A New Taxonomy: 
Scientific Misuse of the Term "Pornography"


Mark Kim Malan, Ph.D.



A shorter version of this paper was presented at the
XX. DGSS Conference in Munich, Germany, May 25, 2012.
Reproduced here by permission of the author.


















Today, I would like to introduce for scientific discussion a new taxonomy of subjective human response to objects. The purpose of creating such a taxonomy is to create a more specific and organized terminology for scientific research and discussion.




This paper has three major objectives.


1. To remedy definition variability and outcome bias in scientific studies, including those using the term "pornography", through the proposal of a new approach to sexual scientific measures that utilizes a new and unique global taxonomy of objects and subjective human sexual responses to an object.


2. To acknowledge that the term "pornography" has been variously defined, and that no recognized and agreed upon scientific standard for the term exists.

To recognize that historical attempts at scientific measures, results and discussion attempting to use "pornography" as a variable, have produced widely varied outcomes and poor conclusions regarding effects of "pornography" on individuals and society.


3. To open discussion among sexologists and colleagues about the value and importance of sexual scientists replacing the term "pornography" with terms emphasizing the subjective effect of clearly defined objects on individual viewers, and the social implications of using such an approach.




I have chosen to introduce this new taxonomy at this conference due to the conference focus on the term "pornography". The modern use of the term "pornography" presents unique scientific semantic problems. There is no specifically agreed upon scientific definition and use of the term. Its various definitions are problematic in both the scientific and social uses of the term.


Although the proposed taxonomy is designed to examine subjective human response, and has universal application to any object, I will focus on using the term "pornography" as a practical example of applying this taxonomy to the solution of semantic problems that arise in defining scientific research variables.  Before doing so however, it is useful to review some of literature that point out the problems with the term.




There are several examples of semantic problems with the term "pornography" discussed in research literature. In his paper Actualities of regulating pornography, Bravard states "pornography is impossible to define in any useful fashion... All efforts in achieving a definition move in a circle from pornography to obscenity to prurient to licentious to indecent to lascivious to lewd and back again" (Bravard, 1989).


In their book Libraries Erotica & Pornography, Cornog & Perper follow such a circular path of references in the Oxford English Dictionary and give examples of such words and how they cross refer in their definitions to one another. They conclude that "a precise definition of pornography has proven frustratingly elusive for many years". They add the observation that, "Since people often use the term pornography according to their beliefs about the effects of the material – as well as whether such effects are good or bad - literally any treatment of sexuality, fiction or non-fiction, may be potentially labeled ‘pornography’ by someone" (Cornog & Perper, 1991).


This social problem came to my attention poignantly while taking a sex history with a patient. He stated, "When I was 10, I asked my mother what the word "pornography" actually meant. Sex was a taboo topic in our home so she got embarrassed and turned beet red. When she regained her composure she said, "It’s sexy stuff that’s not good for boys." "Sexy stuff" became the definition in my mind for "porn."


This story serves to illustrate what sexual scientists know. Socially, "pornography" often becomes defined as "a whole lot of generally undefined "sexy stuff" that our mothers would probably not approve of."   Possibly one of the largest problems with "pornography" is public’s social perception of the term.


Finding scientific definitions has also proved elusive. The United States government’s 1968 President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography avoided both the terms "pornography" and "obscenity" that were used in its title, preferring instead to use "explicit sexual materials" (Presidents Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, 1970). 


The 1986 Final Report of the Meese Commission also tried to minimize the use of the word. Its authors reported that they believed the word "pornography" was used when disapproving of sexual depictions, while the term "erotica" was the term chosen for material that was user approved (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1986).


The Sourcebook on Pornography states, "Throughout history, endless attempts have been made to define pornography, obscenity and erotica. Defining these terms, which is so vital to any attempt to regulate such material, remains a major source of conflict and controversy among the many individuals and groups working to control these materials" (Osanka & Johann, 1989).


Various qualifiers have been applied in attempting to define what "pornography" is, resulting in a plethora of widely varied working definitions applied to the discussion of sexual material. Some qualify "pornography" as being a commercial product, or an activator of sexual fantasies, or as degrading to participants, or material that depicts subordination of women, or that explicitly displays genitalia. The list goes on. Various studies, legislative bodies, and lobbyists have all created their own definitions.


Milton Diamond, in his paper, The effects of pornography: an international perspective acknowledges the social problem that exists using the term even though sexual scientists may hold a non-biased perspective when trying to use it. He states, "The term [pornography] is often, in itself, seen as pejorative. I view it as neutral" (Diamond, 2000).


In the opening sentence to their entry for "pornography" in The Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior, the authors, sum up in a single sentence what most researchers eventually conclude. They simply state, " ‘Pornography’ is not a scientific term" (Kronhausen & Kronhausen, 1961).


Due to its non-scientific, overly broad, and unspecific nature, it becomes so awkward for practical use, that when faced with the legal dilemma of defining it, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart turned to using his own subjective response as criteria when writing his legal opinion. His famous and often quoted phrase, "I know it when I see it" (Jacovellus v. Ohio, 1964), has often become the last word in social arguments attempting to define it.


These examples from a review of the literature on the definition of pornography, clearly serve to demonstrate that the term is not only scientifically problematic but virtually useless as a scientific variable of any specific accuracy. 


The development of the taxonomy we will examine in this paper is, in part, an outgrowth of the problem of failing to find an accurate universally agreed upon scientific definition for this term. The puzzling semantics with the term "pornography" led me to the formulation of the following research question.




Since the term "pornography" has no agreed upon scientific definition, and since it has evolved into a term associated with pejorative bias, what terminology can scientists use to replace the term "pornography" with a more accurate unbiased variable?  


Efforts to answer this question led to examining not only the many various definitions of the term "pornography", but also when it is used as various parts of speech. Such usage effectively expands and multiplies its definitions. Usually the term is used as a noun to define an object, for example when a photograph is called pornography. But also, it is sometimes used with an adjective to describe an object, usually in a pejorative way. An example would be the term "political pornography." A third approach is using the term to express individual subjective interpretation of an object. In this case pornography is modified into an adjective to describe another noun. The statement, "The Edsel, was simply a ‘pornographic automobile design’," would qualify as such an expression.




A theoretical taxonomical model for scientific classification of objects and subjective human sexual response.




Historical literature review and content analyses of phenomenological and anthropological data that report outcomes based on cultural definitions of "pornography" and assign them value.




Not everyone can agree what constitutes "pornography". It is impossible for everyone to have the same subjective experience of an object. The term "pornography" has evolved into a socially problematic term as a research variable. Some scientists have qualified their research by carefully and specifically defining what they mean when using the term to define a research variable. Attempts to be more specific have created terms such as "hard-core", "soft-core", and "child pornography", yet these categories are still overly broad and require interpretations to define their parameters that continue to be subjects of debate. Replacing the term "pornography" with "sexually explicit material" eliminates some of the socially pejorative bias. Better studies name a specific object variable or group of variables by title, such as naming the film, The Lovers, or the book, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, to separate it clearly from other objects. This is far better research design than leaving the term vague or undefined, but still the problem of social bias remains a problem if scientists use the term pornography to refer to such specific items. Misinterpretation of scientific facts by the public arises when they add their own negatively biased view of "pornography" to the research, or when they hear the results negatively generalized and sensationalized in the press.


This new taxonomy proposes solutions. First by focusing on the individual subjective response to an object that can then be scientifically measured and analyzed, and second by encouraging the use of singular objects as variables, rather than using a large body of objects that are difficult or impossible to define in a practical sense.


I will now describe the structure and practical use of this taxonomy, first from the subjective response viewpoint, and then followed by a proposed taxonomic structure useful in defining specific objects. 




Individual objects are perceived by humans through individual sensory experience.

The taxonomy of subjective human response is built from an interactive hierarchy of experiences that follow a pathway of cause and effect.


The taxonomical classification of subjective human response to objects is divided into six main categories (figure 1). Each one includes associated positive, negative, indifferent, or affective responses to its own category. These six categories are: Individual Sensory Experience of Objects, Interpretive Thought, Emotions, Affect, Desires, and Actions.


Figure 1


When an object is perceived it enters human consciousness through an individual’s personal Sensory Experience of Objects.


The category of Sensory Experience of Objects is divided into sub-categories that consist of data experienced through the five senses and the human imagination. These categories are: See, Hear, Touch, Taste, Smell and Imagine.


Sensory Experiences of Objects are organized by the brain into Interpretive Thought, resulting in Positive, Negative or Indifferent subjective interpretations of the object.


These interpretations stimulate Emotions as a response to the thought resulting in Positive, Negative or Indifferent subjective emotions.


Subjective emotions in turn produce Affect. Affect is divided in to categories of Interest-Excitement, Enjoyment-Joy, Surprise-Startle, Anger-Rage, Disgust, Dissmell, Distress-Anguish, Fear-Terror, and Shame-Humiliation.[1]


 Affect influences Desires that may be Positive, Negative or Indifferent.


The Actions category classifies behavior into Positive, Negative or Indifferent subjective responses.




In order to build a taxonomy of subjective human response to any object, the problem of classifying objects arises. Living objects already have a familiar and established scientific taxonomy, however other than the current mineral and chemical taxonomies, most non-living objects are not included in a scientific classification system.


In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus published the first edition of his classification system of nature.[2] We are familiar with the animal, plant, protist, moneran and fungi kingdoms that are in common scientific use today. These kingdoms are further classified into divisions, classes, orders, families, genus and species following Linnaeus’ original ranking method of taxonomy but updated by Linnaeus and his followers to reflect the current scientific classification we use today.


Linnaeus originally classified nature into animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. However due to the developing complexity of mineral classification, the use of the mineral kingdom as envisioned by Linnaeus has fallen into disuse. It has been replaced by the current classification schema developed by Nickel and Strunz.


Since most non-living objects remain unclassified by a scientific taxonomy, and considering the fact that it is essential to specifically identify any object when it is used as a scientific variable, it becomes necessary in the study of subjective human response to object variables to organize these unclassified objects into a new and more inclusive taxonomy of objects.


Therefore, I have classified objects into a taxonomy inclusive of any object that may be potentially used as an object variable for scientific study (figure 2). This classification distinguishes between objects that are Physical Objects and Imaginary Objects. Imaginary objects are included because they are a necessary object variable in studying human subjective responses to them.


Figure 2



Note that "pornography" cannot be classified as an object from a scientific viewpoint. The decision to label an object "pornographic" is a subjective human response to an object. Therefore the label "pornography" or "pornographic" is socially constructed by the individual in the Interpretive Thought box in the Subjective Response area of the chart.


The taxonomy of objects is divided into three new general categories: Non-living, Living, and Imaginary. These three categories include seven Kingdoms: Non-living, Animal, Plant, Protest, Moneran, Fungi and Imaginary Kingdoms. Each of these kingdoms is further divided using the familiar terms of scientific nomenclature already in current use: Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.


Objects in the Living Kingdoms (Animal, Plant, Protist, Monaran and Fungi) retain their traditional scientific nomenclature. However, objects in the Non-living and Imaginary Kingdom’s use the following classification.


They are classified in three Divisions: Man-made, Naturally-occurring, and Imagined divisions. 


Each Division is divided into three Classes: Three-dimensional, Two-dimensional, and One-dimensional (One-dimensional defined as imaginary).


Each Class is divided into an Order. Order is defined by the predominant recognizable material that the object is made from such as metal, stone, glass, wood, liquid, gas, fire, plastic, rubber, imaginary material, etc.


Each Order is divided into six Families based in the five senses and imagination. These are: Visual, Aural, Tactile, Gustatory, Odorant, and Imagined. Objects that can fit into more than one Family such as a bottle of perfume which is visual, tactile and an odorant are classified under its predominant sensory trait, Odorant.


Each Family is divided into a Genus, such as a sculpture, book, magazine, film, shoe, car, violin etc.


Each Genus is divided into a specific Species that identifies it as a unique singular object, by its unique name or title, such as Venus de Milo, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Vogue Cover Vol. 21 No. 2, Prada red 4 inch pump, 2012 Audi A4 Cabriolet, The Perlman Stradivarius, etc.


It is obvious that a classification system that seeks to classify all objects faces the difficult task of deciding exactly what types of grouping are best used for classification since there are several ways of approaching the constructs of grouping criteria. More important however is the goal of creating object classification that simplifies identifying a specific object variable that may be measured through subjective human response.




A flow chart (figure 3) may be constructed that follows objective and subjective response of objects through the various proposed categories. Each taxonomical rank represents a possible scientific variable for potential study.  When studying a large group of objects (class, order or family), the objects studied in that group should be named specifically, preferably by naming a list of genus or species. For example: "This study includes the various subjective responses of 100 Italian heterosexual women between 20 and 35 years old when observing the following specific frescos of Michelangelo: ‘The Creation of Adam’, ‘The Fall from Grace’ and ‘Expulsion from Paradise’." The potential for scientific accuracy may be increased as ranks and terms become more specific.


Figure 3



Historically the term "pornography" has an unreliable history of usefulness as a scientific term. Instead, it is a social construct of the human mind. Its social use is vague, inaccurate and is often co-opted for use as rhetoric by those who use it to further their social or political agendas. Over time the term has taken on negative connotations, and is now, also used as a pejorative term, in expressions of disapproval. The term "pornography" is like using the term "lemon" to describe an automobile. It describes a negative quality of an object in the minds of many people.


Sexual scientists look ridiculous, at best, and unethical at worst, when we refer to therapeutic depictions of healthy sexual behavior as "healthy pornography".  To the public, who colloquially views the term as a pejorative expression, the term "healthy pornography" becomes an oxymoron. To the public, it is a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing the term "healthy poison". 


The term "pornography" has socially evolved over time into a negative term. It has become "sexy stuff" with bad press. Now is the time for scientists to break a bad habit of using this socially biased, non-scientific term. As scientists we create problems for ourselves when we adopt unscientific terminology that has culturally evolved, and is loaded with cultural or moralistic bias. We handicap the social effectiveness of our research when we use such terms.


The term "pornography" is not going to go away. The public, politicians, moralists and the press will continue to use it to promote their agendas. Replacing the term "pornography" with "sexually explicit material" is a step in the right direction, but still the problem remains of who decides what is "sexually explicit". This term, like "pornography" is a subjective interpretation of an object, or group of objects.


As a solution, I am proposing this taxonomy of objects and subjective human response, for use in naming, and specifically defining objects as scientific variables. Instead of using the term "pornography", I suggest naming objects and the human subjective responses to them in a more specific and standardized way, using this taxonomy as a guide.


When others use the term "pornography" in dialog with us, we can simply respond by stating facts: "The term ‘pornography’ is not scientific. There is no agreed upon scientific definition. It is more scientifically accurate to talk about specific objects and how individuals subjectively respond to them".  It is our responsibility to teach the public to be accurate and think in scientific terms. No one else is going to.


I invite you to engage in a scientific dialog along with me, with the goal of using better scientific terms that contribute to a more accurate discussion of the human sexual experience, and ultimately, greater progress as scientists who carry the responsibility of promoting sexual health.






Bravard, R. S. (1989). Actualities of regulating pornography. Collection Building, 9(2),


Cornog, M. & Perper, T. (1991). Libraries, erotica & pornography. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx


Diamond, M. (2000). The effects of pornography: an international perspective. In J. Elias

      et al. (Eds.), Porn 101: eroticism, pornography, and the first amendment. New York:


Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

Kronhausen, E. & Kronhausen, P. (1961). The encyclopedia of sexual behavior (vol. 2).

      New York: Hawthorn.

Linneaus, C. (2003). Systema naturae 1735: facsimile of the first edition English

      translation. Houten, Netherlands: Hes & DeGraaf.

Osanka, F. M. & Johann, S. E. (1989). Sourcebook on pornography. New York:

      Lexington Books.

Presidents Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, (1970). The illustrated

       presidential report of the commission on obscenity and pornography. New York:

      Greenleaf Classics.

Tomkins, S. (1962). Affect imagery consciousness: the positive affects (vol.1). New York:


Tomkins, S. (1963). Affect imagery consciousness: the negative affects (vol.2). New

      York: Springer.

U.S. Department of Justice (1986). U.S. Department of justice attorney general’s

      commission on pornography final report vols. 1&2. Washington: U.S. Government

      Printing Office.





[1] The Affect category is defined by the nine standard human affects postulated by of Sylvan Tomkins. See Tomkins, Sylvan S. (1962), Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Positive Affects (Vol. 1), New York: Springer. Tomkins, Sylvan S. (1963), Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Negative Affects (Vol. 2), New York: Springer

[2] Linnaeus, C. (1735) Systema Naturae.