Retraction of masturbation study ‘troubling for free speech’

New York-based manga comic expert claims withdrawal of Karl Andersson’s controversial paper may ‘stifle innovation and scholarship’ in future

October 4, 2022
Karl Andersson
Source: University of Manchester
Karl Andersson

The retraction of a journal paper describing how a PhD student masturbated to homoerotic cartoon images of young boys has “troubling implications for free speech” because it rested on “unproven claims of [causing] harm” to children, an American sociologist claims.

In a lengthy defence of the controversial paper written by University of Manchester doctoral student Karl Andersson, Casey Brienza argues in the Springer journal Publishing Research Quarterly that the outcry over the controversial paper and its subsequent retraction highlighted “a chilled climate for academic freedom where certain subjects – of particular importance to publishing scholars and practitioners – are functionally off-limits to discussion and debate”.

Last month the Sage journal Qualitative Research pulled the article, titled “Using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan” after it was condemned by academics, parents’ groups and MPs. The paper also sparked a police investigation into whether the Swedish first-year student, who has been suspended by Manchester, used illegal comic book images while in the UK.

THE Campus views: Academics must resist the creeping degradation of academic freedom

The paper was withdrawn citing “ethical concerns” and “social harm being caused by the publication of this work”, while a final retraction notice referenced” ethical issues surrounding the conception and design [of the article’s research]” and “the potential to cause significant harm” given the “argument that the note legitimises sexual activity involving sexually graphic illustrated images of children and young people”.

Dr Brienza, author of Manga in America and Global Manga and a former lecturer at City, University of London, disputed the idea that the paper could cause “significant harm” to children.

“This is a serious allegation, but it is not supported by any evidence of actual harm to any individual or group…or by any evidence that similar papers have caused concrete harms in the past,” says Dr Brienza.

“The retraction notice does not, in fact, even specify who is or might be harmed by the article or, for that matter, what kind of harm is implied.”

On whether Mr Andersson’s paper may “normalise paedophilia”, thereby potentially causing harm to children, Dr Brienza states: “No one really knows, but the answer is probably not a straightforward yes”, adding that “there is no evidence of a clear positive empirical link between shotacon (or any other patently unrealistic, drawn images) and actual child sexual abuse”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Brienza said that the same arguments about harm had been made over whether violence in contemporary media caused violence in real life.

“Despite decades of research there is no scientific consensus on whether violent TV, video games, and so forth promote actual violence,” she said. “Personally speaking, I am not a proponent of censorship in the absence of evidence of harm.

“I don’t endorse censoring Andersson’s article because it might be seen to ‘normalise paedophilia’ any more than I would endorse censoring House of the Dragon for normalising incest,” Dr Brienza added, stating that the “apparent lessons of the affair seem certain to stifle future scholarship and innovation” in the study of comic books, which could become “effectively prohibited”.

However, Michelle Shipworth, a member of UCL’s ethics committee, told THE that Dr Brienza’s paper was “extraordinarily dismissive of potential harm given the illegality of shota in many countries given how easy it is to find good arguments that shota could be used to provide cover for photos or videos of real child sex abuse”.

Dr Brienza’s claim that the “availability of such material might provide paedophiles with a safe outlet for their sexual desires and thus prevent them from harming real children” was also questionable, added Dr Shipworth.

It referenced a much-criticised book, Long Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, whose author Allyn Walker was suspended, and later resigned, from Old Dominion University, in Virginia, last year after they were criticised for arguing that sexual attraction to children is not necessarily wrong.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is not an issue of academic freedom but of denigration of academic standards, ethics and morality. This was not an article that could stand up to any scientific rigour and should never have been published.
I agree - research papers are retracted all the time due to concerns about research design or integrity (e.g., data fabrication) etc. A poorly conceived research is a poorly conceived paper - the author can always publish them in pay-to-print journals for such 'research'.
The article is currently the subject of an active criminal investigation by Greater Manchester Police. This isn't about free speech it is about the legalities of the material.