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On the Front Lines of the World’s Pointless War on Hentai

Confused lawmakers all over the globe are concerned that sexual cartoons are polluting the pure minds of porn watchers, but they’re missing the point

Back in 1996, online retailer Peter Payne made it his personal mission to build a horny, mail-order marketplace dedicated to the best of Japan. The result, J-List, is now a digital dreamland filled with the weird, filthy and wonderful. From rare, tasty regional snacks and colorful bento boxes to anime-inspired fuckable, pussy-shaped onaholes and T-shirts that say “Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend,” it’s a boned-up Japanophile’s ultimate fantasy. “We’ve basically been a small part of the internet’s love affair with Japan,” he tells me proudly. 

His decades of experience meant he was doubly surprised last month, when a series of NSFW orders to Australia were intercepted, and then returned. Payne, who’s based in Gunma, Japan, received a call from DHL, which he summarized in a deflated blog post: “Australia is killing off any chance of waifus [hot anime girls] entering the country, because we’ve had to stop shipping there.” This was explained by the Australian Customs website, which stated that sexy films, games and publications would be rejected if they were deemed to “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.”

The story blew up, with news sites describing an Australian “hentai ban” — arguably a stretch, as the language doesn’t specifically target hentai and, so far, no other stores have reported similar issues. But they’re not far off: Last week, the French government banned access to the popular site NHentai, describing it as “child porn” and leaving frustrated connoisseurs scrambling to snap up VPNs in case their bouncy, sexed-up waifus were embargoed for good.

These aren’t isolated incidents either. In 2010, a 27-year-old computer programmer traveled from the U.S. to Canada with a laptop full of hentai and a stash of horny comic books, both of which were seized and used to justify an accusation of child porn possession. He spent two years and $75,000 fighting for his freedom, all the while being treated like shit by law enforcement and being banned from internet usage full stop. Unsurprisingly, Australia has also had a history of harsh, arbitrary rulings on cartoon porn: In 2008, a Simpsons fan was fined $3,000 (and threatened with prison) for getting creative with his photo-realistic porno drawings of TV’s favorite family. (A similar Simpsons-related case took place in Idaho in 2010.)

Penalties like these might seem ridiculous considering that the illegal sex was illustrated, but when it comes to hentai and other forms of cartoon porn, they’re par for the course. Whether it’s prosecuting scapegoats or targeting individual businesses, there’s been a centuries-long history of Anglophone governments cock-blocking anime bros and cracking down on porn that they don’t — and don’t want to — understand. And, as the J-List incident proves, they have no plans of stopping.  

That said, it’s not just politicians and pearl-clutching lawmakers who don’t get it. Most English speakers tend to use hentai as an umbrella term to describe everything from hardcore Pokémon porn to tentacle-fucking, and to them, basically any lusty waifu counts as “hentai.” In reality, though, “hentai” is just a loose Japanese word for “strange” or “perverted,” depending on context. 

“Hentai doesn’t necessarily equate to pornography,” clarifies Kristine Michelle L. Santos, an assistant professor in history and Japanese studies at Ateneo de Manila University. She cites Mark McLelland’s short history of hentai as proof, which traces its sexual connotations back to the early 20th century, when the work of Western sexologists trickled into Japan. These bearded pseudo-savants essentially fucked us all over by putting our horniest desires under a microscope, before ruthlessly pathologizing them by peddling the myth that there’s any such thing as “normal” sexuality. Anyone who fell outside this mold — kinksters, queer people, basically anyone you’d want at a dinner party — was branded a deviant, and risked huge stigma as a result. When translated to Japanese, their work on “abnormal sexual psychology” included the word “hentai,” meaning “abnormal,” but the word’s link to sex stuck. 

Fast-forward to 2019, and “hentai” was — for the third year in a row — the second-most searched term globally on Pornhub. Naturally, this demand has created a wildly inventive catalogue of waifus being fucked by everything from monsters to tentacles to ripped anime dudes, but there’s tons of normie vanilla content, too. In fact, while we tend to associate hentai with videos such as this one — wherein an anime character shoves a grown woman into her butthole before falling into a deep, blissful slumber — the diversity of videos is so great that hentai can never really be pigeonholed as “one thing.” 

Our lack of cultural knowledge of hentai isn’t surprising, but it is important. As Santos argues, the term “hentai” is now thrown around so often that English-speaking viewers have a hard time figuring out what’s meant to be pornographic and what isn’t, a confusion that has consequences when it comes to governments’ recent efforts to censor or ban it. “There are some animated and comic media that’s perceived as ‘hentai’ when they aren’t, just because some characters have hyper-sexualized bodies in school uniforms,” she tells me, calling this a “misconception that boils down to a lack of understanding of Japan’s visual culture, alongside a perception that anything cartoonish is childish and for children.”

But a brief journey through Japanese art history confirms that illustration has often been the chosen medium of curious, creative pervs who’ve created work with everyone but children in mind. From the gigantic cocks and bulging vulvas of old-school shunga scrolls to the brilliantly, violently grotesque ero-guro manga of the 1930s, their cartoons have always been horny as fuck, and it’s clear from their content that they’re absolutely not safe for kids.

Another misconception is that doe-eyed anime dream girls are deliberately drawn to be underage. “Characters can have childish features, but be mature enough in the narrative to explore and express their sexuality,” Santos says. 

Again, the conflation of SFW anime and porn comes into play here — because people tend to assume all anime is pretty racy, even underage, non-sexual characters are fair game when it comes to being roped into the hentai debate. Maybe because of this stigma, it’s pretty hard to find a hentai artist who will weigh into this age debate, although some fan sites do cover their backs with age disclaimers.

The obvious issue is that debating the age of a fictional character is pretty pointless — one forum user paraphrases an unnamed artist, who apparently responded to controversy by saying, “Yes, she is 18. Let me draw you her ID!” It’s an offhand, throwaway comment, but it highlights a core tension: If judges convict based on their perceptions of a character’s age, there’s obvious room to weaponize ambiguity. On the other hand, hentai artists can shrug off accusations by arguing that of course their characters are of legal age, with no real proof.

In Japan, Santos says authorities sidestep these issues through porn censorship and strict distribution regulation. “Despite sharing similar visual styles, Japanese audiences are fully aware of the differences between mainstream manga, anime and pornography,” she reiterates. In other words, hentai fans aren’t usually left pondering the exact age of their digital dream girls, which explains why Japan, its country of origin, has kept it legal. 

Context like this is important because when governments do call out hentai, the lingering comparison to child porn is never far behind. Last year, a U.N. committee proposed draft guidelines to its child porn protocol which, if accepted, would expand the definition of “child porn” to include “visual materials such as photographs, movies, drawings and cartoons.” Tellingly, Australian politicians have had “growing concerns” about underage porn over the last year, too — Santos sees these concerns as a contextual precursor to the J-List ordeal, which indicates the crackdown on hentai is motivated by straight-up moral panic.

Again, such discussions are nothing new. In Japan, lolicon — an abbreviation of “Lolita complex” — is anime’s most controversial subgenre. A visual feast of all things cute, lolicon characters are girlish, innocent and coy. They’re also a dream weapon for anti-porn activists, determined to paint otaku (a slang term for horny, usually male anime fans) as deviant perverts. 

Controversy escalated sharply in 1989, when 26-year-old Tsutomu Miyazaki maimed, killed and even partially ate the remains of four young girls, mailing body parts to their families to terrorize them further. Soon after, the media zeroed in on his collection of almost 6,000 manga comics and anime videos (slasher manga lolicon hentai was found in there, too), sparking what was known as “The Otaku Panic.” In his 2017 thesis The Politics of Imagination, Patrick W. Galbraith peels back the layers to name the underlying implication — that violent or underage hentai porn is a gateway to sadistic, perverse IRL fantasies.

This same reasoning still underpins frenzied discussions of video game killers, and it’s the same logic that underpins nervous discussions of hentai porn. But what Galbraith found was that hentai fans more generally were attracted precisely to the unreality of the cartoons — it’s the sharp, fantastical distinction between fiction and fantasy (known as the “two-dimensional”) that draws them in. Which checks out in discussions of guys with virtual girlfriends and dating sim gamers as well. They aren’t delusional lovers convinced they’re effectively maintaining meaningful, human relationships with hot, passive avatars — the fantasy and fakeness are the whole point.

When I chat with redditor and avid anime fan SandTalon, he argues this stigma has made most hentai fans double down on being firmly against child exploitation. “I do think most people in Western fandoms who consume this stuff take a stance against the attraction to and abuse of actual children,” he explains. “In fact, I see it all the time — people saying that they’re only attracted to 2D representations [in general], not 3D children.” Essentially, they drill home their moral stance to prove they aren’t the murderous, perverse otaku that anti-porn warriors try to paint them as — and even if you did want to single out lolicon, there’s no logical way to extend that reasoning to a ban on the incredibly broad world of hentai writ large.

Past attempts to crack down on hentai regulation in Japan have failed, mainly because when you scratch past the moral panic and extreme examples, there’s really nothing majorly threatening about a bunch of horny anime fans jacking off to pixelated buttholes. Historically, statistics have shown that increased access to porn lowers sex crime rates, and there’s no research to suggest that banning hentai would have any actual effect on child abuse or sex crime rates. As it stands, organizations like the San Francisco-based Prostasia Foundation and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund are trying to aid research that could fight stigma, but they’re up against conservative governments that often prefer the optics of censorship and respectability politics to actual, tangible results.

Plus, whatever your thoughts on hentai are, Payne’s right when he points out that masturbating to depraved, big-dicked anime monsters is the safest way to get off in the midst of a pandemic, when fucking a stranger IRL is literally illegal in some countries. “The biggest issue I have is that, during COVID-19, the safest sex partner for us all is ourselves, and yet now Australian anime fans can’t buy a harmless sex toy [or an animated porn film] that could allow them to take care of their needs privately,” he tells me, still frustrated by the Australian government’s decision to put a huge dent in his business.

Santos concurs, arguing that we should all educate ourselves on hentai before being quick to regulate it out of existence. Because the fight to save hentai from cock-blocking, fear-mongering politicians is about far more than bare anime flesh.

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