It’s no well-kept secret that the bulk of Japanese erotic manga (ero-manga), being a subset of pornography, has some serious, wrong-headed ideas about sexuality and gender. Among works marketed to both men and women, rape is practically normalized. From stories marked “vanilla”—despite “no” not actually meaning “no”—to fetishistic works which go beyond the pale in depriving characters of agency over their own bodies, sex is inflicted on characters, particularly women, as an act of violence with disturbing frequency. In a feminist reading, the term that comes to mind is sex-negative.
Note: while this post is essentially safe-for-work, it contains frank and explicit discussion of sex and sexuality.
Sex-negativity, in short, is the position that sex is a bad and dangerous thing. It may seem counter-intuitive to claim that pornography could advocate a world view in which sex is evil or dangerous, when porn is entirely about depicting sex. What is important here is not that sex is being depicted, but how it is being depicted: the normalized concept of sex in ero-manga (as in much of porn) implies rape, disenfranchisement and violence against women, rather than a consensual and mutually-satisfying act. This plays into a concept known as rape culture, i.e. a culture in which sexual violence is normalized and trivialized.
This is not necessarily meant to indict anyone who enjoys these rougher sorts of work—pornography is, after all, a fantasy. One can assume that no rational adult is directly inspired by a given work to go and commit rape; rather, these works simply seem to stem from—and contribute to—a worrisome cultural perception of sexual violence. Moreover, many critics have explored the potential that these violent erotic works hold for revolutionary social commentary. What is important is that consumers of erotic fiction understand and critically engage with the sex politics of the works they consume.
Moreover, the preponderance of extreme sex-negativity in ero-manga creates a more pragmatic issue: not everyone finds sex-negativity that hot. Opposite the concept of “rape culture”, a problem with how modern culture does work, is the complementary “consent culture”, a proposal for how society ought work. Underpinning the philosophy of consent culture is the idea that consent—enthusiastic consent—is, in addition to being a moral imperative, intrinsically attractive.
Ero-manga artist Shimimaru’s debut work JUNK LAND represents the conflict between rape culture and consent culture in ero-manga at large. Of the ten stories in the book, six are fully couched in unambiguous, enthusiastic consent, and three are questionable but essentially sex-positive. That said, one of the stories does include some very problematic violence against women.
That story, “Beautiful Girl Detective’s Crisis of Descent”, may indeed make up for all the good the rest of the book accomplishes. Besides being set in the location of an alluded-to sex slavery ring, the main sexual action of the story involves kidnapping, drugging, and outright rape. The story tries to play on some tropes of more boldly sex-negative ero-manga: the common meme of a woman being “raped silly” is invoked but mocked as ridiculous twice in the short, for example.
Still, the sex politics of the story are deeply problematic. The main character is, eventually, raped into submission by two “gentler” characters, and this makes up the bulk of the work’s “action”. One would think this should go without saying, but even physically “gentle” sex, even sex which the victim is physically aroused by, is still rape without consent. Moreover, what narrative hand-waving the short attempts in order to minimize the impact is tangential to one troubling fact. To wit: those elements of the work which are meant to provide sexual arousal are built on a foundation of violence against women.
There are also lesser elements in some of the other stories which do appear problematic; the rest of the book, though, fares much better. For example, the collection’s first story, “I Fit You Perfectly”, chronicles the first sexual encounter of its main couple. The short spends as much time establishing setting and an emotional reality as it does depicting sex, and from beginning to end both characters are constantly conveying their consent both physically and verbally—and, to reiterate, enthusiastically.
More to the point, the short does an excellent job of depicting enthusiastic consent itself as erotic. Throughout the short, there is a particular focus on both characters’ nervousness and uncertainty. The actual sex depicted is awkward and unwieldy—this is, after all, both characters’ first time. The characters spend much of the action explicitly encouraging and directing each other. But this very uncertainty, the constant dialogue between the characters, builds a fantastic sexual tension between them, and elevates the visceral impact on the reader. The dialogue is only an indication of consent as an afterthought; its role in the structure of the story is, in fact, eroticism per se.
JUNK LAND, for its part, seems remarkably progressive among ero-manga. Shimimaru’s work inherits some very uncomfortable ideas about sexuality from his forebears, but he also appears to be interested in engaging and deconstructing some of those ideas. As readers and consumers, we, too, should be willing to critically engage these works, and to acknowledge those elements of them that may be ugly or problematic.
1. [^] Jones 2005 on Ladies Comics or Galbraith 2011 on Lolicon, for example.
7 responses to “A Contrast in Cultures: Sex Positivity in Ero-Manga”
that was an interesting read. and i thought about this problem soem times too, although maybe due to toher reasons.. i have a fetish for willing and/or sadistic loli’s, however due to that genre apparently not beeing as popular or anything as the more “rapey” stuff, while there still is a bunch of doujinshi and eroge of loli’s in the leading position, there is practically no animation of that, probably because the companies dont think ti would sell well. if there is loli in a hentai-anime, it is almost exclusively rape. if there is a woman in the leading position in such an animation, it is almost exclusively either a busty woman or a succubus. it may have been a very simple reason to start thinkign about this topic, but it also illustrates how its going in this ero-culture. Junkland seems like an interesting read.
Hah, yeah, it’s strange. Ero-anime as an industry has a very different rhythm from ero-manga. Maybe look into some older anime, from closer to the ’80s or ’90s? Lolicon was much more “in” then—some of the first ero-anime ever made was lolicon.
Thanks for the comment!
Good post, and thanks for actually understanding what “sex-positive” means, which a lot of proclaimed sex-positive people don’t.
That was an important point for me, too. That sort of disconnect within porn culture—obsessed with sex, yet terrified of it—was a lot of the impetus for this post. Thanks for commenting!
I have been trying to think about the difference between how we have sex with people and what we consume in fantasy, and that’s where I wonder about critiquing sex politics in erotic fiction.
How a reader engages with their fetishes is not necessarily our place to judge. But at the same time, I can see how without a focus on communication and a good core set of values it can lead to devaluing or degrading views of sex and women. Hmm… Maybe this is a good one to posit to Laci Green?
Oh, I agree. Given the feedback I’ve gotten, I probably should have spent more time explaining what exactly my purpose was in bringing this up. I don’t think sex-negative works should be condemned out of hand, just that they highlight the need for more critical discourse on what kind of images of gender are being presented to us in pornography, not just in all-ages media.
(I doubt you disagree with this, but for posterity) I think it’s too common a meme in geek and otaku subcultures to downplay the role that fictional works can have on our real-life social conceptions of things, e.g. portrayal of women in video games. I just wanted to take that lens and aim it at erotic fiction.
Less “policing other people’s fetishes”, more “thinking critically about our own”.
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