What does ‘pornography’ mean in the digital age? Revisiting a definition for social science researchers

Sarah Ashton, Karalyn McDonald, Maggie Kirkman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


‘Pornography’ is a protean term, rendered more complex by the digital age. Social science researchers need not only a useful definition but also awareness of how the term is applied (by researchers and research participants) and clarity about the scope of material to be included. As part of our attempts to understand the meaning of ‘pornography’, we thematically analyzed definitions presented in recent and prominent pornography research publications and scholarly articles dedicated to defining pornography. We concluded that a useful definition has three components: content, the intention of the producer, and contextual judgement. We then identified implications for pornography of new technology: expanded opportunities for access and content, the interaction and immersion enabled by virtual reality, ‘pornification’ of culture, and challenges to the meaning of consent presented by self-produced content. We argue that pornography should be distinguished from material produced and distributed without participants’ consent. We propose that researchers incorporate new technologies into measurement tools and suggest that they acknowledge context and practise reflexivity. We present as a working definition of ‘pornography’: ‘Material deemed sexual, given the context, that has the primary intention of sexually arousing the consumer and is produced and distributed with the consent of all persons involved’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)144-168
Number of pages25
JournalPorn Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • consent
  • Definition of pornography
  • digital age
  • pornography
  • pornography research

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