Kathryn, you’re currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama – can you tell us more about your role and how you entered academia?
First, I should start by saying that I never thought I would be a professor – I fully intended on becoming a law enforcement officer. While pursing my Bachelor of Arts degree, I double majored in Psychology and Law and Society and minored in Forensics. During my summers, I even worked as a jail officer in Indiana and interned for New York City’s Department of Corrections. However, all of my mentors kept telling me to stay in school, obtain my Ph.D., and “see what happens then.” It was like they knew where I was meant to be (before I even did). During the last year of my Ph.D. in 2010-2011, I had to decide: Am I the type of person who answers questions – or – Am I type of person who waits for someone else to do it for me? So to answer your question, the day I entered academia was the day I realized I never wanted to leave – I had too many unanswered questions.As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama, my primary duty is to my students as an educator and mentor. First, I teach arguably the two most dreaded courses in graduate school: Research Methods and Applied Statistics. These two courses, which seem painful (and often times boring), are really invigorating when students realize that they have the ability to not only observe, but get directly involved, with the scientific process. I try to instill upon them the love that I found in “answering my own questions,” and this innate curiosity often translates itself into original research projects for both my undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, my department encourages me to teach courses in cybercrime theory and computer forensics, and it is always exciting to meet students who want to pursue a career in a similar field as your own. Finally, my second role as a researcher allows me to continue my passion for merging the behavioral sciences with computer deviance; I enjoy conducting research on taboo topics, including deviant pornography use and sexual fantasies. I have always had the ability to be objective, and I try to never concern myself with the underlying “moral issues” or personal biases of others. Research integrity is simple – just let the data tell a story.
Your research focuses on the relationship between personality and deviant computer use. How did you become interested in this as a topic?
This question is always the first thing people ask me – It’s as if they want to know, “why are you interested in porn?” This question is usually followed by two assumptions: I was sexually abused as a child, or I study pornography because I am interested in S&M. The truth is really not that interesting but stems, again, from those unanswered questions I had during my academic career. I first became interested in researching Internet child pornography in 2003 when I was an intern for the Indianapolis Police Department’s Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana. One of my many tasks was the creation of a weekly “wanted poster,” and I remember coming across an individual who was wanted for possession of child pornography. However, this person had no criminal history of hands-on child sex abuse. I began conducting research on my own regarding the differences between child pornography users and hands-on child sex offenders, and I came across a Journal article, which said, “little to no empirical research has been conducted on the personality characteristics of child pornography users.” While reading this article, I thought to myself – “then that’s what I will do.” As for the relationship between adult, animal, and child pornography use, I was giving a lecture in 2007 to law enforcement on child pornography use, when one of them asked me: “Why do child porn users collect all types of pornography – including ‘normal’ adult porn?” Once again, little research had been conducted on the collections of child pornography users, so I decided to pursue yet another unanswered question.
Your paper “Does Deviant Pornography Use Follow a Guttman-Like Progression?” has recently been published in Computers in Human Behaviour. Could you give us a brief overview of the subject, and your main findings?
A Guttman-like progression is the idea that in order for one thing to occur, something else had to precede it. I had noticed with my research that I never came across an individual who was solely consuming Internet child pornography – they were almost always consuming adult pornography and/or animal pornography. In addition, interviews with some child pornography users suggested a level of desensitization to mainstream pornography. The Seigfried-Spellar and Rogers (2013) study examined whether “age of onset” for adult pornography use was related to later deviant pornography use (animal and/or child pornography use). When comparing adult-only pornography users and “adult + deviant” pornography users, the “adult + deviant” pornography users had a younger “age of onset” of intentional use of adult pornography. In other words, deviant pornography users reported viewing adult pornography at a younger age than the adult-only pornography group. In addition, this finding was consistent for both men and women.
Some campaigners believe that allowing pornography to be viewed legally creates a culture where the objectification of women may become socially acceptable. What is your view? Have you seen any relevant trends in your research?
Another common question I always get is “what’s your opinion of pornography?” I truly do not have an opinion on the subject matter – I instead rely on what empirical data tells me. Pornography has existed since humans have been able to draw or write, and we also have cultures where adult pornography and the roles of women are viewed differently. At a macro level, I think it is difficult to say that adult pornography “creates” or “causes” the cultural acceptance of the objectification of women. Not all pornography users objectify women (and vice versa), and some women have argued that female “porn stars” are the ultimate liberated women. In the empirical literature, there is a lot of controversy regarding the effects of exposure to adult pornography – the findings are often inconsistent or influenced by other third variables. For example, a recent study found that there was a relationship between adult pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women; however, this relationship was moderated by personality differences – specifically men who were at high-risk for sexual aggression. In other words, viewing pornography and developing attitudes supporting violence against women is more likely to occur for men who already have sexually aggressive personality characteristics. Low-risk sexually aggressive males who viewed adult pornography were not more likely to have views supporting violence against women. Overall, this relationship is complex and the literature suggests it should not be defined as a black and white issue – but it should remain an objective rather than a subjective topic for research.
As for trends in my research, personality characteristics are definitely related to Internet pornography use – although more research is needed. For example, my research suggests Internet child pornography users exhibit a different “moral compass” than non-child pornography users, and female child pornography users are more hedonistic and neurotic compared to female non-consumers. In addition, another trend I have seen in my research is the higher frequency of female consumers of Internet child pornography than previously suggested by research – although men are still the majority of child pornography consumers. Research focusing on the traditional child pornography users from the 1980s, many of which were cottage pedophiles, may no longer be representative of the child pornography users today – due to the globalization of technology. In general, pornography is easily accessible, affordable, and the Internet provides a sense of anonymity for consumers. There will always be a need for future research in this area as it responds to the ever-changing world of technology.
You spend a lot of time researching deviant Internet use, and undoubtedly coming across subject matter that must be disturbing. Do you find it difficult? How do you cope with it?
As an academic, I am restricted on the research that I am able to conduct. In the United States, it is illegal to possess any child sex abuse images, even for legitimate research purposes. It is only with my internships and relationships with law enforcement that I have had to deal with the materials first hand. Yes, some people may view the subject matter as disturbing, but I see it as a question that deserves being researched from an objective, empirical perspective. I have never thought about how I “cope” with this subject matter – how do you cope with something that you only see as a question? I am sure my ability to research Internet child pornography relates to other individuals, such as law enforcement officers and emergency trauma room personnel, all of whom are exposed to disturbing images but see it as their job.
How do you think child safety can be improved online?
One of the easiest ways to improve online safety is through education. Parents and guardians should talk to their children about the possible risks of the Internet and how to avoid these risks. Children are often shortsighted and are unaware that the actions they take today may have consequences later. For example, my research has shown that child pornography users collect a wide range of images, including “innocent” images posted on various social media websites (such as Facebook profiles). In addition, due to the accessibility of the Internet and digital devices, parents need to be more involved in their children’s online activities. There are monitoring software and parental safety controls for Internet and cell phone usage, and depending on the age of your child, parents may want to decide whether they should have access to their child’s online accounts (i.e., have their usernames/passwords). Like the “real world,” cyberspace may never be completely safe for children – and it is unrealistic to think that our children can be protected from every danger. The best thing we can do is develop open lines of communication with our children and set restrictions or boundaries (just like in the real world) while continuing to educate ourselves with the ever-changing world of technology and its associated risks. For more information, see the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website for online safety: www.NetSmart411.org.
What do you do in your spare time?
My colleagues would laugh if I said anything other than “chasing tenure” as my spare-time activity. Are Assistant Professors allowed to have any spare time? Outside of work, my husband and I enjoy running half marathons (13.1 miles) – our goal is to run one half marathon in each state. We are also training for our first marathon (26.2 miles) for this November. In addition, I am an avid yogi who enjoys hot vinyasa and acro-yoga, which is a blend of acrobatics and yoga. Finally, whatever time is left is devoted to raising our new basset hound puppy, Moose.