Anime girls sticking out their tongue in the ahegao style.
Images from Tira Part, Elisabeth Weir, Littlerosexo & Shutterstock | Collage by Cathryn Virginia
Rule 34

How Censorship Created Porn's New Face of Pleasure

Japanese censorship forced ahegao into the world, and it's become a global internet phenomenon.
29 February 2020, 1:18am

Welcome to Rule 34, a series in which Motherboard’s Samantha Cole lovingly explores the highly specific fetishes that can be found on the web. If you’ve thought of it, someone’s jerked off to it.

The links in this article may be considered NSFW.

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"I know it when I see it."

That's how United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined obscenity during a 1964 trial that would decide whether the state of Ohio could ban the public showing of a hard-core porn.

But when you see a woman with her eyes crossed and strings of spit dripping from her gaping mouth, do you "know it"? Riley Reid, one of the most popular porn performers in the world, dabbles in it. Wildly popular internet personality Belle Delphine did it, a lot.

But ahegao—the gagging, drooling face made popular by hentai—started long before either of these performers began experimenting with it. And as a fetish, it's still considered taboo by some.

In Japanese, ahegao translates as an onomatopoeia mashup of panting (as in, "ahe ahe") and "gao," or face. It's different from the more natural ikigao, which means "orgasm face." It's more outlandish. Few people having real sex and experiencing a real orgasm pull the face ahegao girls do, which is part of its allure: It's a juiced-up parody of an O-face. Like so many aspects of porn, it's greatly exaggerated and unrealistic.

In a different context, there's nothing technically sexual about the hentai facial expression known as ahegao. It's definitive features include crossed eyes, flushed cheeks, and a lolling, drooling tongue—and on their own, none of these are explicit. A face that looks like this could plausibly represent anything: someone in pain, or extreme ecstasy, or lusting after a really good meal.

But even if you're a very, very offline adult, you can look at an ahegao face and know something else is going on outside the frame. And from ahegao's origins, that's by design.

"Censorship made ahegao come into being"

In her highly influential 1989 book Hard Core, film and pornography scholar Linda Williams explored the idea that a woman's orgasm is invisible: that for men, in porn at least, you can rarely deny that they're cumming. There's jizz everywhere. For many adult films, that's the whole point: the "money shot."

But for onlookers, evidence of a woman's orgasm isn't in the genitals. It's in the sounds she makes, or the movement of the rest of her body, or especially, her eyes and face. It's a lot harder for a penis-haver to fake a mind-blowing orgasm than it is for a woman. In ahegao, the idea is that the experience is beyond fakery: she's cumming so hard that she's lost all control of her face.

"In Japanese adult video as in manga, there is an art to expressions of pleasure on the face, and ahegao works as the displaced climax, or the loss of self and mind in moment of overwhelming pleasure," Patrick Galbraith, professor at Senshu University in Tokyo, told me. Ahegao is an example of Williams' expressions of female orgasm, he said.

Thomas Baudinette, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, told me that ahegao may have its earliest origins in late 1990s or early 2000s Eromanga, pornographic magazines for heterosexual male audiences. From there, it's spread in Western culture—but its roots are in erotic artists' workarounds for strict censorship laws.

In Japanese obscenity law, a person who "distributes, sells, or displays in public an obscene document, drawing or other objects" is punishable with up to two years in prison or a 2,500,000-yen fine. Censorship of pornography and hentai in Japan is a huge cultural issue—so much so that politicians include the issue in their campaign platforms.

"Pornography producers in Japan have interpreted this law as requiring the censorship of the sexual organs and pubic hair, which are typically obscured in video and manga pornography through the use of mosaicking," Baudinette said.

Penatrative sex becomes a lot more difficult to portray if you can't show a penis entering a vagina, so artists had to get creative. "Ahegao was born out of the need to show bodies in pleasure within a context where it is difficult to draw penetration," he said. "Censorship made ahegao come into being."

Just as we have censorship to thank, in part, for tentacle porn, we have it to blame for ahegao. And some adult performers have it to thank for discovering a whole new fanbase.

"Remember to drool"

On her Instagram, Tira Part leans into the camera in what seems like unbearable anticipation.

Part, who is one of the most popular ahegao performers on Pornhub with 30,500 subscribers, told me that her fans enjoy this "mind break" fantasy. "They like to see when tongues hang out and eyes cross/roll back in sheer ecstasy," she said. "Whoever makes the face is enjoying themself so much they lose control of their moans and expressions. All they can do is pant and cross their eyes, and that's really attractive."

"The face is basically just an over-exaggeration of an orgasm or being banged brainless," adult performer Littlerosexo, who frequently does cosplay and camming with her fiance, told me.

The first time Elisabeth Weir—who's racked up more than 43,600 subscribers on Pornhub—encountered ahegao was in 2016. She started doing what she only knew as "weird" faces to be silly, but her fans loved it.

"I was surprised that some people find it not only entertaining but also HOT," she said. So many people requested it, she had to add it to her cam show requests list on OnlyFans: 20 tokens (around $1) to see her do it during a live show, and for adding ahegao to a custom clip, that'll be $15 extra on top of the clip price. "People wanted to see me performing it and were ready to pay."

Weir's advice for a great ahegao: "Ideally you need to think about your best orgasm but make it 1000 times stronger," she said. "So strong that your eyes started rolling/crossing and you can't control your mouth so tongue sticks out."

Littlerosexo also first encountered ahegao thanks to a fan who requested it. She had to look it up, but was excited to try it.

"You definitely have to be serious about making it 'believable' but also silly enough to have fun with it," she said. "And remember to drool! The most helpful thing for me to run through my mind while doing it is literally repeating 'NYAAAAAAA' in my head over and over. But there's definitely some internal giggling that goes between that."

"Somebody think of the children"

Unfortunately, we can't talk about ahegao without addressing the infamous "ahegao hoodie."

According to Know Your Meme, in 2015 a collage of hentai characters by manga artist Hirume started circulating online. Someone put it on a bunch of apparel—hats, phone cases, shirts, and more—in 2016, and from there it made its way to mass-production custom design shops like Redbubble. In May 2017, a Reddit user posted a photo of someone wearing a different ahegao collage design, this time on a hoodie. That hoodie is the one that's become notoriously controversial. It's still on eBay.

This thing has been banned by anime conferences, as it's widely derided as featuring faces from shota or loli—depicting minor characters in sex acts.

Last year, organizers of the SunnyCon Anime Expo made an announcement: Clothing depicting ahegao would not be welcome at their convention.

"Going on attendee feedback, people wearing ahegao made the majority of attendees uncomfortable especially those with children at the event," a spokesperson for SunnyCon told me. From their personal standpoints, they don't see anything wrong with ahegao, especially in a controlled, adult environment, they said. But SunnyCon—held annually in the UK since 2010—is an all-ages event.

"Despite there being no porn on show, it is still taken from 18+ content and some of the faces also can be considered underage as well," they said. Hypothetically, they said, a concerned parent who knew the context of ahegao could claim that SunnyCon exposed their child to mature material. "This would result in police being called and with them informed of the context it would spark up a powder keg of legal issues," they said. They imagined a whole chain of horrifying events taking place at their expo: the wearer being dragged out of the event and charged as a sex offender, the organizers losing their venue and tens of thousands of attendees.

"Given the potential legal ramifications it's not as simple as 'somebody think of the children' or 'it's just some faces,'" they said. "People with these types of attitudes need to realise that events are businesses and have to follow the law and make money... as hard as it is for hardcore fans, times change... trends like ahegao will be phased out," with an influx of younger, new fans.

"Wearing an ahegao hoodie in Japan would be unthinkable," said Baudinette, "and the only time I have seen it at a Japanese convention, it was being worn by a Westerner."

"In Japan, ahegao is strictly limited to the world of manga and it forms part of a broader trend within Japan’s otaku culture for a sexual attraction to imaginary characters," he said. "Outside Japan is a different story... It tends to be fetishized or used as an 'in-group' marker tied to the Western otaku fandom more broadly."

One could view the existence of the virally-memed ahegao hoodie itself as the import and appropriation of an art form gone wrong. Like getting a kanji tattoo that says "small charcoal grill," unless you already understand the context of the art form, you won't be able to understand the art itself.

Contrary to SunnyCon's predictions, ahegao likely isn't going anywhere. Searches for the word have exploded in the last two years, with more cam models and influencers jumping and drooling and panting all over the ahegao wagon. Most of those models are white. As ahegao transforms from a hentai expression to viral Western meme, it could change in meaning altogether—into simply someone showing pleasure with a little cross-eyed slobber.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.