First things first: What the heck is lolicon?

Lolicon is a Japanese term, derived from the title character in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In the novel, an older man is sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. From this fictional narrative comes the phrase Lolita Complex, and later lolicon, to describe an adult’s controversial fascination with an underage girl.

Similarly, the word shota describes young male characters in anime. These characters are usually young high school or elementary school age. From shota comes Shotaro Complex and shotacon, referring to adults having a sexual attraction to underage boys.

The derivations lolicon and shotacon encompass both the enthusiasts and a type of Japanese manga and anime cartoons depicting adolescent girls and boys in an erotic nature, from merely suggestive to graphically explicit. Hentai, which translates to transformation or metamorphosis, is a sub-genre of manga. The stories center around these sexualized cartoon characters in perverse plots.

In Japan, lolicon and shotacon are treated like pornography, but it is legal and common, and introduces yet another fantastical phrase—2D Complex—a predilection to graphic illustrations or animation of cartoon in varying degrees of sexual situations instead of photographs or videos of real girls and boys.

Fans of the form do not see it as child pornography, citing that there are no real victims in the visual depictions. They also point out that it allows adults to be stimulated by a fantasy world instead of the real world with actual children.

A History of Lolicon

Japanese artists began making anime in 1956. In the 1970s, art movements and fanfiction emerged exploiting the underlying eroticism already inherent in mainstream manga—young and curvy cartoons with big, soft, innocent eyes. The decade also saw a rise in erotic parodies of the traditional children’s stories—Little Red Riding Hood and Alice in Wonderland.

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In the 1980s, lolicon saw an unchecked boom, attaching itself to fantasy plots with erotic themes, and spread into mainstream global markets. Japan has never had a shortage of creators producing provocative anime and manga to be consumed by adults.

The genre evolved, continuing to take inspiration from children’s entertainment and well-known themes and infuse them with adult undercurrents and lewd images.

On the face of modern Japanese society, lolicon and shotacon are shunned, but the country’s mainstream entertainment often embraces loli-culture. It appears to be both woven into and fraying the edges of the Japanese pop culture fabric. There are elements of loli in anime and manga’s best-selling comics, in the popular animated movies and TV shows. Japanese fantasy and science fiction are littered with racy themes and subtext.

Even in the music, there seems to be an unbroken thread of J-Pop girl groups, going back to the 1990s, Girl groups dominate Japan’s mainstream music with fresh-faced young girls dressing in schoolgirl uniforms or cartoonish garb.

The U.S. began devouring the anime and manga styles in the 1980s and 1990s with the anime cyberpunk of Akira, the fantasy of Castle in the Sky and the action television series Dragon Ball Z.

This acceptance of mainstream anime and manga opened the floodgates for racy lolicon outlets to flood the new market. A new animation style named after an anime character called moé began. This style blends aspects of popular mediums and lolicon. Instead of overtly providing obscene or pornographic images, plots deal discreetly with the budding sexuality of pre-teens and teenagers.

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The decency debate began and continues to decide where individual societies draw the line and decide what is and what is not obscene, and when does obscene become illegal in the United States. Some see it as a constitutionally protected artform. Others think it should be treated as criminally prosecuted pedophilia.

The Legalities of Lolicon

In the United States, lolicon and shotacon have gone beyond controversy. Since the nineties, federal and state lawmakers have sought ways to regulate the fine line between freedom of expression and child porn. It has been treated differently in various countries and U.S. states.

Federal laws in the U.S. prohibit the possession and distribution of child pornography. The PROTECT Act of 2003, also known as Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today, defines child pornography as any obscene image that depicts an identifiable minor.

Under federal law, a simple possession of loli is not illegal, but it does violate some state laws regarding child pornography. Massachusetts law mirrors federal law. The possession of loli is illegal if it meets two conditions:

  1. Anime or manga are an obscene image of an underage person or if the images lack serious value.
  2. The anime or manga was obtained through mail, transmitted through the internet or a common carrier, transported across state lines, or if there is an intent to sell or distribute it. If someone creates or possesses a large quantity of loli, they will be treated as if they intend to distribute it.

The passing of the PROTECT Act was a response to a Supreme Court decision that found all illustrations and animation pornography was protected under the First Amendment. This protected lolicon and shotacon if it was not deemed obscene. The court ruled that visual depictions did not contain actual children, therefore, there were no victims involved.

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As a result of the ruling, the PROTECT Act claims virtual depicted child pornography could be obscene and prohibits the transmission of virtual lolicon through the internet, the transportation across state lines, or compiling a large number of images or films that may indicate distribution.

The Massachusetts criminal code places harsh penalties on child pornography. How harsh depends on the specific situation and charge. The charges and punishments fall into three categories:

  1. Possessing child pornography – A first offense receives a fine between $1,000 and $10,000, and/or up to five years of incarceration in a state prison.
  2. Distributing child pornography – A first offense receives a fine between $10,000 and $50,000 or three-times the financial gain made from the crime whichever is greater, and/or 10 to 20 years of incarceration in a state prison.
  3. Producing or involving a child in pornography – A first offense receives a fine between $10,000 and $50,000, and/or 10 to 20 years of incarceration in a state prison.

Child pornography in Massachusetts defines the crime as any pornography involving a minor or anyone under 18 years old. It does not matter if it is represented in film, sound recordings, magazines, photographs, digital images, or drawings.