Pedophilia – Or Pedophilia Phobia?

Just what do you make of the raid by police on the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and confiscation of 21 photographs immediately prior to the opening of an exhibition by internationally renowned artist Bill Henson? Or the stated intention to bring obscenity charges against, presumably, the artist and gallery?

When the State starts brandishing the Arts censorship cudgel my reaction is usually reflexive and unequivocal condemnation. I say ‘usually’, because there are some cases that challenge the validity of a black and white stance on censorship. Freedom of artistic expression is vital to any society that calls itself democratic – except, I’d argue, where that freedom erodes democratic principles and/or the founding laws that uphold them.

In snuff movies, for example, the lives of those who involuntarily ‘star’ in them are extinguished – who but a fellow psychopath would march under placards of protest in defence of a director who claimed artistic license to murder? In my own rhetorical interests, this example is about as extreme as it gets. However, while I have not heard of any recent defence of snuff movies as ‘art’, the historical precedent exists in literature.

I refer to the works of the Marquis De Sade. Sade is said to have pushed the boundaries of hedonistic libertarianism to torturing and killing prostitutes for sexual gratification, and to have drawn on this experience in his pornographic writings.

I can’t verify this – I have not read any of his surviving stuff. I suppose I am not sufficiently interested to chase it up. Interesting, though, that the French State of the 18th and 19th centuries appears to have been more tolerant of sexually confrontational cultural artefacts than contemporary Australia, isn’t it? (Sade’s son appears to have judged papa’s efforts too depraved to entrust to posterity, however – apparently he burned all his father’s unpublished manuscripts after he died).

Whatever its moral standing, Sade’s work is evidently philosophically substantial, since he has been seen as a precursor of surrealism, nihilism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Scholarly heavyweights including Simone de Beavoir have written on him, and some leading feminists have – astonishingly – defended him! Indeed, Angela Carter sees him as ‘a “moral pornographer” who creates spaces for women’!! Sisters for De Sade! Never have understood the thinking of literary critics, but there you go. It must be true – Wikipedia told me so.

Even with extreme works of sadistic erotica such as Sade’s, then, which in its day (and beyond) stretched the generally accepted bounds of morality to the limit, we have credible writers, artists and critics building upon it, defending it, validating it as at least worthy of debate.

Closer to the Henson furore, I vividly recall an argument years ago with a female friend educated in literature and literary criticism to post-grad level, whose intelligence and opinion I respected, who insisted that Nabokov’s brilliant novel Lolita should be banned. She saw it as legitimising pedophilia through its first-person narrator pedophile character, Humbert Humbert.

I do not wish to get sidetracked into a considered defence of Lolita here, or why I rate it as one of the great novels of the last century (that I have read, anyway). Suffice it to say that my reading was other than hers. In essence, I argued on the simple basis that art should be judged on its own terms, and that the clay of the artist should be the stuff of human experience, unrestricted.

I was taken aback when my friend informed me that she had been molested as a child and raped as an adult. I maintained my anti-censorship stance, but I had an uncomfortable sense at the time that the firmness of my conviction was shaken. My friend’s emotional truth was clouding her judgment of Lolita, I reasoned. I stuck to my position, but the edges of my black and white view had blurred grey.

Which brings me back to the Henson case. Why do I not recoil aghast from this latest State affront to freedom of artistic expression? Because the great media-appointed scourge of our time has been invoked – pedophilia!

Decent citizens rail en masse at a whiff of suspicion that a pedophile is in their vicinity. In this atmosphere of vigilante righteousness, deferring to evidence on whether a witch is really a witch before joining the mob in burning her exposes you to the charge of heresy. Choose your words pretty damned carefully, or you run the risk of being chucked on the bonfire with the evil one! So, why all this hysteria?

There is a sense of almost supernatural threat about the pedophile today. No matter how tight the security of the suburban home, no matter how careful parents to guard their children from the lurking menace by accompanying them to and from school, educating them on ‘stranger danger’ and a thousand etceteras, the perception is that like some shape-shifting vampire, the pedophile’s power to violate is almost unstoppable. This perception can be traced to two sources: the media and the Internet.

The media feeds on (and feeds) public fear, of course. Sharks! Terrorism! Home invasion! And the biggie – Pedophiles! The real odds of sensationalised threats like these striking you or your loved ones, or even someone you know, are small. Generally infinitesimally so. And certainly vastly disproportionate to the headlines and coverage these commercially potent items receive when the media pounces on a “story”.

Of all their favourite bogeymen, the pedophile is today’s number one by a long way. Pedophilia is routinely referred to as a “crisis” in our midst. But is it? Are there proportionally more pedophiles preying on our kids today than ever before? In the absence of any rational reason that today’s society should produce more pedophiles then yesterday’s, you’d think not. But in fact, the answer is yes!

Pedophiles are no longer merely a local community concern. The Internet has dissolved geographical boundaries and given the world’s pedophiles unprecedented access to private suburban homes, violating their sanctity and the innocence of children within much like Freddie Kruger through the static of a TV set. Kruger has escaped his cage of harmless Hollywood horror-schlock and is here amongst us in multinational variety, perhaps spiriting himself through a monitor in your child’s bedroom right now. Suddenly, impossibly, the nightmare is real. And so, understandably, is the hysteria.

In this milieu, would any of today’s politicians dare to come out with a balanced, carefully considered statement on the Henson case? Paul Keating might have, but then, today’s leaders do not share his informed appreciation of the arts, and spin has gone up a notch or three since his time. The electorate – and especially the constantly wooed “working family” demographic – wants moral swashbuckling on the issue of pedophilia, and that, naturally, is what Rudd and Nelson clambered over each other to deliver within hours of the Henson story breaking.

Malcolm Turnbull has come out an eternity later in defence of Henson, but it is difficult to see his late arrival on the scene of public comment as other than opportunistic and carefully calculated strategising. Now that the initial clucking in the chookpen has subsided and a few big-name Arts-affiliated celebrities (Blanchett etc) have spoken out against the raid on the Henson exhibition and the pending obscenity charges, Turnbull, I suspect, sees that the time is right to distance himself from Rudd’s and Nelson’s moralising and brand himself as more sophisticated leadership material.

The bar is not raised very high. Rudd described the confiscated images of Henson’s as “revolting” and summarily dismissed the notion of artistic merit from the equation. Nelson, ever the competitive baboon, thundered that the exhibition “violates the things for which we stand as Australians and indeed as parents.” Two big red ticks in the boxes of their respective populist politics checklists. And a black cross against both these cardboard cutout moral crusaders for their philistinism and bigotry. Neither appear to have actually seen the offending pictures!

And neither have I. For that reason alone, I’m struggling to find moral direction on this issue. My attitudinal compass needle, which reliably and resolutely points to freedom of artistic expression, is instead swinging around wildly in the static of hysterical interference.

And that pisses me off. It’s frustrating not to be able to make my own assessment of Henson’s controversial photographs. I resent the State for depriving me of this opportunity, this right!

All we are left with are dry arguments disconnected from Henson’s work.

I cannot blithely dismiss the concerns of people like Hetty Johnson from the child sexual assault advocacy group Bravehearts who argue that depictions of 12-year-old children in sexual contexts open the door to the pedophile. I am extremely sceptical, though, that many pedophiles would bother to attend an exhibition to ogle Henson’s art when at the click of a mouse they can file through a global exhibition of hardcore pedophile pornography. But posting his pictures of naked pubescent children on the Net…that adds a contemporary complication that was not a factor with art of the past.

Which leads on to another point that has surfaced during the current furore – that kids in early teenage are not capable of making a properly informed decision to allow naked images of themselves out into the public domain (particularly on the Net, where control of an image is relinquished the moment someone copies it or emails it on). I can think of no direct counter-argument here. Except to move to what I see as the central issue…

I refer to Henson’s contention that his art is an exploration of “something which is absolutely inviolate and unknowable”. He makes the unarguable point that the artist cannot be held accountable for the response of the individual to his/her work. And that, surely, is fundamental to this current debate.

Let’s assume the worst – that these publicly unseen photographs of Henson’s do show pubescent children in a sexual context.

What of it? Adolescence is a time of awakening sexuality, physical and psychic. In that metamorphosis from child to adult is mystery, and tender, fragile, singular beauty. Surely this is the province of art? Where is the crime in seeking to capture this most complex and delicate of human transitions from multiple angles, of articulating “the unknowable” in the only way open to us – through art?

For the sake of argument, let’s postulate that our moral guardians are decent, simple-minded folk with a pure uncluttered agenda of protecting the child subjects of Henson’s work from the lustful attention of pedophiles. Isn’t their mission doomed to failure?

Who knows what depraved fantasies those kids might inspire in some neighbour as benign in appearance as Ned Flanders waving from next door as they come in from school? Or in some pervert at the local supermarket? Or, terrifyingly, in family members in positions of trust, perhaps resident in the family home? Not to mention the obvious – the Freddie Krugers haunting the kids’ monitors. Is confiscating a few pictures from a photographic exhibition really going to strike a blow against pedophilia?

Rudd’s position that “kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected” is disingenuous, or ill conceived, or both. How do Henson’s photographs sully the innocence of his adolescent subjects? Has he betrayed them, perhaps, giving them the impression that they were posing for an artistic shoot, subsequently and without permission creating some ghastly pornographic imagery through wicked Photoshop manipulation? Don’t think so – he has at stake an international reputation as an accomplished artist.

Whatever, let’s set aside questions of artistic merit and say the pics do inspire lustful fantasies in some viewers. How is the innocence of the subjects compromised? Does a baby in its mother’s arms in public lose its innocence if it attracts the foul gaze of a passing pedophile? Of course not. Similarly, art is not sullied by a depraved viewer interpretation, and neither are its subjects.

I’m conscious in this current climate of moving into dangerous territory here, but could it be that our moral guardians are projecting a deep unacknowledged communal fear in their righteous damnation of Henson’s work? A projected fear of contemplating the full reality of human sexuality, of experiencing complex and confusing reactions to Henson’s work that are outside wilful moral controls?

How can we ever know? The over-zealous nanny State has deprived us of the work that has spawned all this debate.

It is dismal that the Australia of today should crucify on the cross of political correctness one of its most respected artists. And it is downright dangerous to the community at large – far more so than pedophilia – that the nanny State should impose this sort of dumb-arsed quixotic righteousness on our art, stomp on our right to assess controversial works for ourselves, and undermine our cherished democratic values in the guise of protecting them.

18 thoughts on “Pedophilia – Or Pedophilia Phobia?”

  1. Good question. We’re right to be concerned about kiddy fiddlers, but I’ve wondered in all this whether we might have a deep unacknowledged communal fear of the sexuality of children. Or what we choose to call children.

    A sexually maturing 13 year old girl is a sexual being whether we like it or not. It’s true that kids are being sexualised – a 5 year old doesn’t need a bra no matter what the catalogues say. But the age group in these photos are being sexualised by their own biology and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    We can lock up the kiddy fiddler, but we can’t control pubescent biology which insists on growing sexy bits on our little darlings.

    Humans have always found the grey areas between the pure and impure disturbing, much like the grey areas between art and porn, high art and low, good and evil. We like our absolutes.

    The same could be said of this debate generally. We feel we have to have an opinion one way or the other. It’s not ok to say you’re not sure.

  2. I think you’ve hit several nails on the head, Lyn. Needless to say, I entirely agree with everything you’ve written. Thanks, as ever, for your input.

  3. I was curious to know what you’d have to say about this ‘debate’. I figured you would do some thinking outside the usual squares, which is needed in this so called debate. Even the most level headed people have been muddle headedly adding to the either/or problem, myself included.

    So thank you, as ever, for your input.

    I thought I was sure what I thought, then I thought I might not be so sure, but when it got to the point where I wasn’t at all sure of what I thought it occurred to me that uncertainty is a pretty sensible place to be on this. Which seems to be where you’ve ended up as well.

    I’m happy now.

  4. I fear I betray both ignorance and Philistinism here but I cannot understand the hoo ha (to plagiarise the good Gough Whitlam) about this.

    Adolescents have been portrayed naked in art for centuries in the European tradition. Sexualisation is in the eye of the beholder.

    From what little I have seen in the press, Henson’s models do not feel exploited in any way. From what I have seen of the pictures in question, they are not offensive. I stress that they are not offensive in my eyes. They might well be in the eyes of Hetty Johnson and others with experience of child sexual abuse.

    Is Henson a pornographer? I don’t think so. I’ve seen the odd octavo sized publication over the past few decades and his images aren’t in keeping with Berth Milton’s finest.

    As for our beloved (?) PM, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s another Queensland God botherer, ntowithstanding his noble instincts in many fora.

  5. Lyn,

    I’m not really undecided on this issue – just hamstrung in not being able to view the confiscated pics.

    I’m clear in my attitude towards this stupid raid – simply undemocratic.

    If I could see the pics, I’m 99.9% sure I would not support censoring them or withdrawing them from the exhibition. And 99.9% sure I’d be outraged at the prospect of Henson being charged.



    Unfounded fears!

    Of course, you’re right about the many precedents in the history of art.

    I’m interested in your implication that you’ve seen the confiscated pics. I assume this was on a website? Would you mind getting back with the URL, please?

    And yes, Rudd is fast falling from grace in my eyes, also…(but consider the other side, and you start bleating to yourself that we should be grateful for small mercies…small and shrinking!).

  6. I was surprised at first to hear that Malcolm Turnbull had come out in defence of Henson, the artist. Then I remembered that Turnbull’s wife, Lucy, is the niece of Robert Hughes, the internationally-known and respected art critic. I recall seeing a documentary years ago in which Lucy and her uncle were shown as being very close, and in which she professed to greatly admiring him. So, perhaps it’s not a surprise that Malcolm Turnbull should defend Henson after all.

  7. innyanga,

    Yep, good point. Thanks for bringing this to attention. I still think Turnbull’s late arrival with his comment is indicative of strategising – ie: waiting to see how the public reaction went before risking announcing his position.

    Thanks, Lyn. Excellent site, too. As for the pics – hmmm…may be another post in this.


  8. It’s child pornography in Britain, our laws ( SOA 2003) were passed with Bill Henson in mind.

    I gather Europeans airlines are being asked to give his business a miss.

    Foreignn police are asking Australia to act against an epidemic of Henson generated child pornography.

  9. Tazia,

    Thanks for your comment, but I would like some of your statements substantiated. On the surface, they lack credibility.

    1. Who in Britain categorises Henson’s stuff as “child pornography” ? You or a higher authority?

    2. Similarly, who said your “SOA 2003” laws (whatever “SOA 2003” means) were passed “with Bill Henson in mind”? I can’t imagine any government authority specifically singling out and naming a foreign artist critically acclaimed throughout Europe as the sole reason for tightening a national censorship law, and I also find it difficult to imagine a government changing any law on account of the produce of one foreigner.

    3. You “gather” Euro airlines are being asked to give Henson’s business a miss? Where did you “gather” this from, exactly? And how are European airlines in any way involved in Henson’s “business”? And what do you mean by “business”?

    4. Which “foreign police” are asking Australia to act against an “epidemic” of Henson generated “child pornography”? There have been no such reports here to my knowledge.

    5. How could the work of a single artist become an “epidemic”? How could he “generate” work other than his own (are you suggesting he is particularly prolific – or that he has a factory of kiddie fiddler art with other artists churning ’em out under his direction al la Warhol, perhaps?)?

    6. Who has defined his work as “child pornography”, and by what criteria?

    Go on – surprise me with a response.

  10. I’ve been pondering this conundrum of art over -stepping the public’s moral line and I’m having an internal debate and as you say the compass is wandering all over the place and not settling in it’s usual specified spot.

    The whole state jumping in and protecting the public good from the influence of this particular artist is anathema to me…but then I think of the scene where an artist friend of mine would approach me to take photographs of my 14 yr old daughter for a series he was doing and he’d like to be able to have her pose in the nude in completely tasteful positions and of course he’d expect me to be there for the whole session.
    Well my automatic answer would be no and even if I tried to rationalise it, it would be still be no.

    Which leads me to this letter in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, actually it is the headline letter for the letters page.

    “Pursuit of art regardless of the vulnerable is cultural self-indulgence

    June 3, 2008

    Having been a painter and a fine art student and having admired Bill Henson’s work, I have been surprised to find myself pitted against the knee-jerk arguments of cultural critics.

    Columnists such as Peter Craven (“Sexuality or spirituality: it’s a matter of taste”,, May 23) have used an aesthetic argument to defend Henson’s work. But the point is not whether Henson’s works are beautiful: whether they echo Caravaggio; whether they are painterly; whether they remind us of the way Renaissance masters treated similar subject matter. The point is that the images are sexualised.

    Why? Because no matter how well lit, beautiful or tasteful, the young teens involved have been made to assume poses, body language and expressions that we understand as sexually charged to varying degrees. While the images are not crass pornography, they are sexualised. If you accept this, as I suspect most cultural critics would, you must also accept that this poses a legitimate moral dilemma.

    In much the same way that most of us agree torture should be banned in all forms, to avoid the grey area of “degrees of torture”, so organisations such as Bravehearts make no exceptions for abuse of young people. In their view, nothing – not parents, not guardians and certainly not art, commercial or fine – should compromise the psychological wellbeing of a child.

    Henson’s defenders can legitimately argue this hypervigilant attitude is extreme in his case, and that he did not exploit his subjects. They can argue that a 13-year-old is mature enough to psychologically handle being involved. They can defend Henson morally on the grounds that the child and her parents consented. They can argue the heavy-handed actions of the police represent unnecessary censorship of artistic expression and there are far worse offenders out there.

    But if they accept any part of the critics’ supposition – that the models could be negatively affected by their involvement in this art-making – can they seriously argue that the pursuit of art is more important than a young teen’s psychological wellbeing? I doubt any of them would admit to that.

    While I think Henson’s images are extremely effective artistic works, the more I think about the “but it’s art” argument, the more selfish it seems.

    Henson’s supporters should ask themselves: does his art have a right to exist? That is, if you create art that is about the sexual awakening of teens and involves them as naked sexualised subjects, do the cultural positives of such art outweigh the negative psychological effects it may have on teenagers?

    Alex Holmes Darling Point”

    What an interesting viewpoint and one I’m chewing over now.

    To me there is a degree of uncomfortableness in looking at these images, to such a point that I can’t get the notion out of my head that these could just as well be pictures of my daughter and I’m uncomfortable and embarrassed at the same time
    about this.

    If they were paintings would the effect be the same?
    I think they effect would be totally different of course and then I have to think whether the confrontationist nature of these black and white pictures are saying more about me and my attitudes and beliefs than it says about Henson’s artistic abilities.

    It’s a quandry.

  11. What an excellent comment, Matt. Thank you.

    The points you made are among the most important points I was seeking to make in my post, but I think, in combination with the eloquence and clarity of the SMH letter you have quoted, you have gotten closer to the guts of the dilemma. Well, better than closer – you have pinged it perfectly.

  12. Just wishing Tazia would return with some comment, some refutation of your argument.

    Where does this come from for instance:

    “I gather Europeans airlines are being asked to give his business a miss.”

    Lol, lol, lol…”Oh hello my names Henson and I’d like to book a first class return ticket to London or perhaps Paris might be more preferable.
    Whichever proves easiest.
    Here’s a large sum of money and or credit charge.”

    “No I’m sorry Mr Henson but we can’t except your booking as the words out to give your business a miss.”

    What a load of tosh and I wait with somewhat skeptical or perhaps quizzical credulity upon your response.(Reckon Tazia will be back RS?)

  13. Tazia won’t be back. S/he has been doing the rounds of the media and personal blogs and leaving exactly the same comments as posted here.

    This person is not interested in engaging in discussion – only in sounding off. Clearly a plonker.

  14. Yeah have sex with other 13 year olds. Your own age! Just because they may feel “funny” feelings at that age doesn’t mean it’s ok for a fuckin old man to touch em down there .. Old man shouldn’t be drawing kids having sex PERIOD . When I was 12 taking sex Ed they didn’t show is diagrams of kids having sex. Peadofiles protect other Peados no matter how convincing their argument is.. This is what keeps our parents trusting them……….

  15. I guess a 11 year old girl being sexually assaulted on her way home from school is ok because she has her period and that must mean shes ready to have sex?

  16. Parisa, may I ask a question?

    What the FUCK are you banging on about? And what, oh what, has it got to do with my post or the other comments in this thread?

    Good lawd, some strange driftwood this way comes…


  17. +Lyn
    You wrote:
    “I’ve wondered in all this whether we might have a deep unacknowledged communal fear of the sexuality of children. Or what we choose to call children.”

    Just the other day, I was wondering the same; I developed the word:

    Pedosexophobia: the irrational fear of child sexuality.

    I postulate that ≈95% of adults suffer from this; conversely, only ≈5% of children do.

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