The Unethical Depiction of MLM Relationships in Boys Love

By Joel Armstrong (he/they)

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Over the past decade, popularity with East Asian media has increased substantially. Everyone and their mother is watching the latest season of Attack on Titan , Squid Game is still the most watched TV series on Netflix, and Chinese manhua (comics) are gradually gaining popularity alongside South Korean manhwa and Japanese manga. With an increase in the popularity of manhua, manhwa, and manga also comes the popularity of a newfound genre not commonly expressed in Western media, BL. BL stands for ‘Boys Love,’ a genre focusing on romantic relationships between two men. Now, don’t get me wrong, queer representation in the West has also been gradually increasing, but we are rarely at the forefront of the screen. Usually cast as a side character whose only personality trait is that they are queer (looking at you Kevin Keller from Riverdale ). As happy as I am to be reading novels and watching media that I can relate to as a queer man, there is a bitterness in a lot of the representation of BL couples that I have seen that depict queer men not using consent in their relationships.


Firstly, what is consent? Most obviously, it is an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ A ‘kinda’ or ‘maybe’ is not a yes - so respect this. Consensual sex guarantees safety and mutual respect throughout the experience. It also means that a partner should be comfortable denying any advances without feeling pressured or coerced to continue anything. Consent should be actively reaffirmed. If your partner wanted to have sex 10 minutes ago, but when it comes around to the time and they are actually against it then they don’t want to have sex. It’s as easy as that. If they don’t want to continue, then don’t continue. Consent also can’t be inferred on historical grounds. This means that just because you are in a relationship with someone doesn’t mean that that person is entitled to have sex with you. There are a number of situations where consent isn’t valid. A non- consensual act can include when your partner is physically unable to consent (being asleep, drunk, high, or under the influence of any drug), is a minor (although the age of consent is 16, power-dynamics come into play. E.g, a 20 year old with a 16 year old is unethical because there is a huge shift in power between those ages) or if one partner is pressured into the act. However, a scary amount of BL doesn’t seem to respect these principles.


Sign is a BL manhwa that gained a fairly decent following due to its popularity on TikTok. I was enticed to read this manhwa because of its cute art style and relationship dynamic but would soon find out that 75% of this manhwa was the two of them having graphic sex (which was my bad for not looking into it beforehand). Throughout the series, red flags pop up between the two. The sparking point for my disgust happened around chapter 104, where Soohwa wasn’t answering his texts and Yohan was worrying. To Yohan’s dismay, Soohwa arrived late and incredibly drunk. Yohan took him inside and preceded to ‘punish’ him by having sex with him - even though Soohwa was intoxicated and couldn’t consent. Yohan kept going until Soohwa had fully sobered up. Soohwa orgasmed during this moment, but his arousal doesn’t amount to consent. To be clear, consent doesn’t correlate to your body’s physical response to the situation. Unfortunately, rape and sexual assault are common themes in BL. Love Stage!! , Dakaichi , Junjo Romantica , and On or Off are just a handful of BL that have situations where one partner crosses the line between consensual sex and sexual assault, with the author playing it off as if it were nothing.


The sad thing with Sign especially is that I haven’t seen anyone on any social media platforms criticise the series at all. Every post that I have seen portrays the two as having a cute and healthy relationship. But how can you tell me there is nothing wrong with raping your drunk boyfriend? I made a post on TikTok talking about this topic roughly a month ago. Although it didn’t gain much traction, most of the comments were confused as to what I was talking about. I was also able to find a Reddit thread about the subject, but likewise, their post didn’t gain more than 10 upvotes and a few responses. Sign and other popular BL unethically depict MLM relationships, romanticise violence, and stigmatise the conversation around consent. The assumption in BL is that consent is just a yes or no thing when it’s not. As someone who has been in a situation where I was sexually assaulted when drunk, I have constantly argued with myself about whether it was my fault as I thought I gave consent to my assaulter. But, as time passed, I realised it wasn’t my fault. It’s unethical how survivors are written in these BL and writers act as if these situations aren’t a big deal whatsoever.


Although I have critiqued a lot of different series, there are a bunch of BL that aren’t like this. Here U Are is a manhua about the relationship between Yu Yang and Li Huan. Although this series has about 138 chapters, not once can I recall either of the two making inappropriate advances towards each other. This is one of the reasons why I love this series. Not only do these two respect each other's boundaries, but they also aren’t minors, nor do they look like minors. The story is super engaging, the romance is sweet, the art style is super slick, and the amount of angst is bearable enough for me not to want to crawl into a hole and die. Given , a television series, also deals with consent. The romance between Mafuyu and Uenoyama is harmless and completely healthy. Mafuyu is also able to grow as a character due to Uenoyama’s influence. In the movie, sexual assault does occur between two other characters, but it isn’t romanticised like it is in Sign ; it is extremely disturbing to witness and treated seriously. This is how sexual assault should be depicted in BL.


Although MLM representation has been getting better and better as time progresses, right now MLM isn’t being represented accurately enough. Although most sexual relationships in BL are consensual, relationship dynamics that don’t give consent are treated as harmless. Instead, these scenes are depicted as ‘hot’, which erases the severity of the matter and the dignity of survivors who have been in these situations