Let’s talk about sex…

Let’s talk about sex…

About 80% of Absolute Boyfriend’s plot is Riiko deciding whether she should sleep with her robotic boyfriend Night.

I’m always curious whenever I see people describe shojo romances as ‘pure’ or ‘innocent.’ While the average shonen manga may contain more panty shots and jiggling breasts than every single shojo manga combined, shojo series are actually far more likely to explore the topic of sex. Many newcomers to shojo manga are surprised to find that a good portion of shojo series feature couples who eventually do the deed. This surprise may stem from the assumption that materials intended for female audiences are automatically ‘chaste,’ since (supposedly) males are the only ones interested in viewing sex. Sex shows up in everything from ‘fluffy’ series like Absolute Boyfriend to more gritty fare such as Nana and Sand Chronicles. But the presence of sex in shojo manga can be very divisive. While some fans prefer for the topic of sex to be explored in romance manga, others feel bothered when shojo series cross the line. Part of what may influence fans’ reactions to sex in shojo manga are their expectations from manga as a whole.

Many of the fans I’ve seen complain about sex in shojo manga prefer idealistic romances. They don’t want to see teenagers in bed – instead, they look to shojo romances as an escape; a fantasy that should be ‘pure,’ and sex often gets in the way of that illusion. Meanwhile, fans who prefer shojo series that do include the main couple consummating their relationship don’t just like it for the kinks (though that can factor in too, of course). These fans tend to like sex in shojo manga because they think it’s unrealistic for teenagers to be so pure that they never think about or discuss sex. As for myself, I tend to agree with the latter opinion. In my post on what makes a good couple, I purposely left one criteria out: physicality. Knowing that a manga couple is physically attracted to each other (through kissing, sensual hugs, etc.) is important in getting attached to them, and this attraction includes, and often leads up to, the couple consummating their feelings. But let me clarify: I don’t think every shojo manga with teenaged characters needs to show that the main couple is sexually active. However, what I do think is that shojo series should at least show the main couple addressing the issue of whether they should have sex or not. It’s more important for me that a series includes a scene where the main female talks with her girlfriends about not wanting to have sex with her boyfriend yet or the main couple has a conversation about sex than for an actual sex scene to occur. Regardless of what the media and those right-wing PSAs will tell you, in real-life not every teenager is having sex, and thus, it’s not unrealistic for a character to not be sexually active in a romance manga. But it is unrealistic for a teenaged character to have no thoughts about sex, even if those thoughts are that they’re not ready for it yet.

Still, to some extent I can see why there are fans who don’t like to see the topic of sex come up in their favorite shojo manga. Over the past few years, shojo manga has grown increasingly smuttier. While this may or or may not be problematic in itself, what is troublesome is that smut often takes place of developing interesting plots or characters. My opinion of sex within a manga is often affected by how many sex scenes there are and how they are depicted. I’d much prefer for sex scenes to be depicted sensually and for there to be few of them than for a series to be all-out smut. Not to mention, how a fan reacts to the presence of sex in a shojo manga really depends on the manga itself. For example, I came into Kimi ni Todoke expecting a very pure love story, and seeing Sawako and Kazehaya in any sort of physical relationship would be somewhat disconcerting given Sawako’s naïvété.

Mayu Shinjo is known for creating smutty series, including Ai Ore!

But what’s interesting is that regardless of how many shojo manga include sex scenes, very few series have a female protagonist who is not a virgin. The only series I can think of whose main female characters have had sex prior to the story’s start are Mars, in which Kira was raped by her stepfather several years before falling in love with her boyfriend Rei, and Gatcha Gatcha, which implied that it’s main female character had sex with at least a few of her past thirteen boyfriends. Even once female manga characters do have sex, intimacy is always placed in the context of ‘progressing’ the couple’s relationship – very rarely do we get to see the female’s thoughts on the pleasure of the act itself.  So while it may seem like shojo manga are very ‘contemporary’ by showcasing couples who eventually have sex, in reality they’re still upholding very traditional values of what a ‘good’ teenaged girl should be like by reinforcing the female protagonist’s virginity at the start of the series. Still, I don’t think saying that all shojo series should or should not include sex is the right answer. Instead, there should be a range in the depiction of love and sex, and I would argue that shojo manga already does this: if you don’t like to see couples between the sheets, there are plenty of chaste alternatives out there. So what do you guys think? Does it bother you when you see characters having sex in a shojo manga, or do you find it to be unrealistic when they don’t? Share your thoughts, guys!

22 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sex…

  1. Hmmm.. sex and shojo… Ai Ore (post vol1), Zettai Karash (dropped after vol1). It depends on a level of comfort and exposure to the sex ideal. I find msyelf feeling more comfortable with reading josei titles.

    But sex and shojo…my first experience was either with Fushigi Yuugi, Kareshi Kanoji no Jijou, Sailor Moon or Ayashi no Ceres. I always found myself wishing there was a maturity label slapped out.. So you’re opening up a can of worms on what is age appropriate or not? It is the sexualization of gender .

    1. Thanks for commenting! It’s interesting that you’d mention a maturity label – I’ve always thought certain series (like Peach Girl) were somewhat risque for the 13+ age rating they were given by the publisher. (Though you could argue that although Peach Girl deals with some mature topics it doesn’t handle them maturely). But truly graphic shojo manga usually have a 16+ or 18+ age rating anyway.

      I’m not really trying to ask whether sex in manga is age appropriate – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with depicting teenagers having sex or for teenagers to read such material. I’m asking if readers are bothered by the concept of sex being as pervasive as it is in shojo manga and why, or in cases where they prefer there to be sex in romance manga to explain why as well.

  2. Interesting topic! I think it really depends on how the mangaka wants to handle the sex matter. If it’s for pure titillation that’s an entirely different thing all together. I don’t mind sex in shojo manga as long as it’s treated in a realistic way. Like you said, it’s impossible to think that no one ever thinks or talks about sex. It’s something that comes up eventually as we get older. I prefer tasteful sex scenes that shows a couple is both mature and in love with each other to get to this next level in their relationship. I rather not have a sex scene for the sake of throwing it in there. If I want smutty manga, I’ll read it just for exactly what it is––smut.

    It’s interesting you say some people view shojo manga as showing pure and innocent romances. I’m kind of surprised that there is a view like this. Yes, you do have shojo mangas like that but there are tons of series out there that can’t be labeled as pure and innocent. I caught on to how sexy and steamy some of these mangas can be just by reading Fushigi Yugi and Ceres after looking for other good mangas to read after Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. Overall, I think sex in manga is fine as long as it unfolds naturally in the story and doesn’t feel out of place.

    1. Exactly – if sex (both as a topic and the actual act) is brought in naturally and not just thrown in because the author feels like the couple is supposed to, it works.

      I’ve always wondered if the reason people see shojo romance manga as ‘pure’ is because they automatically think of series like Arina Tanemura’s stuff or even Ouran, which don’t really touch the topic.

  3. The first time I saw a series with sex scenes is NANA. To be honest, I was surprised. That’s only because I was very much into slice-of-life and the mainstream shonen series back then, and apparently sex isn’t part of the storyline.

    I think whether a series has sex scenes or not greatly depends on the nature of the series. It feels natural for series like NANA to have them while odd for series like Kimi ni Todoke.

    I don’t mind it either way so long that if there’s a sex scene, it blends in with the story. In my opinion, a bad example would be Sukitte Ii na yo. Hmmm…actually, I don’t get the whole story of that manga. I’m still at the early chapters though.

    1. The best thing about Nana is that the sex scenes are reflective of the character’s personalities and relationships – Hachi’s always looking for love and attention in the wrong places, while Nana and Ren completely want to consume one another. Plus, Nana is one of the few series where sex has consequences. A lot of the time, in shojo series it seems like the girl only has sex with her boyfriend because he wants it. While this isn’t exactly unfamiliar in real-life, it doesn’t exactly send the best message. I can’t say I’ve read a manga with a sex scene that seemed completely out of place, however.

  4. I prefer my romance manga with sex, but not pwp. Then I’d go to hentai. I don’t mind girls having sex at around 16 but getting pregnant and married at that age is highly annoying *Watase Yuu I’m looking at you*

    Your remarks in your last paragraph are spot on and great. I couldn’t agree more.

    1. I’ve only encountered a few series where the girl gets pregnant and married young and it’s…disturbing. Plenty of shojo series have sex, but very rarely do they address forms of birth control (and whether the girl is taking any).

      And thank you!

      1. Why is getting pregnant worse than having sex? Pregnancy does happen, even with protection. It doesn’t make sense to ostracize those who become pregnant but say sex is okay. I don’t think a girl should get punished or alienated just because she made a mistake (whether being stupid and ignoring protection on purpose or naive and not knowing one needs protection because of lack of education). Everyone who has sex, young or old, married or not, should realize that there might be consequences and be prepared to deal with them.

        In Bokura ga Ita, Yano reveals that he carries around a condom. It’s a good point and I wonder if manga creates unrealistic ideas about sex for girls and could possibly lead to a girl getting caught up in the moment and not thinking about protection

        As for my opinion, I don’t expect people who don’t have the same religious or traditional beliefs as me (I waited for marriage) to stay virgins and so I have no problem with seeing it in shojo manga because that’s just how society is and it’s natural to feel those feelings of wanting sex when in a relationship. What’s not natural is to get so close to someone and not even think about sex or feel tempted. So, characters discussing it, whether they decide to or not, shows the realism of the relationship and how close they are getting.

      2. Thanks for commenting! Contraceptives are rarely mentioned in manga. Even when they are, it’s usually in the form of finding out that the guy carries around condoms, which is used in the story to imply he’s had sex before. But condoms are almost never mentioned or shown leading up to the actual sex scene itself. Your comment about manga sending the message that sex is okay but teenage pregnancy is horrible is interesting considering Japan has such a low percentage of teenage pregnancies. Although it’s rare when teenage pregnancies do show up in shojo manga, when they do I wouldn’t say the characters are necessarily punished for it (like Yukino in Kare Kano). But not only does pregnancy (or the fear of getting pregnant) not typically show up in shojo manga, STDs are never shown as a consequence. But I guess not many series would want to deal with the grittier aspects of romance and sex, shojo or not.

  5. I appreciate some level of realism, even if we are talking about Shojo manga here, and you are right that not every teen is having sex either so a couple pure relationships are fine as well . Some of it can be realistic in depicting relationships, Mars for instance is fairly reasonable. Others, well.. lets just say there are plenty of sparkles, flowers and fake stuff too. (not that I mind.)

    1. The more ‘real’ and well-written a couple is the more authentic it usually feels when we see them contemplating sex. I think that ‘fluffy,’ idealistic romances serve a purpose and can be very entertaining if they’re well done when you’re in the mood for one.

  6. I don’t mind sex or lack of sex in my manga. It was never really something that I cared enough to make or break a manga for me. That said, if the sex is forced into the story and doesn’t quite fit (i.e. comes out of nowhere as the couple wasn’t yet ready), or if it’s highly problematic (i.e. one partner forces the other before they are ready and the manga doesn’t treat this as something bad), then yeah, it can definitely break a manga for me. I don’t mind more sensual scenes either. But again it really depends on how they flow within a given series. So I guess in general I don’t really care either way, but it definitely depends on a case by case basis. I definitely do prefer more realistic romances, but some of them can get away without showing the sex (more implying it), so again, sex is never a marker for me. Idealistic romances tend to annoy me even before the matter of how unrealistic the relationship is because the characters usually tend to come off as highly unrealistic even before they get into a relationship. So to me it was never of problem of sex, but a problem of unrealistic characters. Well those are my two cents on the matter. 🙂

    1. I agree that there are romances can be realistic without including sex – however, romances that never show the couple showing any physical affection for one another (kissing, holding each other, etc.) do feel fake. I’m with you that sex doesn’t really make or break a series for me, but there are a few fans out there who care a lot, and their stronger reactions may come from only reading series that do or don’t include sex (depending on which one bothers them). And I think you’re right – the reason idealistic romances don’t work is because the characters are often uninteresting and shallow or you can’t imagine them existing in real life. These things are symptoms of bad writing; not the lack of sex itself.

  7. This is a very interesting topic. I wrote a paper about the (seemingly) lack of sex in Yoshimoto Banana’s stories and came across an interesting book during my research. It’s called “Ai no Sekai” and describes a lot about Yoshimoto’s and Yamada Eimi’s stories and the origins of romance and sex in shoujo manga. I am assuming you can read Japanese, so maybe you might want to take a look into that?

    Personally, I prefer no sex in mangas over “they had to do it for the sake of the plot”. If the sex is done badly, you know, with reasons like “everyone does it” or “my boyfriend wants me to”, it just pissed me off.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I actually can’t read Japanese (I wish!), but that book sounds interesting. I know that sex scenes have been part of shojo manga since the 70s – I believe the first sex scene in a shojo manga was in Hideko Mizuno’s series Fire.

      I agree that it sex scenes can feel very contrived in some series. But some are very well done and serve a purpose to the plot/character development, such as in Mars.

  8. For me is extremely unrealistic if there’s no sex, not to mention that for many characters to hold hands and give a kiss is such a big deal and I don’t mean that’s not important but come on! I think that at some point when you really love a person you want to be with him/her in every way possible, you want to give yourself to them. So it’s not about having sex but making love that is the same physical act but with a deeper meaning. Just think for a moment, when you were in love didn’t you want to spend every minute with your love one, feel their touch, the warm of their bodies? and when we are teenagers this sensations are even more powerful in a way because is the first time that we experience something like this. So it’s okay if they treat this matter with care and romance but I really think that’s frustrating when the characters aren’t going anywhere because that means that they aren’t moving forward, they aren’t evolving then their love isn’t evolving either. Even Romeo and Juliet had sex and they barely knew each other and almost everybody agree that they were madly in love!

    1. Thanks for commenting! I think for awhile I felt the same as you – that it’s unnatural for a series with teenage casts for no one to be having sex. But after thinking about it, criticizing a romance series for not being ‘realistic’ because it doesn’t have any sex scenes or infer that the main couple are intimate is exactly the same as criticizing a series simply for having it’s couple consummate because both hinge on the belief that sex is the ‘be-all, end-all’ of romantic relationships, which isn’t true. As you said, most teenagers think about sex and those emotions are very much part of the teenage psyche so it’s important that a series featuring teenage characters depicts them. But there’s a difference between thinking about sex and having sex, and not every teenager is actually doing it (or even wants to). And, actually, many people would argue that Romeo and Juliet were written as horny teenagers who only wanted to bone each other – it was the critics who deemed their love to be great; not Shakespeare himself.

  9. I don’t think that is a part of the teenage psyche as much as a part of the human psyche… for me the biggest problem isn’t the lack of sex as much as the lack of intimacy between the couples, that’s what is unrealistic and I’m not even a lovey dovey kind of person. I’m sure that almost everybody would agree that if you’re in a relationship and your love one don’t huge you, kiss you, put his arms around you, say goodbye to you with a kiss at least in your cheek and so on is hard to think that he actually loves you. Its true that physical interaction is not the most important part in a relationship if that were the case any long distance relationship would work ever, but I do think that is a natural part of being in love. One good example of this is on Kimi ni Todoke, I don’t think that are many characters as shy and naive as Sawako and then again she loves Kazehaya so much that at some point even being his girlfriend is not enough, in fact for me she is the one that’s always pushing the relationship forward. The greatest think about love is its power to make ordinary things extraordinary that’s why for me the best stories are the ones that helps people to go through this kind of things in real life, showing them that’s normal for certain things to happen but making them remember the most important values to hold on to: respect, affection, patience, understanding, care, communication, trust… In my opinion a love story were the love is only in words and blushing faces and in unrealistic actions is more likely to make things harder and complicate for teenagers in real life…

    1. I agree with you completely. I know growing up, and I won’t blame it all on manga and anime, but I was always comfortable with the idea of having a boyfriend, but when it came to doing a lot of physical things, even kissing, I freaked out. It was as though i was only playing a part in my own life.

      Looking back I think I was so scared to become “unpure” because I had let it define me, which isn’t really healthy. It was good I waited (for a really long time though) until I was ready so I didn’t have regrets, but I think a lot of what held me back was thinking that sex would make me a naughty person because the really “nice” girls don’t want or aren’t expected to want sex. So I guess I’m torn on the matter. I think that sex is serious and can have consequences, but at the same time, it should be allowed to be shown as natural and that not every time is this flowery moment where you want to cry, but another way to be close and enjoy each other.

      I think if I had realized that in a way sex isn’t such a huge huge deal, I wouldn’t have been so scared of it and how I would be perceived after. I think it’s important too to show that girls can like sex and that it isn’t something you just do for your boyfriend, and that you’re not just going to do it once, but that it’s a natural thing that couples do. Sex isn’t dirty.

      Again, I can see that you’re not going to insert it into every story, and the fear of it becomming the emphasis if the story, but I think it should continue to be implied that they have a healthy physical relationship and that there’s nothing wrong with it.

      I went all over the place, I apologize, and I hope some of what I wrote makes sense. I just had to weigh in because I had and still struggle with my sexuality sometimes and have to remind myself that people have sex and want sex, and it isn’t a bad thing, and maybe if it had shown up in that light more in different media I would’ve had available easier time with that concept. I also hope this wasn’t too personal and creepy to share. XD

  10. A manga to check out is Ookami Shojo to Kuro Ouji (Wolf Girl and Black Prince). It is one of my fave series exactly because it deals with consensual sex within the relationship in a sweet way. Granted, the characters are interrupted because people have the worst timing but it is still a concept that makes its appearance and hangs in the air generally.

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