Lolicon: Where Do We Draw The Line Around Drawings?

Recently, popular Twitter user Bardock Obama has made it his mission to ‘bury’ Digibro over his tweets regarding Patreon’s new rules about what artists funded on their site are allowed to draw:

I hear has instituted new rules banning illustrated incest, bestiality, and loli porn. Um… why? What does Patreon stand to gain by shunning artists based on the fetishes they draw? If they think this is a moral line in the sand, I’ve lost a ton of respect for them. (https://twitter.com/Digibrah/status/978050277713555457)

When some people began to insinuate that he was personally insecure about losing the ability to support these kinds of pornography, Digibro went on to explain that he had been a fan of lolis – a ‘lolicon’ – for a long time:

Where do I get these new motherfuckers from? Do you even know who I am? I’m pretty sure I’ve been loudly proclaiming my love for lolis for like 15 years where the fuck have you people been? If you think I’m going to be embarrassed by being called out you know dick about me. (https://twitter.com/Digibrah/status/978345008481886209)

In response, Bardock tweeted out that people shouldn’t let ‘children and now pets near this dude’. This progressed to him getting in contact with Crunchyroll, Funimation, VIZMedia, Toei Animation and Anime Expo in order to have Digibro boycotted or blacklisted by these platforms – apparently, one has already accepted this request (UPDATE: this tweet has now been deleted, suggesting it was false information). He wants this to be the ‘end’ of Digibro’s career. The harassment Digibro then received from Bardock’s followers led to him feeling the need to go private.

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It’s evident that Bardock has no invested interest in Digibro’s career or the companies he’s reached out to (nor in giving any argument for his position other than ‘it’s [current year]!’, it seems). Digi has already been open of his desire to become a ‘loli’, a young virtual bishoujo, according with the common otaku affect of identifying with young girls rather than gazing at them as a voyeur. Crunchyroll have also already made content with him, including one of their ‘Lightning Round’ interviews and a panel at their expo, and their site and others hosts plenty of lolicon-oriented shows like Eromanga-sensei. Digi’s love of lolis is old news, and it’s a dark day when a hateful mob think they can get you blacklisted by a company that hosts the very media you said you like, which they claim is for pedophiles. How is their issue not with the company themselves?

There are, on the other hand, many reasons to be concerned about the drawings and cartoons that ‘sexualize’ young or young-looking characters. Recently, Omega Labyrinth Z was banned from sale in the UK due to the ‘likely harm’ to the ‘moral development’ the Video Standards Council believed it would do to its target audience, which they thought to be young people. Over a hundred years ago, the same concerns were being driven towards pornography in Victorian England. In her 1879 ‘Counsel to Parents’, Elizabeth Blackwell, speaking on the “poisonous character of all licentious literature”, bemoaned how:

whether sensuality be taught by police reports, or by Greek or Latin literature, by novels, plays, songs, penny papers, or any species of the corrupt literature now sent forth broadcast, and which finds its way into the hands of the young of all classes and both sexes, the danger is equally real. (p. 89)

The safety of the young is always of utmost importance in every developed society, but how do we figure this against the fan communities that show no interest in sexualizing real children, and only obsess over drawings? Is the danger of lolicon drawings ‘equally real’ to that of child pornography distributed over the dark net? For my undergraduate dissertation, I worked with some 18th- and 19th-century ‘pornographic’ literature, and a number of those works – My Secret Life, The Philosophical Theresa, to name a couple – contained sexualized children. Does that mean that the college that housed these works is in possession of child pornography, which should carry the same penalty as possessing CP films? Have I been in possession of CP myself, having handled these works?

However it may seem from any angle, and whatever the consequences of it are, the drama between Bardock and Digibro brings into focus an important issue of cultural dissonance between established anime fandoms in the West and the popularity of ‘lolicon’ media in Japan: where do we draw the line around drawings?

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In a previous article, I touched upon a divergence between two accounts of ‘maid cafes’, which deserves a more developed discussion here. Galbraith’s research, which has covered communities of lolicon and fujoshi, frames the value of maid cafe establishments as a kind of ‘alternative intimacy’, serving “what psychoanalyst Saitō Tamaki calls a ‘fictional context’ (kyokō no kontekusuto)” in “what Honda Torū calls the 2.5-dimensional space”, with maids as characters “connected to a fictional context, deliberately separated from the everyday”. To illustrate to boundaries between fantasy and reality for customers and staff in these cafes, Galbraith draws attention to how all interactions are “described by those involved as ‘pure fantasy’ (junsui na fantajī)”, and illustrates how this functions as a set of principles. He provides the anecdote of Neko, a customer who failed to respect this principle:

He knew Dragon and was a well-known regular. By 2007, he had fallen for a maid, and mustered the courage to ask for her phone number. This was of course against the explicit café rules, and the implicit code of the regulars. The maid at first jokingly warned Neko to stop before he got into trouble, then Dragon directly warned him, but he persisted in his advances. Neko was summarily expelled from the café and ostracised. His mental and physical health failed, and he began to suffer from acute social withdrawal. Though we stayed in internet contact, I never saw him in the café again. Neko lost his place and source of recognition, which had dire consequences for his wellbeing. (para. 29)

Neko was dependent on the cafe in a manner that could be considered unhealthy, but for many customers the virtual space serves as a world of dissociative play wherein they can escape from the issues that plague them in social reality, similar to the function of many video games and virtual worlds in anime. But by voiding the contract of ‘pure fantasy’, Neko was threatening the establishment, as though he was turning over tables or smashing drinks on the floor. The severity of the enforcement of the cafe’s rules for virtual play serves as an example of the necessity for boundaries that virtual play brings, lest they be exploited.

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Lolicon media is one such space of play: we know, from discussions with otaku that have been had by scholars such as Galbraith, that fans of ‘loli’ media tend towards identifying with the young, innocent and often sexualized girls that are featured. As discussed in this blog’s exploration of ‘moe’, lolicon see their media as “a form of self-expression for those oppressed by the principles of masculine competitive society” – a banishment of the expectations of a breadwinner and an escape into its absolute inverse. In his own essay on the lolicon phenomenon, Galbraith supports this reading with an interview from scholar Ito Go, regarding extreme lolicon pornography that features rape:

Readers do not need to emphasize with the rapist, because they are projecting themselves on the girls who are in horrible situations. It is an abstract desire and does not necessarily connect to real desires. This is something I was told by a lolicon artist, but he said that he is the girl who is raped in his manga. In that he has been raped by society, or by the world. He is in a position of weakness. (p. 103)

The paranoia brewing around Digibro’s proclamations of ‘loli’ love stem largely from the notion that children should not be around him: that by liking media with virtual, sexualized young girls, it is only possible that he would want to translate this into the abuse of real minors. In this scenario, correlated to Galbraith’s maid cafe anecdote, Digibro could be figured as one of the regulars of the cafe, while Bardock and his fans seem more like Neko – seeing the virtual only as a conduit towards the real, rather than as something entirely dissociated.

But Bardock’s concerns correlate to another angle towards lolicon media that has manifested in scholarship. Shari Savage’s article “Just Looking: Tantalization, Lolicon, and Virtual Girls” takes a similar stance to Bardock, proclaiming that consumers of lolicon media shouldn’t be trusted around children, and that lolicon media should be feared as a negative social influence that would cultivate pedophilia.

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Savage’s article has issues in many areas: she hand-waves away the work of Galbraith and other scholars by finding their explanations “hard to reconcile”, but doesn’t engage with their research or arguments. Instead, being herself a scholar deeply invested in Lolita culture, she correlates ‘lolicon’ culture back to Nabokov’s work and with Lolita fashion,  conflating the two worlds as Galbraith warns us not to in his collaboration with Pause and Select. One of her main conclusions is that there needs to be more discussion with Japanese scholars and fans on the matter of the obsession with two-dimensional characters (which Galbraith’s ethnographic work already cites and represents frequently) but she fails to cite or work with any such voices herself. There are many commendable approaches one could take to supporting Shari’s polemic against trusting a lolicon anywhere with children, but her own article is not one of them.

On the other hand, her article is incredibly useful insofar as it highlights a contrasting scenario of ‘maid cafe’ interaction to Galbraith’s anecdote, this time in the West:

[…] on April 26, 2015 Lolicon and maid parties arrived in Columbus, Ohio. A woman claiming to be a college student arranged to rent out a popular restaurant for a non-profit event. When the owner of the establishment arrived to pick up the rental check, she was shocked to and middle-school aged girls and older teens dressed in skimpy maid outfits, Loli-girl style, and several older men, who had paid a fee to attend this event, called Jouyou Maid Cafe. When one of the young girls expressed concern with the older men’s attention, the owner called off the event and sent everyone away. A Facebook page attached to Jouyou Maid Cafe showed 37 men planned to attend. The local newspaper’s investigation found that the renter was not a college student and was using an assumed name (Reinhart, 2015). Shortly after, the Facebook page was removed. (p. 43)

Unfortunately, though Savage cites ‘Reinhart’ as the source for this anecdote, his name is found nowhere in her bibliography – perhaps because this story is told in the post-script. Regardless, this event exemplifies the nightmares that plague the panics of those who would rather see lolicon media banned, and its readers jailed as (potential) pedophiles, than let this kind of scenario occur. While the Japanese cafe in Galbraith’s study had incredibly firm rules enforcing a virtual space, the ‘Jouyou Maid Cafe‘ was set up clearly without these guidelines, and without the normalization of a culture of dissociative play to fill it. This made it a site for predators to exploit, rendering it a shadow of the Japanese maid cafe phenomenon that takes on more of the shape of Japan’s ‘JK’ business, where underage schoolgirls engage in compensated dating with older men and many ‘cafes’ are fronts for child prostitution.

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There are bold lines between the two cultures in Japan, but huge differences between how those lines are perceived by Western and Japanese voices, as BBC Three reporter Stacy Dooley discovered as she interviewed Takeshi Nogami, character designed of Girls und Panzer, on the basis that his work was, to her, an obscene depiction of children. Nogami recounted the experience in a series of tweets, which were quickly translated by @walterinstict:

“I was interviewed by this lady at my workplace. One-on-one Q&A session for three hours.”

“Through that, I realized one most important thing. I was thinking about releasing it online as manga, but… The core difference between this interviewer and myself was the attitude towards human beings. My position is ‘all human beings have dirty desires. Isn’t it better to be vented appropriately?’”

“On the contrary, Ms Susie stated this. ‘All human beings are naturally innocent and have no dirty desires, and reading media depicting erotic, pedophilic, and gore contents will affect them to be corrupted.”

“Then I realized. So, the definition of human being or ‘operating system’ is different. After the three hour long interview, this realization was the most productive experience, I think.”

“Oh, on top of that, she said, with the look of a hitman from Black Lagoon, ‘My desire is to put all pedophiles and ones who produce pedophilic media into jail.’”

“Ah, ‘justice’ is kinda scary when it infects people. Isn’t trying to substitute everything into the subject of that sentence? It’s been two times where I was interviewed like this. She ignored me when I said, ‘Don’t look at us to turn away from your problem within the U.K.’”

“During the interview, we touched upon ways that we can tackle the child abuse issues in the Commonwealth world. She said, ‘banning all fiction like this!’”

“I suggested, ‘Well, solve poverty first. Legalizing fiction that has no victims will lower the crime rate.’”

“She seemed like she didn’t get the idea. It seems her view is a common one throughout the Commonwealth countries. That’s why you can get arrested for having a porn comic in Canada. So objection in words might not help much. It might be better to foster young, enthusiastic comrades within them.”

“Ms. Susie asked me, with [a] formal voice, ‘Why don’t you Japanese people follow what the U.K. does?’”

“So I answered, ‘Why don’t you British people follow Japan, since we’re more civilized, and have a lower crime rate than the U.K.?”

Dooley’s overtones of cultural imperialism notwithstanding, it’s remarkable that none of this interview made it into the actual documentary released, “Young Sex For Sale In Japan”. As with Savage’s lack of discussion with lolicon otaku, Dooley makes her assertion that drawn and virtual media is a factor in Japan’s problem of pedophilia and minimizes or erases discussions held with those who think otherwise.  This is similar to Savage’s assertion that “Reinhart (2015) was dead on, however, when he says the subservient maids are like the ‘new geisha’.” Savage hasn’t talked with any of the girls who work in maid cafes in Japan: she clearly assumes them to be the same as those that have been drawn into JK culture. Knowing the differences between these communities, we can claim that Columbus did not receive the world of ‘maid cafes’ during the Jouyou event – it was momentarily infected with a JK establishment dressed in the frilly facade of that Japanese otaku commodity. It put young girls at risk, and so can lolicon media if we don’t watch its consumers carefully.

This is the heart of the fears most Western anime fans will, and should, have towards lolicon and their media: a lack of trust in the idea that there are boundaries, or that there even can be boundaries. The problem appear when they’d rather cry ‘better safe than sorry’ and blacklist or jail people over comics and cartoons than hold a discussion with them to better understand why they are fanatic about literature and media that is legally classed as ‘virtual child pornography’. The Jouyou Maid Cafe is exactly what will happen again and again if this media is imported by predators who then seek to use it to exploit or abuse children for their pleasure; but while we know that lolicon media is also imported by survivors of child abuse as an outlet for expression, an ever bigger issue is how we seek to juridify what drawings can made or possessed. The illegality of filmed child pornography is indisputable, not because it figures a child being sexualized, but because it acts as evidence of a crime being committed against that child. Lolicon media has no such precedent, and would have to be judged on preconceptions of public morality about what ‘corrupts’ people that no democratic court should have written into the letter of their law. Such a judgement has already made a victim of one man, Christopher Handley, for possessing lolicon materials, but many US states acknowledge that the prohibition of drawings is beyond their jurisdiction.

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It should be clear that a sincere fan of lolicon media itself, a fan of the specifically virtual underage bishoujo, wants to do the deed with real children as much as a fan of furry pornography wants to fuck foxes. But while the many in the West are comfortable with seeing furries as simply strange in their costumes, they’re not happy with lolicons holding a distinction between the virtual and the real. We can’t be sure that pedophiles won’t abuse these materials. The fear of lolicon media in the West isn’t a product of the media itself – its an acceptance of the fact that we don’t feel confident in our ability to keep to the practices and principles that Japanese otaku communities have demonstrated security in. It’s a well-placed paranoia, and it’s one that will help keep events like the Jouyou Maid Cafe from happening again. But the fear is enough: demonizing or criminalizing the mere possession of these materials won’t make children safer, and immediately acting on that fear to ban lolicons from events with children ignores the frequency with which ‘loli’ lovers identify with the young virtual girls they adore, an affect that poses no threat to those minors – an affect that leads the otaku to be repelled by them even more, as they lack the impossibility of the virtual towards which their obsession is fixed.

The only way forward, as Savage understood, is to hold more discussions with these fans. Be scrutinous of them, as a mark of respect for them as participants in fan communities, just as Japanese maid cafes severely punish those who show any signs of not respecting the boundaries of the virtual as a way of honoring those that do keep to the rules. It’s not like lolicon is an abnormality for fans of anime and manga: as a corpus for works avalilable freely online, and many in translation, popular reader nhentai.net lists  ‘lolicon’ (at the time of writing) as its third most popular tag (53,521 works), underneath ‘group’ and ‘big breasts’, but with more than double the number of works that fit ‘incest’ (21394), ‘ahegao’ (20595) or ‘rape’ (25672). If Digibro shouldn’t be allowed come to Anime Expo because he likes ‘lolis’, neither should a vast proportion of anime fans who read or draw pornographic works.

I believe that the crime of abusing a child while having possession of ‘lolicon’ materials, or a history of reading them online, should be even more severely punished than abusing a child without them – especially if you tried to use those materials to corrupt the minor. But if we simply conflate the ‘loli’ with the real child, and call all these people pedophiles, we’re the ones who are failing to understand the difference between the virtual and the real.

When you can’t draw a line between reality and the virtual, you can only render everything in one colour, and leave a mess in your wake.

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Apologies for the infrequency of articles, but university has been keeping me down. After I graduate, though, I’m going to work towards having a Youtube channel. If you’re interested in helping me cover the costs for equipment, please consider checking out my Patreon. Thank you!

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3 Comments

  1. I was thinking about something while reading your article:
    Is it possible to say that Lolicon is to child porn what FPS is to actual war?
    “Lolis” would be a symbol of “little girls” ( “not developing human beings” but “cute things”) the same way “kills” in FPS are not “the destruction of human lives” but simply “the thing you do to score points”
    Also, nice article, i liked it ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. There are parallels here: I’d draw attention to how attraction to the ‘loli’ represents a social taboo much in the same way that the permission to ‘kill’ people in video games works for the player as an action of crossing a threshhold away from reality and into a virtual space where violence is rewarded.

      Liked by 3 people

      Reply

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