The study of naked truths hits a brick wall

March 30, 2007

Academics say that their vital research into the nature of pornography is hobbled by taboo and a lack of funding. Rebecca Attwood reports.

In a world where adult movie-makers direct pop videos and Playboy-branded goods are sold in the Argos catalogue, pornography is pervasive.

But despite the ubiquity of an industry estimated to be worth £1 billion in the UK alone and the "pornographication" of mainstream culture, when it comes to porn we face a glaring knowledge gap because it remains a no-go area for most academics.

"Despite the huge volume of writing about porn, there's been very little real study of it. It's still a relatively new and unknown subject academically," said Feona Attwood, principal lecturer in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University, whose research looks at pornography, sexualised media culture and cybersex.

Although porn studies emerged in the late 1980s, most research on pornography has been governmental and journalistic or has looked only at its effects, Ms Attwood said.

"None of these examined any porn or its audiences."

By "real" study she means "examining porn texts, or the way the industry operates, or how audiences make use of it, or how it changes historically, or what different types there are - the sort of study you'd do of any other cultural form".

Julian Petley, professor of film and television at Brunel University, agrees that many basic questions remain unanswered. "We need to understand who uses it," he said. "I think it is fairly obvious that more people, male and female, gay and straight, use pornography than is generally admitted - it's not just the lonely middle-aged man in a mac. But I don't have the evidence to back that up, which just proves the need for research."

Stephen Maddison, senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of East London, said: "Porn is a huge business, but there is relatively little mainstream engagement with it, which, given the ideological nature of the content, is rather problematic."

But researching pornography is not straightforward. According to Clarissa Smith of Sunderland University's department of film, media and cultural studies, whose work focuses on print porn and sex toys, "so few academics study it because it's a despised genre. The arguments are often circular and entrenched, and there is a fear of being tarred with the brush. If you're anti-porn, you're anti-sex; and if you're pro-porn, you're a bit of a pervert or you don't care about women, or both."

As for viewing pornography, Dr Maddison, said: "[Internet] surf control features make it impossible to do this research at work - but few academics I know conduct research at work and instead write at home."

For Bela Chatterjee, tutor and lecturer in law at Lancaster University's School of Law, pornography is difficult to study because it is so politicised - particularly child pornography. "As a feminist academic, I am interested in any area where gender, power and the law intersect, and pornography is a paradigm case," Dr Chatterjee said. "Cyberpornography can be seen as particularly difficult to research in that there are few academics who might be confident in law, feminist politics and new information technologies."

Funding is also an issue, some say. Petra Boynton, lecturer in health services research at University College London and a sex and relationship psychologist, examined pornography and how it is researched and categorised for her PhD. She said: "The reason porn is rarely studied is far less about taboo but has a lot to do with ethics and funding. There is funding in sex-related research to study sexually transmitted infections, sex problems and the like, but not porn."

Of course, teaching can be difficult, too, as Clare McGlynn, professor of law at Durham University, found recently when teaching a module in gender, crime and punishment. She showed her class L'Origine du Monde , an explicit painting by Gustave Courbet made in 1866, which depicts a woman with her legs open.

"My showing the students this painting caused some kerfuffle as some found it very distressing and did not think it appropriate to show to the class - and that is 19th-century art," she said.

Dr Smith said attendance dropped off significantly in the sessions she holds on pornography.

"The first problem is lack of attendance and the second is refusal to talk or discuss issues. Very few admit to reading porn, and very few will admit to any kind of interest in the stuff - which makes it difficult to talk about censorship, why might it matter, how people might enjoy, or not enjoy, porn."

Ms Attwood agrees that there have been difficulties for academics studying porn, including taboo and "a lack of respectability." But she thinks that this is changing and that academic work on the subject has been rising steadily in the past few years.

She said: "Things are starting to change. Porn studies are quite well developed in the US, and there were two major academic collections, one in the US and one in the UK, in 2004."

Those working in the field argue that pornography deserves study because it is a focus for political and moral debate, and raises all sorts of questions about our society.

Dr Smith said: "Pornography is a repository for many of our fears about sexuality, representation and possible effects, questions of pleasure and displeasure.

"Claims are constantly made about its production and consumption, and yet this is often done without ever actually reading or viewing any porn.

Moreover, despite claims that it always remains the same, it is a rapidly changing field of representation."

Dr Chatterjee agrees that is an interesting area where valuable debates intersect. "Pornography affects people's lives," she said, "from the people involved in the production of it - sometimes coerced and violent involvement - to a wider debate about an accessible public discourse about sexual expression and the images of sexuality that are in circulation. It's a rapidly changing field with a fascinating history, and I find myself in constant debate with myself about where I stand on the issue."


Ethel Quayle, a lecturer with the department of applied psychology at University College Cork, works in a small team of academics looking at victimisation through abusive images of children.

Under Irish law, the university was able to keep an archive of images taken from public channels. Working with law enforcement agencies, the archive helped identify some offenders and children from the images.

Dr Quayle said: "Universities outside Ireland could not have held an archive of publicly available material because of the law in different jurisdictions. We have been able to examine the material available on the web because of Irish law, and out of this arose the Copine scale."

The scale, which has been adopted and amended by the UK Sentencing Advisory Panel, rates the level of seriousness of an image.

Dr Quayle said: "We know that there has always been an interest in sexual representations of children, but the advent of photography increased the availability of material. This is seen most dramatically in relation to the web, where there is concern that availability, affordability and assumed anonymity have dramatically increased the number of people accessing images of children. This is important because to produce child pornography involves, at least in relation to some images, an assault on a child.

"What is sad is that we tend to ignore how few children have ever been identified in these images, and the fact that once online they will never go away."

Although the university received no funding for the archive, it has been given grants, mainly from the European Union, for related projects including the development of an online self-help programme and working with young people who display sexually abusive behaviours online.

Dr Quayle said: "The focus of much of my work has been the offender and how children are victimised, not image analysis itself. In our project, we always encouraged and have made available access to a senior clinical psychologist, and it would appear that this is an important part of maintaining wellbeing where individuals are exposed to images that may be distressing or intrusive."


Government plans to criminalise the possession and accessing of extreme violent porn are reigniting academic debate about pornography.

There was heated conflict during the "porn wars" of the 1980s, but according to Clare McGlynn, professor of law at Durham University, "it is almost as if, in the face of the ubiquity of pornography, lad culture and a growing sense that censorship is always bad, debates about the effect and regulation of pornography dissipated".

Professor McGlynn believes the proposed legislation, and the fact that the British Board of Film Classification is granting 18 certificates to films such as Destricted , which includes images of real sex, are putting the subject back on the agenda.

She said that although she had some concerns about the drafting of the law, she backed it in principle. "The proposals are restricted to the most extreme material. They affect only violent images - in other words, explicit material per se is not caught, only when accompanied by violence.

They send out a message that the glorification of violence against women is not acceptable."

Julian Petley, professor of film and television at Brunel University, dislikes the plans. He said: "In trying to isolate a particular area of porn, they threaten to criminalise a very wide range of stuff that all sorts of people access. Although you can more or less isolate child pornography, it is very difficult to isolate something called 'extremely violent' pornography. I think it would criminalise virtually all S&M porn."

Much debate over the censorship of pornography has focused on the effects of porn and its relationship to sexual violence.

Professor Petley said: "There isn't much evidence that pornography is harmful. My position remains that the media does not produce direct behavioural effects. I'm not saying it doesn't influence what people think and the way they think about it, but not in behavioural terms.

"Studies that received publicity have generally come from the area of psychology, and a narrow branch of it, but I know plenty of psychologists who would not agree with what their colleagues have come up with.

"It is important to study pornography because otherwise misconceptions flourish on which knee-jerk legislation is then built. We need to have an informed debate."

Dennis Howitt, a forensic psychologist at Loughborough University who has carried out research into sex offenders and the internet, said: "What one regards as evidence depends on one's viewpoint; sometimes the same research study is reported differently by different commentators. I think that all this tells us is that pornography is the focus of all sorts of ideologically based interpretations."

He said the extreme violent pornography legislation was very much predicated on the "suspect assumption" that pornography is the blue-print for behaviour.

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