This blog will explore the cultural, social and symbolic significance the Japanese Yaoi fandom culture has played for its female audience. I will examine the way in which the difference in cultural normative frameworks between the Japanese culture and western culture renders Yaoi vulnerable to Australian Child-Abuse and Child Pornography Laws. The purpose of this blog is to reveal the ideologies that underpin the extension of these laws to Yaoi and the way in which they work to strategically censor certain forms of expression deemed inappropriate according to socially constructed moral standards. Consequently, Yaoi is deemed as an inappropriate form of expression as it threatens socially constructed conceptions of childhood innocence and asexuality.
Introduction to YAOI (no climax, no point, no meaning)
Since World War II and with the rise of the Internet revolution, Japanese anime (cartoons) and manga (comics) have attracted rapid growth and prosperity through their attainment of national and international recognition. One particular genre of the Japanese art forms, which is quite interesting and significantly popular amongst young women, is Yaoi. Yaoi emerged in the 1980s and actually focuses on the romantic and homoerotic sexual relationships between young, beautiful boys and men (shock horror to our western standards). Yaoi is more sexually explicit (depicting fellatio and anal intercourse), and is easily accessible throughout Japan, with a primary target of young women and teenage girls. While images of Yaoi may give off the impression that its simply a cartoon version of porn, the truth is that the genre has become an important tool of self-expression and liberation for most young female fans.
However, as you can imagine, Yaoi has been controversial in Western countries for its depictions of young males and underage boys in sexualised contexts. The situation in Western countries is different, as the discourse of ‘what about the children’ permeates pretty much every sector of the society. So such homoerotic narratives are highly segregated and excluded from comic books, which are exclusively regarded as a children’s medium (McLelland & Yoo 2007, p.96). Such representations are aligned with child abuse material and child pornography, creating the assumption that material like Yaoi, will harm children. Consequently, these fictional representations have attracted legal sanctions and have been the target of censorship in Western countries, particularly in Australia, where such material is expressly prohibited and labeled as ‘child pornography’. According to Mark McLelland (2011, p.467), such legal prohibitions are unjustified as they ‘not only [foreclose] the fantasy lives of young Australian fans, but [they] also [harm] them by aligning them with paedophile networks’ and silencing their self-expression.
Yaoi’s Significance in the Expression of Young Women’s Sexual Culture
Interestingly, Yaoi attracts a large online community consisting of young heterosexual women and girls, who produce, consume and disseminate purely fictional accounts of love and sex between young males. The genre is arguably a feminist enterprise as it emerged in the 1980s ‘as a reaction against the contrived and formulaic heterosexual love stories marketed at a female audience,’ which aimed to condition femininity and the expression of female desire (McLelland 2005, p.67). As mainstream entertainment failed — and in my opinion,continues to fail —to adequately serve the sexual interests of women, arguably, women had to resort to Yaoi because they could not enjoy fantasies tailored to their desires if they were expressed through stories grounded in hegemonic codes of masculinist patriarchy. This is because patriarchal norms ‘often [do] not allow girls to comfortably express sexuality such that some adopt Freudian penis-envy’ (Williams 2015) and try to gain access to the ‘phallus’ (Nagaike 2003).
Consequently, Japanese women used Yaoi as a form of empowerment because male homosexuality was symbolically understood to be a beautiful and pure form of romance (Wood 2006, p.395). As Akiko Hori (2013) explains, this is because ‘a fictional romantic relationship between equal partners is much more likely to…be plausible to, female readers and creators if the relationship is between two men.’ If you also notice the characters depicted in Yaoi, they tend to be depicted with androgynous physical features. This is an important stylistic technique in Yaoi as it invites a broader range of readings from the texts and allows women to stimulate and negotiate their own romantic and sexual fantasies that portray more equally grounding relationships. Thus, the exploration of inner sexual desires through male homosexuality allows women to reconfigure and adopt male subjectivities in a safer and more liberating environment, enabling them to develop an independent fantasy life outside the confines of patriarchal limits (McLelland & Yoo 2007, p.99). For example Fujimoto et al (2004, p.87) found that because the sexual encounters only involve men, female Yaoi fans felt ‘freed from the position of always being the ‘done to’, and are able to take on the viewpoint of the ‘doer’” (Fujimoto et al, 2004, p.87). Further, as there is an absence of female bodies, Yaoi makes it safer for women to explore sexual violence that are usually performed with women as targets as a means to undermine them. As Fujimoto et al (2004, p.87) continued, ‘if it is men depicted [in rape scenes], then they cannot get pregnant, lose their virginity, or become unsuited for marriage’. Thus, the removal of the ‘femme avatar’, allows greater freedom of sexual imagination (Camper, unknown), and enables women to distance themselves from ‘their shameless sexual ecstasy’ (Fujimoto et al, 2004, p.87).
Thus, while on the surface Yaoi simply looks like another form of ‘porn material’ through its depiction of sex between young males and minors, Yaoi is in fact, a highly self-critical and transgressive genre, which provides a supportive space to deconstruct and challenge patriarchal normative notions surrounding gender, sexuality and male-female power relations (McLelland & Yoo 2007, p.99). Yaoi opens up a new world dictated by equal social relations, which is foreign to women – even in the 21st century. Such texts are important as they contribute to changing the deeply rooted internalised beliefs, which perpetuate inequality in gender and sexual relations.
Yaoi’s Position in Japan & Australia’s Legal Landscape
Despite its social contribution and its ability to foster a sense of solidarity amongst its young female fans, the foreign cultural origin of Yaoi conflicts with the generalised western anxiety towards the relationship between media and children. While Japan has a more conservative ideological attitude towards gender relations and homosexuality, the nation’s mediascape allows a more fluid and liberal exploration of ideas as it promotes a social and commercial space for queer and feminist stylisation (Williams, 2015).
Nevertheless, Japan’s Criminal Code does criminalise the sale and distribution of ‘obscene material’. In the early 20th century, the objects of censor for ‘obscene material’ adopted a traditional formalistic approach, which prohibited portrayals of adult genitals and pubic hair. As Zanghellini (2009, p.162) explains, this approach ‘created the conditions for the emergence of underage sex and nudity as a theme in erotic manga and anime’ in the 1950s and 1960s. After all, the issue of pubic hair and adult genitalia was not an issue with pre-pubescent children, nor were there any legal sanctions for depicting sexualised representations of children. While the definition of ‘obscene material’ was replaced in the 1980s to broadly include material on the basis of ‘the overall degree of raunchiness and extent of sexual imagery’ (Zanghellini 2009, p.164), the constitutional provision in the Code protecting freedom of expression nevertheless protects material such as Yaoi (Zanghellini 2009, p.160). Thus fictional representations of children —as opposed to actual children— are protected under the Criminal Code.
However, as Michael Lev (1997) claimed, ‘by Western standards, Japan appears unique for condoning public displays of raw sexual imagery and for blurring the lines between adult and child pornography’, with the depictions of youthful male bodies simply being downplayed ‘as an object for the erotic gaze’ (McLelland & Yoo 2007, p.99). This western anxiety of the need to protect childhood innocence and purity is not an old phenomenon. After all, the depiction of young beautiful boys was a prominent feature of classical and Renaissance art. What was once considered beauty and ‘art,’ has now been redefined as ‘child pornography’ and pedophilia by political and social discourses. According to Alan Hunt, the cultural image of the ‘child’ has emerged because ‘risk assessment’ and ‘moral management’ has become a structural feature of late modernity (McLelland 2011, p.469). Now, individuals are expected to be more responsible towards the self and society, and engage in the act of self-moralisation as a means to avoid risk.
As a result of the moralisation of risk, there is ‘a proliferation of…bureaucratic regulation in the everyday world’ and ‘an expansion of the responsibilities that burden citizens in a way that reinforces and even multiplies the regulatory impact’ (Alan Hunt quoted in McLelland 2011, p.469). The need to preserve ‘childhood purity’ is a clear example of this ‘risk anxiety’ and has particularly grown in the age of the Internet and media technologies. As a result of this new breed of social anxiety, the activities surrounding Yaoi fandom is deemed as ‘risky’, which has prompted the Australian government to take stronger measures in ensuring the protection of children from harm.
In Australia, all sexual representations of minors (under the age of 18) in any medium are illegal. For example, under section 91FB of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), ‘child abuse’ material includes material depicting a person who is, or appears to be, a child as a victim of physical abuse or engaged in a sexual pose or activity. It also includes the private parts of a person who is, or appears to be a child. Section 91H of the same Act grounds this definition by making it clear that offending material includes ‘any film, photograph, print or otherwise [the] mak[ing] child abuse material’. Similarly, section 473.1 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) defines ‘child pornography material’ as material that depicts a person, or a representation of a person, who is, or appears to be, under 18 years of age and who is engaged in or appears to be engaged in sexual activity.
It goes without saying that child abuse is a heinous crime and thus such laws are extremely important. However, unlike other Western countries—such as America and the UK— these are extremely expansive laws, which is problematic. These definitions have created a broad category of ‘child pornography’ as it not only includes material depicting harm to real children, but it also extends the definition to purely fictional representations of characters who are or appear to be under-age in sexual contexts. This includes the mediums of animation, comics, art and text. In fact, in McEwen v Simmons & Anor  NSWSC 1292, the accused was found guilty under s 91H(3) of the Act, for possessing illegal material depicting Bart and Lisa from The Simpsons engaged in sexual interactions. As Justice Adams held at paragraph 41, ‘the word ‘person’ included fictional or imaginary characters and the mere fact that the figure depicted departed from a realistic representation in some respects of a human being did not mean that such a figure was not a ‘person’’. This decision confirms that Yaoi producers and consumers are vulnerable to prosecution, as material expressly or impliedly depicting characters who ‘appear underage’ (which is usually the case in Yaoi) in a sexual context is illegal. Thus these laws not only target adult pedophiles dealing in representations of actual children, but it also inadvertently criminalises the activities of female Yaoi fans.
While such laws have been justified by governments for minimising the risk of inappropriate tendencies towards children and fuelling child abuse by potential abusers, such justifications are not conclusively supported by empirical research (The Conversation, 2014). This is particularly evident in the context of Yaoi, where there is nothing to suggest that young Yaoi female fans have connections with pedophile networks, or, indeed, that actual pedophiles are interested ‘in these highly scripted and aestheticised accounts of the sexual exploits of beautiful boys’ (McLelland 2011, p.472). Nor are minors objectified in the same manner actual children who are victims to real abuse can be. Thus, considering the youthful nature of Yaoi fans, and the central role it has played in their emotional and sexual development, such laws seem unwarranted. Especially considering it would naturally be expected of young teenagers to explore sexualised representations of characters that share similar ages. It would be more concerning if youth were being exposed to sexualised representations of much older adults.
As a result, these laws could be more harmful as they unfairly silence adolescents and deprive them of freely exploring and expressing their transgressive sexual fantasies in a secure, safe and supportive environment. Sexual fantasy and explorations of gender expression is completely normal and crucial to development of sexual identities for adolescents. Despite the normalcy of such activities, Australian law continues to prevent any form of sexual imagination for adolescents. As Judith Levine (quoted in McLelland & Yoo 2007, p.35) writes, according to the law, ‘young people have no legitimate claim to sexual expression, desires, or identities’. Instead, such paternalistic laws dictate the correct forms of intimate relationships we are allowed to keep, and when we are allowed to enjoy them. Furthermore, negatively associating young Yaoi fans with pedophilia and criminal activity —when no actual person is harmed —further perpetuates this harm, and alienates them by stigmatising their innocent conduct. Thus, while Australian policymakers have used such laws to protect children, they are inadvertently harming adolescents.
Furthermore, the stylised artistic nature of the two-dimensional Yaoi visual representations reflect how there is no intention by consumers and producers to depict actual children and represent reality. As Mark McLelland (2011, p.474) has identified, it is precisely the lack of relationship between the online sexual fantasy spaces and their offline everyday sexual interests that fans describe as liberating. In fact, such fantasies serve as ‘idealised self-images’ as they are mere symbolic extensions of the consumers and producers’ own identities. Ueno Chizuko goes further to describe the symbolic representation of beautiful boys as a ‘third sex’, as they are neither male nor female (McLelland 2005, p.21). The figurative transitory nature of Yaoi characters means that they have fluid symbolic identities, enabling them to adapt and apply to a diverse range of appropriations by women with a range of sexual orientations. Thus, Yaoi characters cannot be understood as ‘children’, ’male’ or ‘homosexual’; instead they represent a third gender, which is disconnected from the activities of actual male homosexuals or depictions of real children (McLelland 2005, p.21). However, despite such important functions of Yaoi, it is clear that Australia’s draconian laws reflect the government’s inability to understand and engage with such symbolic creative expressions and interpretations.
In closing, this discussion demonstrates the way in which Yaoi provides an empowering platform for young females to safely express their transgressive sexual desires, outside the confines of patriarchal discourse. It is clear that such laws are unjustified as there is no demonstrable relationship between the production and consumption of Yaoi, and harm to actual children. Instead, these laws simply criminalise a fandom culture and silence young females, which is more harmful. While many freedom of speech advocates maintain that such laws are a form of censorship, unfortunately, in Australia, we do not have rights protecting freedom of speech. Thus there is no recourse for Australians to challenge the legitimacy of these laws.
The only way such laws can be changed is through a change in social morals, attitudes and beliefs. However, even this seems too difficult in the context of Yaoi manga and anime for two main reasons: Firstly, mainstream public is ignorant to the symbolic functions genres such as Yaoi play for adolescents and; secondly, the western moralising discourse towards the need to protect the image of the ‘child’ has become so pervasive, that it has codified these beliefs into law and ideology, preventing any form of discussion or negotiation about the creative expression and symbolic interpretations of such representations. Thus, even if representations of child nudity are made purely in the name of art, social norms and homogenised moral discourses rob such representations of having artistic merit. However, hopefully, policy makers will recognise that such laws have no utility, and silencing adolescents may be counterintuitive and more harmful.
Camper C, ‘Yaoi 101: Girls Love “Boy’s Love”, Wessesley Centers for Women, viewed 20 October 2016, < http://www.wcwonline.org/WRB-Issues/298>
Crimes Act 1900 (NSW)
Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth)
Fujimoto et al, Y 2004, ‘Transgender: Female Hermaphrodites and Male Androgynes’, U.S. — Japan Women’s Journal, no.27, pp.76-117.
Hori, A 2013, ‘on the response (or lack thereof) of Japanese fans to criticism that yaoi is antigay discrimination’, Transformative Works & Cultures, 2013, vol. 12.
Lev, M 1997, ‘In Japan, Schoolgirls Accepted as Porn Objects’, Chicago Tribune, 16 February, viewed 20 October 2016, < http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-02- 16/news/9702160361_1_lewd-sailor-moon-human-sexuality>
McEwen v Simmons & Anor  NSWSC 1292
McLelland, M 2005, ‘The World of Yaoi: The Internet, Censorship and the Global “Boys’ Love” Fandom’, The Australian Feminist Law Journal, vol.23, pp.61-77.
McLelland, M 2011, ‘Australia’s ‘child-abuse material’ legislation, internet regulation and the juridification of the imagination’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol.15, no.5, pp.467-483.
McLelland, M & Yoo, S 2007, ‘The International Yaoi Boys’ Love Fandom and the Regulation of Virtual Child Pornography: The Implications of Current Legislation’, Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, vol.4, no.1, pp.93-104.
Mizoguchi, A 2003, ‘Male-male romance by and for women in Japan: A history and the sub genres of yaoi fictions’, U.S. — Japan Women’s Journal, no.25, pp.49-75.
Nagaike, K 2003, ‘Perverse sexualities, perverse desires: Representations of female fantasies and yaoi manga as pornography directed at women’, U.S. — Japan Women’s Journal, no.25, pp.76-103.
The Conversation, ‘When a drawing or cartoon image can land you in jail’, The Conversation, 27 October, viewed 21 October 2016, <https://theconversation.com/when-a-drawing-or-cartoon-image-can-land-you-in-jail-33418>
Williams, A 2015, ‘Rethinking Yaoi on the Regional and Global Scale’, Intersections: Gender & Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 37.
Wood, A 2006, ‘“Straight” Women, Queer Texts: Boy-Love Manga and the Rise of a Global Counterpublic’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol.34, no.1/2, pp.394-414.
Zanghellini, A 2009, ‘Underage Sex and Romance in Japanese Homoerotic Manga and Anime’, Social and Legal Studies, vol 8, no.2, pp.159-177.
Zanghellini, A 2009, ‘Boys love’ in anime and manga: Japanese subculture production and its end users’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol.23, No.3, pp.279-294.