Christopher Handley’s Guilty Plea and its Implications

Christopher Handley has plead guilty for possessing obscene manga. While on the surface it seems a simple matter, the implications are enormous and complex, and to tell the truth I’m not sure I can get around to everything that I feel is worth saying, but I will at the very least try to get people to think about the causes and effects and consequences of this decision.

Handley was threatened by the government through a variety of means. While it is legal to have obscene materials in the privacy of your own home, they tried to get him on charges of having obscene material shipped across states, which it was because it came from Japan. However, that material was never meant for others, it was Handley’s personal pornography, and it involved no actual people, only fictional characters, concepts in a story. Of course, that’s not how the government prosecution wants you to see it.

The whole matter comes down to underage pornography. While there is the matter of the government never being too specific on the manga that caused Handley to be charged in the first place, ultimately they want you to think that it’s child porn even if it isn’t, even if all the characters are well over 18 and have adult proportions, even if they mistake Gaogaigar for lolicon. That’s where this discussion will take place.

A minor in the United States is someone under the age of 18. I am perfectly fine with that number. It’s different in other countries, sometimes higher and sometimes lower, but 18 is fine. It is fine, that is, when applied to real people, and that’s what the law should be about. However, anyone would be daft to believe that teenagers under the age of 18 do not have sex. Legally, it would be ideal if this did not really happen, but it is the truth and it is reality, and fiction should have every right to depict an aspect of reality while not being completely beholden to it or the law. In other words, if fiction were to be forced to depict a world where everything is legally okay or turns out that way, fiction would die. Imagine Death Note without murder. Imagine Kare Kano without sex between its high school-age characters. Both are possible, but both are enriched by these acts which can be deemed wrong by some, and while both are not considered “obscene” normally, when you start to hack away at the “obscene titles,” what you might not realize is that you’re also chipping away at more “innocent titles.”

Luckily, the US is not controlling all fiction. Shows about teenagers dating and having sex have been a staple of television since the 90s, the most prominent example probably being Beverly Hills 90210. And sure, they eventually grew up and become full-fledged adults, but the start was always the sexualization of teenagers, even if those teenagers were played by adults. Here we are in America, sexualizing teenagers while also saying that it’s wrong. Again, I am perfectly fine with the law saying that a guy who is 30 should not be fooling around with a girl who is 16 along as this law is for real people and not fictional characters where that huge age gap and all the implications behind that age gap can possibly factor into the story. And it seems like for a lot of entertainment in America, the government understands this, but something is particularly dangerous about comics.

I have to wonder if the the idea of comics being “for kids” has influenced this perception in any way, that comics should not have the ability to go that far when in fact it might be more suited to taking things a step further than perhaps any other form of media or art or entertainment. Purely text fiction would not so nearly incur the wrath of the government or normal people as the potential for obscenity requires some digging; it is not as immediate as visual imagery. I do not ask comics to be like literature or high art, but what I do hope is that comics, comic creators, and comic readers as a whole can achieve all of the possiblities of the medium without having to worry about their ideas being considered too “obscene” or “wrong.”

If you think the material is bad, you are allowed to say so, but it should not be possible to run to the government and tell them on someone with whom you disagree, even if the “you” I mentioned IS the government.

I understand that not everyone is as closely connected with the world of fiction as myself or others, and they may see this guilty plea and its consequences as being very cut and dry, very black and white. “What does it matter that there are a few less stories out there,” one might say, “If it protects people from getting hurt?” But the “matter” is that ultimately these are ideas put on paper, and you are trying to protect people from harm that may or may not happen based on a fictional work where the motive of the work may fall entirely out of step with the perceived harm that it could potentially generate. It is thought crime, and while the term thought crime is bandied about and misused constantly, this is a very valid example and I ask that you consider the idea that your own private thoughts, thoughts which may exist only in your head and in a diary or journal in your home, could be turned against you without there being any actual evidence of intent to carry it out in reality.

As a final note, I want to talk about the manga Ressentiment. It is a title where people have the ability to have virtual sex with virtual girls, and the main virtual girl is depicted and designed to be around high school age, and it’s all designed to be a part of the story. It can be offensive, but it’s all there aesthetically to give the reader a sense of disgust or sadness. When she’s naked, or put into an obscene position, she is a fictional virtual minor. Who is harmed by this? Can the law extend so far as to protect a character who is part of the fictional world of another fictional world, and punish those who read about it?

15 thoughts on “Christopher Handley’s Guilty Plea and its Implications

  1. Pingback: guilty of fictional crimes « Haibane.info

  2. The Supreme Court has a really funky body of law with regards to obscenity. The Miller test is ridiculous, if you look at how it’s applied. What, the court is perfectly comfortable with a jury of South Carolinians deciding matters of obscenity based on “the community standards”, but I gather that if you attempted to advance the same logic during, say, a racial discrimination case, you would be rebuffed with no small vigor.

    It’s tough to attack the law directly, though, because the courts don’t really have any interest in resolving the contradiction; it’s not like there’s a political pressure group in favor of lolicon manga, and let’s be frank, to most people it’s something that triggers violent revulsion.

    Probably a more-effective tactic would be to send the prosecutor’s e-mail to /b/ and tell them to porn-bomb him into oblivion…

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  3. Pirate Bay trial comes to mind. It’s mostly just politics. In relation to that is things like the silly Internet Bully bill that’s introduced recently…

    At least a guilty plea doesn’t render any written opinion.

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    • And this is another reason why I hate politics.

      I don’t think this is the start of a slippery slope anytime soon, though it’s important to be a little wary about what things might lead to. :/

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  7. Obscenity is a concept that should really only apply to public venue, like places where there might be children or where people find it disrupted by pornography or something. It should have no place at all in private homes, private postal mail, the internet, or anything like that though. This is a very dangerous concept, beware of where it’s leading.

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  8. A couple of things. (1) Under US obscenity law, it is a crime to receive obscene materials by mail or over the internet, even if it’s for your own private consumption. It’s a long-standing principle that has not fallen anywhere. That the government doesn’t look for people to arrest for receiving obscene matter – if it’s by international post, they usually just initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding – doesn’t mean that the Handley case is different in principle.

    (2) The particular provision Handley was charged under makes it a separate crime to receive obscene materials depicting minors. This is partly, if not mostly, to make a distinction in sentencing: the penalty for cartoons is now exactly the same as for real “child porn.”

    (3) The big lie behind the law and the Handley case is that looking at cartoons causes sex crimes. There is NO study that even begins to suggest that it does. There are no studies that even show correlations between cartoons and crimes. (There are SOME studies that would suggest cartoons prevent sex crimes by correlating the general availability of the material with sex crime statistics, but this is weak at best.) In some circumstances a cartoon might spur someone on to commit a sex crime, while in other circumstances it might prevent a person from committing one (unless you consider self-masturbation a crime). In NO case, however, has it EVER been shown that a cartoon was either a necessary or sufficient CAUSE for a sex crime. The burden should be on the censors in Congress and the government, not to mention the boards of NGOs, to prove harm. That they fantasize it is not enough.

    In any case, this isn’t the start of a slippery slope. We’re already well down the hill… Handley is just the second unlucky sod.

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    • I found a link to rare conversations about Christopher Handley. It is a text file about the case.

      OGIUE MANIAX EDIT: Unfortunately the document provided here is potentially legally risky. It was taken down where it was originally posted for this very reason, and so I have opted to remove it here too.

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  9. Sorry, I should have checked the legality first, someone sent the link to me in a personal forum message and didn’t tell me anything about it.

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  11. Even Neil Gaiman spoke up on this issue, explaining why we have to defend the “freedom of icky speech” – http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/12/why-defend-freedom-of-icky-speech.html – essentially making the same point as you – that you cannot accept such control and restrictions even for things you don’t like because the law has no concept of ‘taste’ and could just as easily apply them to things you do like – to any kind of art in fact. As you said, the act of simply depicting something in a work of art should NEVER be illegal – that represents a distortion of reality. And yes it’s perfectly possible to imagine instances where ‘under age’ imagery can be used in art – whether to condemn it, explore it, act as catharsis for victims of something or other, satire or otherwise. It’s all about laws based on revulsion rather than actual harm caused – which actually seems to be one of the bigger things holding humanity back and which in some ways seems to be getting worse rather than better. In the UK for instance, they recently introduced similar laws that have potential consequences for just about any comic art. It really leaves me wondering when culture is going to grow up out of all that.

    Incidentally – there is one thing I have to say. You are very accepting of the magical age of 18 and fair enough – that is a cultural concept that we have put in place for a cultural reason. But one thing that the legal system and people in general continually seems to forget is that ‘under 18’ is not the same thing as pedophilia at all. The technical term for it is hebephilia – attraction to young people who have just become sexually mature, while pedophilia is specifically about immature people, which is a very different matter. But that whole issue is thoroughly blurred because our whole culture has a strong leaning towards hebephilia – we idolize young innocence. Fashion dictates that girls should shave their pubic hair and armpit hair – getting rid of all the removable flags of maturity in some illusion of budding adolescence – starving themselves into kid-like twigs etc. And maybe on some level this connects to the child-like people that sometimes crop up in comic art fantasies who are nevertheless anatomically developed – maybe the stylized world of comic/cartoon art just follows a logical progression of that seemingly almost universal instinct. For a really innocent example, look at the sweet little ‘Love is’ cartoons! As a culture we don’t see that as particularly strange. We know in our hearts that these are adults even though they look like kids – it’s called stylization! I don’t know where that leaves Loli manga – I don’t know much about it and I can quite believe how bad taste and creepy it can become. But if the ‘Love Is’ couple suddenly started indulging in hardcore sex (hey – they’re lovers. Of course they are going to have sex!), would that change what they actually are? – Change the fundamental nature of the characters? And if so, why? Would they suddenly stop being these acceptable stylizations of a fantasy romance and become kiddie porn? And how the heck can you define something like this in legal terms? It’s impossible. I am not trying to defend or condemn anything here – I just think it is worth trying to understand the mechanics of things.

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