About the Research

Thank you very much for your interest in our research. The questionnaire is now closed but you can still read about the research and us here…

We want to emphasise from the outset that the research we are conducting is unlike almost all the previous research that has been conducted on pornography.  In the past, pornography has overwhelmingly been assumed to be a ‘problem’, and the only really important questions to ask about it are – how much do people (and especially children) encounter it, and how great is the ‘harm’ that it does?  This research is different.

Our project is concerned with the everyday uses of pornography, and how the people who use it feel it fits into their lives. Pornography is of course a highly topical issue, subject to many opposing views and ‘strong opinions’. And we are not saying that there are no moral or political issues.  But we are saying that the voices of users and enjoyers have been swamped.  In fact, there is very little research that engages with the users of pornography, asking how, when and why they turn to it.

We wanted to gather the thoughts and responses of people who have chosen to engage with pornography of their own accord.  We believe that there can be many different and complicated reasons for looking at pornography.  We also don’t believe that all the materials that go under that label, ‘pornography’, are the same – only to be distinguished by how ‘extreme’ or ‘explicit’ they are.

We gathered thousands of responses from both frequent and infrequent users of pornography.  We wanted to know some very simple things, like what peopled view, how they find it, how often, what they particularly liked, what is exciting and how this fits in with their feelings about sex, their bodies, and their pleasures.

We promised that we would publish on this website a summary of our first findings , as a way of giving back to all of you who took the time and trusted us with your responses.  This is our attempt to keep that promise.  We have to tell you that so many people completed the questionnaire, and at such length – to which must be added the more than 700 people who carried on talking to us via email about our research – that it is going to be a long time before we ‘complete’ our work.

To start with some raw stats.  5,490 people completed the questionnaire.  That’s an extraordinary total in itself.  If we add that your answers to seven key questions amounted in all to 1,262,419 words, then you can perhaps see why this is going to take us a long time!  Some people gave what we would call quick, throwaway answers – it’s for wanking, isn’t it, duh? – and that’s your right.  But thank you for doing the questionnaire because there’s something to be learned even from the shortest answers we received.

We also got a very small number of very hostile responses from people who think pornography is obviously evil and dangerous – and that’s their right, too.But there were two aspects to these hostile responses that we unequivocally reject.  The first is the claim made by some people that it is wrong even to research this – it is so ‘obvious’ to them that porn is a bad thing, that no sorts of evidence of what it means to people who use and enjoy it can ever count.  Sorry, but that reeks of every kind of prejudice that we have ever encountered.  The second was the assertion that we were wrong to design our questionnaire to speak only to people who use and enjoy porn.  But that was the entire point of the exercise.  People who don’t like it, and don’t use it, have had many outlets for their views.  The ‘silenced voice’ to date has been the users.  We designed our research to learn about how porn matters to the people who use, not the people who hate it.

Clarissa, Feona and Martin

 

If you don’t know us, we are happy to tell you about ourselves:

Clarissa Smith

My academic career has been centred on considerations of the ways in which pornography matters to those who consume it and to those who would condemn it. I am interested in the textual formations of pornography and how those play out across different technologies; in how people access and engage with pornographic materials and with other forms of sexualized products; I’m also intrigued by the constant demands for increasing regulation and censorship which rarely seem to engage with the idea that pornographies are realms of representation which dramatise all kinds of sexual feelings and fantasies and therefore actually matter to people in important ways. I have written about the problems of attempts to legislate against pornography and have been active in opposing measures which seek to criminalise the imagination. Alongside this work, I have written about porn-star performances, the meanings of masochism in sexual storytelling, the idea of ‘authenticity’ in pornography and how audiences speak about the films they like, I’m currently working on projects which seek to explore the nuances of porn’s storytelling about sexual desire and which don’t shy away from some of the more outlier or outrageous elements of pornographic productions.

My doctoral research looked at pornography for women and tried to understand, through the use of interviews and questionnaires, just what pleasures and disappointments women felt in a sexually explicit magazine aimed at them. This was necessarily a limited project and it was always my intention to do a larger more comprehensive venture which would explore how and why men and women, of whatever sexual orientation and status, use and enjoy pornographic media. For ten years, I’ve planned this research and finally, because of the fantastic opportunities offered by the internet for gathering responses from across the globe and in situ – in the spaces and places that most people now access sexually explicit films, stories and pictures – it is possible. I hope we’re going to gather hundreds if not thousands of responses so that this research can make an intervention in all those spaces where politicians, campaigners and moral entrepreneurs make claims about the ‘effects’ of pornography on society.

Clarissa Smith, Professor of Sexual Cultures, University of Sunderland

Some key publications:

Extreme Concern: Regulating ‘Dangerous Pictures’ in the United Kingdom, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 37, no. 1  (with Feona Attwood, 2010)

Pornographication: A Discourse for All Seasons, International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 6, no.1 (2010)

Pleasure and Distance: Exploring Sexual Cultures in the Classroom, Sexualities, (Special Issue, 2009)

One for the Girls! The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women’s Porn, Intellect (2007)

Feona Attwood

My interest in this area of work first came out of what struck me as a gap between the concerns and panics that are regularly voiced about sex and the media and the lack of real knowledge about different kinds of media representations and their audiences. Some of my writing has focused on the ways in which pornography and other kinds of sexual media have become the focus of public and political discussion; most recently in the debates about ‘extreme’ pornography and the sexualization of young people. I have also tried to chart the different approaches that researchers have taken to the study of pornography and to describe their experiences of working in this area.

Although I am still interested in older media forms such as magazines and books, my recent research has focused more and more on newer technologies and their use for sexual explorations; on sex chat sites and sexblogs, on new and alternative types of pornography and their producers, and on the increasing diversity of sexual material online. For example, some of the places and people I have written about recently include Literotica, Nerve.com, Suicide Girls, Audacia Ray, Bella Vendetta and Furry Girl. I have also edited books on sex in mainstream media and on online pornographies. Last year I sought funding for and set up a research network Onscenity which draws together international experts who are interested in and write about the new visibility or ‘onscenity’ of sex in commerce, culture and everyday life. The network responds to public concerns about a range of issues including the new accessibility of pornography, the mainstreaming and normalization of sexually explicit representation, the commercialization of sex, the role of the internet in circulating ‘extreme’ images, and the use of communication technologies, often by young people, for sexual purposes.

My interest in this project lies in finding out what these kinds of technologies and media mean to the people who make and use them.

Feona Attwood, Professor of Media and Communications, Middlesex University

Some key publications:

porn.com: Making Sense of Online Pornography (2010).

Researching and Teaching the Sexually Explicit. Sexualities. (with I.Q. Hunter, 2009)

Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture (2009).

Martin Barker

I first became involved in this area when I began researching moral campaigns against ‘dangerous media’ back in the 1980s.  A study of the 1950s campaign against ‘horror comics’ revealed something that has remained very important to me, that there is a gap between the official language that campaigners adopt, and their underlying motives and purposes.  This study was followed by my involvement in challenging the panics over the so-called “video nasties”.  That revealed to me just how big a role bad research (in that case, the ‘dodgy dossier’ produced by the so-called Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry) can play in persuading politicians and public.

Since then, I have become more involved in trying to design and carry out my own research into audiences for controversial materials – not through artificial laboratory-style experiments, but through finding ways to hear and understand the thoughts and responses of the actual audiences.  These have included: gathering the recollections fo former readers of the banned 1976 British comic Action; exploring the responses of audiences to David Cronenberg’s controversial 1995 film Crash; and, most recently, getting the chance to research for the British Board of Film Classification into audience responses to watching sexual violence on screen.

More than anything, underlying my approach to this whole area are two things: (1) drawing out and questioning the claims and assumptions of moral campaigners against porn use – and that can mean questioning the very languages they use to describe porn and those who enjoy it; and (2) designing research that can give a voice to those people, in ways that can reveal patterns and connections that will hopefully have impact and be persuasive in public debates on the topic.

Martin Barker, Emeritus Professor of Film and Television, University of Aberystwyth

Some key publications:

‘Audiences and Receptions for Sexual Violence on Screen’ – co-authored report to the BBFC, 2006 (available as a download from their website)

The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Fim Reception (with Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami Harindranath, 1998)

Ill Effects: the Media-Violence Debate (with Julian Petley, 1991)

The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Arts (1984)

A Haunt of Fears: the Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign (1984)