Some of my critics say I look at "dirty pictures" for a living. To put it somewhat more objectively, I direct the $734,000 Justice Department study of three widely read magazines I call "erotica/pornography" -- part of a growing $7 billion-a-year sex industry. Given the cost of this project, the taxpaying public deserves a fair description of our research rather than snickers, sneers and premature cries of "censorship" that chill informed public debate.

Using traditional content analysis techniques, my research staff catalogues activities involving children, crime and violence found in the pictures and cartoons of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, the three largest-selling erotic/pornographic magazines. Although our findings will not be completed until November, I can say that we have identified 2,016 child- related cartoons, of which approximately 75 percent involve children in violent or sexual activities. Many of these depict gang rape of child victims, fathers sexually abusing daughters, Santa Claus murdering a child, etc.

Despite press claims to the contrary, this research lies well within the mainstream of serious public interest. Major polls on the subject of sexually explicit media, including the March 18, 1985, Newsweek Poll by Gallup, report public concern regarding the effects of sexually oriented media on society. According to the Newsweek poll, 73 percent of all respondents believe that explicit sexual magazines, movies and books lead some people to commit rape or sexual violence, while 93 percent called for stricter control of magazines that show sexual visual violence. Any sexually explicit materials that sell approximately 200 million copies annually and are passed on to friends and family of all ages, can be seen as informal "sex education" and the proper concern of society.

Why does this analysis deserve federal support? Many people read sex magazines to learn about sexual behavior. If some sexual education materials portray children as desirable sex partners for adults, this may be of vital interest to parents and citizens who are concerned about increases in child sexual abuse.

More disturbing, law enforcement officials find sexually explicit materials, including these three magazines, at the scene of large numbers of sexually violent crimes. Sexually explicit materials are demonstrably used to lure children into criminal sex acts perpetrated by adults and increasing numbers of juveniles. There is a crucial need for research explicating the reported increases and changing nature of sexual assaul on boys, girls and women. Careful examination of these popular sex education materials is logical and long overdue.

As an expert in mass communication, I have studied media depictions of children as targets of adult sex and violence. In 1977 I identified what I called the "pseudo-child" -- composites of female adults dressed as children, mixed with teddy bears, lollipops, baby talk and graphic genital display.

These composites suggested a disturbing possibility. When presented together, could ambiguous age-blurring visuals, child rape jokes and articles that approve of adult-child sex arouse child sex fantasies in vulnerable readers? Over time, could some readers subconsciously misjudge age-appropriate sexuality, perhaps facilitating some forms of abusive behavior?

These hypotheses coincided with many police observations, researchers' examinations of sexual entrapment of children, and recent findings in adult pornography research. A full- scale, carefully designed research effort on the content of sexually explicit magazines was in order. In December 1983 I received a grant from the Department of Justice to conduct this research.

Our findings should provide for innovative programs to combat physical and sexual abuse of children. For example, police and child welfare training programs could be developed to help identify the role of sex materials in crime against children -- particularly in cases of rape, incest, pornography, prostitution and abuse. Child welfare professionals may help victims more efficiently if they are aware when a child was forced to repeat what was seen in erotic/pornographic films and magazines.

The data will also contribute to informed public debate and facilitate the design of forward-looking techniques for community, family and school sex education. Ultimately, the sex industry may police itself through a code of standards.

We have indications of a strong relationship between commonly available erotic/pornographic materials and child abuse. If this relationship proves to be the case, policy makers will need to devise creative policies to reduce child abuse while protecting basic constitutional liberties such as freedom of speech. Perhaps it is fear of this challenge that has caused individuals who are otherwise proponents of child welfare to dismiss this study without really trying to understand its purpose.

This research is translating emotional and often disturbing visual information into statistically valid, usable data. Yet, the work has been attacked as paving the way for censorship. Some writers argue that scholarly study of mass-distributed magazines is so dangerous that it must be "pre-censored" in the name of free speech. The ethical pursuit of truth, however, should never be discouraged. This research lays the foundation for dialogue on a social issue of nationwide concern. When it is completed, I believe the citizenry will consider their $734,000 well spent. By Judith A. Reismar; the writer is a research professor in the School of Education at American University.