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.