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Is It Legal to Possess Lolicon in the United States?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Nov 10, 2023

Lolicon (sometimes called "loli" for short) is a controversial genre of anime or manga that features explicit sexual depictions of underage female characters. The male counterpart of lolicon is shotacon.

The name "lolicon" is derived from the novel Lolita and is sometimes also used to refer to an adult who is sexually attracted to pre-adolescent females. While lolicon is prevalent in Japan, some people express confusion over the legality of it in the United States due to child pornography laws.

Possession of Lolicon in the United States
Lolicon could be considered a form of child pornography and illegal to possess in the U.S.

Adults fully animate Lolicon, and no real children are exploited in any way in the creation of it. Loli is a Japanese manga or anime that is sexually explicit and involves underage cartoon characters.

It's focused on sexualized characters and plots depicting underage girls. The name comes from Vladimir Nabokov's book called “Lolita,” where an adult male is sexually attracted to an underage girl.

Loli is not only legal in Japan, it's pretty common but has been controversial. So, the question is whether possessing lolicon in the United States is legal.

The answer is no. As a result of the PROTECT Act of 2003, lolicon meets the federal criteria for child pornography. If you are caught in possession of lolicon or shotacon, you could face federal criminal charges and significant prison time if convicted.

Possessing loli is illegal under federal law if the anime depiction of an underage person is obscene and it was transmitted through the mail, internet, common carrier, or transported across state lines, or there is proof there was intent to distribute or sell it.

Notably, simple possession of loli is not illegal under federal laws unless you possess a large amount of it, which prosecutors could allege you have the intent to sell or distribute. Unless you created the loli images yourself, federal prosecutors would not have difficulty proving that you received the loli over the internet or through the mail.

What Is the Controversy Behind Lolicon?

The controversy surrounding lolicon is deeply rooted in societal implications and ethical debates, particularly in Western culture. Critics argue that lolicon normalizes and perpetuates the sexualization of minors, contributing to a culture that trivializes child exploitation.

Controversy Behind Lolicon

They contend that such materials blur the lines between fiction and reality, potentially encouraging harmful behaviors. Defenders, conversely, assert that lolicon is merely a form of artistic expression protected under the freedom of speech. They argue that an outright ban infringes individual rights and disregards cultural nuances.

States and countries have taken different approaches to address loli materials and manga. Some criminalize it as pedophilia, while others are reluctant to infringe on freedom of expression.

Federal laws strictly prohibit the possession of child pornography, which includes any obscene images that appear to depict an identifiable minor. As noted above, the PROTECT Act of 2003 gives federal prosecutors a tool to combat the exploitation of children.

The PROTECT Act was passed after the Supreme Court ruled that virtual child pornography was protected under the First Amendment's free speech rights if it was not obscene.  A crucial factor in their ruling was that because the pornography was not a visual depiction of an actual child, it was considered a victimless crime.

What is the PROTECT Act and Its Implications?

The PROTECT Act, an acronym for “Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today,” was enacted in 2003 in response to the increasing concern over child exploitation and child pornography.

It provides federal law enforcement with additional tools to prevent, investigate, and prosecute crimes against children, including the possession and distribution of child pornography. Under this act, child pornography includes real images of minors and any visual depiction that "appears to be" of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

Under this definition, lolicon is considered child pornography if it visually depicts an identifiable minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct or appears to be a visual depiction of an identifiable minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.

This expanded definition effectively criminalizes the possession of lolicon in the United States—even though no real children are involved in its creation.

The enactment of the PROTECT Act has significantly changed the legal landscape concerning crimes against children in the U.S. Before the Act, the legal approach towards child pornography and related materials was somewhat fragmented and inconsistent.

With the introduction of the PROTECT Act, there is now a clear, unified, and stringent legal stance against child exploitation and related offenses. 

What Are the Penalties for Possessing Lolicon?

Suppose the government finds that you are in possession of lolicon or any other material that is considered child pornography. In that case, you may be charged under Title 18 Section 2252 or other federal statutes for receiving child porn. If you are found guilty, you could face a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years, up to 20 years in prison.

If you have prior related offenses, the maximum sentence goes up to 40 years. Moreover, individuals convicted of child pornography charges must also register as sex offenders, which carries long-term social and personal consequences.

Notably, California child porn laws do not explicitly define loli or manga depicting minors engaging in sexual activity. Still, it's considered the possession of child pornography, which is defined as obscene material that depicts minors under 18 engaging in or simulating sexual conduct.

What Are the Possible Defenses?

Despite the criminal implications of possessing lolicon, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can still implement several defense strategies to counter the charges if you're charged with a crime under these circumstances. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of Knowledge or Intent: Your attorney may argue that you were honestly unaware that the material you possessed was illegal, that it depicted minors under age 18, or that you had no intention to download or distribute such material. This defense hinges on demonstrating a lack of understanding about the nature of the content or how it was obtained.
  • Accidental Access: Your attorney may argue that you downloaded the material without being aware of its content—for example, perhaps you inadvertently clicked on a link and ceased viewing the material as soon as you realized what it was.
  • You Inadvertently Possessed but Did Not Access It. For example, you were sent a spam email containing lolicon (or access to lolicon) but did not open it.

Contact our law firm for a case review and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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