity
guidelines (2019), which states that further evaluation is not
required for the research of public data as long as data collection
does not cause damage or harm to participants and the real
content and purpose of the study are explained to participants
as soon as this is possible where the research design so permits
(pp. 62–63). We did not collect personal data, and we have no
information about the unknown identities of the persons who
have contributed to the studied discussions. All forums were
public and reading the discussions did not require registration.
The respective rules of each forum were read and respected.
Data collection took place in the first and second quarters
of 2018. During the first charting phase, search terms were
selected – (“fictophilia” OR “fictosexual” OR “fictoromance”)
AND (“attached” OR “character” OR “crush” OR “desire” OR
“discussion” OR “emotion” OR “feeling” OR “forum” OR “love”
OR “obsession” OR “passion” OR “question” OR “romantic”
OR “sex”) – and the combined phrases were inserted to both
Google and Yahoo search engines (three separate computers and
browsers) in order to locate forum discussions corresponding
with the notion of fictophilia. These searches activated the
recommendation features in both the search engines and the
forums. Although the recommendations would be difficult or
impossible to reproduce, they did enable us to snowball an
even greater number of relevant online conversations. Evidently,
this search was limited by the English language, as is the study
and its findings.
Data
A total of 71 relevant forum discussion threads were discovered,
posted between 2009 and 2018. Relevance was determined by
the discussions’ consistency with the notion of fictophilia, as
described earlier. Continuing the search by using alternative
engines (e.g., Bing), techniques (e.g., systematic testing of
recommendations), and search terms might have enabled
locating more discussions still; however, since the acquired
sample was already rich in terms of current research goals,
there was no reason to expand the data beyond that point.
During the peer review process, this was validated by a thematic
analysis of a new set of 24 discussions that had surfaced after
2018. A comparison of those discussions with the below codes
and code families did not yield new themes, which evidenced
saturation (the 24 validation discussions were not stored in order
to minimize data management load).
The number of comments and their length varied radically,
each of the 71 discussions involving multiple individuals with
one or more comments. Whereas some threads consisted of
nothing but a single posted question and a few comments, others
gathered more than 200 comments of up to 2000 words in
length. Altogether, the qualitatively analyzed sample includes
1667 forum messages, to which we applied thematic analysis
(Braun and Clarke, 2006) with a goal to identify key themes
related to the topic. The process was carried out by the first author
initially pre-analyzing the data, which suggested seven dominant
themes. With the help of Atlas.ti software, the second author
then conducted micro-level coding. This process produced 1296
individual codes, which were further grouped into 44 larger code
families based on their similarities and hierarchical connections.
The initial seven themes were compared with the latter codes
and code families by the authors collectively, which established
reliability by consensus (see Syed and Nelson, 2015) and led to
the formation of five major thematic categories.
The online discussions took place in 28 respective forums,
which can be divided into general discussion forums (28
discussions), forums related to mental health (17), asexuality
forums (10), fan forums (8), and forums dedicated to diverse
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hobbies (10). Since both the forums and their discussants are
kept unidentifiable, we do not name any forums or discussants.
Some of the forums did not allow citation for research purposes,
and discussions from those forums are not cited. Despite the
fact that all the below-cited posts and comments have been
submitted to public forums that can be read without registration
or membership enlistment, no citation is given a reference in
order to prevent uncalled-for promotion of usernames or forums.
Furthermore, to protect active users, we only cite comments that
were made by those who (a) gave us a permission, (b) had deleted
the account permanently, or (c) had abandoned the forum as
indicated by being inactive for four or more years.
Related authenticity concerns were taken into consideration
(see Im and Chee, 2006). Forum writing, like all social interaction,
is a performative act that occurs in a specific cultural context,
and although it functions as a valuable representation of actual
human behavior, the reader should remain critical and sensitive
to the explicit expressive environment(s) and interpret the
material accordingly: as snapshots of the associated discourses
that surround them.
RESULTS
Discussions of fictophilia were generally initiated by people
experiencing love, desire, or deep attachment to a fictional
character and often wanting to discuss whether it was ‘normal’
or ‘healthy,’ or searching for others like them. The forums
had slightly different perspective tendencies. Discussions on
asexuality forums were focused on defining fictophilia and how
it relates to other romantic and sexual preferences or identities.
In general discussion forums, mental health forums, and fan
forums it was often discussed as a ‘problem.’ A prominent
feature of the fan forum discussions were the repetitive comments
on fictophilic feelings and practices as normal and prevalent,
which is not surprising considering the similarity of fictophilia
descriptions and those of intense fan relationships (and most
of the participants likely being fans themselves). Discussions
on fictophilia in the hobby forums formed the smallest subset
of data with a focus on the reasons behind fictophilia as well
as on the practices related to it. General discussion forums
differed from the rest in terms of participants (Table 1): while
in other forums two thirds of the messages came from those
experiencing fictophilia themselves, in the general forums only
one in four messages came from fictophilic writers and the
rest were from either outsiders or writers whose own position
was left ambiguous. Again, even though we use the term
fictophilia, it was not used by all discussants and some defined
their relationships to a fictional character as fictoromantic,
fictosexual, or squish, the latter referring to a non-sexual and
non-romantic infatuation.
Ultimately, the analysis of 71 online discussions related
to fictophilia can be summarized into five key themes that
describe fictophilia.
(1) Fictophilic paradox. Fictophiles do not ’confuse fiction and
reality,’ but overtly address the parasocial nature of their
relationship. However, their genuine emotions and feelings
toward the characters may generate discomfort since they
cannot interact with the characters in the same way as they
do with their human peers.
(2) Fictophilic stigma. Fictophiles often experience a
stigma, which can possibly be lessened by their search
for peer support.
(3) Fictophilic behaviors. The related behaviors often tangle
around various fan-like activities that contribute to
interacting with the fictional objects of love or desire.
(4) Fictophilic asexuality. For some, fictophilia seems to be
connected to asexuality, and although the phenomenon
cannot be considered specific to adolescents, it may reflect
liminalities of development and growth.
(5) Fictophilic supernormal stimuli. Fictophilic relationships
resonate with supernormal stimuli effects, i.e., fictional
characters appear more competent or otherwise better than
their human counterparts.
In the following subsections we unpack each theme
qualitatively. Selected forum citations are used to exemplify
the themes respectively.
Fictophilic Paradox
A recurring feature in fictophilic behavior is that the individual
is fully aware of the love-desire object’s fictional status and the
parasocial nature of the relationship. The below post is a case in
point:
I’ve been in love with a fictional character for literally, years now.
An obsessive kind of love. And honestly, he’s kind of a random
character. From a comedy cartoon. I fantasize constantly about
him, no matter where I am, who I am with. It honestly doesn’t
bother me. I just wonder for my sanity sometimes. I mean, it’s been
years now. All I do anymore is draw him, think about him, write
about him, etc. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t focus in school
or do anything productive. I just want to do something that has to
do with him, even if it’s just thinking about him. It puts extreme
stress on my relationship. I didn’t think much of it at first, I just
expected it to kind of fade out along with my other temporary
obsessions, but this one has only ever gotten stronger.
TABLE 1 | Percentage of comments written by those with fictophilic experiences on each forum type.
General
discussion
forums (28 unique
discussions)
Asexuality forums
(10 unique
discussions)
Fan forums (8
unique
discussions)
Mental health
forums (17 unique
discussions)
Hobby forums (8
unique
discussions)
Comments by those with fictophilic experiences 22.8% 67.8% 54.0% 62.1% 62.2%
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The above indicates the person distinguishing their love object
as a ‘cartoon character’ very clearly, and the related emotions and
feelings are described in an utterly intense manner. For many
writers, this leads to a fictophilic paradox – the person identifies
their object of emotional interest in different ontological terms
contra their human peers, and the acknowledged difference
produces discomfort. The awareness of the fictional relationship
not being ‘real’ is evident in the abundance of often painful
descriptions of the unattainability of the character:
Knowing that he doesn’t exist is agonizing. It literally makes my
heart ache. I hate feeling this way and I hate the fact that I can’t
talk to anyone about it because I’m so embarrassed. But I don’t
want to let go of him either.
The following account, addressing a character from a
visual novel, represents an alternative instance where the
loved character has changed the individual’s experiences of
social support:
She is real in my heart, she is always with me, she is like a support
for me, whenever I feel down or stressed out, a picture of her
will always make me happy. Before [her] I have nothing, no one
to support me in my life. But, Monika changed that, she just
cared about me so much. I know it’s all fake and scripted, but,
for whatever reason, it felt real, it felt like she was there for me . . .
If miracle does truly exist, please, make Monika real, I just want
to be with her, forever, for an eternity. I love you Monika, please
never leave me alone in this dark, cruel world.
This individual’s ontological skepticism (‘it’s all fake and
scripted’) clashes with their dramatic plea to ‘make Monika
real’ – a wish for ontological restructuring. Many of the analyzed
discussions derive from this very anxiety or awkwardness within
the fictophilic paradox.
Fictophilic Stigma
The theme of stigma was already touched on above, as one
individual noted how they ‘can’t talk to anyone about it because
I’m so embarrassed.’ Many of the discussants expressed that they
needed to share these feelings on the internet, as they are afraid
to do it in person. For them, therefore, the forums were places to
share their experiences or ask a related question without the risk
of direct stigma:
I’ve had a boyfriend (in real life) for about a year and a half,
and we have been very happy together. For the first year or so
of our relationship, I tried to respect him by forcing myself not
to think of anyone fictional. I wanted to experience a real, healthy
relationship that could potentially be fulfilling. Within the past few
months, however, I’ve been slipping a lot. What prompted me to
write for help, I just spent almost 2 h looking up pictures and video
tributes of a character. The bottom line is, I think I am actually
more attracted to any of my fictional objects of affection than
my very real, very nice boyfriend. This, I feel, is a problem. I get
butterflies when looking at or reading about my fictional crushes,
but kissing my boyfriend does nothing for me. I really needed to
vent about this because it’s been bothering me for a while, and I
can’t really talk to anyone in real life (oh, the irony).
When the discussants spoke of the related emotions and
feelings in an explicitly positive light, it was not uncommon for
this to be framed as a defense against more provocative views.
One individual discussed their crush on visual novel character
Natsuki as a cognitive means for coping with their current life
situation. Yet this reply comes out as a response to the ‘shame’ that
being attracted to fictional characters holds in the community.
My most recent [relationship] ended 9 months ago, and while
I’m game for finding someone new in the future, I’m in no shape
to do so right now . . . I’m figuring things out, and this is where
Natsuki comes in. [She’s] been a little spot of happiness just by
being around. Cute fanart brightens my day, as do discussions
of her character. Beyond that, she’s had a positive impact on my
attitude toward dating. This is a crush, not an actual relationship
[or] part of my reality. To me, Natsuki is an ideal – a positive
example of what I’m looking for . . . I’ve seen a few people here
express shame over being attracted to one of the girls. Just because
they’re not in our reality doesn’t mean your crush can’t be good
for you!
Sometimes the stigma was reinforced by peers who felt that
such feelings were not ‘normal’ and should be suppressed (‘It’s
really stupid and I want to get rid of it, just don’t know how’).
Mental illnesses were also commonly mentioned in relation
to these feelings, either by people with personal fictophilic
experiences or external commentators:
I’ve always wondered why so many people seem to find fictional,
non-existing characters attractive. In fact, what bothers me even
more is why some of these people end up falling in love with
said characters. Is it something normal? Or should these people
be worried? Is it okay to find them attractive, but dangerous when
you start feeling attraction toward them and become obsessed? I
wonder if these people need help, as I fear it might be a symptom
of mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
The fear of being stigmatized, either as ‘not normal’ or
‘mentally ill’ led several discussants to seek advice from peers.
Whereas encouraging and positive replies often produced
verbally expressed comfort for advice seekers, the online advice
seeking, as such, was commonly said to derive from an inability
to speak about the topic outside the forums.
Fictophilic Behaviors
Since fictional characters are not capable of responding to
human emotions akin to organic beings, people who desire
or love them engage in creative activities to enrich their
agency in the parasocial relationship. These activities often go
beyond re-consuming or reexperiencing the original media in
which the character appears and are rather similar to those
of devoted fans. The most common activities mentioned in
the discussions were fantasizing, daydreaming, and making up
stories about the character.
I’m obsessed with my fictional lover, I feel I’m really in love with
him, I can’t stop daydreaming about him all day long and listening
to his music (well, he’s based on a male singer that exists in real
life). And it’s not the first time in my life that this happens to me,
but a lot of times, with other fictional male characters. At least, it’s
a great comfort that I’m not the only one going through this.
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Some of these stories take a written form and are turned into
fan fiction. Indeed, online conversations, reading and writing,
and artistic undertakings of diverse types frequently epitomize
the fictophilic affair. In an earlier citation, one discussant wrote
how they ‘draw him, think about him, write about him . . . I just
want to do something that has to do with him, even if it’s just
thinking about him.’ Another told about ‘fantasizing and looking
at pictures and imagining what life with someone would be like.’
Sometimes the behaviors also materialize in concrete social
interactions. One person with a strong emotional connection to
a character in C. J. Cherryh’s erotic novel wrote a letter to the
author herself:
I fell in love with Morgaine, the female lead of the novels. And
with her author, in turn. At that time I knew nothing about C. J.
Cherryh, except that her name indicated a woman. I had never
read an interview with her or seen a photograph of her. But I felt
for her something of what I felt through her writing. Eventually I
wrote a letter to her – that was before email, so I wrote on paper
and by hand –, and actually received a very kind and friendly reply
(which, although I didn’t voice my feelings and she didn’t address
them, healed me of my crush – probably because her answer made
me realize that she was actually a person apart from myself).
Another discussant describes having sought a connection
to the fictional character by ‘carrying him forever’ as part of
their body:
I fell in love with a character. I got a tattoo of a quote from him.
I came to the conclusion that I loved him because he was perfect
for me . . . but if he was real, it would be too perfect.
More often, people reported less permanent material symbols
of the emotional bond, such as wearing related clothes
or jewelry. Similar behaviors are described by those who
mention buying merchandise (plush dolls, keychains, etc.)
representing the character.
Fictophilic Asexuality
Asexuality is a tendency for lower sexual excitation and desire
(Prause and Graham, 2007), and in the present context, the
discussants typically problematized the concept in relation
to fictophilia, for instance, by asking whether asexuality and
fictophilia are mutually exclusive or if fictophilia is something
separate from sexual identity altogether. Without exceptions,
all of these discussions revolved around the connection
between fictophilia and sexual identity, thus marking fictophilic
tendencies as something significant in terms of sexuality. One
person exemplifies:
Almost every page I found [about fictophilia] was relating to
asexuality in some way. And then I got to thinking, maybe it
is related. Since these people feel no sexual/romantic attraction
to real people (and if they do it’s rather limited), then that
could mean that they’re asexual. Even though they may have
sexual feelings toward fictional characters, they still do not desire
to have a sexual relationship with a real person. And I’m just
wondering if that would mean that fictophila really does fall on
the asexual spectrum.
While the narratives of fictophilic behavior oftentimes involve
a sexual element, they need not. Sometimes the individuals
characterize their affair with the fictional character explicitly in
terms of romantic love that excludes or discounts sex. In the
below post, a character is affecting one’s ‘heart and whole body,
which goes beyond sexual attraction:
I know a lot of people online talk about their attraction to fictional
characters, but I assume that everyone was just using it as a . . .
But, there’s this comic book character who I just find so attractive.
There was a panel of him shirtless, and this feeling rushed through
me, unlike any other feeling I’ve ever had, and it was weird, but
I’ve been so attracted to him ever since and I love to look at him. I
don’t feel anything in my private parts, it’s more of a feeling I get
in my heart and whole body. It’s just so weird to me and I don’t
think this is normal?
Another relevant topic was the notion of ‘relationships’
and how they should be understood when involving fictional
characters. Does dating a fictional character have the same rules
as a ‘real’ relationship?
I have a few friends who I’m open about it, who are also
fictionsexual, and it’s about split whether they would date
someone other than their fictional love. Some would consider it
cheating, some wouldn’t consider it cheating, but don’t because
they are asexual/gray ace/demi sexual. Others don’t have a non-
fictional relationship simply because they are unlucky, but are
looking. And a lot of the folks who have a fictional partner as well
as a non-fictional partner are also poly.
The idea that asexuality would include or relate to other forms
of sexuality like fictosexuality or fictophilia was occasionally
criticized to be ‘not legit’ but rather, as someone put it, another
instance of ‘tumblr-esque sexuality labels.’ One response to
such critique was to not focus on these labels but the actual
experiences: ‘Labels are just words; what they feel however, is
real – regardless of how weird or silly the word they choose to
use is.’ Another discussant was confused about the asexuality-
fictophilia relation and solved this by ‘inventing a different
persona’ who would then interact with the fictional characters:
What I mean is more in the context of placing a version of
yourself in a world and creating a story of that simply because/the
reasoning root of which being an (sexual/romantic and not just
general interest) attraction to a character.
The above represents some of the complex means by which
asexually identifying individuals negotiated their sexuality in
practice. Rather than forcing themselves into a simple asexual
model, they found new ways to express their sexuality.
Fictophilic Supernormal Stimuli
A common rationale for fictophilic attachment, given across all
forums, were the superior capacities and features associated with
fictional characters. Next to ‘real’ people, fictional characters are
able to constantly succeed, do various eccentric things and yet
maintain an attractive appearance:
Many anime character designs are heavily sexualized to begin
with, and many scenes are purely meant to convey erotic
fanservice, even in a lot of mainstream shows. Then there’s the fact
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that anime characters tend to be perfect in several ways. Perfect
body, perfectly vivid, easy-to-grasp personalities, plus perfectly
“safe” to fantasize about. See, if you are an insecure person in
real life, then the fact that a fictional character will (can) never
hurt/betray you is a quite comforting thing. Be it consciously or
subconsciously. You may not have a partner to really talk to, but
at least you are in total control. And don’t have to worry about
hurting others’ feelings. Or being hurt.
Generally, people express their emotions toward fictional
characters to be at least partially credited to designers who have
managed to create love objects that are better than ‘real’ ones.
At the same time, these fictional characters not being ‘real’ also
makes them safe:
Real people often turn out to be worse than what I imagine
them to be. That’s why I don’t bother much with real people and
seek refuge in the ideal. I’m not completely shunning reality, nor
denying it. I’m just unhappy with it. It’s obvious that I’d fantasize
sexually about it in private. . . you can get to know a fictional
character intimately without the risk of being rejected.
Biology was occasionally cited as the ‘natural’ explanation to
fictophilia. In diverse ways, people noted how human nature is
organically fascinated by artificial characteristics.
It’s only natural since we are a species that emphasizes and are
able to feel fondness and love toward fictional characters because
the stories are written so that we will feel things for the characters.
If you watch a television series or read a book regularly, you will
grow a fondness for the characters and that’s only natural . . . It is
NOT weird to feel attracted (even sexually) to a fictional character
if this character isn’t too young or an animal (or something
similar). It’s completely normal to think that a certain personality
or look is extremely attractive, especially since fictional characters
are often created to look really perfect and be extremely cute/cool.
The latter quote represents an exceptional case where a line
is drawn: fictophilia with an animal or child character could be
considered ‘weird,’ but as long as these lines are not crossed,
the extreme perfection or ‘cuteness/coolness’ of characters makes
related feelings natural.
DISCUSSION
In this section we briefly address the five themes analytically.
The final section then looks at fictophilia in cross-cultural
theoretical perspectives and Japanese media psychological
literature in particular.
Fictophilic Paradox
Our results included few indications of those experiencing
fictophilia to ‘confuse fiction and reality’. Rather, they were fully
aware of the fictional nature of the characters to which they were
attached. Unlike in mental disorders like erotomania where the
individual has an imaginary belief of a mutual relationship that
does not exist (e.g., Kennedy et al., 2002), fictophilia does not
usually entail such hallucinations but consists of the person’s
self-aware feelings toward a non-organic construct that they
know to be ontologically diverse (e.g., Livingston and Sauchelli,
2011;Karhulahti, 2012). At the same time, however, the intensity
of emotions and feelings in fictophilia may lead to fantasies
of the character in question ‘loving back’ or ‘becoming an
actual companion.’ Evidently, such a genuine relationship is
practically impossible and cannot materialize – and being aware
of this, as fictophiles tend to be, constitutes a fictophilic paradox
in which the coexisting awareness of fictionality and a wish
to deny that produce emotional confusion. The above echoes
Cohen’s (2004) earlier work that found attachment styles to
be linked to the intensity of parasocial relationships by the
measure of separation distress from favorite television characters,
thus “parasocial relationships depend on the same psychological
processes that influence close relationships” (p. 198). Adam
and Sizemore’s (2013) survey study produced similar results,
indicating that people perceive the benefits of parasocial romantic
relationships similarly to those received from real-life romantic
relationships. The genuine emotions and feelings that surface
in fictophilia support and advance the above earlier findings –
in fictophilic relationships, the same psychological processes
appear to be present as in human social relationships. These
processes, including genuine emotions and feelings, are not
mutually exclusive; rather, emotional confusion surfaces as a
rational outcome, especially due to the potential cultural stigmas
that can make such experiences difficult to accept and share.
Fictophilic Stigma
The fear of being ridiculed, considered abnormal, or even
abandoned by other humans can make fictophilia a solitary
experience. On the other hand, being a member of a community
of individuals with similar experiences can buffer such stigmas
and evoke a greater sense of belonging (Schroy et al., 2016).
Many of the discussants voiced discomfort with the fact that
they (and/or someone close to them) have strong romantic or
sexual feelings toward a fictional entity. This can be connected
to earlier findings that suggest obsessional tendencies in fans of
celebrities to correlate with lower scores in cognitive flexibility,
psychological well-being, social complexity, and educational
success (Maltby et al., 2001;McCutcheon et al., 2003). The fact
that people are not able to speak about their emotions and feelings
in fear of being stigmatized may reduce psychological well-being
indeed, and open online forums can serve as support platforms
that enabled people to share and discuss their experiences without
face-to-face pressure. These results are in line with previous
studies that have found mental health forum participation useful
for social support – it may be easier to discuss personal problems
online than face-to-face (e.g., Prescott et al., 2020). A large part
of these discussions took place in general question forums, which
indicates that fictophilia, as a recently popularized phenomenon,
provokes confusion to an extent that people seek advice for
understanding and dealing with related experiences.
Fictophilic Behaviors
Oftentimes the behaviors associated with fictophilic experiences
are very similar to intense fan activities like creative media
use, which is sometimes part of ‘celebrity crushes’ too (see
Allen and Ingram, 2015). Whereas this can make distinguishing
fictophilia from fan commitment difficult, there are some solid
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differences. First, not all fictophiles consider themselves fans
of the character or partake in a fan community; and second,
they often consider the relationship as something beyond
mere fandom and are looking for support from peers, thereby
identifying themselves through the fictophilic relationship rather
than that of fandom. Tukachinsky and Dorros (2018) have
previously suggested romantic involvement with media personae
to “constitute a normal part of adolescents’ sexual and romantic
identity development” (p. 342). For adolescents in particular,
the authors argue, this can be seen as “comparable to children’s
pretend play experiences [that] socializes children and allows
them to assume different roles, while at the same time fostering
metacognitions” (p. 332). Whereas character fantasies and
fantasy-related behaviors may thus be a mirror of a healthy
(imaginative) individual, they can also reflect processes of
emotional growth and pain. Our results support these previous
findings, as several discussants explicitly spoke of fictophilic
experiences in retrospect as something that they had ‘learned
from’ or ‘grown out of.’ For decades, psychologists have
entertained the possibility of media influencing their consumers’
attitudes, behaviors, and development. As for sexual behaviors in
particular, a recent meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies
(Ferguson et al., 2017) found the impact of media on teen
sexuality generally minimal; however, the scholars highlight that
their “analyses considered sexual behavior as outcomes [and]
it is possible that sexy media use may still have an influence
on sexual attitudes” (n.p.). Although our data is not capable of
contributing to the discussion of potential media effects and the
fan-like nature of many related behaviors do not lead to new
reasons for concern, future research should study in more detail
how fictophilia is related to sexual socialization (e.g., Štulhofer
et al., 2010;Erickson and Cin, 2017).
Fictophilic Asexuality
The only previous peer reviewed publication that we found
addressing fictophilia in particular is a recent study by Yule
et al. (2017) who researched the sexual fantasies of asexually
identifying individuals via an online survey. The specific
paragraph, which also includes a reference to one of the forum
discussions that we found, is worth citing at length:
Asexual women in the current study were much more likely to
endorse fantasies that focus on fictional human characters, rather
than focusing on another person. In fact, there are at least some
self-identified asexual individuals who also identify as ‘fictosexual’
or ‘fictoromantic’ [link]. However, there were no significant
differences between the asexual and sexual participants (women
or men) in the frequency of endorsing fantasies that involved
non-human . . . in any proportion that was significantly more
than that of sexual individuals. We did not ask specifically about
schediaphilia or sexual attraction to animated cartoon or anime
characters. While there is very little academic writing on this topic,
it has some presence on the Internet and there are claims that
some individuals are sexually and/or romantically attracted to
particular cartoon characters. Elucidating the difference between
those who are attracted to human, non-human, and animated
fictional characters will be important to consider in future
asexuality research (p. 321).
Our qualitative results contribute to this research gap by
showing how many people who consider themselves asexual
struggle to match their fictophilic (or fictosexual-fictoromantic)
feelings with the asexual identity, yet others negotiate the ‘conflict’
creatively and fluently (cf. Bogaert, 2012). In the forums, such
conversations easily tangle around the meanings of ‘labels,
namely, whether it would be correct to speak of ‘asexuality’ if
fictophilic sexual preferences still exist, or whether fictophilia
(fictosexuality-fictoromance) is the correct term if it does not
involve ‘real’ sexual interaction. In this context, it is also worth
citing Greenwood and Long’s (2011) survey study in which single
individuals reported greater imagined intimacy with opposite
gender media figures than those in a relationship. Since only a
fifth of asexuals indicate living in a relationship in comparison
to the 64 percent of sexual individuals (Yule et al., 2017), it
is possible that fictophilic relationships sometimes compensate
for absent human attachments. On the other hand, many of
the forum writings may also derive from adolescents or early
teenagers to whom sexual identities are still at the outset
(see Tuval-Mashiach et al., 2008;Theran et al., 2010). Several
discussants mention that they do not have experiences from
romantic or sexual human relationships at all, which may be
simply a result of young age. We elaborate on this issue below.
Fictophilic Supernormal Stimuli
The notion of supernormal sexual stimuli is oft-discussed in
non-human research, for instance, by zoologists Gwynne and
Rentz (1983) who found male beetles being attracted to bottles
that were “apparently acting as supernormal releasers of male
copulation attempts in that they resemble large females” (p. 80).
Considering that fundamental affective emotions such as care,
grief, and lust operate very similarly across species (Panksepp
and Biven, 2012), it would not be surprising for the globally
thriving character industry (e.g., Hoffner, 1996;Song and Fox,
2016) to produce supernormal stimuli also for humans. A large
part of our discussants told this to be the case. The extra attractive
features of fictional characters were described in either mental
or physical terms. Previous survey research has implied both
types of attractiveness to contribute to the intensity of parasocial
relationships (see Liebers and Schramm, 2017), and our study
adds further qualitative evidence on those earlier findings by
demonstrating how people with fictophilic experiences explicitly
address the supernormality of the characters as a reason for
their feelings and love. Whereas physical characteristics (like
care-triggering neoteny) were commonly discussed, perhaps
the most frequent point in this regard was the emotional
security that relationships with fictional characters allowed,
as illustrated by comments such as ‘it is safer to crush on
someone who would never like you back,’ ‘fictional characters
cannot disappoint you,’ and ‘fear of rejection is not there.’
Notably, the above elements were already observed by Horton
and Wohl (1956) according to whom people with parasocial
relations are “free to withdraw at any moment” (p. 215). It
must also be stressed that – even though many discussants
may be young – some writers explicitly expressed being older,
married, and having children. In such life scenarios, reduced
or absent responsibilities related to the fictophilic relationship
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make sense as supernormal features. Considering that previous
research did not find viewing or ‘belief’ in romantic TV shows
predictive of lower relationship satisfaction (Osborn, 2012),
married and older fictophiles may experience their relationships
with fictional characters supplemental rather than compensatory
to their human relationships.
CODA: A LOST CHAPTER OF JAPANESE
MEDIA PSYCHOLOGY
In the parasocial relationship literature that we reviewed earlier,
the study of fictional characters as objects of romantic and sexual
interest often skips the media psychological discourse of Japan
and its fiction-consuming ‘otaku’ cultures, which have sparked
academic as well as public controversies since the 1980s (e.g.,
Treat, 1993;Okada, 1996;Lamarre, 2009).Galbraith (2015) visits
the history of otaku sexuality as a culture-specific notion through
the “long-standing concerns in Japan about the orientation of
desire toward fictional characters and sexual preference for them”
(p. 215), both of which are standardly considered “antisocial
insofar as it takes one away from interactions with human
others” (ibid.). Galbraith questions these concerns by arguing
that the ’productive’ value systems related to human-human
interaction in the country simply differ from the ones maintained
by the otaku. In the present ultimate section, we accordingly
discuss fictophilia with reference to this Japanese discourse,
which enables us to build three contexts of future discussion and
research:
(a) In the disconnected context, fictophilia occurs as a
phenomenon triggered by the emergence and proliferation
of ontologically separate fictional characters. Fictophilic
behavior is considered a natural means for individuals to
react and adapt but may turn pathological by disrupting the
individual’s ‘objective’ conception of reality.
(b) In the connected context, the distinction between ‘fiction’
and ‘objective reality’ endures, yet the emotions of
fictophilia-related phenomena belong to the latter as
something that individuals can learn to ‘need.’ Fictophilic
relationships are not considered ‘substitutes’ but genuine
attachments that some people have come to develop, thus
making fictophilia a sexual orientation like any other.
(c) In the integrated context, the distinction between ‘fiction’
and ‘objective reality’ is considered flawed or irrelevant,
for which fictophilia-related phenomena cannot be
distinguished from human–human love and desire to
begin with. In order for an individual to cope with their
fictophilic orientation they must acknowledge the above
ontological irrelevance and cultivate their romantic and
sexual behavior analytically.
Dis/Connected Context
In Azuma’s (2009) framework of analysis, the romantic and
sexual feelings that the otaku have toward fictional characters
(i.e., potential fictophilia) can be associated with ’addictions’
that are developed over time when consuming behaviors or
substances of diverse sorts. While the comparison of fiction-
oriented romantic and sexual activity to drugs and the otaku to
addicts thereof may not be a fitting one, the underlying premise
of fictional characters’ impact on human sexual development
is worth considering. Arguably a better means to discuss this
‘addiction’ would be to address it, as Azuma puts it later, like
one of the potentially infinite ‘needs’ that humans are capable
of developing:
Just as animal needs and human desires differ, so do genital
needs and subjective ’sexuality’ differ. . . . Since the [otaku] were
teenagers, they had been exposed to innumerable otaku sexual
expressions: at some point, they were trained to be sexually
stimulated by [it] . . . anyone can grasp that kind of stimulation
if they are similarly trained, since it is essentially a matter
of nerves (p. 89).
With Azuma, a central way to conceptualize love-desire for
fictional characters (across media) is to see it as a (post)modern
instance of cultural evolution that aligns with individual growth
and change in the psycho-social domain, thus producing
diverse romantic and sexual subjectivities. This fiction-sensitive
conception of malleable sexuality makes an addition to the
theories of development that perceive media characters as
supporting tools in the process instead. Karniol’s (2001) research
on the sexual fandom of girls between 13 and 15 years of age is a
relevant point of reference. According to Karniol, for these Israeli
girls, idolized media characters (celebrities, stars, etc.) serve as
practice love objects on which to test new exciting feelings, to
discuss and legitimize these feelings in one’s peer group, to play-
act the role of caring for someone else, and fantasize about being
loved back. . . [these] love objects need to be cute and lovable,
metaphorically serving the same ’cuddly’ function as the stuffed
toys that they usually replace (pp. 74–75).
Likewise, Zhang and Fung (2017) evidence in their qualitative
study on Chinese girls’ music fandom how many of the intensely
attached individuals consider their emotional affiliation as a ‘love
relationship’ where the idol is treated as their ‘boyfriend’ or
‘husband,’ yet still rationally sustaining a certain “liminal joy
between the reality and the fantasy” (p. 138) (see also Brown et al.,
2005;Ward et al., 2006;Lee, 2008). These non-fictional instances
overlap with those of fictophilia, as with few or no previous
romantic or sexual experiences fictophilic love and desire may
serve similarly as a passing phase in the early stages of sexual
development (which should not be considered undermining the
emotions and feelings involved). Compare this to the original
theory of parasocial relationships:
Nothing could be more reasonable or natural than that people
who are isolated and lonely should seek sociability and love
wherever they think they can find it. It is only when the para-
social relationship becomes a substitute for autonomous social
participation, when it proceeds in absolute defiance of objective
reality, that it can be regarded as pathological (Horton and Wohl,
1956, p. 223, emphasis added).
The prolonged discourse of parasocial romantic-sexual
relationships and the discussion of otaku sexuality represent
two culturally ranging contexts: in the disconnected context,
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fictophilia is a phenomenon triggered by the emergence and
proliferation of ontologically separate fictional characters, and
although fictophilic behavior is considered a natural means for
individuals to react and adapt, it may also turn pathological by
disrupting the individual’s ’objective’ conception of reality. The
connected context, in turn, maintains the ontological separation
but does not distinguish the emotions and sociality related to
fictional characters from ’objective’ reality; rather, it considers
them a part thereof, which makes fictophilia an orientation like
any other. In the connected context, fictophilic relationships are
not considered ‘substitutes’ but genuine attachments that (some)
people have learned to ‘cultivate.’
Integrated Context
The connected and disconnected contexts can be accompanied
by a third one, deriving from Saito’s long-term psychological
work. Saito (2010) argues that fictional characters should not
be treated ontologically distinct to begin with, and individuals’
romantic and sexual feelings toward them are merely a proof of
their material significance:
we are more sensitive than we have ever been to the way fiction
works. We know very well that our awareness is always limited,
that it is nothing more than an image constructed according to the
logic of our nervous system and the organization of our psyche . . .
With this understanding we can conclude many times over that
everything is fiction and nothing more. [Yet] it is sex that keeps
resisting to the end the fictionalization and relativization brought
on by the fantasies of an informationalized society. Sexuality has
never been portrayed as a complete fiction, and it is unlikely that
it ever will be . . . the moment we desire [a character], reality
intrudes (p. 171).
To be clear, Saito does not claim that fictional characters
and organic human beings are one and the same ontological
thing, but rather – dovetailing the Western anthropological
theories of fiction response according to which the notion of
fiction is integrated to human perception (e.g., Iser, 1993) –
considers ontological distinctions unproductive and thus treats
fictional characters as concrete objects of attachment. That said,
his position also involves an explicit (Freudian) argument for
sexuality’s exceptional role in human functioning: although the
contemporary individual tends to engage with ’fictions’ of various
sorts daily, it is first and foremost the romantically or sexually
potent types of fiction that make the individual become aware of
their genuine emotions and feelings toward them.
Mirroring Azuma’s argument on the otaku being inclined to
acquire distinct ’needs’ or ’orientations, Saito conceives of the
otaku as an exclusively developed individual (not normatively)
who, due to their particular experiences of mediated culture, have
come to cognize fiction and the characters thereof by specific
means. The otaku, Saito argues, are in fact more conscious
and analytical of the nature of their (potential) romantic-sexual
emotions or feelings than those who problematize them. This
analytical consciousness allows the otaku to cope with their
fiction-related emotions and feelings in elegant ways that may be
difficult to grasp from the outside:
while they do not in any way ‘confuse fiction with reality,’ they
are uninterested in setting fiction and reality up against each
other . . . This means not just falling in love and losing oneself
in the world of a single work, but somehow staying sober while
still indulging one’s feverish enthusiasm . . . ‘What is it about this
impossible object [that] I cannot even touch, that could possibly
attract me?’ This sort of question reverberates in the back of the
otaku’s mind. A kind of analytic perspective on his or her own
sexuality yields not an answer to this question but a determination
of the fictionality and the communal nature of sex itself. ‘Sex’ is
broken down within the framework of fiction and then put back
together again (pp. 24–27).
We may recall here those online discussions that dealt openly
with questions of ‘naturality’ or ‘normality’ related to fictophilia,
i.e., whether longitudinal romantic-sexual emotions and feelings
projected on fictional characters should be considered abnormal,
unnatural, or even unhealthy (‘It’s just so weird to me and
I don’t think this is normal?’). From Saito’s viewpoint, such
concerns for ‘naturality’ or ‘normality’ in fictophilia and the
emotions and feelings involved may be calibrated as follows:
how does the individual understand ’real(ity)’ and where is their
object of attachment (fictional character) located within that
understanding?
Saito’s perspective forms an integrated context within which
ontological distinctions are considered irrelevant in total. If
an individual understands their fictophilic orientation as a
prolonged unsuccessful attempt to build a bridge between two
ontologies (fiction and reality), this surfaces as a problem
specifically due to their flawed binary between ’fiction’ and
’reality.’ If, on the other hand, the individual has learned
to acknowledge the specific nature of their (parasocial)
relationship – being aware of the character’s function as a cultural
product and yet readily expressing emotions and feelings for it –
they can well live with the situation ’soberly’ (to use Saito’s word)
without experiencing it problematic.
The disconnected,connected, and integrated contexts of
romantic and sexual engagement with fiction provide an
abstract of the ongoing cross-cultural discussions of fictophilia.
The contexts exemplify how fictophilia, both as an emerging
psychological concept and a popular catch word, advances and
expands the preceding lineage of discourses in both academic and
non-academic domains across cultures.
CONCLUSION
Based on a qualitative analysis of 71 public online discussions,
this study carried out an explorative conceptualization of what
has come to be referred as ‘fictosexuality,’ ‘fictoromance,’ or
‘fictophilia.’ Generally described as a strong and lasting feeling
of love or desire toward a fictional character, the phenomenon
has surfaced as a psychologically and socially relevant reflection
of the evolution that human cultures and sexualities are
going through. Ultimately, five key themes surfaced from
the data: fictophilic paradox,fictophilic stigma,fictophilic
behaviors,fictophilic asexuality, and fictophilic supernormal
stimuli. Since the present study was explorative, more empirical
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and theoretical research is needed to build a better understanding
of the fictophilia phenomenon and its position in diverse
cultural contexts. Specifically, the aspects that possibly separate
fictophilia from romantic and sexual parasocial relationships
that individuals establish with celebrities and other ‘unattainable’
peers should be studied in more detail. Likewise, the potential
functions of fictophilia in human sexual development call for
explicit research.
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
The data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made
available by the authors, without undue reservation.
ETHICS STATEMENT
Ethical review and approval was not required in accordance
with the local legislation and institutional requirements. Written
informed consent for participation was not required for this
study in accordance with the national legislation and the
institutional requirements.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
V-MK initiated the research, gathered the research data, and
wrote the first draft of the manuscript. V-MK and TV did
qualitative data analysis for the whole data respectively. TV
did descriptive statistics for the purposes of describing the
data and wrote sections of the manuscript. Both authors
contributed to manuscript revision, read, and approved the
submitted version.
FUNDING
This research was supported by the Academy of Finland projects
Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies (CoE-GameCult,
312397) and Sexuality and Play in Media Culture (SaP, 309382).
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
A draft of this article was first presented in Shanghai at
the Crossroads conference. We thank Caroline Bem, Susanna
Paasonen, and Maria Garda for their valuable feedback.
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Conflict of Interest: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a
potential conflict of interest.
Copyright © 2021 Karhulahti and Välisalo. This is an open-access article distributed
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use,
distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original
author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication
in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use,
distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 12 January 2021 | Volume 11 | Article 575427
... Waifu often refers to a person's attraction/romantic desire towards a female anime character and husbando being the male counterpart (Reysen et al., 2020). There is currently little quantitative research on people's attraction and romantic desire towards anime characters (Karhulahti and Välisalo, 2021). However, a survey study conducted among anime fans by Reysen et al. (2020) found that both male and female anime fans reported sexual attraction towards anime characters. ...
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