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Shōnen-ai challenged young readers, who were often only able to understand the references and deeper themes as they grew older and instead were initially drawn to the figure of the male protagonist.The terms yaoi and shōnen-ai are sometimes used by Western fans to differentiate between two variants of the genre.

Another way the seme and uke characters are shown is through who is dominant in the relationship - a character can take the uke role even if he is not presented as feminine, simply by being juxtaposed against and pursued by a more dominant, more masculine, character.Zanghellini notes that illustrations of anal sex almost always position the characters to face each other, rather than in the 'doggy style.' Zanghellini also notes that the uke rarely fellates the seme, but instead receives the sexual and romantic attentions of the seme.The possibility of switching roles is often a source of playful teasing and sexual excitement for the characters, indicating an interest among many genre authors in exploring the "performative nature" of the roles.Yaoi derives from two sources; in the early 1970s, shōjo manga magazines published tanbi (aesthetic) stories, also known as shōnen ai (boy love), featuring platonic relationships between young boys.The other influence began in the dōjinshi (fan fiction) markets of Japan in the late 1970s as yaoi, a sexualized parody of popular shōnen manga and anime stories.

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