Drawn Together

The surging popularity of yaoi—graphic boy-on-boy comics—might be the genre's downfall


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The proliferation of young fans has already led to the shutdown of a few beloved yaoi Web sites when outraged parents figured out what their kids were looking at and started making threats.
The convention Web site has a note and link posted prominently: "Why is Yaoi-Con 18+? See the California Penal Code 313-313.5."

According to that section of California law, it's a crime to sell or exhibit "harmful matter" to a minor — meaning material that appeals to prurient interests, which depicts or describes sexual conduct, and which "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." The punishment for doing so is a fine of up to $2,000 and up to a year in county jail. And while the staff of Yaoi-Con is happy to make the case for the genre's literary and artistic merits, the convention's organizers have apparently decided they would rather not have the discussion in court.

These yaoi books push past taboos with love stories that pair stepbrothers, a boy and his magically transformed dog, and a teacher and his high school student.
These yaoi books push past taboos with love stories that pair stepbrothers, a boy and his magically transformed dog, and a teacher and his high school student.

Some material at the convention does push the boundaries not just of taste, but also of morality and legality. On Saturday afternoon, for example, a small knot of viewers gathers in the video room for the screening of a short anime film called Papa to Kiss in the Dark. The glamorous, movie star father pushes his 15-year-old son down on the couch in front of a fireplace, and lowers his face toward his son's crotch. The boy's protestations die away — he has already admitted his desire to be "papa's bride." The animators don't graphically depict the action: In the "sex scene" a few minutes later, the image of a rosebud dropping from its stem fills the screen, and the viewers in the video room giggle. The young protagonist has been deflowered.

Yaoi is certainly not the only type of manga or anime to knock down sexual taboos. If you've watched enough anime, you've probably encountered "tentacle rape," in which an alien creature forces itself upon a struggling woman. Rape and sadomasochism are common manga themes, and the genre called Lolicon gratifies men's Lolita fantasies about underage girls. But yaoi is currently a hot topic of discussion in the comic and book publishing worlds, where outside observers are surprised to find that young girls can enjoy violent homoerotic fantasies, and where thoughtful fans explain that it can be empowering to see a man forced into a subservient position. (Those positions can get very subservient indeed: A notorious anime titled My Sexual Harassment includes a revenge scenario in which one man is tied down and anally raped with a corncob — a scene that's the source of endless hilarity to yaoi admirers.)

In the U.S., there have been a few legal cases regarding manga, but none yet specifically concerning yaoi. In 2000, a comic store owner in Houston, Texas, sold two sexual manga comics to an undercover police officer, and was promptly arrested on the charge of disseminating obscenity. The New York-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund rushed in to help on behalf of the store owner, arguing in court that he had sold the comics to an adult, and that the books were properly shrink-wrapped and labeled to keep kids from getting into them. The Texas jury was not convinced. "The prosecution closed by saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we appeal to your common sense,'" recalls Charles Brownstein, the defense fund's executive director. "They said, 'Comics are for kids, they put this filth in this media that appeals to kids, and we can't allow them to get away with this.'" The jury delivered a guilty verdict within a few hours.

Brownstein says he's relieved that there haven't been any cases related to yaoi, but that it may just be a matter of time. The genre's characters are often high school boys, which in the U.S. makes the work subject to obscenity and child pornography laws. "It may be that prosecutors just aren't aware of it yet," he says.

The federal government got tangled up in the debate in 2003, when Congress passed the PROTECT Act ("PROTECT" stands for "Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today"). "It's a frustrating law, because half of the law makes good sense," Brownstein says. It increases prison sentences for child molesters and establishes a national coordinator for the Amber Alert system used to broadcast information about abducted children. But it also outlaws computer-generated images, drawings, and sculptures that show a minor in an obscene position or engaged in a sex act.

"I think the law goes too far when it criminalizes lines on paper," says Brownstein. "Child pornography is an indefensible, inexcusable crime that is evidence of the sexual exploitation of children. Anime, comics, and manga are ideas that exist nowhere except [in] the minds of the reader and the author." While it's natural for people to respond strongly to images they find disturbing, he says, "to a certain degree, it becomes a battle between the legitimate protection of minors and thought crime."

But some child advocates say the images themselves can be dangerous. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a tip line that receives almost 2,000 reports each week about online evidence of the sexual exploitation of minors, which includes reports about manga and anime.

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