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).