My novel Navaratri explores the nature of the erotic in art. To date I have only been exploring just some of the research that went into the novel, and only in regard to the first section (I haven’t even begun to tackle the themes in the latter sections of the book).
One of those themes is the conflict between the classical view of the naked body, which celebrated it as a thing of beauty, and the Judeo-Christian view, which sees it as a thing of shame. This conflict has waxed and waned throughout the history of art, from time to time and from place to place. Perhaps the most intolerant has been the mainly Anglophone Puritan strand, a strand that, like Islam, was deeply suspicious of any representational art as a form of idolatry. The reaction to the naked child in art seems the most prevalent in English speaking countries tainted by Puritanism.
By and large, the classical view has dominated and the Puritan view, apart from the occasional skirmish, has been silenced. The nude is generally accepted as a perfectly legitimate subject for art, even finding its way into a good deal of famous religious art.
However, in more recent times the Puritan attitude has reasserted itself in relation to the naked child as a subject, this time using two relatively new arguments: that the child is too young to consent, and that such works inspire paedophilia.
Both arguments are nonsense.
I have already detailed a number of cases where the subjects of such nude studies have spoken in favour of the work. The subject above, Fanny, continues to pose for Sturges as an adult. There have been many instances where protests have been made against an artist, only to have the subject reject the protests and support their work. In both the most recent cases, Bill Henson in Australia and Richard Prince at the Tate, the subjects supported the work (see Brooke Shields).
But the consent argument is hypocritical. Of course a child cannot consent. Of course they are not capable of making adult decisions. This is why responsible adults must make decisions for them. It has always been thus. And at no time has any society said that a child should not do something simply because they do not understand that thing. Indeed, the moral conservatives who use this argument do not shy away from telling children what to do. They are often moral authoritarians who generally never consider a child’s wishes and compel them to do all manner of things they might otherwise not consent to. Remember the edict: children should be seen and not heard? I do not hear moral conservatives arguing that children should not be taught religion because they are too young to understand.
If the consent argument is valid, it must apply to all areas. What if a child appears in an advertisement for a product that, as an adult, they might refuse to endorse? Is consent an issue then? No, oddly, consent is only an issue if the child is to appear naked or in a manner they coincidentally disapprove of, otherwise its perfectly okay. If consent is an issue, then surely no image of a child should be used either artistically or commercially until they can give adult consent?
The hypocrisy of this argument is further exposed when you look carefully at what they argue. If the parent allows the child to pose, the parent is condemned. And if the child wants to pose, more responsible adults (them) should intervene. Thus they would impose their moral will regardless of the rights of the child and the parents, regardless of the context (Fanny for example, has been raised as a naturist and the photo was taken at a naturist beach in France). If the image of the naked child is always wrong, then consent is irrelevant.
At the heart of the consent argument lies an inability to accept that some people do not have a problem with nudity. The moral conservatives seem only to imagine that a child will later be shamed. The reality is that many subjects remain proud of the work and in the case of many of Sturges’s models, they continue to pose as adults (but then, many are also proud naturists).
The second false argument conjures up a convenient scapegoat: the threat of the anonymous paedophile. This classical bogeyman argument has had a devastating effect on the practice of photography in general. Panic stricken idiots have banned parents from photographing children at sporting events and council bureaucrats have restricted photography in public places, all out of a completely mistaken belief that paedophiles are lurking everywhere and sharing such images somewhere mysterious on the internet.
Of course, it is equally problematic to obsessively think about what paedophiles might be thinking and doing. From a Jungian point of view, this is called projecting onto the Shadow – those most concerned about anonymous paedophiles might be battling their own paedophile tendencies.
This argument has its roots deep in the Puritan suspicion of the naked body, that the way to control forbidden sexual arousal is to control anything perceived to stimulate the arousal: to attack the outside, rather than confront the inside. In its most obnoxious form, this argument blames women for arousing men. It is also an argument that completely ignores ALL the evidence about sexual arousal. It is an argument based on false causation.
Whilst imagery might help feed the sexual imagination, a mind deprived of imagery still has sexual thoughts. Sexual thoughts arise naturally, regardless of outside stimuli. And a mind deprived of certain types of sexual imagery can fetishise about anything. Thus the Chinese fetished small feet, the Japanese, the neck of a Geisha and the Victorians, the sight of a woman’s ankle.
This is not the place to go into the cause of paedophilia, suffice to say that images of children, naked or otherwise, do not cause paedophilia. Indeed, some paedophiles do not even use images of children, clothed or ortherwise, in their fantasies.
… naked children don’t turn me on at all. I know it’s strange, but…I could see naked photographs and there’d be no sexual attraction there at all… the fantasy would have to be… either in their underwear or shorts or something like that. (Canadian Department of Justice Review)
In one recent case in Australia, the paedophile was aroused by children’s feet!
The point is that you cannot prevent the sexual imagination of a paedophile and banning certain images is irrelevant. If preventing paedophiles from misusing the images of children is a serious argument, then it should be applied in all instances where a paedophile might misuse any image of a child (including bare feet). In which case we must henceforth, ban all images of children, especially all child models, all child actors – and most especially Shirley Temple (the paedophile icon par excellence). Clearly the only response is the Islamic response (except that paedophiles will fantasise about what lies beneath).
But once again, the argument is hypocritical. The people who use the ‘anonymous paedophile’ argument would not find it a sufficient enough argument to ban images of children they think are acceptable, even if it could be demonstrated that a paedophile fantasised using just those images (and they do). No, the argument only applies to images they don’t like – images they approve of are magically exempt.
This is not to say there is no argument against exploitative images of children, but it has to be about actual exploitation. As I have pointed out, images of naked children are not, by definition, exploitative, especially when the child readily co-operates in, enjoys and gains from the process. What makes the image exploitative, and this applies equally to images of clothed children, is the use of trickery and compulsion.
The problem for the moral conservatives is that they have no compunction in exploiting or indoctrinating children to suit their chosen ideology.
So why are the moral conservatives using these types of fallacious arguments? The simple answer is that they know that their original (and more honest) argument is no longer persuasive: that according to their moral order these images are indecent. Or: these images should be banned simply because we don’t like them. Far better to try and claim some form of objective harm (even if false) than be honest and say that the real problem is that they are uncomfortable with nudity, especially naked children.