Neil Gaiman's blog to-day has an interesting post wherein he replies to someone who wrote him to speak somewhat in favour of the prosecution of an American man for owning lolicon manga. Gaiman makes a good argument for the idea that, when it comes to freedom of speech, sometimes you have to defend the indefensible in order to preserve that freedom.
I've never read any lolicon. I've seen some pretty gob smacking hentai, though. Stuff involving incest and children that did nothing more than turn my stomach and make me wonder how people could enjoy it. But I don't think people that do enjoy it are therefore dangerous. I think they're pathetic, quite honestly, but not dangerous, nor do I think such hentai causes paedophilia or incites people to commit crimes. I think there's a lot of weight to the argument that such porn actually prevents violence by providing an alternative outlet. There's at least as much evidence for that as the argument that it causes violence.
As for the specific case of lolicon, which features sexual depictions of childlike characters, its existence makes perfect sense within the context of what I know of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Earlier this year, I posted about the drive in Japanese art to cheer up a country with an abnormally high suicide rate. I mentioned a Magical Girl series called Princess Tutu which, like all Magical Girl series, seems written for little girls, but also features sexualised images of those girls--not, I suppose, terribly different from shows in the United States such as Hannah Montana, which features some surprisingly strong sexual innuendo played off as unintentional (I posted about it here).
My favourite anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, features fourteen year-old main characters who are often shown in very adult circumstances. It never really bothered me, for a couple reasons. For one thing, the fourteen year-old characters don't look or act much differently from the characters who are much older than them. Also, Shinji, the fourteen year-old protagonist, is to me clearly an avatar for series creator, Hideaki Anno. All the fourteen year-olds on the show are rendered with complex psychological problems, and always distinctly human, and it's long been my opinion that children in Evangelion and many other anime series are given problems actually experienced by adults in real life because adults aren't permitted to acknowledge these problems in themselves without incurring a great deal of shame.
The other side of the coin is what I see as the natural progression from what was started by Walt Disney--giving cartoon characters large eyes. This artistic conceit was adopted by early manga and anime artists and evolved into increasingly larger eyes as well as other childlike features on characters that aren't necessarily children. To the point where we have now a series like Lucky Star, which features high school students who look like six year-olds. I find Lucky Star to be a fascinatingly boring series, as it appears to be just scenes of these four girls having absolutely mundane and flavourless conversation. It seems to be aimed at the same kind of guy who plays dating sims, guys who need something to simulate the regular human interaction he can't acquire normally. Except these girls have distinctly unnatural features.
The first episode of the new Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei OVA series pokes fun at a group of guys who aren't attracted to a gorgeous, real woman, instead preferring a television showing an episode of the anime series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
But this fetishisation goes beyond youthful physical characteristics. These girls are also often given comically stupid personalities. There's also a big subgenre of shonen (for boys) manga and anime called harem, which typically features a male protagonist surrounded by beautiful girls who are automatically, helplessly in love with him. I'm actually a fan of a couple harem series, as several are genuinely funny and feature entertaining characterisations. But what it reminds me of is the bar women of Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, who, while they're not being paid to have sex with their male customers, are being paid to present themselves as simple, beautiful, and attentive. In his commentary for Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds, Roger Ebert mentioned asking someone why there were so many good Japanese actresses, and he was told that it was because Japanese women were taught from an early age, mostly by a sort of subliminal osmosis, to affect a certain persona, which breeds a skill for acting.
So, if one is to take this childlike behaviour traditionally found to be attractive and combines it with the childlike features of cartoon women, one gets something that looks like modern manga and anime. It's an artform that is capable of producing genuinely valuable artistic expression, but one has to adjust and even in some way appreciate the fetishes of the culture that produced it. In the end, I think whether or not someone is capable of loving someone who is his or her intellectual equal has little to do with their physical attraction to childlike imagery. I think there are people who confuse the desire to dominate another with genuine love, but you can't change such people by withholding their porn.