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The Rise of Hentai in America

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The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 1
Posted on August 8, 2012August 15, 2012 by CarrieLynn D. Reinhard

(This paper, and the accompanying presentation I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way, were done in 2006 for a women’s studies course at Ohio State University. Some of the facts may be a bit outdated, some have been updated, but I still stand by the interpretation of the texts. And, warning, this posting will include illustrated examples of pornographic cartoons, so it is definitely rated NSFW. Part 1 here discusses the subject matter; Part 2 compares hentai to live action pornography; Part 3 considers the ramifications of hentai.)


Created by a fan, and named “Jessica Rabbit Naughty Pin-up”.
When Jessica Rabbit, the animated femme fatale of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? uttered the line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” I sincerely doubt her creators knew that a decade later she would be made into an online porn star. Now, alongside other American and Japanese cartoon women, she has entire websites devoted to her. Is Jessica being objectified, degraded, and having her rights taken away? Logically, no, because Jessica is merely ink-and-paint, a figment of someone’s imagination brought to life only by the mechanical and visual trickery of animation. As she said, it’s not her fault she was drawn to represent a stereotypical male conception of an idealized woman. Why should we care if people have changed her from a children’s animated figure into an adult porn star? The purpose of this essay is to answer just that: the reasons we should care, and why research should not ignore cartoon porn, and in particular hentai, when it studies pornography.

According to anime scholar Mark McLelland, hentai is the Western label applied to Japanese anime, manga and games that depict sexually explicit and pornographic images and narratives. While not used in Japan to label animated films and television series (anime), video and computer games, or graphic novels and comic books (manga) meant for an adult audience, the term is derived from the Japanese word for “perverted”. Because this discussion concerns the impact of cartoon porn in the United States, I will be using the term hentai to label these materials available to American consumers.

Like live action pornography, hentai can feature a number of styles and topics in the sexually explicit material it portrays. In fact, according to Gilles Poitras, as with Japanese live action pornography, hentai is commonly more sexually violent and aggressive than Western counterparts and depicts fetishes not often seen in the West, such as bukkake, which requires a woman to service a large group of men simultaneously, typically in a public place, who all ejaculate on her at the end. Also, because hentai is in cartoon form, it is able to depict events impossible in live action, even with advanced budgets few porn studios can achieve. One such fantastical depiction, with a history in Japanese illustrated literature, is known as “tentacle rape”, which is simply just that: a woman is raped, usually through more than one orifice, by monstrous tentacles as surrogates for penises.


As is hopefully becoming obvious, a common theme in hentai is the same as that found in live action pornography: the subjugation, degradation and objectification of women. The main argument of this essay is that hentai and live action pornography share far more commonalities than they do differences, but t is also the differences between them that entreat us as researchers to attend to this “art form.” Before I launch into this main argument, I want to briefly outline the availability of hentai in America.

According to Laura Kinney, in Japan, it is possible to purchase hentai manga at bookstores, at convenience stores, and even out of vending machines. Hentai anime is available at regular video distributors, Of course, both are available online. Manage and anime alone are a huge industry in Japan, far outpacing the American animation and comics industry in terms of output. Although hentai is only a fraction of the manga and anime titles offered in Japan, and is less than the live pornography produced, it is still far more of a sizable portion of the marketplace in Japan than erotic comics and cartoons are in the United States.

It is becoming increasingly easier to consume hentai in America, mirroring the rise of anime and manga itself. Three decades ago, anime and manga were relatively unknown in the United States, being the possession of campus clubs that managed to get bootleg copies. Since that time, Disney acquired the rights to distribute Japan’s highest grossing anime films by Hayao Miyazaki. Cartoon Network, owned by Time-Warner, has devoted blocks of programming to air anime television series. Bookstores and libraries across the country have entire sections devoted to manga. There are English-language websites devoted to streaming and selling anime and manga, such as The Anime Network and Manga Fox. Thanks to titles like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Spirited Away, anime and manga have become high revenue ventures in America’s marketplace, catering to a loyal and increasing fan base.

Hentai is showing a similar trajectory, although understandably slower. Hentai also was first introduced into America as bootleg copies via campus clubs. It wasn’t until the 1990s that American distributors started bringing in titles, like the tentacle rape classic Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, and showing them at midnight theatre screenings and selling them directly to consumers and specialty stores. It remains uncommon to walk into a store to purchase or rent hentai, but the stores owned by Musicland Co (Sam Goody and Suncoast) began selling hentai, alongside live action porn, in the fall of 2005. At the time, Musicland was undergoing bankruptcy procedures and has subsequently been disbanded, with its assets sold off to other companies. This turbulent time for the company may indicate why the chain decided to sell hentai: it may have been a move to distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace dominated by Amazon and Best Buy. However, there was an even larger player in the marketplace to compete with: the Internet.

Those companies who started selling hentai directly to consumers in the 1990s continue to do so with offerings at their online sites, such as Critical Mass Video (who bought the distribution business from the bankrupt Central Park Media) or the hentai store at AnimeNation.com. In addition, other sites offer hentai as an option to rent, such as GreenCine.com, an online independent movie rental site that distributes pornography as an alternative to more mainstream rental sites like Netflix, which does not. In one night back in 2006, I found 16 official online distributors of hentai anime and manga; I have no doubt that since that time, more retailers have come on-line, and the amount of unofficial retailers (bootlegs and fan-subs) have also increased. With the safety feature disengaged, the keywords “free” and “hentai” return over 35 million hits at Google and 125 million hits at Bing. Of course, not all of these hits result in actually having access to free hentai, and a majority of the hits will be to sites that advertise as free but then requires registration or some fee to access the bulk of their collection.

What we have seen is that hentai is becoming as available as live action pornography in the United States. Yet, in searching for literature on this topic, there is less research on hentai; in fact, Wikipedia and Google Scholar are rather reliable sources of information to find any discussion of hentai around the world. Should hentai be considered as an equal to live action when we think about research and criticism of pornography?

Is it different than live action pornography?

Theories of what is pornography began to crystallize in the 1970s due to the work of American feminists and their analysis of how women are represented on film. In particular is the work of Laura Mulvey in theorizing how positioning and objectifying women in film serve the scopophilic male gaze that receives pleasure by its voyeuristic and yet controlling gaze of women. Pornography is largely held as an “art form” that objectifies the female figure, positioning women as submissive sexual objects presented for the sole purpose of providing pleasure to men, whether in the narrative with the women or in the audience consuming the narrative. Women are fragmented by the camera or the comic panels so that the focus for the viewer is on specific body parts to elicit arousal. Oftentimes women are being dominated by the male, in a heterosexual coupling, or by a masculinized woman in a homosexual coupling. Regardless of whether a man is actually present in the frame or not, by depicting women as objects, as dehumanized and subjected to a dominant other’s desires, they rendered powerless, denied agency, and thus not a threat to the presumed male viewer, who is left to gave over the spectacle without anxiety of being discovered, castigated, and ultimately metaphorically castrated.

According to Andrea Dworkin and other social commentators, the themes of power, hierarchy, objectification, submission and violence that course through live action pornography are just as discernible in hentai. Examples for this essay focus on the text of online websites as the most accessible entry into hentai. The content offered in these sites provide texts that objectify and dominate women, with the overall design of the sites presenting women as objects to entice the presumed male viewer into entering the online cathouse.

It is common for these sites to advertise with tantalizing figures, in vulnerable positions, displaying their genitalia, engaged in sexual activities, coyly looking through the computer screen, animated as seemingly aware of being look at in nude repose but without the ability to affect their circumstances. Sometimes the website will provide a warning that the content is not suitable for minors, other times it will not — and even the warnings seem pointless and perfunctory given the images already on display.

Even though a picture may say a thousand words, it is also common that these graphic images are accompanied by graphic text in an attempt to draw the consumer deeper into the site. Take, for example, the entry page (after the warning that does not require age verification) for SlutToons.com…



Here we see a collage, images positioning women as the objects of pleasure. Overlaid is text describing the content the consumer can expect to find if he goes deeper into the actual site, which requires payment for full access. Like the man who stands outside the strip club, calling out to passer-bys the features of the “products” on display within, these introductory pages offer men the prospect of hentai girls with “virgin” or “horny pussies” in need of their attention. At times, the language is highly charged with derogatory and sexist ideology, such as calling women “bitches” and “whores”, labeling two women engaged in a lesbian scene as “dirty” or “naughty”, and indicating in some way that the women deserved the abuse, such as “Awful hentai monster fucks slut”. Even the name of the site primes the consumer on what to expect, such as Hentai Pimp, Hentai Hussies, Hentai Humpers, Titanme, Cartoon Pimp and Bondanime.

Ever since stumbling upon hentai in the early 00s, in doing research on slash and yaoi, I have come across numerous titles that, while they feature different narratives, characters and styles, they have all invariably held with the pornographic themes of objectification and domination, even in cases when it is a woman instigating the sexual encounter. The common theme is inequality in power, where one individual is coerced, sometimes violently, to the sexual whims of another, and is then depicted as enjoying this subjugation. While there are instances more in line with what feminists would label as erotica — depicting a more equal display and acceptance of pleasurable sex — my perusal of free sites tend to find more of the pornographic than erotic persuasion. Even series that feature erotica, such as Femme Kabuki and Wingding Orgy, will also more commonly feature instances of pornography.

Point for point, hentai appears to be merely an animated form of pornography. However, hentai differs from live action pornography in an important way: no real women were physically involved and harmed. Some would argue that this makes hentai a safer alternative to live action pornography. However, the very fact that hentai girls are cartoons could increase any negative effects that come from consuming it. There are three main areas of concern.

The hentai girl is not a representation of an actual woman — there is no physical woman with a lifetime of identity, agency and choices that has led to the appearance in the narrative. Without any ability to claim agency, all potential control over her representation is in the hands of the creator. As ink-and-paint or pixels, these representations are malleable, able to be shaped into any position that serves the whim of the creator. This “vulnerability” means her body can be horribly disfigured, with breasts larger than anything physically possible, and she can be subjected to activities impossible in live action depictions, such as the spectacle of tentacle rape and some forms of bestiality, bondage and other fetishes. ”She” can have no say over any of this, as “she” is not a flesh-and-blood woman the creator or consumer need to identify or empathize with. ”She” is a lifeless doll, with no legal rights, no voice, and no choice but to be the way she is animated. And this relationship between creator, consumer and hentai girl could give men the wrong idea about how to react to any and all women: without proper experiences and information countering such representations, men could be desensitized into seeing all women as these dolls.

The nature of hentai allows for the blurring of lines between consumer and creator, even more so than just having the ability to post content online. If a consumer of live action pornography had a favorite porn star and wanted to make porn for his own pleasure starring this woman, he would likely be unsuccessful in soliciting this woman to come to his house and star in his string budget, amateur film. However, a hentai girl would be available for such a personalized role, given the man’s artistic ability or ability to use computer technologies to manipulate images. As a form of doujinshi, or fan fiction or fan art, fans around the world have taken their favorite characters, from both hentai and non-hentai texts, and put them into situations of their own choosing. In fact, it is quite common to see non-hentai girls being forced into hentai roles, especially those women who are superheroes or action stars in their original context. Perhaps such subjugation is to alleviate the male’s anxiety of being overpowered by these strong women. Like Jessica Rabbit, the action heroines of Sailor Moon are quite frequently turned into porn stars.

And then there is the common portrayal of hentai girls employing the common convention from anime and manga: the young, thin, yet sexually advanced adolescent, or younger appearing. This hentai, known as lolicon, features images that border on being child pornography, although producers argue that no child actor served as the model for these images. In much of anime and manga, it is the convention for women to be depicted with large eyes and thin limbs, which provides them with a youthful appearance regardless of the actual age of the character, and sometimes in contradiction with other physical attributes, such as post size. According to Japanese culture expert Brad Glosserman, this depiction aligns with the Japanese idea of the ideal woman. However, a large number of the popular female characters in anime and manga that the fans depict are teenagers, such as the action heroines from Sailor Moon. While official producers of hentai may not be creating lolicon, those images treat such young figures the same way as older figures. Big eyes in hentai signal innocence, virginal, and those can be big subtexual draws.

Some may argue that hentai should not be considered the same as live action pornography because of the exaggerations possible due to it being animated; thus, it cannot be seen as anything but humorous, a playful stress release, and not a threat the same what they live action, which uses real women, can be. Others still may argue that hentai is just the ultimate expression for the creator’s and consumers’ fantasies due to the malleability of the text. However, the same has been said about live action pornography, and how the fantasy elements of such works relate to the consumers’ acceptance of certain attitudes towards women. Fantasies not tempered by reality can take a strong hold on the viewer, and can be unleashed to horrible results.

Also, not all of hentai is of the extreme exaggeration found in some subgenres like tentacle rape. A large portion of hentai is depictions of real world events, such as bukkake in a train or school classroom, aligning them with similar scenes of orgies in live action pornography. If these images are not challenged by other information about the reality of sexual relationships, especially heterosexual ones, then the viewer may perceive these images to be the norm, regardless if it’s in a cartoon or not. As post-modernist Jean Baudrillard would argue, the very fact that the women are simulacra — hyperrealized and idealized versions of something that does not and cannot exist in physical reality — may make the consumer perceive them as more real than real. The malleability of the hentai may make this depiction worse if the consumer becomes the creator. Creating doujinshi hentai that imitates and thus reinscribes the same ideologies of official hentai can reinforce this perception of male dominance and female subservience. The reality of the hentai girls being unreal can create a vicious cycle that only strengthens the negative portrayal.

While it may not be as prevalent or have the same tradition in our society that live action pornography does, there is no mistaking that hentai is here and is accessible, highly so if we consider the role of the Internet in its dispersion. We have seen in this essay that its similarities to live action pornography mean it could have similar impacts on consumers, and these impacts may be further influenced by the simulacrum nature of hentai girls and the fantasies they offer. Even if these texts are read as humorous, their situatedness in our society, in our public discourse that attempts to both normalize sex and keep it hidden, suggests that even harmless appearing cartoons can reinforce the ideology of male domination if it remains unchallenged.

This last point, which constitutes my main argument in this essay, cannot be emphasized enough. Our society is different than Japan’s. Japan does not have the Christian, especially Puritanical Christian, perspective on sex. Their culture conceptualizes sex as more natural then the Puritan culture upon which most of the United States’ ideas and laws are based. As scholars have pointed out, in non-hentai anime and manga, it is quite common for women and men to be shown nude, with sexual innuendo, and to be directed towards children. When those series are brought to America, they are edited, such as the Tenchi Muyo series “dressing up” the nudity of the women who were engaged in the traditional custom of public bathing (the non-edited version is shown below).

However, although our society wants to keep sex int he bedroom (and sometimes not even there), our pop culture abounds with the use of sexual imagery, from entertainment venues to advertisements. Sex is used to get our attention because we don’t expect it to be there; sex is to be kept hidden, so any flash of a peep-show, any tantalizing glimpse behind the curtain, draws our attention. the tantalizing is seen in the rise of sexual content in television, music videos, movies, and advertisements. It’s available in emails, on smart phones, on the billboard you pass driving to and from work or school. It saturates our society, and yet we don’t talk about it. Sex education is replaced with abstinence only ideologies. Parents are embarrassed to talk to their kids until after their kids may be able to teach them a thing or two. Our youth need answers to their questions, and that’s one reason they go online. The Internet has become a de facto sex educator in a postmodern world where the media can makes things appear to be real simply by representing them.
And one source of information they will find online is hentai. While there is no study I could find detailing the frequency with which today’s youth actively consume hentai, there are indications that they know it’s out there and do go to it — such as the entirety of the 4chan community — although not as commonly as adult consumers. There has also been research into the extent to which adolescents access online live action pornography. There is even some indication that this group of teenagers is at the most risk for not being engaged in a balanced discussion about such, thus making them potentially more vulnerable to the messages encoded in pornography, live action or hentai.

Even if they are not searching for hentai, an anime or manga fan surfing online to find information about their favorite series may come upon a hentai depiction related to that series. Of course, search engines have parental safety features to filter out such content, but they must be engaged, and their children must not be able to circumvent them. And even then, there are the distributors that sell the material, and not to mention friends whose parents may not be as educated and engaged.

It can be entirely possible to make certain that a child never views pornography, live action or hentai. But does this solve the problem? As I’ve discussed, the discourses of male domination over women has not disappeared despite the research conducted on pornography. The fact that it is being imported shows that importers believe there is a market for it in our society and culture. The contradiction in our society — especially for women, who are taught to be sexy while also being non-sexual — plays out in the representation of hentai girls. It’s in the lolicon, who are supposed to be innocent, virginal, and yet experienced when all is said and done. It’s in the women who aren’t supposed to like sex because of society’s values and thus don’t ant to be sluts, who are forced to have sex and then find this painful sexual experience to be highly pleasurable. Hentai, then, is just another example of the pervasiveness of this discourse in our society: a discourse that needs to be engaged with on its fundamental level, not just in its representations, before it can be fully challenged and changed.

It is important to study hentai as a symptom of our society’s continual propagation of a discourse that reinforces an inequality in the power status between genders, and ultimately between people. It both shapes the male gaze that objectifies women and is shaped by it. We fear the effects of this discourse even as it normalizes this relationship. Our pop culture continues to turn out the discourse, of the sexy non-sexual, of the dominant male, of the lolicon, even as our public discourse grows more and more vociferous about it. Where is the concerted challenge to this normalization of a contradictory approach to sex? Not in hentai.

It could be so easy to dismiss those who consume and create hentai simply as perverts, as the word denotes, and to hold them responsible for their actions. But this is what our society wants us to do: marginalize them and forget them, keep sex hidden from the public eye so that we can continue selling products with the tantalization of the peep-show. But those in the margin are exactly the ones we should attend to, as they are the cases in which we can see the contradictions of our society take their toil. These are the individuals who go to hentai for some desire that is not being fulfilled by society, and because society is not talking to them, helping them with this desire and instead calling them perverts, these are the individuals who may lash out. Having outlets for sexual “deviance” may help those interested in such desires to not lash out — hentai may then be filling such a role. And finding a community of like-minded individuals, such as those at 4chan, could only help to further the perception away from perversion.

Does that mean that the degradation of women seen in hentai is acceptable, if it fulfills this role? I by no means am advocating that position. Instead, I am advocating the need to engage in dialogue with those who consume and create hentai, as well as live action pornography. If hentai is a symptom or an expression of a negative discourse affecting the relations between men and women in our society, then it should be investigated as such, and not dismissed as some harmless cartoon pornography that only perverts would find interesting. To dismiss hentai is to do as much damage as our society’s general dismissal of sex as a natural act. We need more dialogue, not less, to meet the challenges of dismantling these negative and contradictory discourses.

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