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Survey sets out to pin down nation's pr0n habits

Semiotics of smut sought for the good of us all

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A ground-breaking and timely survey of how individuals use porn was launched yesterday.

The aim of this survey, available online at pornresearch.org, is to collect evidence around the everyday uses of pornography and find out how the people who use it feel it fits into their lives. Ultimately, the data may be used to challenge some of the assumptions now current in debate around the "sexualisation" of society.

Critics of the research have questioned whether such work is necessary, claiming that "everyone knows how porn is used". Those behind the survey, Professors Martin Barker and Feona Attwood, and Dr Clarissa Smith, reader in sexual culture at the University of Sunderland, reckon that the real problem is that we don't have the answers, and society is attempting to legislate in a vacuum.

While not denying the moral dimension of many of the questions, the researchers are concerned that the voices of users and enjoyers will be swamped by a prevailing critical assumption that the only issues worth considering are how problematic porn use is, or how it might affect children. The researchers believe that there can be many different and complicated reasons for looking at pornography and that not all the materials that go under that label are the same, only to be distinguished by how ‘extreme’ or ‘explicit’ they are.

Dr Smith told the Reg: "Although there is much speculation and plenty of academic work which insists on porn having demonstrable and problem 'effects' on users, I've been struck by how often researchers have told me there is no need for any empirical research on how and why porn is consumed.

"Apparently, everyone knows why people look at pornography and that looking leads to bad behaviours, so to want to research what people have to say about how porn fits into their sense of self, their relationships and their everyday lives is to simply waste energy on measuring the obvious.

"At a time when governments are seeking to close down adults' access to adult materials in order to 'protect children' and, at the same time, ensure that supposition and assertion will be all that is necessary to get bad laws passed, it seems to me and my fellow researchers that research of this kind has never been more urgently required."

This approach was given weight at the weekend by Dr Brooke Magnanti, more widely known for her writing as Belle de Jour, who recently debunked widely cited "research" that claimed a link between lap-dancing clubs in Camden and violence against women.

Attacking the certainties of those who believe they have all the answers in respect of sex, she argued: "When it comes to the public discussion of sex there’s a lot that’s wrong. The main problem is misinformation, with biased sources spreading information that is at best poorly researched and at worst completely incorrect."

The survey results are to be published at the end of the year. ®

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