It seems like just yesterday that the localization of visual novels was primarily a fan based effort. Yet, recent official localization projects have surprised many – from the 10 year old but very beloved Clannad to the incredibly popular but supposed “lost cause” Muv Luv Alternative. Higurashi is well underway, with Umineko close behind. Beyond localizations, both Key and Frontwing have plans to release English visual novels before the Japanese release, indicating very strong interest in the market outside Japan (with age joining the party, that really only leaves Type-Moon as the final boss). What is most striking is that many of these novels have chosen to release their product on Steam, which as I said before, means we are getting the all-ages versions over the R-18 versions. As a Christian, that is all well and good in my biased view, but I simultaneously realize that this is not the end of sex in the medium. Far from it, the discussion of censorship in localization is a hotly debated topic even among those who don’t share my beliefs. However, one thing is certain: visual novels are becoming a bigger and bigger thing in the West, even if it’s still a tiny niche. As both a Christian and a fan of the medium, I think it’s important that we as Christians can approach a medium that is so rife with sex without being overly biased.
Now, Japes recently wrote a post in regards to how a Christian may personally approaching reading VNs. However, this post will be taking a different approach and digest how a Christian should be approaching the medium in a broader sense, how to think about the existence of sex scenes in VNs, and some of the mindsets of those who are in favor of their inclusion. I’m not going to tell you how to think; that’s your decision to make. However, I think you should be both informed about the medium and the works involved before jumping to conclusions, as well as understand some of the arguments in favor of them to help understand what I think is the maturity of the other side. Furthermore, I will be discussing arguments I feel have merit but do not necessarily agree with personally. Please do not take everything in this post as my opinion or that of Beneath the Tangles, but merely as “an existing opinion,” and consider things fairly to help us foster a more open and understanding dialogue on this subject that is normally pushed under the rug.
To begin, let’s clarify something that even I misunderstood long ago. In the context of sex, there are three kinds of visual novels: nukige, eroge, and everything else, and they are very different. Japes previously talked about “porn games,” but he did not make an important distinction between nukige and eroge. Nukige is probably the one the most uninformed people are familiar with. They are what the clichéd “Japanese tentacle porn games” fall under as games whose main point is having a lot of sex in it. The plot is secondary, and if you’re playing these, it is almost certainly for the porn. Maybe you could argue something like you want to laugh at how dumb the plot is, but you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone of much more. In some ways, this is similar to the “all anime is hentai” misunderstanding that plagues anime fans but in this case, sexual content is actually pretty common in VNs so it kind of holds more merit. The third one of everything else consists of novels which have zero sexual content. They might have other graphic content, but in terms of sex scenes, there are none. Thus, it is completely wrong to say all visual novels have sex; in fact, many are child friendly (a small number, but they exist nonetheless)! That leaves the middle one: eroge. These contain some sex. It could be as little as one scene in a 50 hour novel. Generally, you can expect one or two per route but it is still a very small part of the story. It is this category where the debate takes place. Yes, there are sex scenes, but unlike nukige, it’s not right to judge the entire novel based off the presence of a few scenes. Do you like it when people judge the Bible for a tiny excerpt from the Old Testament regarding some ancient law? Indeed, there are some pretty amazing and philosophically intriguing stories out there…they just have some sex in them too.
This brings us to the main argument of sex in visual novels. No matter how evil or immoral you may view sex scenes to be, eroge have entire stories that have very little to do with the sex. These stories may sometimes include very Christian themes such as forgiveness, salvation, and unconditional love. Think of your most favorite story. If a sex scene was added, would it invalidate the greatness of the story? I could see it lowering the value, but surely it wouldn’t erase the value entirely. The moral and themes of the story would not change. In reality, it would just be a very strange and distasteful addition to an otherwise great story. Indeed, this is a common opinion of sex scenes in visual novels. Unfortunately, eroge have sex scenes in them whether we want them or not. Even if we don’t judge the stories due to this small but serious issue, the sex scenes really need to be removed for morality’s sake. Or do they?
Just because we don’t judge eroge as a whole, doesn’t mean we can’t judge sex scenes as a whole. After all, what merit could sex scenes possible have? Indeed, I will admit that the majority serve no purpose in the story. Considering the main consumer of eroge and that many of these scenes are very shoe-horned into the story (sometimes so badly, even the porn loving Japanese fans criticize it for this), as a means of increasing sales, it is true that they do nothing more than temporarily satisfy sexual cravings. But once again, this doesn’t cover 100% of them. Or at least, we should not assume it does. The most important question to ask is one I have already hinted at: does this scene serve any purpose to the story?
Surely there are Christians who will say something like, “Even if it helps the story, I don’t want any of that in my novels! The mere existence is a dangerous temptation that shouldn’t be there.” This is only natural. But firstly we must remember that temptations of all kinds exist everywhere; something that tempts you is not inherently evil. If reading Bible stories about sinners tempts you to replicate those sins, does that make the Bible evil? No, but I would understand if you avoided certain passages for that reason. So perhaps the real issue here is the degree of temptation–that a full blown sex scene is too much. But probably there exists a small subset of people who do not find even this to be tempting. Disgusting, immoral, or distasteful, perhaps, but not tempting. If it is okay for such people to watch these scenes, then maybe the scenes in question aren’t inherently evil. So let’s try another approach: that this has transcended into the realm of pornography–it is not just about the sex but about how the sex is portrayed. There is a reason I have been avoiding the word pornography until now, and that is because a major foundation of the argument in favor of sex scenes is that they are not necessarily porn. Probably, no almost certainly, this is not the case. But maybe, just maybe there exist examples where this is false. After all, a biology textbook can describe sexual acts without being immoral. If there are examples that are sexual but not pornographic, then perhaps such scenes would be acceptable in a fictional story.
So how can a sex scene help a story without being sexual fan service, porn? There are two main approaches. The first is the idea that the sex scene adds to the theme of the story by exploring the characters’ personalities, be it mentally, emotionally, or even physically. I once wrote about Saya no Uta, a brilliant piece of work I praised despite its numerous sex scenes. However, the scenes weren’t about the sex so much as they were about the protagonist’s decaying mental state. If such graphic depictions of sex disgust you, then perfect, because, thematically, those scenes are supposed to disgust you. They exist to illustrate depravity in its most graphic, gruesome form and portray the protagonist’s loss of humanity. Could such a story be told without sex? Absolutely. Did the scenes in question make the themes of the story even more visceral? I think so. If sex scenes are not treated by the writers as porn, but rather as an event with which to depict very serious and internal behaviors of the characters, it can be said that they serve a real purpose to the story. A sex scene could show the moment a character overcame the PTSD of sexual assault. It could show the acceptance of a partner who suffers from low self-esteem. Conversely, it could show the mindset of a madman or give insight into the mentality of a rapist. If treated respectfully, there are many kinds of psychological and emotional narratives that can be advanced with a sex scene. Is the sex absolutely necessary? Maybe not. But there is certainly something very unique about sex that can give insight into a person’s deep consciousness, and that’s the kind of argument being presented here.
The second argument is that the sex scene is not there as a form of fan service or for the purpose of being an object of lust. Simply put, sex in relationships is normal, so a romance story having a sex scene is normal too, as long as the text is actually furthering their relationship in a meaningful way. It is difficult to argue that the scene in its entirety accomplishes this. After all, these scenes aren’t exactly short, and they tend to be quite graphic in nature. Those who know me would know I read quite a number of eroge, and as a result, I encounter sex scenes in all of these. I can say this without much embarrassment because my experience of them is that they are annoyingly invasive–I want to read the story and these sex scenes are preventing me from reading an interesting and/or thought-provoking story. I normally skip them, but sometimes I notice the text is actually saying something of value as it might include plot relevant information that has nothing to do with what the characters are doing. However, rarely, there is a scene that isn’t explicitly about the sex: it’s about the protagonists. It’s about the characters becoming closer and more intimate, and I mean this emotionally and mentally. The characters open up to each other on the deepest level possible, and there is a certain amount of respect between them that comes from mutual love rather than lust. If sex scenes are wrong because they inspire lust, then what does that make a scene which inspires happiness in me for the characters I had grown attached to? Much like we might celebrate when a couple finally kisses, we could also celebrate when they finally have sex. If our culture was able to respectfully discuss sex the way it deserves to be, then is it possible that sex scenes would be viewed less as pornography and more as simply another event in the life of a romantic couple?
There is something that excellent and tasteful writing can convey that brings life to the story and relationship of the characters. Biblically, sex is actually praised if done right. Is it possible for ideal and mature writing to depict this kind of wonderful and Biblical sex? Or is it inherently corrupted once it’s put onto display for readers? Perhaps human nature prevents writers from being able to give it the complete respect it deserves? Wouldn’t it be great if there were sex scenes that actually properly portrayed sex the way God meant it? Can you imagine if media celebrated Biblical but graphic sex scenes and what sort of weirdly moral impact that would have on society? If you can admit the potential is there for a mature but proper sex scene, then are people who appreciate the “immature” form any different than us who appreciate Christian themes in “immature” anime that are so often filled with other, more improper ideas? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but some people believe that sex scenes in VNs have the potential to portray sex in the beautiful manner it is meant to be. Most people will agree the current state of VNs is still far removed from such an ideal but claim the potential and foundation is there; others claim they are pleased with rare examples and feel a form of romantic appreciation for sex scenes rather than lust at cheap porn. Are these people lying? Lying to themselves even? Or maybe there really is something here that we are afraid to admit.
So perhaps some may be convinced that sex scenes can serve a purpose, however exceptional. A mature audience can read a meaningful sex scene and appreciate it for what it is trying to say without being tempted into lustful sin. Certainly, it is not something anyone can do, but it is also not a great evil that must be wiped from existence. On the other hand, surely some are not so convinced and still hold an opinion that all sex scenes in fiction are wrong. Regardless, let’s remember the purpose of this exercise: understanding the medium as a Christian. That is, this is not an argument for or against their existence but only how we should think about its (inevitable?) existence in conversation with others. It is safe to say the majority of eroge readers are not Christians. Many of them enjoy the sex exactly because it’s porn, but as always, this does not apply to everyone. If we want to have meaningful and productive discussion on the issue, we must be willing to listen to the arguments on the other side and give proper thought and consideration.
In conclusion, sex scenes in visual novels and the people who defend them are okay. Not okay? Evil? Morally righteous? You decide for yourself. However, I hope you will find that at worst, there is no real catchall judgment you can make regarding these sex scenes as there is actually quite a large spectrum in what they attempt to do. As the visual novel medium continues to grow in the West, the amount of people who read eroge grows proportionally. Whether you are a fellow reader, a purely anime watcher, or a parent who is just trying to understand your child, it is important to be informed before immediately making judgments about others and the stories they love. Today, there are still those who denounce anime as the spawn of Satan. I shudder to imagine how the greater public would react to the visual novel medium. If visual novels continue to grow in popularity, uninformed Christians are going to take notice of it, and when they do, I hope there will be a community of Christians who can give them unbiased, informed, and mature instruction on a topic that is practically begging for hate.