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Although the yaoi genre is also called Boys' Love (commonly abbreviated as BL), the characters may be of any age above puberty, including adults.

Works featuring prepubescent boys are labelled shotacon and seen as a distinct genre.

In this case, yaoi is used to describe titles that primarily feature sexually explicit themes and sex scenes, while shōnen-ai is used to describe titles that focus primarily on romance and omit explicit sexual content, although sexual acts may be implied.

and is used in Japanese gay slang to mean the receptive partner ("bottom") in anal sex.

The genre has spread beyond Japan, and both translated and original yaoi works are now available in many countries and languages.

The genre currently known as Boy's Love, BL, or yaoi derives from two sources.

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The term shōnen-ai (boy love) originally connoted ephebophilia or pederasty in Japan, but from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, was used to describe a new genre of shōjo manga, primarily produced by the Year 24 Group of women authors, about beautiful boys in love.

Characteristics of shōnen-ai include exoticism, often taking place in Europe, Jeffrey Angles particularly notes Moto Hagio's The Heart of Thomas (1974) and Keiko Takemiya's Kaze to Ki no Uta (1976–1984) as being groundbreaking, noting their portrayal of intense friendship between males, including jealousy and desire.

Female authors writing for shōjo (girl's) manga magazines in the early 1970s published stories featuring platonic relationships between young boys, which were known as tanbi (aesthetic) or shōnen ai (boy love).

In the late 1970s going into the 1980s, women and girls in the dōjinshi (fan fiction) markets of Japan started to produce sexualized parodies of popular shōnen (boy's) anime and manga stories in which the male characters were recast as gay lovers.

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