Sinless and Stoning: manga sex, Japanese rape games and Girls Aloud

Sometimes events coincide in the strangest ways. I’ve been reading Matt Thorn’s intelligent blog – and the intelligent comments it deservedly elicits – to keep up to date on the Christopher Handley case. Matt’s also been tracking the controversy around the banning of rape computer games in Japan. I’ll come back to Girls Aloud – but first, citizens, the Prologue:

Handley is a 39 year old  American office worker who has pleaded guilty to to mailing obscene matter, and to “possession of obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.”  He was initially arrested because a customs inspector opened a package of manga shipped to Handley from Japan. The inspector  considered the contents obscene under the 2003 Protect Act.

Nobody has suggested that Handley has any pictures of, or interest in, sexual activity with actual children, or that he was promoting or publicising the comicbooks he enjoyed in private. It is also unclear whether any of the characters were minors in the narrative, although a Wired report states that his manga collection included images of explicit sexual acts including bestiality, and his lawyer advised him to plea-bargain specifically to avoid showing them to a jury.

Handley is the first person to be convicted under the Protect Act, which outlaws cartoons, drawings, sculptures or paintings depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct, unless they have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” He faces 15-20 years in prison and a reputation as a paedophile because a customs inspector and the police think characters in his comics are obscene. Neil Gaiman and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund are among the heavy hitters on Handley’s side, but he plea-bargained three further charges away because his lawyer felt that once a jury saw his comics, there was no chance of acquittal.

And that seems to be the heart of the problem. The Protect Act, like Britain’s obscenity law, is vague and subjective. Handley’s lawyer says “It’s probably the only law I’m aware of, if a client shows me a book or magazine or movie, and asks me if this image is illegal, I can’t tell them.” It’s a bodged-up job between the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress. The Court vetoed a broader ban on any visual depictions of minors engaged in sexual activity, including computer-generated imagery and other fakes, saying it could cover “legitimate speech”, including Hollywood productions. In response, Congress narrowed the ban in the Protect Act to cover only depictions that the defendant’s community would consider obscene.

So, presumably, if you live in hip, accepting San Francisco you might not get convicted for reading yaoi manga, but in a small Bible Belt community the same manga could get you jailed. In Britain we’d call this postcode justice.

Hollywood productions, however, are on safe ground. Heaven forbid that anyone should class American art, like Taxi Driver, with that Asian comicbook junk. And as for suggesting that the socially sanctioned sexualisation of real kids does more harm than any comicbook ever could, well, there really isn’t any evidence for that, as long as we overlook murders like that of little JonBenet Ramsey, overlook all the little girls parading in makeup and glitter fantasising about being a celebrity, or the ones who wear t-shirts with “cute” suggestive slogans while out shopping with Mommy.

We should remember that the Protect Act is aimed not specifically at comics fans, but at people who harm children. Its less vague, more specific provisions work well in decisions like USA v Spero, in which the District of Connecticut court used it as part of a decision that kept a predatory paedophile, with a history of grooming teenage boys for assault via the Internet, in jail. The problem is that drafting imprecise legislation helps no-one. How can people avoid breaking the law if the proof rests on the shifting sands of community opinion?

Meanwhile in Japan, the Ethics Organzation of Computer Software (EOCS,) an umbrella organisation for 235 game manufacturers, has announced that they’ll ban production of game software portraying sexual violence. This decision was triggered by the dear old BBFC in swinging London. The British Board of Film Classification objected to a Japanese ‘rape game’ offered for sale on Amazon UK , and therefore coming under its aegis. Foreign protests snowballed, and a very heated debate ensued outside the EOCS, especially among foreign game fans, many of whom made online comments calling down violent retribution on all feminists. (The BBFC is widely felt to be on the fuddy-duddy side of progressive, but until now has never been stigmatised as a rabid manhating feminist cabal.)

And what were the Japanese game producers doing while liberty-loving rape game fans were lining up with the fundamentalist communities of America to string up those pesky feminists right alongside people who read pornographic manga? The EOCS simply agreed to decide what was and wasn’t allowed, in a calm, pragmatic, businesslike fashion that put the foaming-at-the-mouth ranters and sloppy legislators to shame.

This brings me to Girls Aloud, unexpected cohorts in a different battle in the war for freedom of the imagination. It might be argued that a girl group with a fandom consisting mostly of underage children, a dress code that plays to the overexposed aesthetic, and a playlist that many would consider a crime against human intelligence and musicality, is an incitement of some sort. Still, 35 year old civil servant Darryn Walker went further than most of their critics when he wrote them into the leading roles as victims in his graphic kidnap, rape, mutilation and murder fantasy.

If he’d kept it for his private enjoyment, the matter would have gone no further. Instead, he blogged it onto a fantasy porn site, and was duly arrested last year.

It could be said Walker acted provocatively – certainly more provocatively than Christopher Handley, whose fantasies involved no real people, were sent to his private address in a sealed wrapper, and were only uncovered by agency of the State. Yet the case against Walker, a potential landmark test case for the freedom to publish pornographic writing online,  was dropped  a few days ago.

Expert reports suggested that his offending story might well be available on the internet, but it wasn’t accessible except to the most determined searchers, and that it was ‘baseless’ to suggest that reading such material could turn people into violent sexual predators. The Crown Prosecution Service brought the case on the basis that young fans of the group might find the story. Since this was considered very unlikely, the CPS took the view that a conviction was extremely improbable, and Walker walked free. Jo Glanvill, of the Index on Censorship, rejoiced. “This prosecution should never have been brought. Since the landmark obscenity cases of the 60s and 70s, writers have been protected from such prosecutions and have remained free to explore the extremes of human behaviour.”

It’s a funny old world. An American buys comicbooks for his own private use, and faces prison and a life spent trying to convince people he doesn’t harbour sexual desires towards children. A Briton writes a violent and obscene fantasy about real women, and puts it out on the allegedly wide open spaces of the Internet, but because it probably couldn’t be found by anyone who wasn’t specifically looking for violent murder fantasies about real women, he walks free. Does this this make Britons freer or less safe than Americans?

Of course, Walker has lost his job, and he may find it difficult to get another. He says he never meant to frighten or intimidate the members of Girls Aloud, though it’s hard to imagine how it’s not frightening to know that someone has fantasies about torturing and murdering you.  Many people would feel uncomfortable around someone whose hobby is fantasising about subjecting real, named  women to kidnap, violence and murder. This also applies to those ranters wishing violence and death on women who object to computer rape games – or it would, if any of them had the guts to use their real identities in their online threats. Meanwhile, the Japanese makers of violent computer games are trying to find a way to bring their product into line with public morality in other countries while still providing the fantasies of extreme violence against women that their customers – including, it appears, many Britons and Americans – enjoy.

I’m not pointing the finger at anyone: I believe you have a right to construct your own fantasy as long as you don’t impose it on me, or any other non-consenting party.  Yet for all the sound and fury of the British Board of  Film Certification, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Supreme Court, Congress, and a whole horde of people who foam at the mouth at the mere mention of the word ‘feminist’,  real people still fall victim to real hate and violence every day.

The game-makers, Christopher Handley and Darryn Walker all thought they had a right to create or consume whatever they saw fit: the only one who has been ‘vindicated’ was the one who thought it was fun to involve living women as victims in his coercive fantasies.

2 thoughts on “Sinless and Stoning: manga sex, Japanese rape games and Girls Aloud

  1. A small note: most of the sound and fury coming from the internet crowd looking to be angry at someone over the EOCS restrictions seems to be focused on Equality Now, rather than the BBFC. A surprisingly small number of people seem to even be aware of the details regarding the side of this story that took place in England.

    • I don’t think the Darryn Walker case has made much impact because there isn’t a specific manga/gaming connection in the Girls Aloud case. Since the amount of Girls Aloud fanfic isn’t that great, the issue wouldn’t even show up on most people’s radar. Still, we live in a world where everything connects. The slightest wingflap of the freedom-of-expression butterfly ought to ring alarm bells for us all – if someone can go to jail for reading comics in private, they could easily come for you and I tomorrow, without making real children one bit safer.

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