Lee Suckling asks, within a society in a "porn panic" should cartoon porn be more normalised?
If you've ever been on public transport in Japan, you might have looked over someone's shoulder and been shocked by what you saw. Despite strict laws about showing real people in a sexual light, cartoon porn – known in the West as "hentai" – can be spied in magazines and on phone screens across the Tokyo Metro and beyond.
Cartoon depictions of pornography are age-old. Look back to Ancient Egypt and you'll see erotically-themed papyruses from 1150BC; the Turin Erotic Papyrus is thought to be the first ever depiction of pornography. Hentai, the artform that shows manga and anime characters in extreme sexual situations (hentai means "abnormal" in kanji), was popularised during the 16th-19th Centuries. Throughout the 20th century, cartoon porn proliferated in the gay world with Tom of Finland as homosexuality slowly became more publicly visible.
If you've ever had a sexual fantasy about any kind of cartoon or drawing, you're not alone. In his book "Tell Me What You Want", sex researcher Dr Justin Lehmiller found that one in four people have sexually mused a cartoon character. A third have dreamed of sex with a vampire or werewolf (True Blood, Twilight, anyone?) and one out of six people have wondered about sex with an alien.
Lehmiller believes this is down to some people's need for "sexual novelty". We tend to show less arousal to the same stimulus over time, and are continually seeking out new images. Introducing extreme sex through art – where the imagination is the only limit – is one way to do this. This might be through the subtle fantasies of a Disney character (come on, Aladdin is hot), or a full-blown sci-fi extra-terrestrial sex extravaganza.
Cartoon fantasies are fetishes like any other. They're a simple expression of deep-down desires. Like many other unconventional sexual cravings, they can also come with an element of shame. Feeling abnormal creates anxiety and can harm one's sexual expressions. If you get off to a bit of hentai or some Marvel fan fiction, you can rejoice: you're not really that weird at all. Twenty-five per cent of the people around you are into it too.
Lehmiller's research found that there are certain types of people who are drawn to cartoon porn. Obviously, people who have "fantasy-prone personalities" (i.e. daydreamers) are most likely to delve into this world. Interestingly, sexual attraction to fictional beings is more likely to be experienced by those who have trouble with intimacy. Cartoon characters offer a certain "emotional distance", Lehmiller believes.
Although I own a couple of Tom of Finland coffee-table books, I've never directly sought out cartoon porn, but for the purpose of writing this article, I did. There's some great, imaginative, really hot stuff out there. I enjoyed the racial ambiguity of the characters – something that doesn't happen in real-life pornography where different skin colours and ethnicities are fetishised. I also found some extremely artistic and sexy portrayals of the caped superheroes that are definitely on my "hall pass" list. However, I did find most hentai (and similar hand-drawn pornography) to be more violent than I'm into.
We're all supposed to know porn isn't real, but I feel like the lines between expectation versus reality when it comes to sex have become very blurred because of it. Cartoon porn, at least, makes no claims of being realistic. Within a society under a "porn panic"; scared about what pornography is doing to people's sexuality, maybe cartoon porn should actually be a kind of new normal.