For starters, I want to briefly go over my experience observing online discussions about issues of consent in BL for the past decade or so because I want to make the claim that there have been significant shifts in audience reception to plot lines with non-con and dubdon since the late aughts and early 2010s. Far from an off-limits topic back in the day, fujoshi, fudanshi, and all who liest betwixt have been discussing and arguing about BL media that incorporate or depend upon rape or sexual coercion since I entered the scene very age-inappropriately back around 2009.
Since my last post, I’ve made a point to troll through old Mangahere.cc comments to make sure I’m not completely talking out of my ass about the kind of things that I remember seeing on forums. This quick perusal of a select few comment sections isn’t exactly a rock-solid defense against the fallibility of a first-person witness, but that’s the extent of the effort I’m willing to put into establishing my authority at this time. Please do tell me your personal experience with and observations of these discussions down in my comments section, whether they corroborate my claims or not. I’m deeply invested in finding out if this is shared memory or nah.
The most common viewpoint about sexual assault in BL that I remember from my days as a baby fujoshi is what I call the “that sucks” stance. Many BL fans were willing to concede that the over-reliance on non-consensual or dubiously consensual sexual encounters in BL was regrettable, but ultimately something you would have to learn to live with if you were going to continue to engage with the genre. This argument isn’t uncommon today either, as evidenced by the following comment:
You should finish it. As much as I hate to say it, rape is a huge thing in yaoi. It's just something that shows up in every other manga. Doesn't mean you should just stop reading because of one scene in one chapter. If you read that fair [sic], go ahead and finish it. Yamato-sensei deserves that much, at least.
Visitor, 10 Aug 2016, Saa Koi ni Ochitamae comments (Mangahere.cc)
To some extent, this is true, at least of the BL classics and older stuff. BL is probably not safe media for those completely averse to narratives involving rape (for whatever reason) to consume indiscriminately. Back in the day, the
that sucks stance was the closest opinion to which I ascribed, which has definitely made me more tolerant of problematic shit in my BL media today.
However, this kind of middle-of-the-road stance either enabled uncomfortable arguments justifying sexual assault on a case-by-case basis or (worse) encouraged denials that non-consensual encounters were non-consensual in the first place. I recall a good deal of hair-splitting about outwardly calling something rape in lieu of other terms, too, as though that would change the non-consensual shit we had all just witnessed. Such discussions are especially cringe-worthy and concerning to think back on, since young lurkers and commenters may have internalized this tendency to explain away sexual assault and then gone on to apply these arguments to real life events. Yikes, as the kids would say.
Admittedly, Saa Koi ni Ochitamae is cheating if I want to bring up evidence that the community has always been talking about this issue in a quasi-woke way, since it’s not a hot take that the sexual assault in that manga literally ruins the whole thing for some people, even those who don’t care about dubious consent in their BL. More on that below, though.
Besides these middling, apologist arguments, it wasn't unheard of to encounter the much eerier radio silence about a sexual assault--an endless stream of gushing comments recommending a manga without any reference to its horrific sex scene(s)--or people with non-consent kinks being happy about it--I’m specifically remembering a comment that claimed all BL should have rape in it because it’s, like, so hot.
Nowadays, I notice that readers are much quicker to critically engage with a story that features non-consent or dubious consent in comments sections, which is definitely a good thing. While I do hold that the community has always been hashing out this issue, it would pop up in maybe one or two of 30+ comments in a given thread, unless it was jarring enough to “ruin” a manga, as with Saa Koi ni Ochitamae. As I revisit texts that I remember being problematic in the past, the number of comments that directly address dubious consent is usually greater than those that ignore it or think it unimportant. I have major respect for this crop of undoubtedly younger fans when I see them not having it anymore... and they really aren’t.
However, some of these newer comments also show these readers taking the stance that sexual assault, coercion, or dubcon elements should never be in BL. And while a part of me kind of wants to agree with that sentiment, I don’t think we should start throwing every instance of non-consent into the fire, whether in BL media or any fiction. I do still think my thoughts on these matters have taken on a more modern, post-#MeToo bent though. For example, my tendency to conflate non-consent and dubious consent in this post is rather deliberate because I am of the opinion that any scenario in which consent seems to be confounded on any level is sexual assault, plain and simple. In this house, dubcon is non-con.
Still, making an argument that could possibly be construed as a defense of sexual assault definitely requires context in itself so that I don’t come off as a rape apologist creep. To provide that context I’m going to be lazy and pull heavily from one of my favorite video essays.
Even if you don’t care about Fifty Shades, I highly recommend everyone watch roughly the first 22 minutes of the “Lukewarm Defence,” since Dan teases out the nuance of dubious consent in fiction in a really compelling and accessible way. As an aside, Dan is easily in my personal top three or four video essayists on YouTube and I recommend all of his videos for their quality and insight. To dive right in:
I want to acknowledge that fantasy fiction, erotic fiction, playing with ideas and scenarios that blur the lines of consent--or even step right over them--aren’t strictly illegitimate as subject matter. Most of our fiction involves scenarios that we would never want to actually experience... and the idea that some people find non-consensual sexual scenarios thrilling is maybe not as weird as it’s often painted.
This statement comes toward the beginning of the context section of the video essay. It’s a more generalized (and better-phrased) version of how I ended my intro above, i.e. with the notion that not all dubcon BL should be thrown in the fire. The real crux of the issue comes down to how dubious consent comes into play in any given story:
Fiction provides us a way to explore ideas and scenarios that would be hazardous, traumatizing, or both, in real life. Fiction is a way to practice intense emotional states, but that doesn’t make fiction harmless. It still impacts us, and indeed impacting us is the entire point. This is why critics argue that the subject of fictional non-consent can still be handled more or less ethically, an issue that comes down to framing, something that Fifty Shades routinely fails at, and fails hard.
In the same way that Dan Olson thinks Fifty Shades is failing in ethical handling of dubious consent, I’d argue most BL is also failing. The majority of the dubcon scenarios in BL that I’ve witnessed has largely been unnecessary, at times altering the entire tone of a story for one scene before continuing on with an otherwise standard, vanilla romance with a happy ending. These are the moments that we could all do without for the normalizing effect they have re: sexual assault and domestic violence. At the very least, non-consensual encounters in BL should “make sense” for the specific narrative in question and be treated in a non-cavalier manner.
The reason that I think we should be picking apart BL media on a story-by-story basis more often is because there are some stories in which I think sexual assault or similarly traumatic moments work effectively in context to say something emotionally powerful or poignant. In the process of teasing out which stories fail and how they fail, we can dethrone the shitstorm of horrible plot points and tropes that plague (or people assume plague) BL media.
Simply because people enjoy it authentically doesn’t mean that criticism of the material (either in terms of technique or subject matter) become invalid. Critical readings of Fifty Shades that document patterns of abuse... are still valid and important readings, even if there’s an audience that finds it sexually stimulating.
The issue at hand is less that problematic media exists and people like it, how people respond to and critique the media and how that critique is received in turn. Critics would be wrong to call for censorship, but creators would also be wrong to demand freedom from criticism simply because their works are non-reality.
For what it's worth, protecting
the children or randos' delicate sensibilities isn't really the responsibility of those making fiction, especially when there are parental advisories or other systems in place to keep young impressionables out. (I say this as a self-described prude.) If you are an of-age anti, feel free clutch your pearls in private, but no need to police people for merely engaging with problematic fiction. Reading about sexual assault, intentionally or otherwise, does not a rapist make.
The issue at play with popular problematic fiction is when a mediascape has enough collective influence to really fuck shit up. Take, for example, the normalization of choking women during sex that somehow crept right on out of kink spaces online and poisoned the well in really normie digital spaces like social media; likewise with the re-glorification of having casual unprotected sex in popular culture. Younger millennials and Gen Z, especially women, have borne the brunt of these normalizations in their sexual debuts and early sex lives in recent years.
Even if BL is getting better on the consent front today, or even if people have drastically overstated the prevalence of non-con or dub con in BL in the first place, the genre's reputation has the potential to be self-fulfilling prophecy. New fans might come expecting non-con and create larger demand to be met, or the genre's reputation might create enough pushback that BL is cracked down upon and the more problematic back catalog is all that remains in the pop culture psyche. Either way, it's good to normalize critical engagement with media, regardless of if you think I'm catastrophizing here!
So, without further ado, let’s jump into some examples. All the stories selected are BL manga that I like, might recommend under certain circumstances, and continually re-read for one reason or another. Click on a title to read its individual section. It's recommended that you read each and in order listed, but it's not the end of the world if you do something else.
Since this title already got name dropped earlier in the post, it’s only right that we tackle it first.
This story focuses on protagonist Sakashita Noburu, a working-class kid who obtains a scholarship to his town’s private high school, Seihou Academy, in hopes of attracting and dating one of the pretty rich girls that attend the school. The reader is fed this expository info by Noburu with a record scratch delivery style meant to amplify the outwardly stated fact that he feels isolated from his privileged peers.
He’s especially annoyed by fellow classmate Yuuki Naoya because he’s rich, smart, good looking, admired by all the female students, and goofs off in an irritating fashion (at least according to Noburu). Yuuki, who seems unaccustomed to not being liked, makes moves to ensure that the two end up becoming friends despite Noburu’s initial bad impression. Soon after, Yuuki takes it a step further and confesses his love to Noburu.
Yuuki is repeatedly characterized as a pushy guy with good intentions, pestering Noburu for affection and demanding to help him with his poor people problems. Noburu does hesitantly reciprocate Yuuki’s feelings under the onslaught of his prince-like wooing, but Noburu doesn’t know how to give up on his goal of dating a rich girl (there is deeper significance behind it for him, surprisingly) and he continues to act ambiguously with Yuuki. They frequently flirt and kiss one another, Noburu taking issue more with Yuuki’s choice of location for romantic encounters than the romantic encounters themselves.
For people used to engaging with media targeted towards girls, you are probably already gearing up for a moment in which Yuuki, our pushy but lovable romantic lead, must “force” the romantic/sexual issue with his love interest by one means or another. While no manner of forcing romance or sex could ever really be good, given Yuuki’s good guy persona readers are prepped to expect some kind of big ultimatum argument, forced makeout session, and/or a temporary break up during which Noburu must confront his true feelings for Yuuki... or something like that.
Instead, things go off the fucking rails in Volume 2, Chapter 6.2 [6B], when Noburu asks Yuuki out on a date, but quickly foils the plans by agreeing to an outing with a bunch of female students. Yuuki is upset but decides to go on the larger group outing with Noburu and the girls anyway. Since he is awkward around his female classmates and actively hiding the fact that he is lower class, Noburu relies on Yuuki to get him through the day without his background being discovered. Once the group outing ends, Noburu goes to say goodbye to Yuuki, who gets very angry and acts as though Noburu owes him something:
You really only say insensitive things, huh? Haven’t you realized how I’ve been feeling? I went along with you today, just as I promised. Now I want you to go along with what I want.
Yuuki takes Noburu home and drags him into his bedroom, where he ties Noburu to the bed and assaults him. Noburu is rightfully flabbergasted, since Yuuki acts like he’s a character from Ouran High School Host Club most of the time. Noburu repeatedly apologizes and stresses that he would have acted differently had Yuuki let him know the extent of his anger about the situation up-front.
It’s a genuinely distressing scene and I skip it every time I go to re-read this manga. The horror of the scene is compounded by Yuuki’s ominous prelude (the quote above) and the words he leaves Noburu with once he’s finished:
I’m not your prince. You shouldn’t always expect me to be forgiving. You reap what you sow.
The victim-blaming aspect of this sexual assault is the worst, especially because Yuuki is successful in convincing Noburu that the situation was his fault and that he should feel badly--not because he was sexually assaulted, but because he “made” Yuuki assault him. If readers weren't already reeling from narrative whiplash, the very next day (I think), Noburu confesses to Yuuki, after which they have consensual sex. Yuuki has the decency to be apologetic for his actions the previous day and makes sure that Noburu is “aroused and enjoying it,” but that’s almost worse because he reveals just how in his right mind he was during the assault.
When one takes the time to really think about all of Yuuki’s dialogue throughout the rape scene, his actions become more sinister by the minute. At best, he planned for Noburu to willingly go along with everything in exchange for his help with the group outing (i.e. transactional sex), but what it really seems like is that Yuuki decided beforehand that he was going to have sex no matter what Noburu did or said to him that day. In other words, it was a calculated and premeditated act that he decides to go through with (he explains during the assault that it’s been a longstanding fantasy of his) because he’s now in a position to guilt Noburu for playing with his feelings. Yuuki times the assault at a moment ripe for diverting attention away from his own wrong actions and thus has his cake and eats it, too.
Fans of this manga are right to say that this scene has the potential to spoil the whole series because it is this moment that actually brings our two heroes together, meaning their entire loving LTR has origins in sexual assault. Since Yuuki is practically rewarded for his actions--he gets his man--it reinforces the idea that men are owed sexual favors in return for their niceness (even if the victim never asked for prince-like kindness in the first place) and that a man might sexually assault someone as a manifestation of love and should thus be forgiven. Yeah... absolutely not!
Since Yuuki doesn’t devolve into a full-blown yandere character after he gets together with Noburu, the scene also just doesn’t work narratively speaking. We do see Yuuki’s negative emotions prior to this scene but he’s always controlled and patient when expressing them; there’s no build up to the “outburst” nor does he do anything comparable for rest of the story. In my opinion, this is one of the worst offenders of using sexual assault as a plot point in BL because the same adhesion effect of the romantic interests could have easily been achieved with a verbal argument.
Although I love this mangaka and would (ironically) recommend this story for its affectionate seme, I would also point to this manga as an example of how not to handle non-consent in BL at the same time. Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, Saa Koi ni Ochitamae is more the rule than the exception when it comes to incorporating non-consent into BL romance, at least in media from the aughts that I could get my hands on.
Instead of a BL romance played entirely straight, this kind of jarring assault by a character that is otherwise charming and accommodating “works” if an author decides to embrace the fear and terror inherent to sexual assault and head the way of erotic thriller or erotic horror as a subgenre. Full disclosure of the fact that I’m also ripping this point straight from Dan's video essay:
The book doesn't manage to balance sexy danger, but it also refuses to embrace the danger danger that it creates. There is a potentially legitimately decent erotic thriller or even erotic horror somewhere inside the subject matter [of Fifty Shades].
For an example of this concept in action, take the oneshot
Sweet Sweet Honey and Punishment from the Houkago no Love Call tankobon.
This short story is about childhood “friends” Toshitaka (no second name given) and Nobuhira Tatsuyoshi. Toshitaka has treated Nobuhira cruelly ever since they met in elementary school, which eventually leads to an incident in which Nobuhira falls from a second or third story window and gets seriously injured. Instead of having a falling out afterwards (no pun intended), Toshitaka recalls that Nobuhira became even more loyal and obedient after his convalescence.
Things come to a head in this story when Toshitaka attempts to leave school with a female classmate (ostensibly under a romantic context) and berates Nobuhira for always following him around like a dog. As Nobuhira drags him off to discuss things further, Toshitaka tries to cut ties with Nobuhira for good. In response, Nobuhira begins strangling him, threatening to kill Toshitaka if he no longer wants him around.
Once Toshitaka stops struggling against the strangulation, Nobuhira backs off... only to non-consensually perform oral sex on Toshitaka immediately after. The oneshot comes to its conclusion with Toshitaka’s narration reflecting that the traumatic events of the story are probably the first time that he’s seen the “real” Nobuhira.
I am fascinated and in love with this oneshot more on the level of something that completely scares the shit out of me than as a BL; without fail, I go back and read
Sweet Sweet Honey and Punishment at least once every October. However, despite the fact that this story is terrifying and needs so many content warnings, I would argue that this mangaka does a much better job of ethically framing its assault(s) than Yamato-sensei does in Saa Koi ni Ochitamae.
First and foremost, the author visually emphasizes the fact that the sex act Nobuhira performs on Toshitaka without consent is equally as horrifying as the strangulation. During both acts of violence, she continually focuses on Toshitaka’s eyes, which are either open wide in astonished fear or shuttered with terror as he processes the reality of the situation. She also juxtaposes these visuals with Nobuhira’s eyes, which are either cheerful or eerily blank--it is only before he strangles Toshitaka that his eyes narrow in sinister determination. Her attention to the characters’ eyes allows us to understand the disparate emotional states of both characters, even when their eyes are closed during the sexual assault--while Nobuhira closes his eyes in pleasure, Toshitaka can’t bear to look at what’s happening any longer.
Kitazawa-sensei also mimics common dialogue tropes from BL romance stories (e.g. “why do you need a girlfriend when you have me?”, “if it’s for you, I’d do anything”), which I choose to read as a subtextual critique of normalized problematic relationship dynamics in BL romance. By presenting these dialogue tics in such a dark context, she invites readers to question the dynamic between BL heroes in other stories that use these lines in a seemingly harmless or romantic manner. In so doing, she underscores that the sentiment behind these words is more obsessive or possessive than romantic. What problems lurk beneath the surface of BL manga you’ve already read?
This story works primarily because it's a oneshot, as well. We are left on a cliffhanger of Toshitaka coming to terms with the “real” Nobuhira, a violent madman who it appears he can only hope to escape through death. The reader is left to imagine the unwritten horrors that Toshitaka will encounter in the future and the open-endedness of his fate is ominous as hell. Unlike Saa Koi ni Ochitamae, we are not left with the discomfort that a touching love match was made “official” through rape; instead, we are left to bask in the fear that the assaults of the story are certain to happen again in a future we cannot see.
Through a full embrace of the horrors of sexual assault and abusive relationship dynamics, Kitazawa-sensei has created a truly powerful narrative and effective erotic horror.
Whether you’ve been in the BL game five days or five years, chances are that you’ve encountered Finder in some way, shape, or form. This bad boy has been running since 2002 and was absolutely ubiquitous when I first started interacting with BL media.
Because so many scanlation groups used Yamane-sensei’s art for promotional or credit pages in their scan releases, there was a point in time when you didn’t even have to read Finder to recognize images of Asami Ryuichi and Takaba Akihito as the definitive iconography of the [Western?] BL community. I distinctly remember when the OVA came out in 2012; guys, it was an era and one that I look back on fondly.
Were anyone to ask me if I recommended this series, it would be my 14-year-old id that would spring forth with a resounding YES before my 24-year old superego could contain her long enough to deliver all the necessary disclaimers. In many ways, Finder incorporates non-consent and dubious consent in the inverse to Saa Koi ni Ochitamae. That is, Finder begins as a story in which the seme is a cruel rapist and evolves into a story with deeper passionate and--dare I say--romantic implications for the two heroes. For this reason, I think people had an easier time interacting with this series--it was assumed that you knew what you were in for with Finder, at least to some degree. BL fans more hip to the current online BL landscape and Western fujoshi community will have to clue me in to how informed your average newbie is to the content of Finder before committing to reading it OR if new fujo even feel the need to read it.
Of course, since Finder handles non-consent with the same poor level of ethics as Saa Koi ni Ochitamae while also being significantly more graphic, it's worthy of a good, hard look.
Finder is primarily told from the perspective of Takaba Akihito, a twenty-something freelance photographer working as an undercover reporter. Through his investigations of the Japanese underbelly, he gets tipped off to the hotbed of illegal activity going on at Club Shion in Shinjuku, an establishment owned by young (in his 30s) leader of the underworld Asami Ryuichi.
After Takaba takes some photos that could implicate a Japanese politician as a criminal collaborator, Asami and his squad decide to give Takaba a shake down to scare him off. In so doing, Takaba piques Asami’s interest through exhibition of his trademark rash bravery, eluding Asami & co. by jumping off a rooftop and onto a suspended neon sign. Recalling the incident, Asami clues the reader into his perception of Takaba as an object, a thing to be tamed and subdued:
Like a koma dancing on the Go board. It made my heart pound, like I was hunting a wild animal.
Soon after, Asami devises a plan to lure and abduct Takaba so he can “play with him” further, which is successful. Now in Asami’s clutches, Takaba is plied with an aphrodisiac, teased and tortured via non-consensual BDSM, and raped by Asami. Asami explains that he always has the compulsion to act thusly when he encounters boys as “weak and cheeky” as Takaba. Thanks, I hate it! Also, can we talk about the fact that I read this when I was 14?!!!
Dynamics shift from non-con to dubcon in “Fixer,” the second installment of the series, in which Takaba falls into possession of a disc containing names and other info pertinent to the operations of certain criminal organizations. It’s kind of unclear what exactly is on the disc (at least in fan translations), but it’s relevant to both Asami and the Baishe crime group based in Hong Kong. The Baishe are headed by Liu Fei Long, who travels to Japan to intercept the disc or whatever. After discovering that it’s in Takaba’s possession, Fei Long abducts Takaba, unaware that he has already wiped the contents of the disc and passed it along to Asami, flouting both men in the process.
For some reason, Fei Long decides he’s going to rape Takaba into submission, too, and gets it into his head that Takaba is Asami’s lover as he does so. Since Fei Long has a personal vendetta against Asami from an incident seven years prior, this bodes ill for Takaba getting swept up in Fei Long and Asami’s fights. Asami soon comes to fetch Takaba and the two have sex. In this sex scene, there is a verbal exchange between the two that reveals the depths of Asami’s obsession with Takaba and the extent to which Asami wishes to dismantle his autonomy, while also presenting the idea that Takaba might be somewhat(?) consenting:
“You’re really something, taking all those wounds when he raped you.”
Takaba: “You’re just the same as him. Even if I said I didn’t want it, you’d--”
Asami: “Don’t get the wrong idea, kid. I just don’t like other people touching my things. I’ve taken back what belongs to me. And in this world, I hold your freedom in my hands. I am the only one you will ever have. You should cry, knowing you belong only to me.”
The key part of this conversation for Takaba is the “even if I said I didn’t want it” clause, which suggests that at least in this moment he doesn’t not want to have sex with Asami. Okay, so, I like this one a little more, but still hate it.
So, is all this to say that fans can get behind Finder because it’s unambiguously a story that titillates readers as dubcon between two men with an inherently antagonistic relationship, right? Bitch, you thought!
Skipping over “Embrace the Heat of the Night,” “Flower on the High Loft,” and “Body Chase,” we’re going to jump ahead to “Naked Truth” and “Naked Truth in Hong Kong” because it is after these sagas in the series that the tone/direction of the story is dramatically altered to more of a romance, if a deeply troubled and complicated one. In the Naked Truths, Takaba is caught up in the violent conflict between Asami and Fei Long, which results in Asami and Fei Long receiving gunshot wounds from one another and Takaba’s abduction and imprisonment in Hong Kong. While in HK, Takaba is forced to sexually service Fei Long, all the while being subjected to the scorn and abuse of Fei Long’s underlings. There are two exchanges between Takaba and Fei Long that I want to highlight. The first is at the start of “Naked Truth in Hong Kong”:
Takaba: “Trained... stolen... Why are you guys all like that? Even if you force someone down and take them, that doesn’t make them yours!! Don’t you want someone to be with you out of pure and natural trust?”
Fei Long: “Don’t tell me you are expecting something as foolish as love from sex between men? A man having sex with a man... that means not acknowledging your partner and looking down on him. Asami... he’s like that. Has he said he loves you?”
And the other at the end of the same saga, right before Fei Long attempts to exchange Takaba for a deed to a casino that Asami stole from him:
Fei Long: “I should have spent more time taking you away from him. With you I thought I could keep you near and even come to love you.”
Takaba: “Excuse me, I’m not some quiet little cat. Besides, you’re the one who said there’s no such thing as love between two men.”
Fei Long: “[E]ven if I said it doesn’t exist, I can’t suppress the feelings that boil up subconsciously.”
These two conversations got my adolescent mind thinking about the relationship between [sexual] violence and power like never before. Ironically, the unfolding of this narrative arc in a problematic BL manga started me on the journey to understanding how wrong media is to continually present non-consent and dubious consent as romantic mishaps to be explained away once people fall in love. Up until the point of reading Finder, I had lapped up love stories in which a plucky guy relentlessly pursues an unwilling woman until she finally submits; like many girls before me, I had practically been groomed since childhood to look at dynamics like this as #relationshipgoals and not as the harassment that it is.
Fei Long’s stated belief that sex under certain contexts or between certain people, even if more or less consensual, can be a manifestation of someone looking down on their partner is something that shook me to my core, especially in light of Takaba’s dilemma about his relationship with Asami in the “Naked Truth” extras:
Even Fei Long wasn’t able to get a hold of this man’s heart, but he’s acknowledged by Asami as an equal. I wonder how it is with me. As two men we’ve also connected physically, but I’m not even acknowledged as a man… I’m completely just a piece of property. If I really want to get a hold of Asami’s heart, will I be able to do it... to make this arrogant, irreverent man submit?
To tie this all together (hopefully), these three quotes in conjunction underscored the unpleasant fact (at a time in my life when I was feeling amorous and men double my age or more were eager to entertain me) that not all people are approaching love and sex from the same perspectives. A person could be falling in love with someone engaging with them sexually out of lust, or as a demonstration of power and social status, or as a manifestation of their disdain.
Fei Long’s desire to keep Takaba around once he starts to fall in love with him coupled with Takaba’s sharp rebuttal that he isn’t a pet to be kept serves as a good example of how you should still run as fast as possible away from abusive relationships regardless of how much your abuser comes to feel genuine affection for you. Unfortunately, Takaba’s commitment(?) to a relationship with Asami is a good example of how one can turn down a dubiously consensual relationship with one person while walking willingly into a similar dynamic with another person. We need to always be on our guard for disparate motivations for our romantic and sexual relationships, lest we exchange one monster for another. Does this make sense?
After “Naked Truth in Hong Kong,” Asami and Takaba start to act slightly more couple-like and have consensual sex together with some frequency, although in one or more scenes Asami still subjects Takaba to sex acts to which he did not consent with no remorse. When I re-read Finder, I usually begin at or after the Naked Truths because I am happier watching the two heroes have passionate sex and (after “Escape and Love”) play house together. The extras are the best, showing how Takaba transforms Asami’s bleak apartment into a home filled with various snacks and tchotchkes.
There are even moments in which Takaba teases Asami with no real consequences (save having consensual sex after) or Asami does genuinely doting things for Takaba with no real ulterior motive (save having consensual sex after). But even though I enjoy this “new” dynamic once they get back to Japan, my enjoyment is probably enabled by nostalgia for a bygone era of my internet life and/or the fact that I find the consensual scenes between Asami and Takaba very sexually stimulating, which doesn’t absolve the actual narrative problem.
In the same way that even an inexperienced fujoshi “knew what they were getting into” when cracking open their first volume of Finder back in the late aughts/early 2010s, I can probably stomach the latter half of Finder by reminding myself that Takaba “knows what he’s getting into” by staying with Asami. Yet even trying to claim that Takaba is consenting to his relationship with Asami is pushing it, no matter how much Takaba willingly has sex with him. I think we are expected to view Asami as Fei Long describes him during the final chapters of “Naked Truth in Hong Kong”:
Go ahead and look arrogant, as if everything is going exactly the way you want it to. But Asami... you are also nothing more than a man who rashly storms into enemy territory to get back something you hold dear.
But does he hold Takaba dear in a way that respects him and his autonomy? Certainly not! Let’s read some excerpts that are supposed to show his deep feelings and passion for Takaba:
I have to see with my own eyes that deep rooted strength... I will never allow anyone else except me to change Takaba. He is mine, and mine alone.
He’s come back... my Takaba Akihito. This time for sure I’ll have to keep him tied down, so he will only love me.
😑 Yeah, absolutely no crucial character development on Asami’s end at all. What’s worse is that it appears Takaba is starting to lose himself to the relationship. He still resents how Asami regards him more as property than a partner, but he begins to think about their relationship in the same terms as Asami might, talking about how he wants “this arrogant and irreverent man [to] submit.”
After the Naked Truths, it would also be difficult for readers to ignore the fact that Takaba starts to want to shield Asami from running into trouble with the law instead of exposing his crimes and misdeeds to the public through investigative journalism. I would argue that the shift away from antagonism between Takaba and Asami is the primary dilemma Takaba must confront in the Escape and Love arc of the story. (We won't talk about Pray in the Abyss for now because I am not happy at the characterization for either protagonist but also the arc isn't finished, so I don't want to judge in advance.)
Moreover, Takaba hits on the very reason why Fei Long and Asami never worked out without even realizing it: “Fei Long wasn’t able to get a hold of this man’s heart, but he’s acknowledged by Asami as an equal.” While Fei Long was at one time interested in Asami, even if he were to indulge Asami and play the part of the submissive, Fei Long still possesses the power, strength, economic means, and cunning to outmaneuver or retaliate against Asami should he choose. Instead of being in full control, Asami would be humored in a relationship with Fei Long, and the inauthenticity of the power imbalance would more than likely spoil the entire thing for him. In other words, Fei Long wasn’t able to get a hold of Asami’s heart because Asami acknowledges him as an equal.
Asami likes a spirited and defiant partner because it makes beating them into submission all the more satisfying--it feels like a challenge without really being one in actuality, since the odds are so clearly stacked in his favor through his insane monetary wealth and his willingness to follow through on his threats of physical violence.
Not to plug the same Fifty Shades video essay again--especially since you should have already watched it by this point in the post--but a lot of the critiques lodged at the relationship dynamics between Christian and Ana in Dan Olson’s “Lukewarm Defence” also work for Asami and Takaba in Finder. (As a matter of fact, if you told me that Erica Mitchell read Twilight and Finder at the same time and cooked up Fifty Shades as her hybrid fanfic of the two stories, I could definitely be convinced.)
But enough on Finder for now. I could go on about it for an eternity and no one signed up for that when clicking on a post specifically about non-con and dubcon in BL. I’ll eventually dump all(?) my thoughts about Finder into an official review of the series later down the line. I feel like it’s a bit better than Saa Koi ni Ochitamae in how it engages with non-con and dubcon, but only marginally so. There’s a gradual shift away from non-consent as the series goes on, but it’s impossible to shake that a relationship between Asami and Takaba will always have roots in sexual assault.
I feel kind of bad for doing one of my favorite BL mangas dirty and sticking it dead last in a post that is already way longer than expected, but I’ll look on the bright side--I did end up saving the best for last. I’m not even fucking joking when I say that Yatamomo is second only to John Milton’s Paradise Lost when it comes to stories that have impacted me deeply on an emotional level while also impressing me with the artfulness of their construction and style.
I’m not sure if the trajectory of this post was obvious, but I began with a manga that fails so hard in handling non-con ethically that it falls flat on its face, moved on to a manga that embraces non-con in a way that renders it more ethical with its intentionality, continued with a manga that has a reputation for being kinky/embracing dubcon but repeats similar mistakes to the first manga, and now I finally want to talk about a manga that handles non-con and dubcon ethically 90% of the time (imo).
Just by examining the four book covers I’ve selected to represent these stories, the difference between the first three and Yatamomo can be ascertained at a glance. The other cover art shows the uke bound and/or lorded over in some way by the seme, who in turn seems to be monitoring the viewer and “permitting” us to look at his uke, but the Yatamomo cover shows Yata (seme) literally supporting Momo (uke) with his loving embrace as he faces away from the viewer, content to have us look at Momo without undue possessiveness. This visual also clues the reader into what to broadly expect from the story. While the title implies that this is about Yata and Momo’s coming together as partners, the cover art reminds you not to get it twisted--this is a story about Momo and how his relationship with Yata grounds him and transforms him into a character with agency and self-worth.
Yatamomo follows protagonist Momo, a vulgar and immature man in his early to mid-20s barely making it from one day to the next. He is burdened by overwhelming childhood traumas that have rendered him numb to constant abuse and codependent on other people (usually men or women who maintain him as a “kept” man for brief periods of time). Momo relies on sex work to pay for his living expenses and as trade for housing and clothing, something he’s been doing since childhood to survive.
At the start of the story, Momo routinely visits three men every day to play mahjong, the “agreement” amongst them being that Momo must have group sex with them in the event he loses. While these men serially cheat in order to force Momo into sex, Momo doesn’t see himself as having much of a choice but to return because he is homeless and broke. Even when he loses, they usually allow Momo to crash at their place once the sex/rape is over.
After one of these group rape scenes, Momo is cleaning himself up at the sinks in a public restroom when a young man out jogging--Yata--enters and catches him in the communal area of the bathroom nude from the waist down. Yata tries to be discreet and leave immediately, but Momo, terrified Yata will rat him out to police or something, prepositions Yata as a distraction, offering him a blow job in exchange for money. Due to his soft and caring disposition, Yata takes pity on Momo and invites him to stay at his apartment in exchange for nothing, although he does force Momo to listen to a lecture about his immoral behavior. (Yata wrongfully assumes that Momo is younger than himself when they first meet.) Even so, Momo makes advances towards Yata later that night--seemingly out of a sense of obligation--and the two end up having sex anyway.
Soon after, our heroes become regular lovers, strike up a nebulously monogamous relationship, and start cohabitating. Yata’s emotions for Momo quickly turn from pity to love, a fact which Yata makes sure Momo knows as soon as the opportunity for such a conversation arises. While Momo is embarrassed and aghast at Yata’s open affection for him, he finds it difficult to articulate his mutual feelings for Yata outside of making sexual advances and allowing Yata to be as aggressive as he wants in bed. However, Momo shows Yata how much the relationship means to him through self-improvement and self-actualization. Momo decides to get a job for the first time in his life, brushing aside Yata’s initial protests:
If I pitch in, then that should lighten your load... I did think about finding myself another guy who’d give me money, but I like Yata-chan too much, so I can’t break up with you.
Harada-sensei inverts reader expectations when she has Momo move out of Yata’s apartment, not as a signal of a breakup or falling out but as a means of showing the strengthening bonds between Yata and Momo through Momo’s desire to stand on his own two feet. (This is as a good a time as any to mention that Yata isn’t always the perfect partner, despite my praise of him as a character. In this same conversation, he remarks that Momo’s only redeeming quality is his looks, reinforcing the idea that Momo should feel indebted to his boyfriend and remain content with the paternalistic dynamic under which they begin their relationship.)
The central conflicts in Yatamomo arise when people from Momo’s past--primarily his ex “owner” (yeah, yikes) and his mother--come back into Momo’s life and bring with them vivid memories of trauma. Each time these people drum up the past, it makes Momo second guess if he is a suitable partner for a kind and mature man like Yata. The most beautiful thing about this story is Yata’s unwavering support of Momo as he confronts many of his life’s traumas head on and with appropriate seriousness for the first time. Unashamed of his feelings for Momo and sympathetic to his lover’s difficult personal history, Yata has no problem articulating how much he loves and would never “throw away” Momo.
Some of the most poignant moments of the manga are when Momo--callous and irreverent about everything, a man that laughs at being the victim of sexual assault--learns to cry about his traumatic memories and the mistreatments people inflict on him in the present. I’m someone who also learned to cope with problems through self-numbing and laughter, but blanket application of “better to laugh than cry” for all negative life experiences leads to trivialization of one’s deepest traumas, which in turn makes coping more difficult as time goes on.
I’m actually not going to dive into too many particulars about this manga because it’s really important for me to address Yatamomo more in its own review than giving away all its complexity and richness in a conglomerate post about a larger issue. (There are also other serious problems with the manga, like open misogyny and domestic violence, that can’t be adequately addressed in a post specifically about sexual assault.)
I invite my readers to read the manga before I have the chance to spoil the full story in my yet un-written review because I couldn’t recommend it more. I would definitely keep in mind that most sex acts in Yatamomo are shown in graphic detail, more so than the other manga featured in this post, including Finder.
I would list out chapters to avoid to enable those uncomfortable with the subject matter to still interact with Yatamomo, but most chapters would probably be eliminated for their content and the readers of an abridged version would lack sufficient context to fully understand or feel the weight of the few chapters that lack triggering content. Feel free to message me if you would like my insights into which chapters would be especially difficult to read according to your specific criteria; I would be happy to help anyone read Yatamomo in a way that makes them feel safest.
While I just outlined the trajectory of this post at the start of my section on Yatamomo, one organizational change that I made in the process of writing this was to move
Sweet Sweet Honey and Punishment directly after Saa Koi ni Ochitamae as a direct response to it. Similarly, I plugged Yatamomo in the penultimate section of the post to situate the text as a more direct response to Finder.
I want to argue that
Sweet Sweet Honey and Punishment and Yatamomo are successful alternatives to the narrative blunders in Saa Koi ni Ochitamae and Finder. Interestingly, Kitazawa-sensei and Harada-sensei accomplish ethical handling of non-consent by centering their stories in the trauma(s) they explore, instead of relegating non-consent to one element of a larger story about something else. While I cannot say that direct engagement with deep trauma is a blanket fix for all instances of non-consent and dubious consent in BL media, it is definitely something that more authors might consider doing if they feel dubious consent is necessary to effectively tell their story.
Truth be told, I think many BL stories have incorporated sexual assault specifically because the author wasn’t thinking very deeply about alternative ways to move the plot forward. For a lot of writers, rape or sexual coercion might be incorporated in their stories to cheat their way into having a profound, dramatic emotional effect with little effort.
Hopefully, further critiques and examinations of stories like I’ve done above will urge mangaka to think more seriously about alternatives to non-consent or to tell stories that at least deal with the issue in an appropriately serious manner. I’m obviously a huge fan of BL media and have been for many years, but I would love for the narrative landscape of BL to not be such that rape is (or assumed to be) “just something that shows up in every other [BL] manga.”
This post ended up being way longer than I originally intended, but it’s better to really flesh out one’s thoughts about a topic as serious as non-consent. I can’t say when I’ll be doing another one of these kinds of posts, but it was shockingly fun to write and something I look forward to doing again.
Up next, I’ll be reviewing Porno Superstar. Until next time!
Please note that I encourage my readers to support creators of the media they consume by making actual purchases, as I have done with Finder (both Japanese and English) and Yatamomo as far as this post is concerned. I only mention fan translations insofar as they have impacted my understanding and interpretation of a text (i.e. I read SuBLime Finder a bit differently) or are the only copies to which I have access at time of writing. I'll be making a point to reference the translations on my actual shelves and/or iPad when writing about titles that I own moving forward. That being said, I will always be referencing fan translations where and when relevant. Sorry, not sorry.
This post has been slightly revised and re-organized since it went live on December 11, 2019. Major revisions to the introduction were implemented on June 23, 2020 to reflect a (hopefully) more nuanced perspective.
Last updated: 2022-06-10
Harada. Yatamomo. Tokyo, Takeshobo, 2014. 3 vols.
Harada.Yatamomo.Translated by Blissful Sin, Cocobees, DistantTranslation, and Nogitsune (unofficial fan translations). MangaHere, http://www.mangahere.cc/. Last accessed 10 June 2022.
Sweet Sweet Honey and Punishment. Houkago no Love Call. Tokyo, Gentosha Comics, 2009. pp. 109-126.
Kitazawa, Kyou.Houkago no Love Call.Translated by Dangerous Pleasure (unofficial fan translation). MangaHere, http://www.mangahere.cc/. Last accessed 10 June 2022.
A Lukewarm Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey. YouTube, uploaded by Folding Ideas, 25 May 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzk9N7dJBec.
Yamane, Ayano. Finder no Hyouteki. Tokyo, Libre Publishing, 2007.
____. Finder no Ori. Tokyo, Libre Publishing, 2007.
____. Finder no Sekiyoku. Tokyo, Libre Publishing, 2007.
____. Finder no Ryoshu. Tokyo, Libre Publishing, 2007.
____. Finder no Shinjitsu. Tokyo, Libre Publishing, 2009.
Yamane, Ayano.You're my loveprize in Viewfinder.Translated by Club Vogue (unofficial fan translation). MangaHere, http://www.mangahere.cc/. Last accessed 10 June 2022.
Yamato, Nase. Saa Koi ni Ochitamae. Tokyo, Kaiohsha, 2003. 3 vols.
Yamato, Nase.Saa Koi ni Ochitamae.Translated by Dangerous Pleasure (unofficial fan translation). MangaHere, http://www.mangahere.cc/. Last accessed 10 June 2022.