Turning porn on its ear 

In the animated film My Sexual Harassment, a young salaryman named Mochizuki is working at his computer late one night when his boss, Mr. Honma, gives him an unexpected reach-around while teaching him to use a mouse.

"But Mr. Honma," Mochizuki protests, "I'm not gay!"

"Neither am I," Honma chuckles, while probing farther into Mochizuki's trousers. "I'm just an elite businessman."

Once Mochizuki realizes what it takes to be "elite" in Japan's corporate world, he enters into a series of uncomfortable, semi-consensual sexual relationships in which he puts his ass on the line — literally — for Mr. Honma and the company. It's like an animated Story of O, with Japanese guys. It's yaoi.

Yaoi (pronounced "ya-oy" or "yow-ee," depending on whom you ask) is a genre that centers on gay male relationships, sometimes with graphically depicted and nonconsensual sex. And here's the interesting part: It's gay male porn primarily produced by and marketed toward heterosexual women. That's important — it's what distinguishes yaoi from the live action gay male porn consumed by men. Yaoi can take the form of two different media: anime (Japanese cartoons) or manga (Japanese comic books).

Yaoi is big news in Japan, where manga publishers release 90 titles a month, according to industry estimates. The American yaoi market is much smaller, but has been growing steadily over the past decade. The genre's percentage of the $300 million annual American manga trade is difficult to estimate, but publishers who were originally skeptical have seen that yaoi has a market.

"While yaoi will always be a niche market of a larger niche market (anime and manga), it has seen definite growth in consumers over the last five years," says April Gutierriez, public relations chair of Yaoi-Con, a West Coast convention dedicated to yaoi, the only event of its kind in North America. "You can definitely tell, based on the willingness of publishers to license and translate yaoi titles. About 400 people attended the first Yaoi-Con five years ago, Gutierriez says. In 2005, Yaoi-Con drew more than 1,200 people. Average Yaoi-Con attendees are women between 18 and 35, who are students or professionals.

The term yaoi is actually a Japanese-speaking acronym for "yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi," a phrase that translates as "no climax, no punch line, no meaning." In Japan, the genre's also called "boys' love" — that's the less sleazy phrase. But yaoi is kind of a misnomer; while there might not be much meaning or point to a lot of yaoi, there's certainly a lot of climaxing. The genre is wide in scope, ranging from graphic porn without much plot to cute love stories that are light on sex and heavy on romantic intrigue. Some yaoi books and films are fantastical while others are more realistic. Some are just plain tender. And if you're used to the pizza guy and the sexy housewife porn scenario, yaoi will turn everything you thought you knew about pornography on its ear.

Even at its most intense, there's a lighthearted playfulness about most yaoi that's sexier than live-action heterosexual pornography, which is often uncomfortably earnest.

But why do girls like it? Part of it's common sense: Women like men. So it makes sense that women would find two men together erotic. It's the same principle that leads straight guys to rent movies like Bound and Wild Things. And even in the most graphic yaoi, there's a certain coyness that's absent from other porn, be it heterosexual or homosexual. Because of Japanese censorship laws, actual penetration can't be depicted. So genital areas are fuzzed out, obscured by well-placed limbs or sheets, or sometimes depicted as strangely inspirational-looking cones of light. And there are other advantages to yaoi fandom. While folks seeking live-action heterosexual pornography may have to visit seedy video stores or shady Web sites, yaoi fans can just log on to Amazon or Netflix.

Yaoi began with amateur comics created in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The popularity of these comics by manga fans led to professional-quality yaoi — both comics and animated features — sometimes adopted from popular titles.

By the 1990s, the popularity of all manga and anime was on the rise in the United States. Many titles with were achieving American popularity thanks to yaoi themes in Cartoon Network's lineup and even Saturday morning cartoons. (Take a look at the cartoon Sailor Moon — is there anyone who thinks the character Tuxedo Mask is straight?)

But yaoi, steadily more popular in Japan since the '70s, got a foothold in the American market in the late '90s for two reasons: the Internet and a change in the way manga is sold. Lillian Diaz of Tokyopop Inc., one of the largest manga distributors in this country, says that's when manga became available in such chain bookstores as Borders and Barnes & Noble, instead of just in comic shops. "Yaoi is geared toward girls, and it turns out that girls don't really like to go into comic book shops."

Tokyopop, based in Los Angeles, distributes some of the most popular yaoi titles, including Fake, a long-running manga that's also been adapted into an animated feature.

Fake, Diaz says, is a good gateway drug to boys' love. It's light on the sex and heavy on plot. Also, it's pretty funny. The series is about the comedy of romantic errors preventing or leading to a hook-up between New York cops Dee Laytner and Randy McLane. It's completely surreal: both Dee and Randy are obviously flaming queer, but their prolonged courtship and romance is business as usual in their hard-ass NYC cop shop — except when other cops try to make a play for Randy or Dee's affections.

That's another characteristic of yaoi: that all the male characters are gay or bisexual is apparently unremarkable. When the occasional girl gets rejected by one of the men, the fact that she's getting passed over for a guy isn't the problem, it's the rejection, period.

In yaoi such as Fake, surrealism is part of what appeals, Diaz says. "These are not intended to be realistic portrayals of homosexual life," Diaz says. "It's pure fantasy."

Much of yaoi features scenes that at their most violent are flat-out rape. A less dominant partner, often younger than the older man, is commonly taken against his will.

Fake's Randy is often portrayed as Dee's quarry in the pair's romantic game of cat-and-mouse. Diaz believes that the male/male aspect of yaoi frees women to explore ideas about sex without feeling pressured to identify.

"There are so many stereotypes made about women's sexuality. We're supposed to be pure, but also sexual demons. It's a way of reversing the power structure," Diaz says.

But Gutierriez thinks it's simpler. "We like men, and we like them with more men," she says. "I enjoy the aesthetic of seeing beautiful men on the page — the more the merrier — and any erotic content is simply icing on the cake."

See Also
Kinks and more kinks
Is that a tentacle in your pocket?

Nancy Kaffer is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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