Researching Pornography

23 June 2015

Pornography is both consumed and condemned by the public, but there is very little research that engages with ‘ordinary’ people who use it. Researchers Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith held in-gallery discussions earlier this year, asking how, when and why people turn to pornography. In this post, they tell us more about their work and respond to some of the questions raised during the discussions in our Sexology gallery.


Clarissa Smith is Professor of Sexual Cultures at University of Sunderland and Feona Attwood is Professor of Media and Communications at Middlesex University. We have been researching in the areas of pornography, sexuality and media technologies for more than twenty years. We are also the editors of the Routledge journal “Porn Studies” and Feona is a co-editor of the Sage journal “Sexualities”.

With Professor Martin Barker (University of Aberystwyth) we launched an online questionnaire to examine where, how and why people engage with pornographic representations. We received almost 5,500 responses (2/3 male; 1/3 female) from across the globe.


How, when and why did you turn to this field of research?

Clarissa’s academic career has centred on the ways in which pornography matters to those who consume it and to those who would condemn it. She started out on this research during her MA studies and continued them as a PhD project looking at how women responded to the publication of a softcore magazine called For Women.

She is 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; she’s 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.

Feona’s interests in this area of work first came out of what struck her 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 her 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. She has 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.

From the people you gave the questionnaire to (mainly students) what was the most popular response to the question asking why people engage with pornography?

Our respondents were all ages – we used snowballing techniques to get people involved; we didn’t target students specifically. We wanted to take a different starting point from the usual worries about the effects of pornography; one that was concerned with people’s actual everyday engagements with pornography and which was not based on assumptions about its harmfulness. We wanted to gather a body of responses from people who engage with online pornography –  people who are almost entirely absent from the debates in the press and elsewhere.

We tried to do this in a way that those people, who are likely to be intensely aware of the ways they are talked about, categorised and belittled, would trust us sufficiently to tell us their stories, their responses, their pleasures and their preferences. In ways that would allow us to discern patterns, distinct groupings, connections and separations. To do this, we needed to generate enough responses to allow for secure quantitative analyses – but what mattered most to us was hearing the accounts that people would give us, in their own words, of the nature of their involvements and engagements with online pornography.

We know that such accounts are not transparent truths. They are the ways that people are willing and able to tell us about themselves. But that is their distinctive value.  Through the words that men and women, straight and homosexual, young and old choose and use, we can hear their reasons and interests in sex, their sense of sexual self, what pornography means to them and the ways in which it may matter to them.

There was no one response to this, instead we were able to see more than a dozen reasons for engaging with porn.

  1. Boredom, it’s just there, no special reason.
  2. Escaping from negatives (stress, loneliness, etc).
  3. Inadequate sexual relationships/opportunities.
  4. Simple pleasure in it, intensification of orgasms.
  5. As an aesthetic as well as erotic experience.
  6. Seeing new, previously unimaginable things.
  7. As a component in an ongoing relationship.
  8. As a leisure/cultural choice in its own right.
  9. Working in porn, or being in a community of users.
  10. Trying out fantasies, exploring one’s sexual identity.
  11. As part of a wider recognition of the force of sex.
  12. Visiting the explicit, the naughty, the illicit, the dirty.
  13. As a thing in itself, with its own troubling attractions.

In all of your time researching, are you ever shocked, surprised or embarrassed anymore?

Of course, we can still feel all of those things! But what matters most is what we do with those responses of ours – we have to examine our own responses (why are we embarrassed or shocked?) if we are to begin to understand the diversity of people’s engagements with pornography.

For people in long-term monogamous relationships, does use of pornography increase?

Our research indicates that people in long and short term relationships may be using pornography in different ways. Consider the following responses:

“Solo sex is really important to me, whether or not I’m in a relationship, and porn is one of the components of that for me.”

“I feel that personal pleasure is very important, and porn is a good visual aid. It’s also great with a partner.”

“It provides stimulation, as well as inspiration for sexual fantasies. It also provides ideas for trying new things with my partner and it’s a way to turn us both on when watching it together and give us a different kind of sexual experience.”

“Being from different countries, my partner and I must now and then spend extended periods of time apart. To keep intimacy alive and to connect sexually with each other during this time (and sometimes when we’re together!) we share pornographic videos and images we find online.”

“My partner and I are in a long distance relationship. We send links of porn to each other as a way of keeping things fresh and hot.”

Did you consider a question about whether people always masturbate when watching porn or if they view it as more of an artistic experience?

We did consider this and in the responses we collected we can see both of these orientations, often in the same account. For example:

“Pornography (viewing/reading) stimulates my desire for sexual/emotional connection in the absence of a partner and permits me to connect with myself in a way that I find revitalises me and keeps me from feeling old. If I no longer had the opportunity to view porn, I would miss seeing the beauty of the male body in its infinite sameness and variety. That would make me very sad.”

Anti-porn people often argue that women in porn are exploited and unhappy. Have you ever heard this said about men?

This is sometimes said about gay porn, particularly that men are ‘feminised’ in gay porn. The claim that pornography is a form of sexual violence continues to influence political and public health policies. In fact the word ‘pornography’ seems to inevitably call up the question of ‘violence’ as a word association –  pornography is often defined as an act of violence and violence is often suggested to be an inescapable part of human sexual relations, but the evidence for this is quite slim and often seems to be targeted at forms of representation or practice that don’t conform to very normative ideas of what sex ought to be like.

“Violent porn” seems to refer almost always to violence towards women. Have any similar studies been done on gay (male) porn?

The research on the effects of porn is very contradictory with claims for both effects and no effects. Even so, previous research into media forms seen as ‘problematic’ (comics, horror film etc) has demonstrated that emotive terms such as ‘violent’ and ‘extreme’ frequently act as code-words for objections based on moral, political and taste grounds. Moreover research which starts from wanting to find the ‘effects of pornography’ is underpinned by unexamined and unproven causal claims of a link between viewing and perpetrating illegal acts – there is a substantial body of research evidence which entirely refutes these claims

What are your personal thoughts on the government’s recent changes in legislation regarding certain BDSM porn acts?

Calls for the legislation rested on an amorphous ‘increasing public concern’ about ‘extreme’ pornography, but the evidence base for this public disquiet was not offered.

Panics about troublesome media forms are not innocent of their own politics and prejudices and in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act the definitions of the materials to be legislated were vague; we were extremely concerned that the law would criminalise images which ‘appear to be real’, clearly those drafting the Act had no knowledge of the vast body of research examining the complexities of viewers understandings and relationships to the ‘real’ in all kinds of media. When it comes to BDSM material, there is a very real risk that images which have been created entirely consensually and with attention to the safety and comfort of those involved may be prosecuted.

What is your point of view on the recent “censorship” of UK produced porn by the recent amendment to the 2003 Communications Act?

Again, we feel that the amendments are based not on rigorous research but on a range of fears and a desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’, which does not make for good law!

For more information about Clarissa and Feona’s work, visit Porn Research.