New book calls for radical overhaul of pornography studies

Professor Alan McKee

Professor Alan McKee

Pornography and its effects on consumers have been studied by academics for more than 50 years. So what have we learned? Professor Alan McKee says there are many questions that still need answers.

Professor McKee joined the University of Sydney in July 2022. He is the new Head of School for Art, Communication and English. He is recognised internationally for his work in Communication and Media Studies and is an expert on the effects of pornography and how people build intimate relationships through social media.

"The answer to most questions about the effects of pornography is still, ’We don’t know’," said Professor McKee. "That’s unacceptable given how much time, money and effort has been pumped into this area".

"The biggest problem is that academics have failed to start by defining what counts as healthy sexuality, which has led to people asking the wrong questions and talking at cross-purposes."

FAQ that need answers

  • Do people who consume more porn have more or less consensual approaches to sex? "We don’t know," said Professor McKee. "A lot of the research focuses on porn and ’violence’, including consensual BDSM, so the data mixes up consensual and non-consensual practices."
  • Do people who consume more porn know more or less about sex? "We don’t know. There’s research showing that people say they use porn to learn about sex, but it’s hard to find data about relative levels of knowledge about how to have good sex."
  • Do people who consume porn have better levels of porn literacy? "We don’t know. The research mostly focuses on trying to teach young adults ’porn literacy’, which should mean learning to critically examine and make sense of the sexual images they see.  But instead the research shows there is a kind of anti-literacy attitude among educators who tell young adults that they simply shouldn’t consume pornography."
  • Do people who consume porn have more or less pleasurable sex lives? "We don’t know. Most of the research focuses on monogamous coupled relationship satisfaction and stability rather than sexual pleasure."

We need to start by defining healthy sexuality, and then make sure we’re all measuring the same thing

Professor McKee says a lot of the research on the effects of porn confuses correlation and causation. "Correlation means that two things happen at the same time - causation means that one thing causes another. We know that people who are more sexually adventurous are also more likely to consume pornography. That doesn’t mean that consuming pornography makes you more sexually adventurous - but a lot of the research claims that it does."

"After 50 years, we don’t know as much as we should, given the amount of time, effort and funding that’s gone into the area," says Professor McKee. "We need to start by defining healthy sexuality, and then make sure that we’re all measuring the same things."

The book, published by Routledge , was co-authored by Dr Paul Byron, a researcher in digital cultures of care, friendship and peer support in LGBTQ+ communities at University of Technology Sydney, and Katerina Litsou, a PhD researcher in sexual health, and Professor Roger Ingham, a researcher in health psychology, both at University of Southampton in the UK.

Declaration: This research was funded by Australian Research Council Discovery Grant DP170100808

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