Warning this is a long section, you might want to get a cuppa first.
As RSE educators, we need to understand the factors that may be impacting young people's views of relationships and sex. Sadly, one prevalent influence is pornography - which is so easily available online.
For most years in the last decade, PornHub has released annual reports about what its users are searching for. The website was the largest, most popular porn video site online and possibly still is. therefore, the search terms users put into the website can be seen as a measure of the emerging trends in porn consumption.
(Last year, PornHub did not release the information as they were facing a media backlash about its hosting of illegal content including videos of sexual abuse, sexually explicit images of children and copyright theft. As a result of this backlash, the website instigated a new policy of verifying the identity of users who upload content. It is unclear if this has completely resolved the illegal content being hosted on the website but it appears the website's publicity team now think they should start releasing the annual data again).
PornHub's whole blog post about 2021 trends is full of information with a breakdown of what search terms are common by country, by age and usage details. The specific webpage with this blog post is worksafe (if blunt) but does link to pages that are not worksafe.
This year we see the culmination of a trend we have seen for a number of years. Hentai is becoming increasingly popular across the world and has now become the global number 1 search term (3rd in the UK).
PornHub breaks down search trends by age and the 18-24 age group is the most interested in Hentai. PornHub does not report on underage viewers' search terms so this group may be the most likely group to reflect what younger people are viewing. Hentai as a media form is distinct from many forms of pornographic content and it is worth considering how this might shape young people’s questions in relationships and sex education sessions.
So what is Hentai?
Hentai is cartoon pornography in a Japanese style called anime. Hentai is a broad term that includes depictions of common sexual behaviours and extreme sexual acts, including impossible to film sex acts and monstrous creatures.
But before we discuss Hentai more, we need to discuss anime in general.
In Western mass media, cartoon shows are usually limited to two forms, shows for children or families (e.g. Tom and Jerry, Disney, Scooby-Doo) and comedy shows that tend towards adult humour (e.g. Family Guy, South Park).
However, anime is considerably more varied in its presentation of themes and its styles. Some anime shows are aimed at children and some are comedic shows for adults but you will also find anime shows aimed at teenagers that might be better compared to the TV soap Hollyoaks. There are anime supernatural thrillers, disaster shows, romantic comedies, dramas, historical shows, magical shows, science fiction, romance and probably most things you can think of.
Coming from this much broader field of anime cartoon media, it may be easier to understand how adult sexual anime, Hentai, has flourished.
Anime is a Marmite style form of media - you either love it or hate it. But that shallow reading of anime misses the point that people may engage with anime based on its genre. Just as people who are fans of Made in Chelsea might have very different tastes to people who enjoy Countdown.
If you have never watched any anime, I encourage you to give it a go, watch some anime films or a few episodes of a couple of anime shows. This is not because anime is something everything should be watching but to help us all better understand some of the cultural roots that anime is drawing from. Many anime shows are available dubbed in English or you can watch them in Japanese with English subtitles.
I have pulled together a list of films and shows from different genres of anime, most of the suggestions come from Netflix’s library but a couple of them can be watched for free on other services. The age rating of this anime range from U to 15, some of the more mature content may push the boundaries of what is expected to be shown in an office environment so you may want to use your discretion when to view these.
- Violet Evergarden (post-war drama, exploring and understanding emotions) 
- Your Name (body swap film like Freaky Friday with a twist) 
- Japan Sinks: 2020 (natural disaster, gritty realism, recently remade as a live-action show) 
- Cowboy Beboop (sci-fi bounty hunters, recently remade as a live-action show) 
- Seven Deadly Sins (magical fantasy adventure, very loosely based on European folklore) 
- Howl’s Moving Castle (magical teenage adventure mixed with war, considered a classic film) [U]
- Spirited Away (fairy tale child adventure, considered a classic film) [PG]
All Four (free in the UK):
- Fena: Pirate Princess (alternate history pirate adventure) [PG/12]
- Blade Runner: Black Lotus (Cyberpunk/sci-fi based on the film franchise) [PG/12]
Funimation (free trial available):
- Yuri!!! On ICE (Ice skating romantic drama) 
- Fairy Tale (Magical fantasy adventure) 
- Plus so many more - Funimation is a streaming service specifically for anime
These are only a random sample of the huge variety of shows made in the anime style and they are not specifically recommended. It is undeniable that many (but not all, maybe not the majority) of the young people you work with are watching anime and possibly some of them are watching Hentai. Dipping your toe into these forms of media can help us better understand and respond to questions and ideas young people have.
Coming back to Hentai, we need to consider if it will have any impact on the types of questions or comments young people ask and share in relationships and sex education lessons. There is not much academic research into Hentai and some comments made about it in press reports lean heavily on anecdotal reports, sometimes drifting into racial stereotypes about Asian, and especially Japanese, young people.
So I encourage you to always treat articles written about Hentai with caution, and ask questions about the authorial intent and style. Is this piece written in a way that either dehumanises and/or fetishises a group of people? Are historical aspects of ‘othering’ people from East Asia impacting the content?
Cartoon porn as a broad category can include Hentai style illustration, western-style illustration and computer graphics. They can be officially made productions or fan-made creations, maybe we can understand these latter ones as visual fanfiction or parody.
Regardless of type, some comments are commonly made about cartoon pornography. The switch from live-action filming, which necessitates human performers, to cartoon porn production does not require any human performers to engage in sexual acts. Some people see this as a positive thing, for example, if people are very worried about the welfare of the porn performers and are worried about non-consensual aspects of the porn industry. A question I now ask RSE educators to consider when I am training is, “Is cartoon porn the most ethical form of porn as it removes the opportunity for performers being harmed?”
However, cartoon porn is also criticised.
The criticism includes the ideas that cartoon porn dehumanises sex as it turns a human experience into nothing but pixels, and that it may harm willing porn performers who find they are out of work, being replaced by cartoons. However, the most frequent criticism of Hentai is that its standards of beauty, forms of relationships, portrayals of consent and sexual acts are often unrealistic and sometimes impossible!
Like classic Barbie Doll proportions, the figures of many Hentai (and anime) characters are physically impossible. The portrayal of male and female desire and relationship forming is unhinged from reality but that critique is frequently true across media types. The portrayal of consent is often very poor with sexist stereotypes very present: in many Hentai, women and shown to be enjoying sex even when they say no.
Finally, the literal sexual acts portrayed in the shows are not physically possible, humans would be injured or even killed if people attempted to do something similar.
So, what does this mean for us as RSE educators?
The impact of young people watching porn, in general, has been much discussed and debated but we do have some research around the topic. However, there is very little targeted research into the impact of Hentai but one study was released in December 2021: the study by Parka, Blomkvist and Mahmut is open access and can be read in full here. The study specifically looked at how viewing Hentai impacted attachment and attraction and suggested that:
- Hentai consumers did not differ from non-Hentai or non-porn consumers on avoidant attachment.
- However, among females, Hentai consumers were higher on anxious attachment compared to non-porn consumers.
- Hentai consumers rated anime characters more attractive than non-Hentai and non-porn consumers. However, there were no group differences for the image ratings of real people.
- Hentai consumers indicated stronger romantic desire towards anime characters compared to non-Hentai and non-porn consumers; there were no group differences in romantic desire for humans.
This is just one study and it only looked at attachment and desire. It did not attempt to explore if Hentai viewing impacted sexual behaviours, gender attitudes or understanding of consent. There are more questions than answers about Hentai: How similar is it to porn in general? Should we consider teaching about cartoon porn in the same or different ways to other forms of sexually explicit material?
In lessons, I have had a small but growing number of young people mention Hentai. At this point many of the questions have been variations of, “Have you heard about Hentai?” or, “What is Hentai?” Questions that may be used by young people to try and test me as an educator to see if the students know things I as an educator do not. Similar to when they ask me about some sexual slang.
I have also been asked about Hentai by other adult youth practitioners, either a concerned youth worker who found Hentai downloads on a youth centre computer or a caseworker doing one to one work with a young person who is exhibiting problematic behaviour that includes viewing Hentai imagery.
We are keen to make sure our Esteem RSE materials and support stays in touch with the needs of young people and educators. So if you have any experiences of being asked about Hentai by young people or adult practitioners, we would love to hear from you. Please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.