A Researcher Jerked Off to Underage Japanese Cartoon Boys and Published His Findings in an Academic Journal

A research note about shota declaring "I am not alone – we are all alone" was published in Qualitative Research.

A nearly 4,000 word, first-person essay about a man’s experiences masturbating to Japanese comics of underage boys was published to the peer-reviewed journal Qualitative Research—and is now under investigation after sociologists on Twitter demanded to know how it passed academic review. 

Karl Andersson, a PhD student at the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at The University of Manchester, wrote the paper titled “I am not alone – we are all alone: Using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan.” Shota is an illustrated Japanese comic genre that depicts young, underage boys in sexualized ways or in sexually explicit scenarios.  

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In his introduction, Andersson writes that he had “hit a wall” in his research into the ways fans of shota comics think about “desire and identity.” Interviews, surveys, and observations within the confines of accepted research methods weren’t enough for him, he claimed; as a fan of this genre himself, he wanted to experience data collection “firsthand.” 

“In this research note, I will recount how I set up an experimental method of masturbating to shota comics, and how this 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,” Andersson wrote. What follows is almost 4,000 words detailing Andersson’s masturbation habits, descriptions about his thoughts and feelings while reading pornographic comics about minors, and defenses of all of the above as legitimate research. It reads like an extended journal entry that one might show a therapist, and not a contribution to a peer-reviewed scientific publication. 

“Audre Lorde has written: ‘The erotic cannot be felt secondhand,’” Andersson wrote, quoting the Black lesbian activist and writer. “Indeed. And so 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.” 

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The research note was published in April, but went viral on Twitter this week, partially because the American Sociological Association’s annual conference was held this week and sociologists and anthropologists are talking together on Twitter more than usual. After Conservative Party MP Neil O’Brien tweeted the article, saying that “non-STEM” academia produces too much that is “not socially useful,” some academics defended the paper. But most sociologists and researchers, including those studying sexuality, reproduction, and gender, are decrying the paper as deeply problematic, embarrassing, and even dangerous to the field.

“Researchers from underrepresented backgrounds would never dream of writing something like this.”

Catherine Tan, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Vassar College, told me she was heading out of the conference on the last day and was scrolling Twitter when she started seeing people making allusions to the paper. “At first I thought it was a joke,” she said. “Then I kind of got pissed, because ethnography is a rigorous, time consuming and important methodology in the social sciences. And while I'm sure Andersson’s study was vigorous, it was not rigorous research.” 

Andréa Becker, a postdoctoral research fellow studying sexual and reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco, told me that when she first saw the paper circulating on Twitter, she—like many others—thought it was a hoax or a parody of social science, “which is sometimes denigrated by conservative critics as ‘masturbatory.’’’ she said. 

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“While sexuality researchers have written about masturbation, this is the first I have heard of masturbation as a methodology, let alone masturbation to depictions of children,” Becker told me. “It is a misrepresentation of qualitative work, of sociology, and of sexualities research.” Invoking Lorde is only the start of Andersson’s problems, she said. “I will not attempt to speak for Lorde, but I am doubtful that a white man masturbating to depictions of children is what she had in mind when she said the erotic is a resource and a source of power.” 

“A constant thought running through my mind while reading the article was, ‘what was the review process for this article like?’” Justin Gutzwa, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Utah who researches gender, sexuality, and transphobia in education, told me. “I’m mystified that any reviewer would pass off on this as an exemplar of innovative ethnographic methods, let alone an acceptable, appropriate, or ethical piece of writing.” 

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[Update, 8/15, 3:10 p.m. EST: Following publication of this article, the editors of Qualitative Research removed this paper from the journal’s website, and provides this statement in its place: “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 COPE guidelines.”]

[Update, 8/23, 5:22 p.m. EST: On August 22, Qualitative Research posted a retraction notice for the paper “I am not alone,” stating, in part: “Having reviewed editorial and peer review processes in relation to this note, the Journal Editors have concluded that there was a lack of clarity and hence ethical scrutiny at the time of the initial submission. This was particularly so in relation to institutional location and position, and ethical review of the work. … On reflection, due to the potential for significant harm caused by the publication of this work compounded by ethical issues surrounding the conception and design, the Journal Editors have made the decision to retract and remove the note.”]

In a statement published to Twitter and on its website, Qualitative Research said that it began investigating the publication of “I am not alone” on August 9. “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.” 

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“We are aware of serious concerns raised regarding an article published in Qualitative Research. We take such concerns and complaints extremely seriously,” Tom Hall, head of Cardiff University’s school of social sciences, and one of the editors of the journal, told me. “As a result of complaints received the editorial team will be undertaking an investigation and review of the article’s progress through to publication. As investigations remain on-going, it would be inappropriate to offer further comment.” 

Andersson’s longtime fascination with shota—which is illegal where he goes to school in the UK and several other countries—and more specifically, underage boys, is well-documented, as critics of the paper have pointed out online. He published Destroyer Magazine from 2006-2010, a publication with the stated purpose of bringing back "the adolescent boy as one of the ideals of gay culture" and featured boys as young as 13. According to an interview with Andersson in Out in 2012, it wasn’t always clear whether these children were aware they were being photographed for a magazine. 

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According to another interview with VICE in 2012, after Destroyer, Andersson ran a website called breakingboys.com, which consisted of “violent, sexual headlines about young boys, illustrated with pictures of pre-pubescent boys in sexualised poses, half-naked and occasionally not wearing any pants,” according to VICE’s description of the site (which is now excluded from the Internet Archive). In that interview, he declined to straightforwardly answer whether he’d ever acted on fantasies about young boys in real life. “What is it anyways, to ‘sexualise children’ and what’s bad about it? It's not a real argument,” he said in that interview. 

In July, Andersson’s film “Unreal Boys” (about “three young men in Tokyo explore the limits of fantasy through the comic genre shota” according to his website) premiered at the European Association of Social Anthropologists in Belfast.

Few of the researchers commenting on and criticizing Andersson’s paper take the stance that sexuality, personal experience, or even masturbation don’t have a place in academic scholarship. There are endless examples of sexuality research, even when it draws from lived experience, being done well, ethically, and in a way that furthers scientific thought. But the numerous ethical issues that come up in Andersson’s work, according to the academic community—specifically that it's appropriation of Japanese culture, presents a lack of reflection on the researcher's own positionality, and uses depictions of minors—can’t be overlooked.

While the history of ethnography is complicated and problematic, there have been modern examples of ethnographic study where the researcher takes into account their own roles and identities. This paper is not one of them, Gutzwa said. “The author tries to pass off their individual engagement in a sexual practice as a mode of ethnography—which it simply is not,” they said. “By not actively engaging in the communities in the present work, the article straddles the line of armchair anthropology, or the practice of speaking about communities one is not a part of from a distance.” 

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And Andersson’s failure to mention his own whiteness is a serious omission, they said. “This is especially harmful for the context of Japanese erotica, considering the ways in which Asian identities and media are sexually fetishized by non-Asian communities in harmful ways.”  

“As someone who studies Western perceptions of Japan via kawaii/cuteness and as a half-Japanese woman, I am actually not surprised by the article at all,” Erica Kanesaka, an interdisciplinary scholar of Asian American literature and culture specializing in the racial and sexual politics of kawaii and cuteness, tweeted about the paper. “To me, it seems like the logical outcome of centuries of Orientalist scholarship and fetishization.”

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 “In this case, we essentially have a middle aged white man examining issues of loneliness by jacking off to Japanese comics that fetishize young boys, right?” Tan said. “People, especially white dudes, fetishizing Asian people has always been incredibly dehumanizing and problematic for obvious reasons.” 

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All of this also raises questions about how this work made it through several rounds of peer review and supervision, to be published in a journal called Qualitative Research, where none of substance seemed to be present. “Instead, we have descriptions from field notes and synthesized prose of how the author personally benefited from masturbation,” Gutzwa tweeted. 

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“​Researchers are part of society themselves. We are people,” Tan said. “We go into the field with our own histories, our own experiences, our own values and beliefs. We try to be as objective as possible, but our position cannot be ignored. So it is critical to be reflexive and to examine our position when we enter the field.” This is especially true for researchers in privileged positions, she said.

Becker said that she’s had her own work on reproductive and sexual health “belittled by male scholars” or questioned; seeing Andersson successfully publish in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal, to her, is shocking. 

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“I simply cannot imagine a journal publishing work in which a woman presents masturbation as her methodology let alone refers to her clitoris as a research tool,” she said. Queer women and people of color face criticisms of conducting research that’s too biased, unscientific, or lacking in academic rigor when studying their own communities.

“As a reproductive and sexual health researcher, it's frustrating to see a cis man's work about masturbating to child pornography published in a top journal while so much rigorous and policy-relevant research conducted by women or BIPOC scholars remains on the margins,” Becker said. 

Tan said that this paper is not just poorly conducted or a reflection of Andersson’s ability as a researcher, but an indictment of academia’s lack of support for diversity. “I think what we need as a discipline within the social sciences, and actually this is across any sort of area of research, is greater efforts to be more inclusive and to diversify, and to actually support scholars from underrepresented backgrounds, not just bringing them in but also retaining them,” Tan said. “Otherwise, we're going to see these incidents repeat themselves where bad research gets made,” she said.

“Researchers from underrepresented backgrounds would never dream of writing something like this,” Tan said. “We fight every day to be taken seriously.” 

Gutzwa told me they’re concerned that the repercussions of Qualitative Research publishing “I am not alone” are more widespread than the research community or even sexual studies in academia as a whole. “The article will be used as an excuse to discredit productive scholarship that ethically discusses sex and sexuality by reducing all mentions of sex academically as acts of pedophilia,” they said. “Beyond that, this article will be used as another reason to depict qualitative research as a whole (and truly productive ethnography specifically) as invalid, not academic, and useless to many fields—not just sexual sociology.” 

The damage could be done even far beyond academia, Gutzwa said, pointing to the right-wing attacks on human rights, and accusing anyone opposed to anti-LGBTQ legislation of being a “groomer” or “pedophile.” 

“Drag queens, the misrepresentation of the monkey pox outbreak, trans students participating in athletics, and more are all painted as examples of how queerness is a threat to society—particularly to children,” they said. “Methodology aside, the moral qualms of the article’s content will undoubtedly be weaponized to justify the further subjugation of queer people in schools, through policy, and societally.” 

Andersson did not respond to a request for comment. 

This article was updated to reflect that the paper has since been removed from the Qualitative Research website, and was officially retracted on August 22.

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