Rape in Yaoi

Trigger warning for discussions of rape and rape culture, both in the essay and in the comments.

Before I say anything else, I should clarify – I’m talking about fictional, fantasy rape, specifically the rape that occurs in the male/male romance narratives encompassed by yaoi manga, anime, light novels, visual novels, and dōjinshi. I do not support the actual rape of actual human beings, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Nor do I support rape culture or any ideology that sustains it. What I would like to argue here is that a great deal of what one could call “yaoi fantasy rape” actually subverts mainstream, real-world rape culture.

I’m going to approach this topic in a roundabout way by talking about kink memes. A kink meme is an online community (usually on Livejournal) that consists of “prompts” and “fills.” A commenter will post a prompt in order to request a story with certain guidelines. Another commenter will respond to this prompt with a fill containing a story that follows the guidelines of the prompt. A fill can range from one or two paragraphs to multi-chapter epics in the hundreds of thousands of words. Kink memes are generally fandom-specific (for example, the Harry Potter franchise has several) and are seen as good places to practice writing and brainstorm ideas with a community of fans.

Although there are plenty of prompts to the effect of “Character A and Character B share their first kiss” or “Character A and Character B take a long drive and discuss Plot Development X” (or even “Character A and Character B are reincarnated as characters in the Star Wars universe”), most prompts and their corresponding fills are erotic. As the name “kink meme” implies, many revolve around a sexual kink (such as bondage or voyeurism). When the kink is nothing more than light BDSM elements or a ménage à trois, all is well. However, when the kinks become more extreme or involve abuse or rape, problems may arise between members of the kink meme community.

The moderators of various kink meme communities have developed two main policies in order to help resolve these conflicts before they start. The first of these policies involves trigger warnings, which are attached to stories that contain graphic descriptions of behaviors readers may find upsetting or offensive. Before someone innocently stumbles into a pornographic story depicting an underage character being raped, she can be aware of that element of the story’s content and pass it by unread, shielded from any psychological pain or discomfort she might feel while reading. One person’s fantasy might be another person’s trigger for a severe case of post-traumatic stress, after all, and the aim of these communities is not to harm their members but rather to provide a safe space for fandom-related activities.

The second of these policies is a strong injunction against kink shaming. The term “kink shaming” is derived from the concept of slut shaming, or harshly judging a woman for expressing her sexuality. Kink shaming involves criticizing or belittling someone for sexual practices or (more commonly) fantasies that are perceived as non-normative or unhealthy. The argument against kink shaming, even for kinks that are culturally insensitive or that would be immoral if acted upon in real life, is that no sexuality is normative; a wide variety of sexualities can co-exist without anyone being hurt or taken advantage of. Moreover, who is to draw the line between what is okay and what isn’t? (The latter is actually a tricky issue taken very seriously by these communities, and I don’t mean to downplay its practical significance, although the point still stands.) A quick glance at even a short list of prompts reveals an astonishing breadth of sexual imagination, so anyone who participates in a kink meme quickly comes to redefine her idea of normative sexuality, and any instance of kink shaming is quickly dealt with by both the moderators and the other members of the community.

Kink memes are thus a safe haven not only for fandom-related speculation and silliness but also for alternative sexualities. Outside of a range of clearly anti-social behavior, anything goes in a kink meme, and it is there that people (largely female-gendered people) find an acceptance of their interests and sexuality that eludes them in the world beyond the internet. It is acknowledged by all parties involved that everything on the kink meme happens within the realm of fantasy. Thus it is possible for a militant feminist and an ardent supporter of gay rights to read, write, and enjoy fictional stories about one male character raping another. The people who produce and consume such narratives are allowed to do so without fear of anyone judging their personal fantasies or shaming them for their sexualities, and the people who prefer completely consensual cuddling (or some other kink, or no sex at all) can simply skip the rape scenes altogether.

I’d like to posit that yaoi is a similar safe space for female-gendered sexuality. The problem with this, however, is that, like most formally published narratives containing scenes of graphic rape (like The Shawshank Redemption and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), yaoi stories picked up by major publishing companies and animated by professional studios don’t contain trigger warnings. A reader might therefore open a book and read bittersweet stories of love and friendship reminiscent of the artist basso – or she might be confronted with the brutally violent mess of broken taboos that is Under Grand Hotel. Many people who write about yaoi, such as Che Gilson in the “Fujoshi USA” column of Otaku USA, complain about the frequency of yaoi rape tropes, such as rape equals love and it wasn’t rape if you enjoyed it.

I suppose I really shouldn’t judge these critics too harshly (because of the lack of trigger warnings), but their objections to yaoi fantasy rape seem an awful lot like superficial kink shaming to me. Part of the thrill of any romance narrative is the tension between the two parties involved. This tension is obviously sexual, but it can also be social, economic, political, or religious. If both members of a potential relationship were complete equals who completely understood one another to the complete approval of everyone, then their love story would be more than a bit boring. The gradual resolution of various conflicts is how a romance story is structured; but, before there can be a resolution, there first needs to be a conflict. When a man and a woman are involved, there is a perceived unequal power dynamic between them that has still persisted into what some believe to be a post-feminist world. Since this gap in power and social status does not necessarily exist between two men, it is created through rape. Rape thus serves a narrative purpose that does double duty because, to be blunt, it is kinky. The alluring forbiddenness of rape compounds the alluring forbiddenness of two men loving each other. The violence and the emotional friction are part of the sexual and emotional appeal, and the way in which the negative consequences of the rape are dealt with keeps readers invested in the relationship past the initial encounter.

A complaint that has often been lodged against yaoi is that it objectifies gay men and portrays them in a manner that has nothing to do with the reality of being gay. Although obviously there is merit in this objection, it feels a bit like derailing to me. (And also short-sighted; nothing objectifies gay men quite like porn for gay men – which is itself a derailing statement, ha!) Yaoi has very little to do with “real” gay men or the experience of being gay in the real world (although certain titles like Stray Cat – which is fantastic, by the way – do incorporate the female writer’s interpretation of such an experience). As I mentioned earlier, yaoi is a safe space for women to express their sexuality and their sexual fantasies without being judged. And, in the end, yaoi really is nothing more than fantasy. What yaoi normalizes is not rape, but rather the fantasy of rape.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the normalization of the fantasy of rape is perhaps not such a bad thing, especially when it is performed by two fictional male characters for an audience of women. Although obviously I can’t speak for everyone who consumes yaoi narratives (or writes slash fan fiction on a kink meme), I don’t think the women who read and write boys love fantasies want to be men. Rather, the fantasy of rape enacted on an attractive male body is less threatening because it doesn’t bring with it the baggage of real world rape culture. Although I’m not saying that real gay men aren’t raped (and I certainly don’t want to imply that the sexual harassment and assault gay men experience in the real world is in any way okay), the vast majority of mainstream media in both America and Japan is still structured so that male characters are sexual subjects, while female characters are sexual objects; and, when women do initiate sexual contact, they are often judged harshly. The denial of female sexuality and the culture of rape that accompanies it exist in the real world as well. Thus, if a female character is raped in fiction, it can hit a bit too close to home. If a male character is raped, however, the scenario is much closer to a pure fantasy.

This is a bit of a leap of logic, but I believe that the yaoi rape fantasy undermines mainstream rape culture in two ways. First, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality without fear of being criticized. Second, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality in a way that doesn’t reiterate and reinforce the unequal power dynamic between the sexes that is on display in so many other realms of cultural, social, political, and religious discourse. Yaoi fantasy rape has a clear narrative function, and it clearly appeals to a sizable percentage of people who produce and consume male/male romance narratives. Not all yaoi involves rape, and I don’t think the people who choose to read and write the yaoi that does should be subjected to kink shaming. Now if only yaoi titles came with trigger warnings…

To conclude, I’d like to state that this is nothing more than my opinion, and I don’t intend for it to be any sort of definitive statement. Debate on yaoi, fantasy rape, and its tropes will always be necessary, and dissenting opinions are valid and useful. I would like to acknowledge the blog post on Sekai-ichi hatsukoi (from which the opening image is taken) that made me start writing, as well as the blog post through which I found it. Both blogs and bloggers are wonderful, and I’d really like to thank them for the inspiration.

ETA: This essay was mentioned on Encyclopedia Dramatica in an article on yaoi that makes the contemporary Men’s Rights Movement seem positively pro-feminist and queer-friendly by comparison. It’s an interesting piece of writing that provides a concise counterpoint to the argument I’m making here, but it’s very NSFW (by which I mean full of explicit images and language, so be warned).

24 thoughts on “Rape in Yaoi

  1. Kathryn says:

    I swear I’m not making this up! Just about everything I’m saying here has been said elsewhere. Here are a few of my sources:

    Otaku joshi kenkyū: Fujoshi shisō taikei

    Fujoshi manga taikei

    BL sutadiizu

    Yokubō no kōdo: Manga ni miru sekushuariti no danjo-sa

    Keith Vincent’s article “A Japanese Electra and Her Queer Progeny” in the second volume of Mechademia addresses issues of yaoi from a gay male perspective and touch on the friction between gay men and yaoi artists in Japan. Vincent’s introduction to Saitō Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl takes on the topic of the transformative potential of yaoi fandom for queer communities and Queer Studies.

    I don’t really participate in any kinkmemes, so I’m hesitant to link to any particular one, but the TV Tropes page has some links organized by fandom, if you’re curious.

    I spent such a long time discussing kinkmemes because I’m a bit uncomfortable with the “unique to Japan” or “Japanese cultural precedent” discourse floating around (many Japanese writers attribute their interest in yaoi to English-language slash fiction); but, if you’re interested in a specifically Japanese cultural background, the illustrated book BL shin-Nihonshi is lots of fun, and Royall Tyler’s short essay on rape in The Tale of Genji is also well worth looking at.

  2. Siena says:

    This is some interesting stuff! The intersection (or lack thereof) of yaoi and real-life gay lifestyles is something I’ve been pondering for a while, but this is a great perspective on the whole thing. You’re a smart lady! Been enjoying reading your blog, keep it up.

  3. Nick Oba says:

    Wow. Thank you for this authoritative treatise on kinkmemes and yaoi. Although I am fluent in Japanese (actually, I AM Japanese) I wasn’t familiar with the term “yaoi” let alone the weird (subjectively speaking) culture that has grown around it. I didn’t know about kinkmemes either. Not being a “female-gendered person” as you put it, I find female sexuality confusing enough without infusing this added matrix of vicarious sexual expression through male gay sex. One thing I do know is that rape itself has been criminalized to the extent that it has only recently; one need look no further than the practice of ‘yobai’ and how it is viewed.

  4. odorunara says:

    First of all, great article on the issue. As someone else who writes on the subject, I know how hard it is to explain/handle, and you’ve done an excellent job explaining the issues.

    Sort of connected to this is how the near-rape scene in BeruBara and the rape scenes in Ooku are different–even though Oscar and Andre are the same gender (but not the same sex) and a lot of the characters in Ooku are gender-neutral in attitude and/or appearance, those works use the theme of rape to bring out sex/gender differences. (Wayyy to complicated for a comment, but still.)

    First, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality without fear of being criticized. Second, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality in a way that doesn’t reiterate and reinforce the unequal power dynamic between the sexes that is on display in so many other realms of cultural, social, political, and religious discourse.

    I think this is also why non-pornographic BL works (that is romances or stories about male-male couples) are also popular with women. When I read Yoshinaga Fumi’s 『きのう、何を食べた?』, I feel like don’t have to worry about the interaction of sex-based gender roles expression and cooking because Shiro and Kenji are both men. I suppose there is a cultural connection between gay men and cooking, but Yoshinaga’s characterization of the two men is such that I don’t connect them to the stereotype. Shiro is sort of gender-neutral (young-looking and handsome, but neither manly nor feminine), is a lawyer, and loves to cook; Kenji acts more flamboyantly in comparison and is a hair-dresser, but he reveals that he’s a top–and can also cook. It’s just like they’re real people–imagine that! ;)

    (This in comparison to, say, Otomen, where Masamune is an athletic herbivore man who cooks cute things and his love interest is a tomboy who can’t do anything domestic well. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s more gender-based role-reversal than Kenji and Shiro.)

  5. Wasp says:

    “When a man and a woman are involved, there is a perceived unequal power dynamic between them that has still persisted into what some believe to be a post-feminist world. Since this gap in power and social status does not necessarily exist between two men, it is created through rape.”

    I do not really understand why you wrote that “does not NECESSARILY exist between to men”; you are talking about yaoi which is a product of Japanese culture and one of the first things anyone learns about Japan and/or Japanese culture is the strong hierarchy in it. Hierarchy exists everywhere and it is easily observed even in yaoi manga and it is never the person with a lower status (whether it is because of their job, background or height) that performs the rape (or act of love or however one wants to describe it).

    It also seems like you are completely disregarding that not all women will view a rape which involes a female victim traumatic; some view all kind of rapes as traumatizing and bad. Thus you implying that yaoi normalizing fantasy rape can even be a good thing is not only untrue but illogical.

    Lastly I would also point out that rape in Japanese literature is not uncommon and it is less seen as violence towards someone than it is a declaration of love. It seems like this is what you were trying to say too but I think it would have been beneficial if you had mentioned the role rape has in Japanese literature instead of only focusing how it is shown in pop culture.

    I sincerely apologize if I come off as hostile, it is completely unintentional.

    • Kathryn says:

      one of the first things anyone learns about Japan and/or Japanese culture is the strong hierarchy in it

      Yes, this is a common stereotype, isn’t it? I would argue that we also operate under a strongly hierarchical social structure in America as well; we just have a different way of expressing it through language and behavior. In Japan, as in America, there are times when this hierarchical social structure breaks down (or is allowed to break down), as well as times when it simply doesn’t apply. There are social scientists who believe that an unequal power dynamic will always exist between two or more people, but their belief is not limited to (and usually has nothing to do with) Japan. Characterizing an entire nation of individuals based on “one of the first things anyone learns” is cultural essentialism, and I try to avoid it. I agree with you that yaoi narratives often create romantic friction and sexual tension through a dominant/subordinate character dynamic, but this is a common narrative device in Western romantic fiction and not unique to Japan.

      It also seems like you are completely disregarding that not all women will view a rape which involes a female victim traumatic; some view all kind of rapes as traumatizing and bad. Thus you implying that yaoi normalizing fantasy rape can even be a good thing is not only untrue but illogical.

      I am uncomfortably aware of this concern, and I tried to address it in my discussion of trigger warnings. It is perfectly understandable and acceptable for someone of any gender to be upset by an implied or graphic depiction of rape, which is why I expressed the desire that trigger warnings be applied to manga. If we lived in a perfect world, they wouldn’t be applied just to yaoi narratives but to heterosexual romances like Hot Gimmick as well.

      it would have been beneficial if you had mentioned the role rape has in Japanese literature instead of only focusing how it is shown in pop culture.

      It’s difficult to make generalizations about two millennia of Japanese literature. Before I even started to discuss the role rape plays in Japanese literature, I would need to specify what works I was talking about, and when they were written, and who wrote them, and what I felt they had in common. The ways in which rape is depicted in “pop culture” is another huge topic that I couldn’t even begin to address. I only scratched a tiny area of the surface with this essay, which is why divergent opinions and further research are absolutely necessary to gain a broader perspective.

      I don’t think you’re coming off as hostile. I really appreciate your comment! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to share your own arguments.

  6. Wasp says:

    Thank you for the answer; it was very interesting to read. I’m not familiar with the american social culture (I’m not American, as you probably guessed) but I completely agree that in all countries and in all cultures there is hierarchical social structure. But I think in some cultures it’s much more obvious and japanese culture is one of them. I agree that there are situations where the structure can break down but I think they are very rare and doesn’t have that much to do with rape in yaoi since even in a homosexual relationship there can be, and is, a social hierarchy which is not necessarily to remove. As an example I would like to point out how the people in the relationship refer to each other and the languages they use.

    I know that it is a very common opinion that in a homosexual relationship the social hierarchy is smaller than in a heterosexual relationship or even non-existant. I don’t agree with it but I haven’t researched it either so…

    I forgot to thank you the first time for writing the essay; it was interesting to read even though I don’t agree with you. And thank you again for commenting.

  7. barnchak says:

    i totally love this post of yours ….so informative and a refreshing opinion on the rape trope in yaoi :D …. specially after i’ve read so many negative posts and opinions on this trope :D

  8. ニコニコ says:

    [Yaoi] allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality in a way that doesn’t reiterate and reinforce the unequal power dynamic between the sexes that is on display in so many other realms of cultural, social, political, and religious discourse.

    I’m not sure this is true. The sexual/emotional dynamic in yaoi is similar in many respects to the dynamic found in some more ‘mainstream’ shojo narratives. Both are aimed at girls or young women, after all. Like in shojo, the central couple in yaoi often has a passive character and an active character. In shojo, the protagonist is the ‘passive’ character, the love-lorn girl; the ‘active’ character is the boy she loves. The boy may seem more ‘active’ then he really is because he’s not the POV character, we don’t know his feelings about the girl until he (invariably) confesses and becomes the instigator of the relationship. Likewise, the girl may seem more ‘passive’ because she is afraid that, after confessing, she will be rejected (protagonists of shojo manga are usually “eccentric” in some way – ie: not traditionally pretty, or with a weird hobby or hangup).

    But what is very characteristic of a lot of the yaoi I’ve read is that the POV character tends to take on this passive role associated with the girls in shojo – he is the one with the deep, paralyzing feelings of love. Likewise, the object of the protagonist’s love tends to be something of a cipher – in this case, the POV boy not only obsesses whether or not the other boy likes him, but also whether he likes boys as well. This dynamic is externalized, is taken beyond the emotional realm, when it is consummated sexually. The POV character is the bottom, stereotypically though of course not IRL, the ‘passive’ sexual role; the beloved is the ‘active’ top.

    In some shojo (not all of it definitely, but the stuff that tries to be edgier, the stuff that tried to situate itself in a yankii milieu, knee socks, bad boys, etc.. you mention Hot Gimmick.) the sex between the central couple, when it comes, is often portrayed as rape, or something approaching rape. Not only is the boy insensitive to the girl’s feelings – he is often more experienced then her and she is often not ready, physically, emotionally, for it – but he forces himself on her. The girl is ‘passive,’ the boy is ‘active.’ As a reader, one is of course supposed to relate to the girl – the story is from her perspective and we have been getting intimate insights into her private emotional life.

    What is clear to me, reading yaoi, is that the reader is supposed to relate to the ‘passive’ POV character – the character who is raped. Like in shojo, we get intimate insights into this character’s emotional life – his fears, desires, insecurities. We are privy to his justifications for the thrilling humiliation, the pain and pleasure, he feels when in bed with his beloved.

    In other words, yaoi is gendered heterosexually. The central couple is male only as far as physical appearance and equipment. For all intents and purposes, this is a heterosexual couple as portrayed in shojo media. This is true in how they screw, how they talk, and how they act around each other. What makes yaoi so effective I think, where fujoshi are concerned, is that it often apes these conventions. The character types fill the same molds – and the reader is meant to relate to the one who is gendered female. It perpetuates these traditional sexual roles – the girl, the bottom, is penetrated during sex is therefore passive (not just sexually; emotionally and socially too); the boy, the top, penetrates during sex is therefore active (sexually, emotionally, socially).

    When configuring yaoi as harmless kink, a safe place for female fans, and refuting objections to yaoi as ‘kink-shaming’ you are glossing over something crucial. You write: “…the fantasy of rape enacted on an attractive male body is less threatening because it doesn’t bring with it the baggage of real world rape culture.” What I think you’re failing to note here, which is something very important, is that the bodies the rape is enacted on in yaoi are not just male bodies, they are feminized male bodies. They are ontologically much closer to female bodies in how they’re used, by the characters in the story and the (female) readers themselves.

    Yaoi does not propose an alternate, opposing configuration of the common, misogynistic culture of rape (but let’s be honest, sex in general) in the mainstream. Rather, it presents the exact same configuration but with the some external aspects changed. (two boys rather than 1 boy 1 girl).

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I am in fact currently writing (well, currently procrastinating on writing) a chapter of my dissertation about yaoi dōjinshi. I have been scanning the internet for sources on the position you articulated, but I haven’t find anyone who has stated it as well as you. Do you mind if I quote you?

      Anyway, you have a good point about the POV character being the passive partner more often than not. I agree with you that this is often the case for stand-alone yaoi manga, but it’s my experience that it can go either way in yaoi dōjinshi. For example, in Tiger & Bunny dōjinshi, either Kotetsu or Barnaby can be characterized as or put in the physical position of the uke, but either (or neither or both) can be the POV character regardless of uke-ness.

      In any case, I think the uke character type has a few major differences with the passive shōjo love interest character type (as presented in het romance manga like Kimi ni todoke or even yuri romance manga like Blue Friend). In fact, in many yaoi dōjinshi based on shōnen manga, the character traits that distinguish a certain character as masculine in the original work are often retained in fan work that depicts the character as an uke. I’m looking at dōjinshi based on xxxHolic in particular, but the same is true for dōjinshi based on, for example, Shōnen Jump manga like Naruto or Bleach.

      Also, in a more general sense, it’s not that the character is “passive” because the character is female, but rather that the character is “passive” because the character is passive. You’re arguing that this difference only exists on a superficial level; but, to me, this difference is still a big deal no matter how superficial it is. This is what I was trying to stress in the original context of my statement. You can love the passive partner/aggressive partner dynamic but still get sick of “passive partner” characterizations always being inscribed onto the body of female characters. To inscribe this designation onto a male body is a fairly radical act, even if – perhaps especially if – that male body is feminized.

      There is a huge range of yaoi out there, and there is a ton of stuff that completely eschews uke/seme tropes. According to the most recent academic literature on yaoi, there is an increasingly wide range of readers as well, including younger gay men who aren’t interested in the sort of gay manga created by artists like Hirosegawa Susumu and Tagame Gengorō. To say, as an unqualified statement, that “yaoi is gendered heterosexually,” one would have to be of the mindset that there is always a passive partner, and that this passive partner is always depicted and read as female. That in and of itself is a pretty strong hermeneutic bias.

      • ニコニコ says:

        Thanks for the response!

        Yeah, it is a pretty big hermaneutic bias – I didn’t mean it to come off as quite as much of a wash as it did, and there are obviously exceptions. I think I stand by it in a general way though… Even though the characters in yaoi don’t closely approach any sort of psychological or emotional reality, I still feel pretty strongly that they’re objectified as gay men. One of the ways I think this is accomplished is for the characters to resemble the way the heterosexual characters act in shojo manga and the like. Of course the characters in shojo manga don’t act like real people anyways… yaoi just maps it onto a different sexual dynamic. I know it’s a pretty big leap, but it makes sense to me in the context of this sub-culture in particular because we don’t see a lot of positive or realistic representations or gay characters in a popular way in Japan. And, when coupled with the historical stereotype of same-sex relationships here (I’m thinking of the Ihara Saikaku stories and certain Buddhist texts) namely that they’re inherently pure, ineffable, prone to tragedy, etc., I think it makes sense that authors of yaoi can map the relationships in their stories onto this dynamic but still make their readers aware that the characters are ‘gay’ or at least doing something non-traditional and taboo in an exciting way.

        I also think I was using the term yaoi in a more restrictive way – as in referring specifically to media about male-male -sexual- relationships with an emphasis on the sex scenes, and the largest part of the story constructed as a lead up to these sex scenes (the porn, basically). There’re definitely lots of different kinds of manga/anime/etc about male-male relationships that focus on different aspects of the relationship or the social millieu of the characters. I’m not super familiar with dōjinshi to be honest, but I wouldn’t be surprised that there is a wider range of representations in that context.

        There’s also bara of course – similar to yaoi but intended for a gay audience. I actually find it not to be as plagued with potential landmines as yaoi is, although there is definite skeezieness sometimes. In general though I think it paints a more generous, rounder-edged picture of the relationships, even when they adhere to the whole passive/aggressive dynamic. Or at least they are more connected to what I would consider a realistic picture of gay life and gay relationships because they don’t exist for the titillation of straight ladies. I think this is why, as a gay guy, yaoi turns my stomach so much. Bara is for ME!

        • ニコニコ says:

          Also, is there a more private channel to get in touch with you re: your dissertation? I’m interested in what sources you’re working with and may have some ideas! I’ve done some writing on similar topics…

          • Kathryn says:

            Thank you for your response! Seriously. What a pleasure it is to meet an intelligent and articulate stranger on the internet. If you go to the “About” section of this site, copy my name, and then paste it into Google, you will find my email address. I would love to hear from you.

        • Kathryn says:

          Let me tell you about my own hermeneutic bias. As a queer-identified female who has been involved in various realms of fandom since I first connected to the internet at twelve years old, I have witnessed not only major changes in the way that fandom operates but also major changes in the way fandom affects the production of mainstream media. In my experience, slash culture (which had merged with yaoi culture by the time I entered high school) was a way for female fans to band together and create their own space within fandom, which was incredibly misogynistic and homophobic even ten years ago. Slash fandom spawned broader gynocentric fandoms, Livejournal and Pixiv came online and were colonized by female fans, and now there’s almost no difference between “male fandom” and “female fandom” (except in weird holdouts, such as certain video game forums).

          I’m not trying to say that fantasy m/m rape is ideologically innocent, but it’s a piece of the puzzle of influence that’s made fandom – and, to a certain extent, mainstream media – less misogynistic and heteronormative and more queer-tolerant. Although I understand that constructed fantasies of homosexuality and rape are nothing if not problematic, in practical terms, they’re helping many more people than they’re hurting. If you tell me that a defining characteristic of a culture of women and men who made the world more feminist-positive in important and tangible ways is bad, my first response is to get defensive.

          It’s also my experience that bara manga is not entirely unproblematic, but I haven’t read a great deal of it, and I also feel uncomfortable discussing it because I am not the intended audience by any stretch of the imagination. I try not to talk about bara for the same reasons that I don’t like it when dudes talk about yaoi – which is not to say that men can’t talk about it, because people like Matt Thorn and Keith Vincent and Jeffrey Angles are awesome.

          Anyway, there are always going to be more straight characters than gay characters, but I think there are plenty of positive portrayals of gay men and women in contemporary popular literature, such as the bestselling novels of Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana and Miyabe Miyuki. I also think the Ihara Saikaku stereotype of m/m relationships is just that, a stereotype. There are plenty of Buddhist-themed setsuwa and emaki depicting relationships between monks and acolytes that are anything but pure and ineffable (although tragedy is in the eye of the beholder); and, if homosociality is read as implied homosexuality, there are plenty of gay characters in premodern Japanese literature – there are literal armies of them in The Tale of the Heike alone.

          I accept your proposal of restricting the definition of “yaoi” to “porn,” but I still think we might run into the problem of defining “porn.” Is it porn if there is one explicit sex scene in a 250-page tankōbon? Is it porn if sexual excitement is shown but there are no actual depictions of penises? Is it porn if two dudes kiss chastely (as Apple and Amazon seem to think it is)? Even if we use the widest possible definition of “porn,” I think only about 50% (at most) of manga classified as BL is “yaoi.” There are many “generous, rounder-edged pictures” of m/m relationships in BL manga, and a significant portion of these stories are even written by men.

          What I’m trying to say is that it’s difficult to make broad generalizations, but it’s fair to say that, although there is tons of explicit porn, there are also tons of titles that contain no pornographic elements at all, and then there is tons of stuff in between. I imagine that the same range of content exists for bara as well – and let’s be honest, oh man is there a lot of bara porn out there.

          Finally, lots of not-so-straight girls read and write and draw slash and yaoi too, because lesbian and yuri literature/fic/manga/porn have their own weird set of cultures that can alienate queer girls just like the cultures of gay and bara literature/fic/manga/porn can alienate queer guys. It’s almost like BL is more mainstream (or at least has a wider range of tropes and genres to choose from) without being completely heteronormative. That’s why I like it, at least.

          • ニコニコ says:

            Before getting to the meat of this discussion, it’s probably necessary to clear up two points that can be used to derail it.

            First: the terminology is getting a little muddy. There are obviously fine lines between what ‘porn’ is, and everyone has different opinions and boundaries – what is that famous quote, “I don’t know what porn is, but I’ll know it when I see it,” or whatever. The term ‘yaoi’ refers to a subset of BL that has explicit sex scenes – in other words, not just two guys chastely kissing or whatever, but depicting and focusing on the sex scenes in a way that moves beyond the characters’ emotional and psychological motivations.

            Secondly, the historical aspect of the argument. For me, what makes yaoi quantifiably different from popular conceptions of male same-sex relationships in print in the past is the audience. By definition, yaoi is made by and consumed by a specific audience of people who share that interest – or who, in the case of doujinshi, etc. share a passion for some particular source material be it TV drama, anime, or manga. Ihara Saikaku on the other hand was writing popular fiction for a wide, diverse, audience. So of course that became a stereotype, and of course the overall shape of the narratives – the evolution of the relationships – became codified in his fiction and his imitators’. What are you referring to exactly when you refer to stuff that is “anything but pure and ineffable?” What pops into my something like Kinō wa kyō no monogatari, which are sexually explicit satiric vignettes about (among others) monks frolicking with young acolytes. These was also meant for and consumed by a pretty wide audience – the target of the satire, the monks who were supposed to be chaste but can’t help themselves when they see a tempting boy – were figures of religious and political authority and therefore ripe for the skewer. I was probably in the wrong to bring up these historical examples in the last response – Kinō wa kyō no monogatari for example is actively engaged with political and social reality in a way that yaoi in general is not. If yaoi is engaged at all, it is, as you say, more indirectly. From what I understand, you are saying the authors of yaoi are more interested in providing an alternate narrative of relationship and sex tropes than directly commenting on the mainstream one.

            *

            But, I’m unclear on exactly what exactly this alternate narrative is. It’s not enough to say that just because there are two guys as opposed to one guy and one girl there’s a big difference. Because, in practice, there really isn’t – the sexual dynamics in the average yaoi share a lot with the sexual dynamics in the average shoujo in that there is an aggressive figure and a passive figure. What I keep coming back to are the rape tropes. Yaoi doesn’t ‘comment’ on the rape tropes found (or implied) in popular media – it perpetuates them. And I can’t see how these tropes can be seen as a positive aspect of yaoi, or empowering for the readers and writers. They perpetuate harmful stereotypes about both gay relationships and straight relationships.

            In general yaoi and all its variants have definitely given a medium for girls and women to express themselves in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to in the past, and doujinshi/online forums have given them outlets to do it in. I think we agree in principal this is a good thing – not only that these people have free reign to do so but to meet like-minded friends in safe places. Safe places can be breeding grounds for empowering ideas and help to nurture valuable alternative viewpoints to accepted (in this case heteronormative) narratives and stereotypes. But in practice for yaoi this is not necessarily the case.

            It’s a granted that the voices of women have been marginalized in the past and are marginalized now. But it’s also important to remember that gay voices have been marginalized in the past and are marginalized now. Why should it be a ‘positive’ thing for one oppressed group to capitalize on the perceived experience of another, especially when it traffics in such harmful stereotypes?
            This is problematic because there are virtually no positive images of gay people (or queer people generally) in popular culture. I disagree with you when you cite those in Murakami, Yoshimoto, et al as ‘positive’ examples of gay characters. Lesbians, objectified by the Murakami’s crusty gaze? A harmless (but of course, inevitably murdered) transvestite, a totem to engender a whimsical, quaint atmosphere in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen? These are images of queer people reproduced by and for het people. We see few queer images in the mainstream in Japan – it’s getting better, but it certainly isn’t thanks to yaoi. It’s thanks to people like Ishikawa Taiga.

            This is because yaoi is just another example of het people (or predominantly het people) co-opting gay images and characters and exploiting them for their own fantasies. When I bring up yaoi to my gay friends in Japan I often hear a story something along these lines: When they were young, and beginning to get an inkling that they might be gay, they turned to yaoi or yaoi-like culture to see what life might be like they were older. Or at least as a kind of self-reflective exercise to see how mainstream society saw them. (Apart from the vamping comedians on primetime TV, knowingly playing into stereotypes of gay people, this is pretty much the extent of gay images in the easy reach here.) Of course, after a short time they turned away from yaoi, for obvious reasons. They realized it wasn’t intended for them. There is a profound gap here in popular culture where queer voices should be. I’m not saying that yaoi narratives should step up and fill in this gap, but there’s also no way it can substitute for it –because it perpetuates these toxic stereotypes about queer people. Queer voices have continued to be marginalized, and it isn’t fair to say, as you seem to be, that through the community involved with yaoi they have found an outlet or a safe place.

            This is why it’s not enough that yaoi may provide a community for female fans to explore alternative ideas about sex dynamics. Although fans may protest that yaoi ‘isn’t meant to show gay men and gay realities’ or that ‘it’s harmless kink’ it does have wider social implications beyond the fan base, and those implications are not positive or constructive. When people see yaoi, and it’s objectified, frankly malevolent, configurations of sex and male-male relationships as the ‘alternative’ to mainstream conceptions of het sex and het relationships, it shows just how marginalized queer voices and ideas are, and how how little yaoi does to help.

            • Kathryn says:

              Thank you for taking into account the wide range of Japanese and Western usage of the word yaoi while offering your definition of the term, and thank you for your concrete definition of “pornography” as well. That clears things up significantly.

              I really appreciate your explanation of queer female sexuality as well. As a member of the female fandom community, I find that male outsiders understand us much better than we understand ourselves. Have you read A Billion Wicked Thoughts? Perhaps you might enjoy it.

              I’ve read quite a bit of BL manga, but I’m afraid I’ve somehow missed the “toxic stereotypes about queer people” and “objectified, frankly malevolent, configurations of sex and male-male relationships” to which you’re referring. I would be happy to read any titles you might offer. In any case, it’s a good thing that queer-identified people have quality publications like G-men to help keep things real.

              …You’re basing your arguments on stereotypes, you’re forcing all queer identity into one narrow bracket, you’re mansplaining female sexuality, and you’re using identity politics to accuse me of derailing a conversation that I myself started. This has ceased to be purely academic, and you don’t get to comment anymore.

  9. Kitty says:

    ED brought me here and… you really seem to believe what you are writing, I admire that. That’s about the only positive thing I can think of though. So farewell, ugh

  10. Kugatsu says:

    In most of the yaoi that I have read, there was always a feminine character out of the two men which usually implies that he shall take the female role in the relationship so I believe there is still that unequal power by gender still going on even though there both men. Because the female has already been astablished. I’m not exactly fond of these types a mangas. I prefer manly character NOT characters in a manga with buff hairy men( forgot the word for these types of mangas).

  11. venus says:

    what is the name of that?? I meant the yaoi manga…I would like to read it.

  12. Steven says:

    Yaoi/BL fangirls will often try to pull arguments such as yours and treat boy’s love as an “escape” or as “liberation”. They will try to deflect criticism by saying that it’s not aimed in any way towards Queer men and their experiences. What this ultimately shows is heterosexism and the complete disregard of LGBT people, their lives and their struggles in a universally-toxic world.

    Pray tell, where do you think the most damaging images of minorities originate from? Do you think that racist and objectifying television shows and movies in white-majority countries are made by and for POC? The answer is no. They are made by and for white people as a fantasy and blanket generalization of what they “consider” to be proper and adequate interpretations of POC. The exact same situation occurs in yaoi/BL

    The reality is that no, yaoi/BL exists precisely because Queer men exist, and ergo it is as much about them as it is about non-Queer women consuming it as the target audience. When your product is entirely about people such as myself and the experiences that we go through, the way we love, and how we are involved in a society, then yes, it IS about us. When my sexuality is treated as a grossly stereotypical and offensive cliche and perpetuating incredibly damaging portrayals, then it IS about us.

    • Steven says:

      And on your argument that porn by and for gay men is much more “objectifying” than yaoi/BL – I will contest that statement. I also find it in very poor taste your usage of infamous Kuso Miso Technique as an example.

      Products made within a minority community with the intent to be purchased and enjoyed within said community can never objectify. They may adhere to specific “cliches” or portray an idealized image, but they will never be able to reach a level of true sexual objectification. The only way to reach this status is as an outsider, i.e. F/F pornography by and for heterosexual men or yaoi/BL by and for heterosexual women. Gei comi/bara as a whole is inherently unable to objectify.

      • Kathryn says:

        I also find it in very poor taste your usage of infamous Kuso Miso Technique as an example.

        I completely understand how you might find that particular one-shot manga distasteful.

        On the other hand, one might argue that, as a “product made within a minority community with the intent to be purchased and enjoyed within said community,” Yamakawa Junichi’s work is not in fact distasteful; because, although it “may adhere to specific ‘cliches’ or portray an idealized image,” it “will never be able to reach a level of true sexual objectification.”

    • Kathryn says:

      Okay, here we go again.

      The assumptions on which you are basing your opinions seem to be, in no particular order:

      (1) There is a clear dichotomy between male and female.
      (2) There is a clear dichotomy between gay and straight.
      (3) Everyone who writes BL is female.
      (4) Everyone who writes BL is straight.
      (5) Everyone who reads BL is female.
      (6) Everyone who reads BL is straight.

      All of these assumptions are factually incorrect. Let’s move on.

      (7) You can draw a clear parallel between being gay and being a person of color.

      There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to begin, so let’s not go there.

      (8) Gay men cannot objectify other gay men.

      There are all sorts of gay pornographic magazines all around the world; and, unless all of the men involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of these gay pornographic magazines are straight, including the totally straight men depicted as having all sorts of gay sex with other totally straight men (I apologize if my use of irony here seems to deny the existence of gay pornographic magazines meant for straight men, because that was not my intention), then the gay men participating in the production of these magazines are using the same sorts of objectifying strategies used in straight pornographic magazines. If there’s another word for the result of these objectifying strategies besides “objectification,” I will use that word instead, but whatever is going on is eerily similar to objectification.

      In any case, please take my word for it that both queer and straight women are perfectly capable of objectifying other women. In fact, for better or worse, it happens all the damn time. If gay men as a unified collective entity with have figured out a way not to objectify each other for fun and profit, they might be able do the world a huge amount of good by sharing how it’s done.

      (9) All BL is about gay men raping one another.

      Not only is a great deal of BL erotica not about rape, but a great deal of BL is not erotica. I say “a great deal” instead of using an expression like “most” or “a large percentage of” because BL is a very broad label that includes all sorts of material, and I have no way to read or otherwise familiarize myself with every single BL title. Some artists specialize in rape and/or erotica, and some only dabble in it, and some tenaciously avoid it. Different publishers and magazines focus on different themes, and their focuses can change from year to year. Furthermore, different themes can and do serve multiple purposes.

      Even if a disproportionate percentage of the BL that gets translated into foreign languages features nonconsensual (or dubiously consensual) sex, there are still enough translated titles that focus on completely consensual sex or contain no sex at all for even an avid BL fan to avoid it if he or she so chooses.

      (10) Every portrayal of gay male sexuality from a female perspective should be disregarded.

      I would never presume to speak as a gay male; but, as a self-identified queer woman, I don’t personally find every one of the wildly varying portrayals of homosexuality in BL manga to be offensive. As I wrote above, an incredibly broad range of material is categorized as BL, and this material includes stories of teenage boys struggling with their sexuality in the face of societal pressure, college students coming out to their friends and families and receiving mixed reactions, and men raising children together. Again, not all BL writers and readers are female, but female fantasies of being masculinity and/or homosexuality aren’t all about wanking to cute boys raping each other into heteronormative relationships with clearly defined gender roles.

      If the portrayal of two men in a long-term loving and consensual relationship that can survive the expressly stated challenges of homophobia and heteronormativity is necessarily about “heterosexism and the complete disregard of LGBT people” and “a grossly stereotypical and offensive cliche and perpetuating incredibly damaging portrayals” if it’s written by a woman, though, that’s sad.

      Also, if every queer character written by a (presumably cisgendered?) straight writer is somehow derogatory to all queer people, then we’re either going to have to get rid of a lot of pre-existing and potential queer characters or create some sort of litmus test to definitively prove the sexual orientations of people who write fiction and screenplays and graphic novels and so on in order to prevent them from writing outside their genders.

      And then what are you going to do with the male and female fans who actively queer male and female characters in mainstream media? I mean, are you going to tell them to stop being so gay, because they don’t get to be gay, unless they’re actually gay, and only then if they’re the right type of gay, because you know more about their gayness than they do? That hardly seems fair.

      (11) People who read and write BL hate gay men.

      I will admit that I have absolutely no data to back this up, but it’s been my sense that there’s a very strong overlap between female BL and slash fandoms and social justice communities, at least on Livejournal/Dreamwidth and Tumblr. In other words, the more tolerant people are to portrayals of non-normative and queer sexuality, the more tolerant they are towards social and political issues related to non-normative and queer sexuality. On the other hand, the people who hate slash and BL tend to hate it either because they think queer sexuality is disgusting or because they think female sexuality is disgusting.

      What I was trying to do with this essay was to move beyond discussions of how gross and creepy and immoral people with non-normative sexualities are and thereby gain a better understanding of how erotic fantasies can fulfill different social and emotional needs while taking steps towards engendering a more accepting and accommodating view of the wide spectrum of sexualities at play in BL narratives.

      In the essay, I did my best not to make overgeneralizations or to construct stereotypes, as I believe the sort of mindset that relies on such cognitive shortcuts to be counterproductive to a project of destigmatization. Since you’ve responded with comments containing aggressive overgeneralizations, I can’t help but feel that your own preconceived notions of gender and sexuality caused you to miss the entire point of what I wrote.

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