Oh, the humanities

Not your average masturbatory scholarship

Artillery Row

Masturbation is undeniably an interesting subject. It occupies a large part of many people’s lives. It has inspired authors from Joyce to Roth. Certainly, it shouldn’t be off-limits from academic study.

Still, I felt like something rather dodgy was going on when I found an academic paper devoted not just to masturbation, and not just to its author masturbating himself, but to its author jacking off over cartoons of young boys.

This is not an exaggeration. Karl Andersson, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, writes in the abstract of a paper for the journal Qualitative Research:

I wanted to understand how my research participants experience sexual pleasure when reading shota, a Japanese genre of self-published erotic comics that features young boy characters. I therefore started reading the comics in the same way as my research participants had told me that they did it: while masturbating.

So, he says, he spent months fiddling with himself to weird Japanese cartoons. Elsewhere in his paper, Mr Andersson helpfully clarifies that his subject matter included very young boys:

The examples above, with stories from a past childhood, were believable to me, as in ‘that could have happened’, and that made those dōjinshi good. But more often, very young boy characters would greedily jump over the first cock that presented itself. That too worked for me, but it was different.

“That too worked for me.” What is disturbing is not just that Mr Andersson had these thoughts, and not just that he considered them worth expressing, but that other academics read and accepted them. The paper was published in April and has only reached an incredulous wider audience today.

Mr Andersson is not an academic who has just veered into morbid territory. He has quite a history. In the noughties he edited a magazine called Destroyer, which aimed to “bring back the adolescent gay boy as one of the ideals of gay culture.” The content was legal but I don’t recommend Googling it. According to a profile in Out:

… each issue of Destroyer featured sexually suggestive shots of boys as young as 13 in various states of undress …

“Many of the shoots,” the profile went on:

… took place in developing countries and sparked accusations of sexual tourism. In some images, it wasn’t clear if the boys knew they were being shot …

According to a Vice interview from 2012, Mr Andersson went on to run a website called “Breaking Boy News”. The website, according to the interview, featured “violent, sexual headlines about young boys, illustrated with pictures of pre-pubescent boys in sexualised poses, half-naked and occasionally not wearing any pants.” “Boys are like kittens, it’s hard to take your eyes off them,” Andersson mused, disgusting even a 2012-era Vice interviewer.

Despite the nature of his work, Andersson could be found in the mainstream Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet giving an apparently sympathetic interview to a Japanese author of obscene cartoons. The author was clear that “the content is pornographic” and that the girls that it portrayed were “12 or 13 years old”.

In a 2016 essay published on Medium, Mr Andersson describes how he contributed to the publication of a “shota” comic himself. He writes:

The comic, which I had translated myself, contained uncensored sex between boys of an unspecified age.

“I called it Entartete Shota,” Andersson goes on, “I wanted to show that our society denounces certain artistic expressions as offensive and therefore illegal in the same way as the Nazis did with what they called “entartete kunst” — degenerate art.Yes, well, the Nazis denounced Picasso and Lehmbruck. Andersson is defending — indeed, promoting — eroticized portrayals of young teenage boys. See the difference?

How many academics have encountered his work

To be clear, I think most academics would agree with me that Andersson’s interests are disgusting and without cultural or academic merit. Still, I do wonder how many academics have encountered his work and been soothed by its familiar references to “ethnography” and Michel Foucault. I wonder how many academics don’t look closely at something which falls into such categories as “queer studies” because to do so might be seen as bigoted, narrow-minded, anti-intellectual et cetera.

Certainly, academics rushed to Andersson’s defence when Neil O’Brien MP of the Conservatives mocked his paper. To be fair, O’Brien extended his contempt into a broader comment on the humanities — and it was at least defensible to criticise that — but the knee-jerk impulse towards defending any kind of “progressive” academic work from criticism can be seen in a tweet from Professor Steven Fielding:

Do none of your constituents masturbate? Do none use pornography? Do none suffer from loneliness? Do you understand how anthropology can help us better understand ourselves: is that not socially usefully?

I have no desire to suggest that the paper would be socially useful if its author had been wanking over adults — but the fact that it was cartoons of kids makes this self-righteous intervention especially embarrassing. I will assume that Professor Fielding did not read the article itself.

I wonder what made Mr Andersson think that this — any of this — was a good idea. Certainly, it should be legitimate to research, discuss, and debate the legality of different forms of media — and the motives behind their consumption. But introducing such an, erm, personal element to his work made it very hard not to just to avoid dark conclusions but to think that he was actually experimenting with how far he could go. The answer? Too darn far. I hope he gets help, and not with his research.

Meanwhile, some academics could use some self-reflection. Their work is often dedicated to deconstructing harmful ideas and systems in mainstream society. They can hardly complain if mainstream society turns around and asks some questions of them as well.

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