Are there Disciplinary Differences in Writing about Pornography?

By Alan McKee, University of Technology Sydney

and Roger Ingham, University of Southampton, UK

In 2016, we, a humanities researcher (Alan) and a psychology researcher (Roger), submitted to the Australian Research Council a successful grant application for a project entitled ‘Pornography’s effects on audiences: explaining contradictory research data’ (DP170100808). We were approached by Feona Attwood, who knew of the grant and asked if we could provide a piece for a special issue of Porn Studies that explored ‘writing about porn across disciplines’. The process of writing the grant application had already provided us with plenty of rich data about differences in disciplinary vocabularies and the ways in which various words implied different objects of study and different relationships to objects of study. Rather than trying to hide these differences we decided to make them the focus of the article. This piece presents three voices – Alan (AM), Roger (RI) and the original grant application (GA) – in trialogue, as a tentative beginning to the exploration of some potential differences between academic disciplines in conceptualising, researching and writing about pornography.

AM: My undergraduate training was in literary studies and film studies with a strong focus on psychoanalytic film theory. In the course of my doctorate I moved towards cultural studies, and ended up positioning myself in media studies. The latter is a supremely slutty discipline, welcoming with open arms researchers from sociology, political science, philosophy and history among others. I now regularly publish in academic journals that Scopus categorises as psychology. My interest in pornography emerged from interests both cultural and queer: the aesthetics of pornography and the uses made of gay male pornography. As I moved more into media studies I became interested in concerns about the ‘effects’ of pornography on consumers, which I found fascinating because such concerns sounded so alien to me, being part of neither my original disciplinary training nor my personal experience. I met Roger Ingham at a conference in London where I was immediately impressed with his generous, enthusiastic, good-natured and non-judgmental engagement with issues around healthy sexual development and the media.

RI: My background is social and health psychology, with a strong leaning towards qualitative approaches and a fairly strong antipathy to the rational social cognitive approaches to health psychology (although I can just about understand why many of my colleagues feel safe in those spaces). My research and policy-related work for the past 30 years has been on various aspects of young people’s sexual health, broadly defined, and the policy implications in the UK and globally. [1] Like many in my position, I have had longstanding ambiguities about pornography in many respects. Hearing Alan McKee’s talk at an event in London (on the potential value of sexually explicit material as a teaching aid for young people about sexual literacy and competence) opened up new ways of thinking about it all, albeit ways which would be difficult to talk about within the narrow protection-focused agenda with which I had been more frequently confronted. Subsequently, Alan and I obtained the funding from the Australian Research Council, mentioned above, to explore these tensions and disciplinary approaches; this piece is an attempt at an initial capture of some of the challenges we face.

GA: Within ‘social scientific’ research into the effects of pornography there is consensus that pornography is harmful to its audiences and that ‘[i]t is difficult to find a methodologically sound study that shows a lack of some kind of harm when men view pornography’. [2] As far back as 1987, social scientists in this area felt able to conclude that:

studies … have found that individuals exposed to [pornography] respond with blunted sensitivity to violence against women, calloused attitudes about rape, and sexual arousal to rape depictions and ‘laboratory simulations of aggression against women, among other antisocial effects’. [3]

RI: I already feel uncomfortable about two aspects of this; first, the use of the generic term ‘social scientists’ (in particular, ‘psychologists’ as if they/we are an homogenous bunch). We are not. There are probably as many internecine divisions within psychology as there are between psychology and others. Secondly, this offence is perpetuated when a few psychologists writing years ago are put forward as somehow representing the discipline. If I am honest, I guess I have to admit that – even though I completely agree with Alan on his points here – that little ingroup/outgroup monitor inside me feels aggrieved at being typecast in this way. Not the best of starts to inter-disciplinary collaboration and I hope we can work through this. In fact, reading the article that he cites here reveals that the authors were specifically talking about exposure to certain types of sexually violent material, not sexually explicit material in general, a point they make strongly in responding to the Attorney General’s Commission report on Pornography in 1987.

AM: Roger is quite correct – and I have high hopes that this kind of interaction will be one of the most productive aspects of our interdisciplinary collaboration. And inspired by this point – as well as by email interactions some years ago with Robert Weitzer – before we go any further I’d like to offer a retraction. In 2009, I published an article called ‘Social scientists don’t say titwank’ in the journal Sexualities. I would now like to retract it, in its published form, and offer a more modest version in its place. The article was a response to a series of referees’ reports I received on an article presenting the results of a content analysis of fifty of the best-selling porn videos in Australia. One of those reports noted that ‘Certain language used in this study is unnecessarily vulgar and unscholarly […] e.g. […] “wanking” instead of masturbating […] “tit rubbing” instead of breast rubbing or fondling […] “turkey slapping” [and] “titwanking”’. [4] This spurred me on to review and write about differences in language and argumentation between the humanities research on pornography I was familiar with and the social scientific research I was beginning to explore. I claimed that social scientific research laid claim to objectivity in a way that humanities research did not; it assumed that pornography must have primarily negative effects; that it was less open to new approaches to an object of study; and that it was heteronormative. In retrospect, it is clear that, as Roger says above, I was not really talking about ‘social science’ in that article; I was in fact talking about ‘a few psychologists writing years ago’ – and the referees of the journals I was seeking to publish in – and generalising from there. This raises a challenge that I also faced some years ago when trying to write about differences between cultures for my book The Public Sphere; how can we acknowledge that there are differences between cultures without falling into an essentialist trap of saying that every individual member of a given culture behaves in a particular way? I still believe that there are differences in the cultures and histories of humanities research into pornography and social scientific research into pornography. How can one talk about those without claiming – or even, being thought to claim – that every individual within the categories behaves and thinks in particular ways?

To read how the conversation continues visit the full version of this article, published in Porn Studies here.


[1] See, for example, Ina Vanwesenbeeck, Gertjan van Zessenz, Roger Ingham, Emily Jaramazoviĉ and Diane Stevens. 1999. Factors and Processes in Heterosexual Competence and Risk: An Integrated Review of the EvidencePsychology & Health 14.1; Roger Ingham and Peter Aggleton. 2006. Promoting Young People’s Sexual Health: International Perspectives. London: Routledge; Roger Ingham. 2005. Teenage Pregnancy Policy in England. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Journal of National Sexuality Resource Center 2.3; Harriet Hogarth and Roger Ingham. 2009 Masturbation Among Young Women and Associations with Sexual Health: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Sex Research 46.6; Laura McGinn, Nicole Stone, Roger Ingham and Andrew Bengry-Howell. 2016 Parental Interpretations of ‘Childhood innocence’: Implications for Early Sexuality Education. Health Education 166.6; Alison Hadley, Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli and Roger Ingham. 2016. Implementing the UK Government’s Ten-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy for England (1999-2010): Applicable Lessons for other Countries. Journal of Adolescent Health.

[2] John Fouberts, Matthew Brosi and R. Sean Bannon. 2011. Pornography Viewing among Fraternity Men: Effects on Bystander Intervention, Rape Myth Acceptance and Behavioral Intent to Commit Sexual Assault. Sex Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. 18.4.

[3] Edward Donnerstein, Daniel Linz and Steven Penrod. 1987. The Question of Pornography: Research Findings and Policy Implications. New York: Free Press.

[4] Alan McKee. 2009. Social Scientists Don’t Say ‘Titwank’. Sexualities 12.5.


Professor Alan McKee is an expert on entertainment and healthy sexual development. He holds an Australian Research Council Discovery grant entitled ‘Pornography’s effects on audiences: explaining contradictory research data’; and a Wellcome Grant entitled ‘Investigating mediated sex and young people’s health and well-being’. He recently completed a Linkage grant with True (previously Family Planning Queensland) to investigate the use of vulgar comedy to reach young men with information about healthy sexual development. He was co-editor of the Girlfriend Guide to Life and co-author of Pornography: structures agency and performance (Polity, 2015). He has published on healthy sexual development, and entertainment education for healthy sexuality in journals including the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the International Journal of Sexual Health, the Journal of Sex Research and Sex Education.

Professor Roger Ingham is Professor of Health and Community Psychology at the University of Southampton, and Director of the Centre for Sexual Health Research. He has published widely on relevant topics and works closely with policy makers in this country and abroad. He has been for many years a regular advisor / consultant for the World Health Organisation on their reproductive health and AIDS programmes and for other international agencies, was a member of the former Government’s Independent Advisory Group for the Teenage Pregnancy Unit and sits on the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel. He was a member of the core group involved in the development of the UK National Sexual Health and HIV Strategy.

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