Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. W. A. Fisher


“Pornography” as a concept remains unclear. The lack of consensus about the meaning of pornography is particularly problematic for empirical enterprises where inconsistent conceptualizations of pornography undermine the reliability and validity of research findings, impede the integration of knowledge across studies, and contribute to the miscommunication of research findings to the general public. With this in mind, the goal of this dissertation was to explore the concept of pornography, particularly as it was understood by lay individuals, with the hope of uncovering insights that would strengthen research practices in this field. To this end, seven studies were conducted using both qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the meaning and use of pornography as a construct. This research found that while 14 different conceptual elements were used to define pornography among academics, open-ended responses provided by lay persons tended to describe pornography as the depiction of sexual content, particularly sexual behaviour and nudity. Further, closed-ended quantitative measures confirmed the importance of sexual behaviour and nudity for understanding pornography, and also indicated the importance of the sexually arousing properties of such materials for lay persons. When decisions about the extent to which various images could be considered pornographic or not pornographic were examined, pornography judgments were found to be very reliable and did not differ by gender, experience with sexually explicit materials, or extent of erotophobia or right-wing authoritarianism. Finally, 26 unique content-based features of photographic images were found to account for 69-72% of the variance in pornography judgments made in response to sexual images. In sum, across studies, there was evidence of surprising consistency in the ways that lay undergraduate respondents understood and employed the concept of pornography. For most individuals studied, pornography was simply about the depiction of sexual behaviour and nudity, and empirical researchers in this area would do well to align their conceptual and operational definitions of pornography accordingly.