The year is 2019. Self-driving cars are crashing, people are throwing cheese at babies and a very peculiar facial expression is taking over the internet. Characterized by a dangling tongue, an effluvious combination of spit, snot and tears and crossed eyes that roll so far back into the head that all you can see is the crescent of an iris, the expression — which is called “ahegao” — gives its wearer the distinct and distasteful appearance of having dropped an anvil on their foot while tripping on ibogaine.
Yet, it’s fucking everywhere — in hentai, on Instagram models and all over whatever deranged dimension memes are birthed from. However, while it might look like nothing more than an overzealous O-face, it’s actually much more than that — ahegao is a historic, highly specific hentai trope that’s quickly becoming mainstream as more people realize that a face that says “I’ve lost musculoskeletal control of my facial organs, daddy” comprises a rare, viral cross-section of funny and hot.
According to Khursten Santos, a manga expert and Asian studies researcher at the University of Wollongong in Australia, the true purpose of ahegao is to “exaggerate the orgasmic face to show that the character is receiving an orgasm beyond normative notions of pleasure.” Designed by — you guessed it — men, the ahegao symbolizes a loss of control; a total capitulation to the overwhelming urge to cum. The vast majority of people ahegao-ing — as you also may have guessed — are women.
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Ahegao has existed in Japanese erotic art forums and communities since the 1960s, but it only started proliferating on the internet of the Western world in the last decade thanks to the increasing popularity of hentai on sites like 4chan and Fakku. According to Santos, it’s still a common trope in Japanese porn comics from both male and female authors, but it’s also weaseled its way into mainstream, non-erotic anime, cosplay and selfie culture where it’s been adopted as symbol of extreme pleasure that can be used for anything, not just sex.
Because of its many potential applications, Santos says it’s fast-becoming a meme legend. These days, you can slap an ahegao face on a photo of the oatmeal you made to alert your 34 Instagram followers that it hit the spot, or you could be like this person, and use it to troll stupid moths who love lamps. In that sense, ahegao is kind of like an emoji — a meaningful, universally understood expression that subs in for words when words aren’t needed.
However, emojis don’t have entire internet universes dedicated to them like ahegao does. Reddit’s multiple ahegao subreddits have a combined 200,000 followers; there are numerous websites dedicated to user-submitted ahegao; and there’s even been one of those “Elders React To” videos about it. There are also ahegao celebrities with 2.7 million followers and ahegao T-shirts featuring drooling, ecstatic female faces in the throes of pleasure. Not to mention, Google searches for “ahegao” have jumped by 50 percent in the last year alone.
All of which begs the question: Why are hundreds of thousands of people obsessed with this one, specific facial expression (and why have they been for more than 80 years)? What is it about that face?
Santos explains that part of the appeal stems from ahegao’s utter absurdity. No one actually looks like that when they cum, but there’s something undeniably alluring — and kinda funny — about turning the volume up to 11 on an orgasm that’s happening in response to what’s probably a disproportionate stimulus (imagine a girl going cross-eyed and slack-tongued because someone “found” her clit).
“It’s clearly unrealistic, but enthusiasts of ahegao find the face humorous, as though it’s a satire of women’s sexual expression,” says Santos, explaining that in traditional Japanese erotica, the female characters are almost always excessive in their reactions. Ahegao trolls this then by overreacting to their overreactions, and the result, more often than not, is a muffled giggle from the blackened depths of yours truly and a multiverse of dank memes whose humor comes from hyperbole.
The other part of the equation? Sex appeal, of course. It’s hard to deny that an orgasm powerful enough to turn your face to putty is a sexy idea, and the good people of the internet are making the most out of that fantasy.
On Reddit’s /r/realaheago sub — which is subscribed to by a cool 139,000 “ahegao lovers” — hot, mostly younger-ish women post NSFW ahegao faces for an audience of notably supportive, gender-diverse fans. Most of the posts are pornographic (here you go), but others, like this one, are perfectly innocent — just a cute girl with her tongue out and some well-framed cleavage, nothing to see here! Either way, the posts tend to elicit some pretty horny comments — “How do you keep your tongue so clean and pink? So fucking hot,” and “I’d love to rev you like a Harley,” for example. From the posts and the comments, it’s pretty clear that “extreme female pleasure” is a common attraction. But the thing that gets them most excited? Electing a monthly Ahegao Queen (who is usually nude).
Redditor coffeecreamer06 is a former Ahegao Queen who regularly posts NSFW content to Reddit. She got into ahegao last year after a fan of her nudes suggested she try it, and she immediately loved the amount of attention and validation it got her. “I like the idea of feeling so much pleasure you have to make a face,” she writes to me over Reddit DM.
MidiSymphony, a female redditor who loves to look at female ahegao faces, is into it for the same reason. “It’s a really nice expression of female sexuality,” she tells me. “Female pleasure is still taboo, so I’m always down to support other ladies who put themselves out there and do it because it makes them feel sexy. It’s hot to watch a woman whose feelin’ herself.”
As for male fans? Coffeecreamer06 thinks they’re in it for a slightly different reason — so they can project their own aspirations of sexual wizardry onto the model. “I think men like it so much because it’s a physical way of knowing pleasure is being felt,” she says. Steven, a pseudonymous ahegao fan who frequents r/realahegao confirms this, explaining that he gets off on it because it appeals to the fantasy that he could make someone feel good enough to drool one day, too. “It’s easy to picture myself as the person doing that to them,” he explains.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2017 study found that men’s primary interest in giving women orgasms isn’t because they care about women’s pleasure; it’s because it makes them feel “manly.” Or more simply put, it may be that some men’s interest in ahegao is less about women feeling good and more about their ability to “perform” as a man.
Even so, female ahegao posters seem to enjoy playing with and benefitting from men’s fantasies — as one Reddit post called “I don’t care where you come, Senpai just make sure you drown me in your cum!” demonstrates, doing so can be kind of fun, especially when it’s not necessary to do much more than make a face.
In fact, that’s one of the biggest draws of ahegao for many people — it allows them to express and explore their sexuality without necessarily being nude or explicit (though plenty of people get X-rated, too). Much like butt or underboob selfies, it invites praise and adoration in a somewhat safer, gentler way than say, uploading a close-up of your labia to Imgur. In turn, it also invites less threatening comments — ahegao fans tend to post things like, “You’re so pretty, I love your makeup,” as opposed to more aggressive soliloquies like, “I’d tear your pussy up.” Coffeecreamer06 says she loves this part of ahegao — while she has posted X-rated versions of it, she also enjoys how easy it is to get a positive response for a photo that’s just her face. “If you make your face well enough, that’s all you need,” she explains.
Just how does one make a face “well enough”? By strict convention, it turns out. According to Kimi Rito, the author of The Expression History of Eromanga, there are three things that make for a stellar ahegao face:
- The person’s mouth must be wide open and their tongues should stick or dangle out.
- Various bodily liquids must emerge from their face, ranging from tears, drool, sweat and even snot.
- The eyes must be rolled back so far that the pupils are no longer visible. Disturbingly, these kinds of eyes were initially associated with rape scenes and are commonly called “rape eyes.”
This brings us to the more controversial side of ahegao. While it’s almost unanimously accepted as an innocent, fun expression, some people find it to be sexist and misogynistic — it does glorify women’s loss of control in sexual situations, and “rape eyes” isn’t exactly a forgivable term. However, Santos is hesitant to slap a negative label on it. Whether or not ahegao is just a comical expression of female sexuality or a camouflaged masculinity crisis projected onto the female frame is entirely dependent on the context it takes place in, she says: “In some narratives, women take deliberate strides to achieve the ahegao expression, so it’s not necessarily a loss of control but rather how some women enjoy the overwhelming pleasure of a sexual act.”
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In that sense, it can be empowering. “However, for other narratives in pornographic manga,” she continues, “the ahegao is definitely a manifestation of a man’s sexual prowess. We must take into consideration that just like every form of pornography, ahegao is an expression that exists to explore the boundaries of sexual fantasies and these explorations are varied.”
Stephen Reysen, a Texas A&M psychology professor who studies hentai, agrees. In his eyes, ahegao doesn’t appear to be any more or less sexist than any other type of media or porn. As he argues, even though ahegao glorifies and hyperbolizes an unrealistic depiction of female pleasure, so do beer commercials, Pornhub videos and pretty much every TV show, ever. In his opinion, whether it’s sexist or not has more to do with the viewer and scenario than the actual expression itself.
Plus, there is some male ahegao as well — while the lion’s share is ladies and while it was traditionally designed to show the frenzied nature of the female orgasm, more modern hentai and cosplayers have tried to close the “ahegao gap” by posting more gender-diverse depictions of absolute pleasure.
That doesn’t solve the problem of whether female ahegao is inherently sexist, but after talking to women who make it, it seems to be far more empowering than derogatory. As MidiSymphony says, “Any time women can claim pleasure for themselves, it’s a win. Exaggerated meme pleasure is no exception — it still keeps the conversation on women cumming, and that’s something we could use a lot more of.”