The ponderous glass chandeliers dim in the hotel ballroom as the emcee takes the stage in front of a chattering crowd. It’s past 10 on a Saturday night, and time to give the attendees what they’ve been waiting for since the convention began on Friday afternoon: “fanservice.”
“I know you’ve all been having fun so far, because there’s been a lot of discussion of DICK,” the announcer says, with a grin for the crowd. “There’s also been some discussion of COCK. But the primary topic of discussion has been about . . . ” — he holds the microphone out to the audience.
“BUTT SEX!” shriek almost 2,000 women, rearing up from their chairs. This isn’t a convention of wild, wanton sodomites, however; these women aren’t clamoring to perform the act themselves. Instead they want to see, read, and think about the man-on-man version.
The event is Yaoi-Con 6, an annual gathering of those who live for yaoi — Japanese comics that tell stories of beautiful young men falling desperately, passionately in love, and often having enthusiastic butt sex. The twist is that the comics are created almost entirely by women artists and writers for an audience that’s primarily female, satisfying a craving that few knew existed. Each October, the most dedicated fans pay $60 for a weekend pass and often travel across the country to gather in a pair of bland hotels across from the San Francisco International Airport for “a celebration of male beauty and passion,” as the convention’s Web site explains it.
The genre bubbled up in the United States as an Internet-fueled, underground fan phenomenon over the past decade, and began seeping into the mainstream only in the last three years, when importers and publishers of manga — the umbrella term for Japanese comics — realized that the market was there. Since 2003, at least five new publishing companies or imprints have launched to bring English-language yaoi to the fans, and they say they can’t publish quickly enough to keep up with demand.
The books are also becoming increasingly popular with preteens and teenagers, creating an audible split in the fan base: The word yaoi is pronounced “yah-oi” by those with some knowledge of Japanese, and “yowee” by the legions of young girls who discover it on the Internet before they’ve ever tasted sushi. While some older fans who’ve come to Yaoi-Con since its beginning in 2001 are irritated by the infusion of giggly youth, they’re concerned about more than just the expansion of a previously exclusive club: Underage fans put the genre as a whole at risk. Since mainstream stores like Borders started stocking their shelves with yaoi, it’s become much easier for teenagers to bring home books that look like harmless comics to their parents, but which often feature graphic sex scenes. 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.
While one should never underestimate the anger of a cultural conservative forced to confront gay sex, yaoi can also push the buttons of people who consider themselves open-minded. The broad genre encompasses a number of titles that go no further than light romance, but others deal with unsettling themes like rape, incest, and bestiality. Add in the fact that many of the boys drawn in the manga style look like they’re about 12 or are identified as being under 18, and it begins to seem like yaoi is inviting lawsuits.
The genre has reached that difficult passage where many subcultures have foundered, in which surging popularity makes old fans feel uncomfortably crowded. But yaoi has an especially tricky course to chart: The source of its appeal, the touch of sexual subversion, also has the capacity to destroy it.
The American version of yaoi has two antecedents, one on each side of the Pacific Ocean. The word yaoi is a dismissive acronym from the Japanese phrase “no climax, no point, no meaning.” In Japan, critics applied the term to the amateur comics created by fans in the 1970s who took two male characters from preexisting manga and threw them together. Some of those first comics may have been short on plot or depth, but as the genre proliferated and talented artists got involved, the quality quickly rose.
For many Japanese fans, yaoi was a way to escape the confining story lines of shojo, manga intended for girls. In those books, the male almost always took charge, and if the female had the bad fortune to fall in love, she quickly turned into a blathering idiot. As the first yaoi authors began to gather fans, Japanese publishers helped some of them turn pro, publishing their work in magazines and manga compilations. The new stories were angsty and romantic: Boys fell in love despite their best intentions, and, after brief struggles with their feelings, plunged into deep, soulful bliss.
Meanwhile, in the United States, women were playing with slash fiction — that is, stories in which male pop culture characters hooked up (for example, Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock). Yet yaoi and slash involve little casual sex. When couples couple, it’s an emotional maelstrom; even after a rape scene, the two men lie tenderly in each other’s arms and profess their love. It’s a visual treat with an emotional payoff, a dynamite combination for the ladies.
Untranslated Japanese comics began to arrive in the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s. With the arrival of the Internet came a new labor of love — the “scanlation,” for which die-hard fans scanned each page of a comic and painstakingly added translations. To avoid such toil, Americans began writing English-language slash based on their favorite characters from anime (Japan’s animated TV shows and films) and manga.
“Then Gundam Wing happened,” explains Eliza Cameron, whose manuscript on the history of yaoi is being considered by a Berkeley publisher. In 2000, the sci-fi anime series about a team of teenage fighter pilots began airing on the Cartoon Network, and thousands of new fans ventured online to look for pictures of the cute heroes. What they often found instead was a slash universe that dedicated yaoi fans had already created around the Gundam Wing characters. “It was the ‘gateway yaoi’ of my generation,” Cameron says.
In 2001, a small group of Bay Area fans threw the first Yaoi-Con, and about 450 people showed up to swap photocopied fan fiction and buy Japanese books. “All these people who had been in the closet came out,” remembers 32-year-old Anneke, a fan who doesn’t use her real name because her family doesn’t know about her yaoi fascination. “When the dealer’s room opened on the first day, people were three deep, waving money in the air.”
Anneke — wearing, on this last day of Yaoi-Con 6, a bright pink wig and a red-and-black military outfit, meant to evoke the anime character Revolutionary Girl — came to the first Yaoi-Con without fully understanding what it was all about, and promptly experienced a revelation. She says, “I thought, ‘OK, that makes my life make sense now. I’m not a fag hag, I’m a yaoi fan!'”
Many others at the convention report having felt relief and delight similar to Anneke’s when they first stumbled on a community of yaoi enthusiasts, and then found their way to the convention. “First I felt disbelief, and then a sense of celebration,” Cameron says. “It was like, ‘You mean we’re all into this?'” But now that American publishers have brought what Cameron calls a “revolution” to yaoi — that is, more books and more fans — the glee among older devotees has faded somewhat. “I’m still amazed when I walk into Borders,” Cameron says. “How are they going to deal with this? That’s our next hurdle: How do we get this into the mainstream without a huge backlash?”
Such worries are on the back burner at the convention’s Saturday-night auction, the highlight of the weekend. Bishounen — beautiful boys — climb onto the stage, elaborately costumed as their favorite characters from manga, anime, and literature. If a character doesn’t already have queer tendencies, he gets some via a skit or song. Audience members pool their money or make injudicious use of their credit cards, bidding wildly for a few hours of companionship. Those without serious cash reserves rush the stage and tip the fellows, strip club-style.
The next three hours are a riot of stripteases, dirty limericks, and S/M skits. A Slytherin — perhaps Draco Malfoy himself, from the Harry Potter books — strips off his schoolboy outfit, down to bright green briefs. “Show us the one-eyed snake!” screams a blowzy woman, but the boy just smiles demurely. A mob of women rushes the stage to slip dollar bills into his waistband, and a girl dressed as the luscious and swishy Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean locks lips with the schoolboy, to the most piercing screams yet. In the world of yaoi fandom, everyone and everything is potential subject matter: popular movies, Pokemon, and even Friends (with a long leap of imagination).
It’s nearly 1 a.m. when the final two boys go up for auction. A tall, well-built young man dressed as the despotic President Shinra from the Final Fantasy videogames struts about the stage in a white suit, beckoning a delicate Asian boy with a white rose. When the boy reaches tentatively for the flower, Shinra tosses it away and grabs his young victim. They’re playing the typical yaoi roles of seme and uke, which can be translated as “predator” and “prey,” “top” and “bottom,” or, most commonly, “pitcher” and “catcher.” The two go up to bid as a package deal; the lucky winners will have the pleasure of their company for the rest of the night.
“You don’t need to eat tomorrow; you don’t need to pay rent!” exhorts the auctioneer, a plump woman bursting out of a black vinyl bustier. “Multiple credit cards welcome!” The two boys eventually go for $700 to a team of young girls in schoolboy outfits, who jump up and down, squealing with delight at their purchase.
How will they fulfill their desires, now that they’re in possession of two of the prettiest boys at the auction? As with most yaoi fans, the girls seem more practiced in fantasizing than in fulfillment. For all the wildness of the auction, and for all the innuendo about what the winners would do with their bishounen, “President Shinra,” whose real name is Devon Jacobson, later says that they had a pretty tame night. They went to the dance organized by the convention, “but it was hot and they were playing pretty bad music,” he explains. So the group of girls just took some pictures together, snapped a few shots of the boys embracing, and drove around looking for fast food at 6 in the morning.
English-language manga is one of the fastest growing segments of the American publishing industry. Sales of that category amounted to about $175 million in North America last year, around triple the sales in 2002, according to Milton Griepp, who tracks the manga and anime industries on his trade news Web site, www.icv2.com. National chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are scrambling to find more shelf space for these hot-ticket items, and are installing benches and couches at which readers can lounge. In that context, yaoi is the success story within the success story: According to Griepp, a light yaoi series called Loveless is No. 5 on his list of manga best-sellers in the United States.
Yaoi’s success with its target audience has surprised even comic industry insiders. “When it was first presented to us, we were very skeptical,” says Joshua Hayes, associate director of sales and marketing for Diamond Book Distributors of Maryland, the largest U.S. distributor of graphic novels. “Even though everyone told us that it was going to be sold to female consumers of a certain age level, we just couldn’t believe that was true. I was looking at the first volume, untranslated, and thinking, ‘There’s no way; surely this would sell to a homosexual audience.'”
In fact, yaoi has collected only a small contingent of gay fans in America. “Here’s a personal take on it: I don’t think most gay men find yaoi very hot,” says Justin Hall, who curated a show on queer comics for San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum earlier this year. “At least for me, I tend to like more masculine men. Most of the yaoi men are very androgynous, and just not hot,” he says. Beyond the visual element, Hall says the stories don’t resonate with many gay readers: While many queer comics deal with themes like gay identity and the struggle to come out, yaoi almost always ignores such knotty issues. “It’s more about titillation and fantasy than about cultural context,” says Hall.
Meanwhile, the girlish impulse to gaze at pretty boys is an old and powerful one. Within the yaoi tradition, the ideal bishounen is usually slender and pale, with a heart-shaped face and enormous eyes, like two fishponds. His smooth pectoral muscles are hairless, but his head is covered by a tousled and feminine mop, with strands that fall fetchingly across his face when he’s feeling shy. The genre’s appeal to women and girls isn’t hard to fathom: Put two of these pretty boys together on the page, and it’s double the fun. Plus, the female reader isn’t forced to compare herself with some idealized girl or woman, because there are none. “I know what I look like naked,” says one San Francisco fan, who goes by the name Betsy Tea (she preferred not to give her real name to protect her privacy). “I don’t want to have competition. . . . I’d rather see a couple of beautiful boys.” Yaoi, then, is the female equivalent of the girl-on-girl porn made for straight men.
If one does feel the need to psychoanalyze the phenomenon, however, academics have arrived at a standard interpretation. “It’s a way for young women and girls to explore sexuality without it being too intimately connected to them,” says Susan Napier, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Without a female character in the book, readers can choose which male character to identify with, instead of feeling forced into one role. “They can enjoy seeing sexual situations with handsome young men, and can play out different sexual scenarios without having to put themselves into it, so it’s less intimidating or threatening,” Napier says.
Publishers do release yaoi works without the graphic sex scenes, which are intended to be more appropriate for their younger readers. Those sweeter, fluffier books are generally classified in America as shounen-ai, or “boys love.” At the Kinokuniya Bookstore in the Japantown mall, the yaoi books stacked under the “English Language Manga” sign run the gamut. There’s Little Butterfly (published by June, out of Gardena, Calif.), in which the high school characters keep it clean on the page, sharing some passionate kisses and snuggles in bed, but leaving the rest to the imagination. One shelf over is the collection called …But I’m Your Teacher, an offering from Kitty Media in New York City, which includes the title story about an aggressive 17-year-old who seduces his sexy substitute teacher, an affair shown in intimate detail: Orifices are probed, and juices fly.
Girls flitter into the bookstore after school hours, and hang out on the benches outside the store on weekends. Cellphones jangling, they compare notes on what they’ve heard about various titles, and sometimes stealthily strip the shrink-wrap off a book to thumb through the pages. The books are labeled in an effort to clarify who should and should not be reading them: Some use “parental advisory” stickers, like hip-hop albums, others put age ranges on the cover, and a few limit themselves to a discreet “mature content” label in a corner. Managers at the bookstore claim they check ID if the customer looks young, but the girls say it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. “I just put my hair down and have my debit card out,” says one girl, who claims to be 16. “I don’t think they care that much about it.”
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.
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.
“Any time you’re depicting children engaged in deviant sexual acts — drawings or stories about those acts — that’s a concern,” says Adam Palmer, who directs the center’s legal office. “Many times people make the same arguments about Internet stories or fantasy chats, but the sad reality is that some of those fantasy chats lead into the temptation to go after an actual victim, or they perpetuate an idea that it’s OK to engage in those acts.” In addition, Palmer says, the pictures can be used to groom potential victims. “It’s trying to normalize something that is not normal, it’s criminal,” he says.
Yet Palmer couldn’t recall a case in which the authorities had gone after a purveyor of manga — in fact, he had to be reminded what manga is. The pursuit of those who victimize real children is more urgent, he says, and the number of complaints the center receives makes it unlikely that it will pursue reports of virtual exploitation. But the PROTECT Act has already been used as a legal tool: This past March, the first defendant was convicted under the new law. Manga fans are unlikely to adopt him as a martyr, however, since the middle-aged man was on parole for previous sex offenses, and was caught with a stack of child pornography that included both photographs and anime.
Yaoi fans who run Web sites have been spooked by two shutdowns in recent years. In May 2005, a well-respected yaoi fan and writer of fan fiction who went by the name Sahari closed down her site, Yaoi Shrine, and deleted and purged her blog. According to an article about the incident on a site called Net Family News, the shutdown was spurred by an angry mother who had discovered her 12-year-old daughter’s fascination with the site. When the mom discovered that Sahari worked at a junior high school in real life, she contacted the police, the school board, and the PTA. The site vanished, and Sahari disappeared as a visible online presence.
“A lot of us are up in arms about minors coming into our Web pages,” says Betsy Tea, the San Francisco fan who helped start the site Boys Next Door. After another site closed for similar reasons to those of Yaoi Shrine, says Tea, “I painstakingly went around and registered with Net Nanny and all those programs that parents can use to block sites with adult content.” Boys Next Door’s splash page starts with a resigned disclaimer: “This is the part where we try in vain to cover our own asses,” it reads, before admonishing the visitor to enter only if she is of legal age.
The possibility of a conservative backlash is a looming X-factor in the business plans of the young yaoi publishers. Some, like the popular startup DramaQueen (based in Houston, Texas), expect fans to support their favorite companies and the First Amendment to protect them. “The great thing about America is that there are laws that allow for artistic expression,” says Tran Nguyen, founder of the 1-year-old publisher. “These are women’s voices; these are our expressions of eroticism.”
Nguyen says she’s proud that her company has pushed the boundaries since its first publication: “We were really bold in our choice for our debut. There wasn’t any explicit sex on the market — you didn’t see any penises.” DramaQueen’s first book, Brother, tells the story of two stepbrothers who quickly overcome the taboo inherent in their love and commence a book-long sex spree. The boys are hot, the sex is graphic, and the story is enough to keep readers interested. Fans ate it up, posting rapturous reviews on Web site forums about the “delectable man flesh.”
Other publishers, however, are easing away from the hard-core yaoi market. Yaoi Press of Las Vegas, which has published some of the raunchiest material in the genre, plans to bring out more young-adult titles, with “cute” stories suitable for 13-year-olds. The editors say they’ll benefit from being able to advertise their titles in more mainstream magazines.
Another company, Digital Manga, Inc. (based in Gardena, Calif.), has created different subsidiary companies to keep the audiences separate. “The June line is very romantic, very sweet,” says Rachel Livingston, a company spokesperson. “It’s stuff you would find easily in any bookstore. Yaoi is kind of a controversial thing — so we sat down with a bunch of bookstores and asked them what the limit was.” At Yaoi-Con 6, she announced the launch of a distinct company, 801 Media, that would cater to more adult tastes.
“It’s to make things easier — if it says ‘801 Media,’ you’ll know what you’re getting,” Livingston explains. “Now if someone comes to us and says, ÔI bought this book for my 12-year-old daughter, and now I’m very upset,’ we can say, ‘We did everything in our power to warn you!'”
Since flying under the radar has become less of an option with every book sale, each publishing company is feeling its way forward, looking for the combination of warnings and due diligence that will ward off lawsuits while satisfying fans clamoring for harder, edgier stuff. Meanwhile, the Yaoi-Con staff is scrupulous in its efforts to keep underage fans out of the event. In years past, there have been rumors of young girls trying to “ninja” their way in, so the convention’s security guards stake out back doors and staircases.
Anneke, who has traveled to every convention with suitcases full of costumes, feels a bit resentful of the younger fans, whose high-pitched giggles echo through the hotel lobby. “We know we’re the core yaoi fans, as opposed to the fluff walking around,” she says. But as she remembers how yaoi changed her own life, she feels she has no choice but to welcome the “fluff” into the fan base. “It’s becoming a rallying cry at anime conventions — all the girls scream, ‘Yaoi! Yaoi!'” she says. “It’s like burning your bra. It’s declaring your sexuality.”