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Karl Andersson

University of Manchester

The journal Qualitative Research and the University of Manchester, in Britain, said last week that they’re investigating the publication of an article on masturbation as research method.

Following its announcement about an inquiry, Qualitative Research, published by Sage Journals, removed the paper altogether. An updated notice on the paper’s webpage says, “Due to ethical concerns surrounding this article and the social harm being caused by the publication of this work, the publishers have now agreed with the journal editors and have decided to remove the article while this investigation is ongoing in accordance with [Committee on Publication Ethics] guidelines.”

The article, first published earlier this year, has elicited public expressions of disbelief, eye rolls and jokes about taking so-called intellectual masturbation to the extreme. Some readers also have wondered if the paper is a hoax, similar to a set of phony articles on gender from several years ago (the authors of those papers said their project was designed to root out political bias in publishing).

Yet the new masturbation article, written by Karl Andersson, a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese studies at Manchester—who did not respond to requests for comment—appears to be genuine.

His dissertation adviser, Sharon Kinsella of Manchester, whom Andersson includes in his acknowledgments, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond just shock, the paper has been denounced as bad scholarship, in part because Andersson effectively presents himself as an autoethnographer, incorporating his own experiences into his research, without discussing his positionality—his various identities in relation to the subculture he’s exploring. Crucially, Andersson doesn’t mention that he is a white European man, even though he says he’s using masturbation to better understand readers of a specific genre of sexually explicit Japanese comics.

Andersson’s paper has raised even graver concerns about publishing standards and ethics, as the comics in which Andersson is interested feature underage characters. And in one case, per Andersson’s retelling, the material features a sexual encounter between two characters during which one of the two repeatedly verbally objects.

While Andersson is a Ph.D. student, he didn’t stumble into complex ethical terrain. He’s pursued these topics—albeit outside academe—for over a decade.

According to Vice and other sources, Andersson published Destroyer—Journal of Apollonian Beauty and Dionysian Sexuality, which he later wrote a book about, from 2006 to 2010. Both Destroyer and a website Andersson ran included sexually suggestive depictions of boys and were controversial in Andersson’s native Sweden and elsewhere. (Andersson has argued that no one under 18 was pictured nude.)

Andersson told Vice in 2012 that he also was publishing sexually explicit Japanese comics with two artists, saying that “Shotacon manga are comics where boys have sex, either with each other or with older boys or men. What I like about shotacon manga is that it’s an extreme fantasy.” He said in that interview that he’d been denounced for sexualizing children, but that “teenage boys aren’t children, but are in fact sexual—something I enhanced in my magazine, which was a tribute to the teenage boy. What is it anyways, to ‘sexualize children’ and what’s bad about it? It’s not a real argument.”

This history isn’t mentioned in Andersson’s new paper, his first academic publication, called “I Am Not Alone—We Are All Alone: Using Masturbation as an Ethnographic Method in Research on Shota Subculture in Japan.”

An Experimental Method?

“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,” Andersson wrote in the abstract to the new paper. “I therefore started reading the comics in the same way as my research participants had told me that they did it: while masturbating.”

Andersson goes on to frame masturbating to shota comics as an experimental method, saying his “participant observation of my own desire not only gave me a more embodied understanding of the topic for my research but also made me think about loneliness and ways to combat it as driving forces of the culture of self-published erotic comics.”

Quoting the late Audre Lorde—“The erotic cannot be felt secondhand”—Andersson makes one of several sexual puns: “I realized that my body was equipped with a research tool of its own that could give me, quite literally, a first-hand understanding of shota” (emphasis Andersson’s).

Social scientists have long studied sex and even masturbation, though rarely their own experiences. There are exceptions, including a 2012 article by Kristen C. Blinne, called “Auto(erotic)ethnography.” Yet Andersson says in his paper that Blinne’s own “poetic style ironically reinforces the idea that masturbation is a sensitive enough subject to warrant special linguistic treatment.”

Andersson’s approach is more straightforward: “I would masturbate in the same way that my research participants did it. After each masturbation session I would write down my thoughts and feelings—a kind of critical self-reflection—in a notebook, as well as details about which material I had used, where I had done it, at what time, and for how long. I would not be allowed to have any other sexual relief during this ‘fieldwork’ in my own sexuality: no regular porn, no sex with another person, no fantasies or memories—it had to be shota every time. I happened to live alone during this experiment, and I had newly become single after a long relationship—these factors probably contributed to my willingness and eagerness to explore this method.”

Findings—and Questions

Following three months of this “fieldwork,” Andersson wrote that “Thinking more critically about my own masturbation also made me wonder if all sex is masturbation, in the sense that people are focused on their own pleasure and use other people as ‘masturbation material.’”

At the same time, he concludes, “we are not alone. When we masturbate, someone else is always there. During this fieldwork, others were there with me, both in the form of the characters that populated the d’’ojinshi [comics], but also in the form of the invisible creator of these characters and the other readers who were enjoying them. In addition, my head was visited by people from my past, people I had seen on the street, my ex-partner.”

Andersson shares two entries from his diaries. One of them describes material that appears to involve consensual activity between boys. But the other example involves material depicting a sexual encounter between two characters, in which one of them is repeatedly verbally objecting, saying, “I’m not homo!”

Andersson does not address the issue of consent, saying only, “as I stroked myself to orgasm, Shigeru’s story mixed with my own, tweaking my past and providing me ‘a happier version’, as one of my research participants had put it. This is not to say that things like those in the d’’ojinshi necessarily should have happened when I grew up. But to enjoy this alternative version for half an hour in the comfort of my bed felt good.”

Nor does Andersson address the issue of adults reading explicit material about underage characters, beyond this: “Several of my research participants had used the word ‘nostalgia’ to describe the allure of shota. This too looks back at the past and the period of puberty that is captured by the term ‘growth’, which is a common theme in shota.”

The editors of Qualitative Research released an initial statement last week announcing their investigation of the paper. Asked for more details about the scope of the inquiry, Editor in Chief Kate Moles, senior lecturer in sociology at Cardiff University in Wales, forwarded the same statement: “We are continuing with our investigations and will consider closely all guidance from the Committee of Publication Ethics and ensure that any actions taken comply with COPE standards.”

The University of Manchester said in its own statement, “The recent publication in Qualitative Research of the work of a student, now registered for a Ph.D., has raised significant concerns and complaints which we are taking very seriously. We are currently undertaking a detailed investigation into all aspects of their work, the processes around it and other questions raised. It is very important that we look at the issues in-depth. While that investigation is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Ethics Landscape

Manchester’s guidance on university ethical approval lists five possible routes for review, starting with a division- or school-level review for “low-risk” student projects only. Among other reasons, ethical approval is said to be required for projects involving “social sensitive topics.”

Sometimes university institutional review boards, which oversee research involving human subjects, require approval for research on oneself. It’s unclear what, if any, kind of approval Andersson sought or obtained for his new paper. However, he said in a June YouTube video that a separate fieldwork project he proposed—presumably one involving human subjects—failed ethical review.

“This means that there will be a big delay in my fieldwork, which is sad, but ethics are of course paramount to any research,” he says in the recording, which does not include details about the fieldwork.

Asked about ethical issues that might be relevant to the pending reviews, Deborah Poff, past chair and trustee of COPE, said via email that the international publications committee “has a subcommittee right now looking at editorial responsibility with respect to topics or issues which people might consider offensive, discriminatory, etc. Unfortunately we haven’t drafted any guidelines on this yet. There have been a few well known cases where articles published were challenged as requiring retractions by editors because they were sexist, racist, sexually offensive, etc.”

Elizabeth Chin, professor of media design practices and at ArtCenter College of Design in California and editor in chief of American Anthropologist, said there are “all sorts of great and rigorous reasons” to use ethnography or autoethnography to study sexuality, gender, fetishism and, yes, masturbation.

Even so, she said, Andersson’s paper is a “trash fire.”

“The topic is not the point,” Chin said. “In my very quick read, the argumentation and methodology do not rise to the level of publishability.” (Chin said she never would have sent the paper out for review in her capacity as a journal editor.)

More specifically, Chin said the “lack of critically engaged conversation about the author’s own sexuality, race and subject position is a huge problem, especially for an autoethnography, and then even more so for a white guy doing work among Japanese.”

“There seems to be some added problematics from the author’s past,” Chin added, arguing that Andersson should have disclosed his own views on pederasty, including whether they’ve changed since his Destroyer days.

Regarding Andersson’s whiteness, Chin said there’s “no dearth of research on the ways in which Asian sexualities have been constructed as subordinate, consumable, et cetera, by whiteness writ large.” (She argued that Andersson could have drawn on scholarship on the construction of Asian masculinities in particular.) Instead, Chin continued, “The piece reads as if he went out and found one easy-to-grab reference for this point or that one, rather than having a well-honed argument that engages ongoing disciplinary discussions of importance in a given area or field.”

Per this point, Erica Kanesaka, an assistant professor of English at Emory University who studies race, sex and gender in Japan and the U.S., and one of many scholars to tweet critically about Andersson’s paper, told Inside Higher Ed, “The article reflects longstanding Orientalist attitudes related to Japan’s infantilization and hypersexualization in the Western imagination.”

While Chin called herself a committed autoethnographer, she also bristled at the “sort of substitution of self for the research subject” in Andersson’s paper (a highly unusual approach), especially as he reveals so little about his identity.

Ultimately, Chin said, “there is no compelling theoretical proposition or argument, and the takeaway is pretty nonexistent. Seems designed pretty much for shock value.”

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