The great thing about having feminist book nerd friends is that they will recommend great books to you that you maybe would never have encountered on your own. The bad part of this is that you probably already have a mountain of books waiting to be read and so their recommendations end up joining the pile and cause you to feel even guiltier about all those books you haven’t read and why do you keep buying books when you have so many that you’re not even reading. I apologize to all the neglected books in my shelves of unread books. I promise you your time will come.
Like it did for Hito no Sex! Originally published in 2015 under the title Otoko Shika Ikenai Basho ni Onna ga Ikimashita, it was given a new title and a shiny afterword when it was published in bunko format in 2015, and then an even shinier afterword was tacked onto all of that with the reprint in 2019, which is the copy I have. I’m really glad for that last extra afterword because it addresses some of the ways the world has changed since she wrote the book, long before the #MeToo movement began and we started to see powerful men actually face consequences for harassing and abusing women.
Because Hito no Sex is basically a book of stealth feminism. The word itself is never mentioned in the text—we have to wait until the most recent afterword for the lone mention of “feminist”—but feminist ideas radiate from every page. It’s a kind of feminist 101—a woman realizing that things are unfair, that she is treated differently, as something lesser, merely because of her gender, and that this is very not cool and we should change it. It was another reminder that feminism in Japan is different from feminism in North America, developing on its own trajectory to meet the needs of people and society there. “Feminism” has long been a dirty word in Japan, and although that is changing now, as Tabusa notes in the newest afterword, you can still see minds slam closed the second the word enters the conversation, even if the person you are talking to has been espousing pretty feminist ideas.
So a book that talks about structural inequality and sexism and the abuse women face on a daily basis but doesn’t mention the word “feminism” has the potential to get some people thinking in a way they might not otherwise. And the funny part of this is that Tabusa does it by talking about porn and the sex industry, something that has long been a point of contention among Western feminists.
Tabusa drew manga for porn/erotic magazines for a number of years, and she documents her experiences in that world here in a number of short essays. The book is divided up into sections: “sex industries”, in which she introduces the different sex spots she visited for research for her manga; “the men who ask for sex”, which profiles men she encountered seeking out these sexual services; “the women working in the sex trade”, which is exactly what it sounds like; “the men who make porn and me”, her experiences with the editors and directors she worked with; and “these are actually places for men”, which is where she realizes that it’s not just the soaplands, the whole freaking world is designed for men.
All these sections are prefaced by an introduction, explaining how she even got into erotic manga making to start with (she actively sought the job because she was horny as fuck), how betrayed she felt when her partner at the time went to a sex club at the behest of his truly awful friend (who espouses such Showa garbage as “A man has to drive a nice car, have a good job, fuck a good woman, and drink hard liquor!” and I hope someone got rid of that whole man), and a lot about how horny she was. This last bit becomes the launch point into the whole reason for the book. Her partner could just casually stop by any number of sex shops catering to any number of weirdly specific fetishes and sex acts, but there was literally nowhere she could go to get her bread buttered. As a woman, she was not supposed to want sex, not supposed to get horny, and definitely not supposed to act on whatever desires she had. But men were allowed to be as horny as they wanted right out on main anytime they wanted, and she senses a deep injustice in this.
For the rest of the book, she examines this injustice, writing all the things she couldn’t put into the manga she was creating at the time. Because her manga was meant for men, and none of them wanted to hear this soapland woman was just in it for the money and was quitting the second she paid off her debts. So each essay is a kind of behind-the-scenes look at what really happened when she visited these places, along with her own thoughts and commentary.
It’s fascinating if only for the look at the wide variety of sexual services available for purchase in Tokyo. Many of these are gone now, since she was writing erotic manga in the early 2000s and had moved onto other work by around 2010 (it seems), but the essays are still a curious snapshot of the ways people will package and sell sex. I’m no innocent waif, but I had never even heard of services like a sexy barbershop, where all the stylists are hotties in extremely tight clothes who mash their boobs up against you while they cut your hair, or the panchira café, where all the waitresses wear short skirts that are blown up by gusts of air from the floor so that customers can get glimpses of their underpants.
Tabusa made me laugh out loud more than once, like when she talks about her experience as a puppet host interviewing porn stars for DVD extras. Or when she meets the “sex counsellor”, a genuinely creepy man who claims to be able to make a woman orgasm without even touching her. He proceeds to demonstrate this by fingerbanging his coffee cup. But the one thing I will take from this book with me throughout this life is her description of her partner at the time as “Gas Range Taro” because his idea of sex was a couple twists of the nips to get the fire started and then jamming his junk into her. She repeatedly notes that she had had plenty of sex, but never had “proper”—i.e. satisfying sex.
The book is peppered with illustrations of the subject at hand, many of which features Tabusa herself sitting awkwardly and unsexily while someone(s) get down and dirty right in front of her. Some of them are explanatory, diagramming the situation she’s describing, and there a couple nice drawings at the very beginning that break down the sex industry systems.
It’s a fun and funny book, but with real anger simmering beneath the surface. It invites the reader to wonder why the world is set up for men’s pleasure in so many ways, and how maybe, just maybe this culture of “boys will be boys” actually sets the stage for the abuse and harassment of women. Tabusa hooks readers with the “fish out of water” premise of a woman in men’s spaces and the promise of titillation, and then takes them on a secretly feminist journey. And you know I love that.