Medical imaging: What is porn?

pek_van_andelDr Pek Van Andel’s MRI sex video has thrust its way into an argument that periodically convulses the public and the courts. The video shows the first moving images of a couple’s sex organs while those organs were in use. It gives graphic new life to a question as old as sin: what is pornography?

As used by Van Andel and his team, the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner lets us probe anew, and deeply, this legal and philosophical chestnut.

Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a 1964 US supreme court decision that defining which materials are pornographic is hard, but recognising them is easy. Quoth the justice: “I know it when I see it.”

Laypersons watching the Van Andel video have a tougher time. During the short time it’s been on the internet, around half a million people have taken a look. Many, unaccustomed to seeing medical imagery of internal organs, struggled to make sense of the unfamiliar shapes and motions. Their comments, posted on YouTube, make this clear. For every excited “AGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”, there is a baffled “???”…

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.