Learning the Art of Love: Yuri versus BL

by 2DT.

“They are starved for it; they watch endless numbers of films about happy and unhappy love stories, they listen to hundreds of trashy songs about love — yet hardly anyone thinks that there is anything that needs to be learned about love.”
– Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

What can yuri and BL teach us about love? My eyes were opened, surprisingly, by a tweet:

The difference might as well be an entire universe. “Hooking-up” is about passion and desire. That’s the fun part of love; it’s exciting to fall head-over-heels for someone new. “Coming out,” on the other hand, implies responsibility and consequence. There’s no falling into that. More like in order to live honestly with the world, it just has to be done.

Loveless Ritsuka Aoyagi Soubi Agatsuma

It helps to think of BL and yuri are two sides of a coin, not merely in a physiological sense but romantically as well. In fact, as someone who’s read their fair share of both, I believe that BL stories at the core tend to be about infatuation, mystery and power, while yuri is more often about vulnerability.

To wit: Yumi in Maria-sama ga Miteru (the great ur-yuri, if we can name one) doesn’t fall immediately for Sachiko, her lovely and elegant grande sœur. On the contrary, at first she feels intimidated by her, and she isn’t entirely sure that Sachiko isn’t just using her. It’s only after Sachiko opens up to her emotionally that Yumi accepts the rosary that begins their relationship. At four seasons and counting, a whirlwind romance it is not, but the emphasis is always on being communicative with each other.

Compare that to BL works like Gravitation or Loveless. Yuki and Soubi allow themselves to get attached, but their identities hinge on remaining at least somewhat dark and unknowable to their respective pretty-boy lovers. They keep a certain distance, and in fact, that’s what keeps their relationships thrilling for us. It’s that old Mr. Darcy syndrome.

Marimite Maria-sama ga Miteru Yumi Fukuzawa Sachiko Ogasawara

Is either one better than the other? Hard to say. Popular culture certainly favors the BL version of romance. Lately, I’ve been reading self-help books that demonize this in favor of a yuri-esque “slow love.” And it’s true; the game playing that happens in our usual courtships can be soul-draining. There needs to be recalibration.

But I think you need a bit of both. It can’t all be rough sex with leather-clad semes, but neither can we bear a lifetime of tinkly, sad piano music. True happiness in love lies somewhere in between.

About the Guest Author:
2DT is a brilliant, well-respected, and lovely anime blogger who shares his thoughts over at 2-D Teleidoscope. This post came at the perfect time on a fascinating topic, and I cannot thank him enough.

This entry was posted in Anime/ Manga, Editorial, Guest Posts, Loveless, Maria sama ga Miteru and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

58 Responses to Learning the Art of Love: Yuri versus BL

  1. Ally says:

    I just have to say that I know what you mean, and agree completely! I like both yaoi or yuri (although I think I prefer yuri generally) and they really do seem like two sides of the same coin. Yaoi is dark and sex and mystery and conflict, while yuri is light and friendship and communication and ease. Most yaoi and yuri fits someone in between, but those do seem like the main themes. I wonder if it’s because those are the things associated with men and women respectively? It’s especially interesting since yaoi is almost always directed towards women, while yuri usually appeals at least a little to men as well.
    But yes – we definitely should all learn about love just as much as anything else, and a balance between yuri and yaoi-style love sounds good to me! (But maybe a little more towards yuri, since I have never really liked that argumentative mainstream sort of love…n.n;;)

    • 2DT says:

      Ease, that’s a fantastic word for it. Not that these relationships are drama-free in yuri, but they carry themselves differently. Even in a dark yuri work like Kannazuki no Miko, love is a source of comfort and strength, whereas in BL, the pursuit of love is the object in itself, and the comfort that comes from it is the good end.

      I am waiting, just waiting for someone better-versed in BL to come by and smack me down. 😉

      • Ally says:

        Yes, yes, it sort of seems like… in yuri, regardless of the circumstances, the love itself is pure. Even when it causes the girls to do bad things, the realization that it’s all because of their love for a girl validates them. The love is a shining light of goodness even among the darkness. Like Kannazuki no Miko – yes, her love for Himeko made her do something terrible, but her actions are portrayed as justified and her love is her redemption.

        While for yaoi, it’s more like the love and darkness are intertwined. Characters sexually harass others because of their attraction to them, not because they care about them, but because they selfishly want them. The love is…almost tainted and perverted. But that’s what makes it attractive to the audience – this dark, even unhealthy kind of love.

        And yeah, with yuri, the comfort you mentioned is just expected to flow naturally. When the girls get together, they’re immediately happy and good to one another. In yaoi, they usually get together early but still have all sorts of problems and struggles they need to overcome, and if they do reach that place of comfort it’s only at the end of that. Like with Gravitation, and possibly Junjou Romantica as well, though I haven’t read much of that.

        Although, there are exceptions, of course!

  2. gozieson says:

    I can’t really imagine how it feels like to “come out of the closet”. It is really hard for people when they do that as they have no idea how their friends, family and everyone around them will react.

    It’s like you want to let loose a secret so dark, so unbelievable that you will have no idea how anyone would take it.

    I for one have felt that way once or twice (or was it more than that?), but still it is part of life. In order to fully appreciate what you have or retain your happiness in the long run, some form of communication must be projected to those close to you in order for life to move on. Whether or not what you are about to reveal would be accepted by those close to you is up to them, but at least by getting their opinion, the next course of action can be made with proper planning.

    • 2DT says:

      Great ideas!

      It seems to me like yuri stories frequently feature some variation of the line, “You must think I’m sick,” or “It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” The pain of recognizing that girls’ love might not be acceptable to others, and the vulnerability that comes with going for it anyway — That’s essential to yuri in a way that it isn’t in BL.

      But BL has that unmistakable thrill, that rush of “hell yeah, man love.” 🙂 And that’s important, too.

  3. Nopy says:

    I think the type of love depends on the type of person. Some people like to jump straight into it while others like to take it slow. Finding the right partner on the same wavelength is the main problem.

    Regarding coming out of the closet though, as much as I like yuri, I’d rather people not do it in real life. It seems every time someone I know comes out of the closet, they start flaunting their superiority and even try hitting on me. I could care less what kind of people someone is interested in, but it gets annoying when they act like that.

    • 2DT says:

      I wrote this entry because I’ve been reading a book called Why Can’t I Fall in Love? by Schmuley Boteach, which recommends emotional nakedness and not playing power games. But on the other side of the spectrum you have Neil Strauss’ The Game, which is manipulative and all about power, and that works out for some people very well.

      Anyway, like other things in life, coming out of the closet has its own spectrum of maturity. Some do it better than others. 😉 Thanks for reading!

  4. omega-kirby says:

    I am a guy, I like both yaoi and yuri but firstly I was scared of yaoi being It too overrated and because of the reaction of many fangirls who were disrespect with me because I didn’t want to see and/or to make yaoi fanservice for them; I also was seen as a pervert because of watching some yuri being a boy, that’s a sad stereotype 😦 .Now I’m reading Gravitation and I like It but yaoi is still too overrated, everywhere I go when I see a yaoi manga It’s covered with a bright envoltory with a shiny tape that says “yaoi manga” with an exagerated font, It’s just another genre of manga/anime , there aren’t also any yuri manga in my country (Argentina), many of the manga comes from Spain where the editorials have more of 30 years in the market, some published many yaoi but anything of yuri; It’s also sad because if they extend their edition to other genres of manga (like yuri and kodomo) they would have more public and ,in fact, more sales and many of them couldn’t be in the economic crisis they are in today ._.

    • 2DT says:

      A male Argentinian yaoi fan! That must be so fascinating and difficult, with what (admittedly little) I know of Latin American machismo culture… Which makes you quite a rebel, too. 😉 I say good for you!

      • omega-kirby says:

        Don’t be so fascinated, I just started to read some yaoi (the ones I believe are worth It) some months ago, I watched more yuri through. As any person who has reason sense, there are some series from both genres that I like and some I don’t like so I don’t consider one among the other, but I hate that yaoi is so overrated so the fans start to consume all that is in the market without a previous evaluation of the quality of the story itself. Also don’t think of me as a pervert because I watch yuri also and I’m a boy; in fact, I feel identificated with many yuri characters. And about the machist culture in Latin America, here in Argentina luckylly It’s not so strong, I’m not machist or feminist; I don’t believe that one genre has to sodomize the other, I believe in equality of rights between them. That’s a thing that yaoi fangirls must know: to stop confusing feminism with fangirlism ._.
        (by the way I also apologyze for my bad english, once again I mention, I’m argentinian.

      • omega-kirby says:

        Anyways…I still like it

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  6. Smithy says:

    Not being into yaoi but quite liking the yuri genre this is quite an interesting read. Though there’s yuri stories that are about the hook-up, but then rather oriented on how the characters explore their own (mutual) feelings and come together and these do tend to flow right away into how the world perceives them, “Aoi Hana” is definitely like that as most (even budding) relationships are always checked off by how the surrounding world, the girls’ circle of friends sees them.

    • 2DT says:

      Precisely! And it isn’t that BL doesn’t have these intricate relationship webs, but in BL the focus is on one man, another man, how badly they want each other, and how they push and pull toward the ultimate payoff of “making it happen.” In a lot of yuri stories, as I’m sure you’ve seen, desire works a little differently.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  7. inushinde says:

    As somebody indifferent to both genres as a whole (Though there are exceptions for each), both definitely have separate appeals beyond the whole same sex romance thing… but they just don’t work well for me.
    I guess part of it is both usually feel exploitative of one or more parties involved, with one often preying on the other’s insecurities regardless of their overall comfort level. While Yuri is no stranger to this kind of relationship dynamic, BL tends to have it happen much more frequently. I suppose the best distinction I can think of between the two regarding my reaction to each is BL tends to make me uncomfortable and just a little anxious, while Yuri usually bores me.

    As always there are exceptions, and I have been recommended examples of both that I’ve enjoyed, but neither relationship really sits well with me as a whole, so I don’t tend to look into them more unless the stars align properly.
    As with other, non-romantic/sexual genres, if it’s good, I’ll check it out.

    • 2DT says:

      I suppose the best distinction I can think of between the two regarding my reaction to each is BL tends to make me uncomfortable and just a little anxious, while Yuri usually bores me.

      This is good! This is important! The kind of love encouraged by Erich Fromm and his ilk is seen as boring, too, whereas the kind of love you see in popular media is exactly the kind of problem-ridden, full of exploited power inequality-thing that you’re talking about.

      Excellent thoughts. 🙂

    • Ally says:

      Heh, it’s odd, but the power dynamic thing is exactly why I don’t read much opposite-sex romance. No matter how equal the two characters seem, there’ll always been some implication of ‘complementary’ (read: unequal) roles, especially if the story is coming from Japan. And it’s not just taking advantage of women, either – I love Akamatsu Ken’s Mahou Sensei Negima, but the kind of tsundere you see in manga like Love Hina just seem to romanticise female abuse of men, which makes me very uncomfortable.

      Of course, as you said, yaoi isn’t much better, so when I want stories involving two men I tend to prefer slash and Western fandoms, which are usually (though not always, of course) a lot more equal. And when I CAN find a good yaoi manga that does away with those silly uke/seme divides – like Seven Days, which I read recently and highly recommend – I’m quite happy!

      I find it odd that you see yuri as involving unequal relationships, though. The ones involving sempai and kouhei, yeah, but other than that if I want a good, equal romance it’s just so much easier for me to find it in yuri than anywhere else.

      Though in the case of being bored… heh, I can’t really argue against that, although as I tend to adore relationships generally described as ‘boring’, I can’t say I agree! 🙂

  8. kluxorious says:

    Hmm… this made me think and it’s never good when I think because I tend to over analize things. I have a bad habit of not feeling comfortable letting people know with who did I fall in love with. I prefer to be inside the “closet” so to speak until I’m sure that I’m going to marry this guy. In a way, it feels just like a crossover between Yuri and BL love. There’s that vulnerability factor that I need to overcome and at the same time, I love the mystery and infatuation side of it. People said that I make things unnecessarily complicated when it comes to relationship but to be honest, it just comes naturally to me. I call it instinct.

    • 2DT says:

      Instinct is precisely the right word for it! I think this is the way it happens for everyone usually, because vulnerability goes against our hard-wired biological programming. There’s still a little piece of our ancient lizard brains that makes us think that this person we’re opening up to is going to suddenly steal our eggs. 🙂

      But we should fight it. Probably. Thanks for reading!

  9. CainHyde says:

    Yeah… true.
    From what I had read and heard, love in BL and yuri series always felt somehow different than different gender love.
    I’m not really sure how they felt different, but you are probably right.
    One seems focus more on the “Hooking-up” part, and the other give more focus on “Coming out” part.

    Maybe that was one of the reason I’m attracted to BL and yuri story.
    Damn… this love topic reminds me that I’m really really still immature at hearts.
    Love is a mysterious things to me until now, because I still cannot understand how people can still love each other after years knowing their partners.
    Especially if the relationship started with passion and desire not platonic love relationship.
    …I guess it’s time to get out of here fast, this topic felt scary somehow to me.

    • 2DT says:

      I still cannot understand how people can still love each other after years knowing their partners.

      Redefine your parameters. It really seems that simple. 😉

  10. Kuuki says:

    As a fan of both yuri and yaoi (and being a girl who likes hentai too, oh god, how do I dare?) I agree with what you say.

    My reasons for being interested in either genre are very different. Most yaoi stories I read (fanfics aside) seem to be about getting what he wants from the other, making him fall in love with him, it’s the “conquest” that’s important.
    And usually yuri stories are more about showing the daily life of a couple in love. Not always the reactions of people around them but mostly how they come to term with it.

    • 2DT says:

      Conquest, that’s the word! Everybody’s putting these things better than I did originally. 🙂

      Even in the most yaoi-friendly yuri works (Strawberry Panic and Kannazuki no Miko come to mind), there’s definitely a yearning for this mythical “daily life.”

  11. ~xxx says:

    BL? not much my type (I’m a boy),I’d rather prefer yuri for it was always lighter and it was not bound to misinterpretations unlike BL which is more darker and is easily bound to be misunderstand.

    the hardest part of that Yaoi is that I always know how the story proceeds… like making the other guy fall in love with you and then commit to each other, while Yuri is more complex… like having to treat someone their favorite food, having a little chit-chat or even sharing their secrets(which I commonly see in these lightly colored genres.[Though I haven’ watched a serious yuri show.])

    Well, that thing will be hard to air in our country for the Philippines is a christian country, I think promoting same-sex romantic relationships would be forbidden by the catholic church. So I commonly misjudge those genres as gay or lesbian themes(which come to think that it may or may not be true), so I avoided them.

    But I think I was cleared by Canaan, and yes Yuri(or yaoi) is good,as long as it’s not that felt like grossed or something indecent.

    In the end… I still have a long way to go(or I may not) if I’m gonna watch a BL show.

    • 2DT says:

      The interesting thing is: Visually, they’re not very different from each other. Yuri girls look like girls, BL boys look like… girls. You may find it easier to indulge in both. 🙂 It’s just a matter of what you’re looking for emotionally.

  12. krizzlybear says:

    “But I think you need a bit of both. It can’t all be rough sex with leather-clad semes, but neither can we bear a lifetime of tinkly, sad piano music. True happiness in love lies somewhere in between.”

    I’m not sure if I fully understand or agree with this, particularly with the last point about it truly lying somewhere in between. I feel the emphasis on one aspect or the other works better depending on the individual. It’s very difficult to change one’s ways with regards to how he or she idealizes love. However, there’s truth in opposites attract, and having two different attitudes towards love can make for a duality that makes the romance itself more fulfilling, particularly because the positives of one partner makes up for the other. It’s one of the reasons for the existence of seme/uke in BL, and S/M in relationships in general.

    Pretty neat read, It definitely got me thinking about writing a post on writing more effective and riveting same-sex romance!

    • 2DT says:

      Yes, people need to tailor love to their needs, it’s true. But society (that is, western middle-class society) currently places far too much emphasis on BL-type love, and it creates a lot of misery when people don’t know why they aren’t lucky in love, or “can’t” fall in love, or can’t make a relationship “stick.” Because they need to think of love differently– essentially add a bit of yuri to their life.

      I’m looking forward to your post. 🙂

  13. MarigoldRan says:

    I was once in a room with hundreds of screaming yaoi fans.


  14. glothelegend says:

    I’ve been smashing through every bit of yuri manga that I can find lately. The relationship developments are just AWESOME, probably because most people seem to view two girls having a relationship as odd or different, so characters are always second guessing their own feelings and have to get over that hump before they hump (SHIT PUN IS AWESOME).

    I will never watch or read yaoi because I’d rather not watch two guys be gay together.

  15. Yellowfruit says:

    I think the major divide between the two comes from the lingering gender roles: Males are expected to be strong and unwavering; they aren’t expected to be emotional or have any deeper feelings. As a male suffering from bi-polar disorder, I can safely safe this is FAR from the truth.

    I would assume the cookie-cutter-female would be the same: We unjustly assume they are always deeply emotional, gentler, and over-all more romance centred.

    This could quite easily lead to the divide you have noted.

    Personally, I can’t really say much on relationships in real life (Never been in one, nor have ever really been interested in being in one, but that’s beside the point), but I can say that I am sick of all males and females conforming to the gender roles in fiction, bar the (usually) token pair with reversed roles, or the roles being reduced to a comedy point.

    We claim we are no longer a sexist society, so it’s time we live up to our own claims.

    • 2DT says:

      I’ve never been in a relationship either, and I agree, mostly because a girl being more forward would help my perpetually blind and sorry self get a date once in a while. 😉

      What we claim to be and what we tacitly understand are quite different. Especially in Japan, where there is total quality under the law in their constitution, but reality is slow going. We’re not likely to see any changes in manga or anime any time soon.

      • Ally says:

        Actually, this is one of the things I think is interesting about yuri and yaoi: yaoi is much more overtly sexual and generally involves two men… but is overwhelmingly consumed by women. Yuri is much more emotionally-based, and revolves around friendships… but is consumed by men approximately as often as women. Maybe it’s that both genders want some kind of ‘secret glimpse’ into the mysteries of the ~other gender~?

        And I think that both yuri and yaoi DO challenge gender roles, albeit in different ways. Yaoi enforces a heteronormative male/female divide in its system of seme and uke, but in doing so challenges the idea that men can’t and shouldn’t have stereotypically feminine qualities like meekness, shyness, kindness, and a pretty face. Yuri enforces gender roles by usually having both characters be quite feminine, but in doing so challenges the idea that all relationships must involve complementary gender roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

        I was about to agree with you about women being more forward and dates and all, but then I remembered that I’ve never been asked out by a guy either, so. n.n;;

  16. Vendredi says:

    Yaoi and yuri… when put together in a sentence then compared in a post like this, I can’t help but think of the dualistic concepts of yin and yang in East Asian culture. An interesting comparison!

  17. Gratian says:

    Two different sides of the same element – love. BL indeed has a tendency to express emotions and feelings in a totaly different way than yuri. I go with the second one since it reveals more of the relationship and the act of maintaining it rather that getting things done in a simplistic and fast way. Moving slowly in everything you do is the best way to get there. This articles just opened my appetite for some yuri manga 😛

    • 2DT says:

      I’m impatient, myself. As unrealistic and unsustainable as it is, I can’t help but want a bit of that whirlwind romance.

      Anyway, glad to be of service. 🙂

  18. Love is a mysterious, strange concept, having so many various different sides indeed. Having been introduced to yaoi and yuri at a very early age by my cousin from Taiwan, I can understand how they have their own subtle differences and nuances, and I agree with you that BL tend to deal with infatuation, mystery and power and yuri tend to deal with vulnerability. That could be related to the general characteristics of each gender. ^_^

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  20. ayame says:

    My two cents: yaoi and yuri complete each other as woman and man complete each other. What I mean is that not only the content is influenced by the target audience (e.g. in yaoi we have fangirls that apart froming seek power which they don’t possess in every day life , they want to see men suffer) but also from the stereotypes for each gender. Since yuri is love between girls, it seems appropriate to see the vulnerability and feminity and passivity that a slowly developing love story hides. And yaoi is love between men who are free in the society to do what they want. Of course homosexuality is taboo and much more difficult to handle for men, but being a man in this world means being a hunter and fearless at that, too. As a result, coming out for yaoi isn’t important; they are men, they need sex, they get what they want and that’s it. They don’t need to come out. Society has taught them to chase what they want, obtain it but also hide it, if exposure isn’t necessary. And I think a very tiny part of reality is also reflected in yaoi and yuri: the truth still remains that in LGBT community gay men are more interested in general in affairs rather than in long term relationships like gay women…

    • 2DT says:

      they want to see men suffer

      Bold words. 🙂 Actually, this whole comment might be the winner for interesting points! Cheers.

      • ayame says:

        ‘see men suffer’ are not entirely my bold words- check Matt Thorn on shoujo and yaoi.

        I’m flattered that you liked my thoughts 😀

  21. Xine says:

    Yi!!! How are you?

    For something as abstract as the the soul, I’d like to believe that it’s connected to every part of the body and perhaps it resides in the heart. Though the heart is just something to symbolize love and feelings and the brain controls every function in the human body, I think the heart is something more special than that, for reasons I’m not sure of. ^^;

    We don’t have a special character for brain unlike the ♥ and if we do, I don’t think it would be as ubiquitous as the ♥. Lol.

  22. necrocosmos says:

    Good article. When i compare BL to yuri, thou my knowledge about boys love is really pure, i have seen just few BL titles. What struck my most is how much more agresive is BL compare to yuri, It’s more rough. ^^ Ups i said rough like in some HC hentai, but thats not what i mean, its like story structure is constructed over more fierce encounters in BL compare to Yuri, i think its based over our imagination on genders concept, like women are more fragile compare to men, and thats why BL is more Rough then Yuri, and saying that yuri is more about vulnurability i disagree, hmm its more like yuri story progress and pace is different rather than focusing on single factor, thou i agree over that BL put more focus on mystery. I had something else on mind but it slipt away brr brr bad boy^^.

  23. Valence says:

    I know right? We males don’t like BL because, well, it’s male-on-male. Everyone characterizes BL and Yuri by its ‘lustful’ features, picturing scenes of depraved sex and creepy, unrealistic scenarios, when the point of such genres is to paint a relationship that one simply cannot comprehend easily.

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  26. Ryan A says:

    Hm, I recently (over the past year) tested the waters with BL and found it completely unexciting. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and from an outsider’s perspective, I could gather that much of the infatuation with the genre is a dream-like exterior constructed by the viewer/reader. I have no qualm with man-on-man love (I am straight), and I feel love can be expressive and beautiful between a variety of partners. This is not what I found in BL. Instead, the works I experienced were flat, vulgar, and explicit. There was not one ounce of texture or beauty akin to what is pronounced well in yuri works, but I believe my sample set was tainted; there was a distinct lack of shounen-ai, which is perhaps more subtle and unassuming that other BL varieties. Yet as far as I can assume, BL is shallow beyond my own enjoyment for a story of love and romance. So curious.

    Then again, I leave my own lack of experience in the genre as fault for this perception.

  27. Yi says:

    Oh I love this, 2DT! So many things in this that applies, I think, not just to yuri or BL, but to all romances in anime and in real life.

    The mystery and powerful aspects of romance and the vulnerable, keep-her-guessing, push-pull parts of relationships are what makes dating so fun, yet at the same time, such an incredibly draining game.

    Now a bit of a rant (and please do forgive if I sound a bit bitter and stray off topic), it’s a shame that two people who like each other has to go through so much emotional hell just to “deepen” their relationship. And most of the times, it doesn’t work out, because once we get past that stage, and start really understand each other, the mystery is gone, and so is the interest. Loveless indeed.

    Lovely, and somewhat sharp post, (or perhaps I’m merely reading it with too much cynicism)!

    I also must thank you so so much for the help and for your brilliance. You’ll always be one of my favorite and most respected bloggers. ^ ^

  28. Rubyfruit says:

    I just found this blog. And I think that I really like this entry. I find similarties between BL and the smuttier shoujo works, as it’s all about obtaining someone or something. It’s not that I don’t like that dynamic in fiction, it’s just that…sometimes, when I’m not in the mood for such a fast-paced romance, the relationship development could seem a bit…breakneck, for lack of a better term.

    With yuri works, even the smuttier ones, and even the ones like Strawberry Panic (love the manga and novel, haven’t watched the anime yet), there’s a slice-of-life element (which I love), where one can see that these two people love each other and how they go about their daily lives. I like that element; it’s…sweeter in contrast to the spiciness of BL, so even though I read/watch BL and yuri and shoujo and hentai, I like the sweetness of yuri a little more. I don’t know why, I just do.

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