Naked Children and Art: Part 1

by bjmuirhead

Innocent children: Difficult images

What I have said about the body and nakedness does not mean or entail that we cannot or should not critically discuss and evaluate the body in art; nor do my views on the irrelevance of culture for the nude entail that we should not or cannot interpret and evaluate works representing the naked human body. My ongoing rejection of specific moral points of view concerning the nude in art has been important on the grounds that it is one point of view only, and that there are other, competing moralities which describe the nude in an entirely different fashion.

Whilst many will agree with my moral position (that there is nothing morally wrong or reprehensible about the nude in art, or anywhere else, for that matter), many will not and do not agree with me. The very simple reason for this is that we all make (moral) evaluations every day, within the context of our lives and personal experience.

That this is so seems to me to have little to do with any specific culture though, of course, it is our culture which is most likely reflected in our evaluations, for the simple reason that most of our evaluations are a matter of reflex rather than careful thought or personal experience. In so far as this is the case, it is important to note that many of our evaluations are likely to be made on the basis of another person’s testimony, on another’s description and evaluation of something we have never experienced or thought about ourselves.

This ongoing everyday process of evaluation once led me to argue that everything we say and do is a moral action, in at least the minimal sense that everything we do implies an evaluation irrespective of whether or not our moral action fits with any extant moral view or theory. For the most part, I continue to believe that this is the case. When we either acknowledge or ignore a person, e.g., we are making and acting on an evaluation we have made about that person or the situation in which we have encountered them That our acknowledging or ignoring of a person is a moral act usually escapes our attention because it is such an ordinary, commonplace event—the act of ignoring someone takes place every time we walk along a footpath with other people also walking along it. (In so far as this is the case, the act of ignoring another person is a particularly important moral act which maintains the separation of the unknown and the known, the liked and the disliked among people.)

The relevance of this in terms of my thinking about the nude is that there is a sense in which a moral evaluation of the specific nude we are looking at cannot be avoided, irrespective of how thoroughly and rigorously we reject any specific moral point of view. Whether or not any particular person admits that their reaction is moral is another matter; most people will be content with saying I just don’t like that sort of thing, or I just think looking at naked women/men/children is wrong, and You can look if you want to, but I just don’t want to. And so on.

By and large, this type of moral reaction can be, and in practice usually is ignored, except in cases where someone elevates their reaction into a determined and public moral campaign against a particular artist and/or the nude generally. On a more subtle level, however, these types of instant reaction form an important and formative aspect of our response to and appreciation of art—the tacit thought processes of experience (perception) draw us to the object and quite easily can be thought of aesthetic reactions. Layered over and inter-penetrating with this are culture, our past personal experience, the testimony of others and, no doubt, more. At this level, neither morality nor aesthetic response (likes and dislikes) are carefully thought out intellectually based responses, but they are influenced by these.

This becomes particularly interesting and important when we consider ‘difficult images’, bearing in mind, of course, that different people and societies will place different works under this rubric. In English speaking Western cultures, the images most likely to be agreed upon as ‘difficult’ are images of naked children and early teenagers.

The unease which many of us feel when looking, mostly at representations of pubescent girls, seems to have little or nothing to do with the photographs themselves; it has to do with our contemporary conception of sexuality, childhood and the erroneous notion that children and pubescent teenagers are entirely innocent of all sexuality.

The idea of the ‘innocent child’ has become an unquestioned cultural assumption which has been expanded to include post-pubescent people of both sexes and all sexualities.1 However, the idea of such an innocence flies in the face of reality. Of course this doesn’t mean that pre-pubescent children know all about (adult) sex acts, though they may well know something if they ever walked in on their parents sexual activities; nor does it mean that post-pubescent (hence sexually mature) ‘children’ know all about the various sex acts, though many inevitably will possess more knowledge than we may believe. What it does mean is that the human body always is a sensuous, erotic, sexual body, and that children, along with humans of all ages, enjoy the pleasures of the body, many of which are what may be thought of as ‘adult’ pleasures, such as masturbation. A three year old, e.g., does not masturbate because they ‘know’ about sex or sex acts, or because they have been sexually abused; they do it because it feels good, which is exactly the type of basic ‘sexual knowledge’ which we all possess.

What this tells us is what we already know: the body always and already is a ‘sexual body’. The degree to which the body is seen as sexual depends, however, on the culture and sub-group to which we belong. In a culture in which people are fully clothed 98% of the time, merely undressing can be, and often is, taken to be sexual, thus making the naked body sexual; in a culture where clothing is little more than minimal covering, however, the idea of a sexual body necessarily retreats, along with the clothing. Moreover, the more frequently we are naked and see other naked body’s, the less sexual the naked body becomes for us. With this in mind, it is even more important to note that we do not always act on or out of the sexual aspects of our body—sometimes the body is just a body.

What the above suggests is that when we look at representations of children or early teens, irrespective of the medium, what we are looking at is an image of a sexual body whilst at the same time denying their sexuality. Thus there is a dissonance between what is seen (the sensual body) and what we want to believe about that body. In so far as this is the case, dissonance can occur only under circumstances where (i) we do not usually see naked people of any age or sex, and (ii) we believe that nudity and representations of the naked body are purely sexual and morally wrong.

Needless to say, there is no real way to resolve this type of situation. For those who hold the belief that all forms of nudity and its representation are morally wrong, there can be no resolution of their dissonance for as long as there are images which cause their unease and fear to rise within them.

Perhaps there is some small justification for the fear and unease so many people experience when faced with the naked body of a child or young adult—our culture, especially in the ultra-morally conservative guise of the news media, holds us separate to many of the realities of life. What is presented to us is a cartoon-like sanitised version of what life is, of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

The myth of the ‘innocent child’ is one of these misrepresentations of life, and it feeds hysteria about art and children that, by and large, is incomprehensible because it rests on a conception of life and childhood which cannot survive sustained observation of actual children. Moreover, the notion equivocates between ‘innocence’ as meaning ‘without desire’ and ‘innocence’ as meaning ‘without knowledge’. Where knowledge refers to ‘adult sex acts’ or skills which they have not yet been taught, this doesn’t seem to be contentious. I have difficulty believing, however, that a child can be thought of as lacking in desire. To repeat myself: children and young adults have physical (sensuous) pleasures and desires which are within the sexual spectrum (hugging, caressing, masturbating at the very least), where ‘sex’ and ‘sexual’ are defined broadly rather than in terms of a narrow set of acts.2 Furthermore, in terms of the embodied mind and its tacit powers, it is clear that these are physical-cum-mental desires. This is not to say, however, that what is desired is the ‘adult sex act’, merely that children have desires and act in ways which can be thought of as broadly sexual.

The point of reminding ourselves of this is that the desires of physical pleasure do not magically appear when we become ‘adults’, but are present throughout our lives, as an aspect of the ongoing process that is life as we know it. This stands against the standard or received notion of sexuality which sees it

as beginning at puberty and maturing in adulthood, correlating with developmentalist theories of the human, which reinforce biologically determined understandings of childhood and sexuality. Children’s sexuality within this discourse is read as nonexistent or immature at the most. Thus, sexual immaturity is equated with ‘innocence’—considered inherent in the child. Consequently, sexuality becomes the exclusive realm of adults; a space in which children are constructed as the asexual, naive and innocent ‘other’ and perceived to be vulnerable and in need of protection. Sexuality is narrowly defined by the physical sexual act rather than as an integral part of a person’s identity, which is socially constructed and constantly reviewed and renegotiated by individuals, including children, as sexual agents throughout their lives. (Robinson 2008, 116)

In terms of this it behoves us to remember that the contemporary demarcation between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ is arbitrary. As a society we make decisions about when this change in status occurs. We legislate and enforce these decisions without recognising that they have little to do with the actual processes of life, e.g., puberty, the moveable transition which previously had provided the distinction between childhood and adulthood, and which is the point in life where ‘adult sex’ becomes both desirable and possible. None the less, the idea of the ‘innocent child’, which has a strong hold on our imaginations in most contemporary English speaking cultures, has been broadened to extend far beyond puberty, despite ongoing evidence that the ‘children’ in question do not think of themselves according to the this paradigm, and despite evidence that they do not (all) act or think as ‘children’ sexually.

The other side of the ‘innocent child’ myth is paedophilia—anyone who possesses the temerity to find children and young adults physically attractive, or who photographs them, necessarily is a paedophile. This common view is based on the idea that the only possible interest an adult (male) can have in respect of a child is sexual. In conjunction with this is the rather strange notion that although children (and young adults) are entirely sexually innocent, they none the less are so potently sexually alluring that they cannot be resisted. As Kincaid (1998, 13) says:

We have become so engaged with tales of childhood eroticism (molestation, incest, abduction, pornography) that we have come to take for granted the irrepressible allure of children. We allow so much power to the child’s sexual appeal that we no longer question whether adults are drawn to children.

In the language of hysteria, this translates into the idea that all men are paedophiles just waiting for the opportunity to act, simply because children are sexually irresistible. It is incredibly important to note, however, that this refers to adult sexuality more than childhood sexuality: the concept of the ‘innocent child’ arose a little over two hundred years ago, but the Victorians ‘managed to make their concept of the erotic depend on the child, just as their idea of the child was based on their notions of sexual attraction.’ (Kincaid 1998, 52 ff) The child’s sexual explorations and urges were not, and are not now, a part of the discussion—it all is about the adult’s inability to see the child (another invention of the Victorians) as other than sexually irresistible.

The idea that children have a sexuality is one which many react toward with horror, on the assumption that, if we admit the existence of childhood sexuality, then we are proposing that they are an appropriate sexual object for adults. Whether or not children are an appropriate sexual object for adults, to some extent, is irrelevant, for a variety of reasons:

  1. Like it or not (and I don’t), children have been and no doubt will continue to be sexual ‘partners’ for some adults. (See Berkowitz 2012) This, it seems to me, has little or nothing to do with any particular child’s sexuality or behaviour; rather it has to do with other issues, such as our perception of children, our relationship with children, psychological disorders, and so on.

  2. Children have explored, and no doubt will continue to explore sexuality with each other. This has everything to do with a child’s discovery of their bodies and its pleasures. It also, self evidently, is an existing ‘excuse’ for adult sexual behaviour with children: the sexual urges and explorations of children, by and large, continue into adulthood, e.g., masturbation, and even thumb-sucking in some cases.3 This to to say that sexuality is a continuum from childhood to death, and hence the availability of the ‘excuse’.

  3. Children are spoken of primarily in terms of exploitation, pornography, incest, and so on. What this means is that we rarely talk about children and their sexuality outside of our own sexual knowledge, prejudices and beliefs about the ‘innocent child’ and their sexual allure.

The difficulty with these issues is that our contemporary concept of childhood is defined and described by adults and for adults (children have no input). It outlines what a child is allowed to know, what they should know, when they should know it and how they should behave from an adult perspective. The result is that ‘the defining boundary between adults and children, and the ultimate signifier of the child—childhood innocence—is a constructed social and moral concept.’ (Robinson 2008, 115) Needless to say, this includes the conjoined view that children are irresistible, potential sexual ‘partners’, even though they are denied the ‘adults only’ knowledge of sexuality, from which children, and often young adults, are thought to need protection. (Robinson 2008, 121)

The point I am making, I suspect badly, is that one cannot hold the view that a child is totally sexually innocent and that they are sexually alluring to adults, without also seeing them as ‘valid’ sexual ‘partners/targets’. This is to say that, in terms of the manner in which we have constructed both childhood and sexuality, children already are portrayed as ‘victims of adult sexuality’ simply because they are both innocent and sexually alluring (by virtue of their innocence, I assume). This creates the need to protect children from the adult sex projected onto their innocence.

Hence there is a sense in which the concept of childhood which our society holds turns us all into theoretical paedophiles because it leads us to look for and see children as sexual objects4—people (us) always are alert to the possibility that a child may be too alluring in a manner in which their own innocence prevents them from realising.

Having said this it is important to say that nothing I have said should be taken to imply that I believe sex between an adult and a child is acceptable. What it should be taken as is a view on the elements which produce moral panic about naked children in art.

The foregoing cultural views, coupled with the reality of child abuse, promote the idea that any photograph of a naked child necessarily is child abuse and paedophilia, and that such images will feed the growing number of paedophiles in society. (The artist as ‘folk devil’.)


Polixeni Papapetrou, Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs 2003.

 As with all moral panics, the issue of photographing children and exhibiting or making the work publicly available in some way, is one which enters and leaves public awareness with some regularity. One such panic in Australia revolved around the use of Polixeni Papapetrou’s photograph Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs 2003 on the cover of Art Monthly Australia in 2008

What is relevant about this photograph is not whether it is a good work of art, nor even whether it is a work of art. What is relevant is how we interpret the nakedness of the body, and how we do so within the context of the conjoined notions of the ‘innocent (alluring) child’ and the paedophile.

Robert Nelson, (2008) writing about his wife’s photograph of their daughter, discussed three claims which were made about the photograph. These comments exemplify the ‘innocnet child’ as alluring, and as victim of their allure.

  1. ‘[N]udity in pictures strips children of their innocence and children need protection from such a violation.’ Nudity, this is to say, exposes their sexual allure. It is important to note that this is not about Olympia the model; iIt is a generalisation to all children on the basis of any photograph of a naked child. If one child ‘loses her innocence’ by being photographed naked, then all children (magically) are violated, presumably by the exposure of their irresistible (sexually innocent) allure.

  2. ‘[T]he image increases the risk of sexual crime against the child.’ (Her sexual allure is so strong, apparently, that paedophiles will seek her out.)

  3. ‘[O]ther children are exposed to greater risk by virtue of one child being seen in an artwork.’ (Her sexual allure will remind paedophiles of just how irresistible other children are—again, a generalisation including all children.)

These criticisms reduce the individuality of the model, and of every child, to a cultural gloss which does not and cannot take into account the diversity and complexity of childhood and childhood sexuality.

Before going on to comment on Papapetrou’s image, it is worth nothing that Nelson (2008) says that ‘[a]n image cannot create evil lust where none existed beforehand.’ Whilst I am happy to agree that this is true, it also seems to me to view human sexuality through rose coloured glasses, and to tacitly deny the expansive and all inclusive nature of human sexuality at the same time as it adopts a very modern moral code. There have been, and still are, societies in which the sexual availability of children is taken for granted, hence, there are societies in which the urge to have sex, or an act of sex with a child would not be thought of as the exemplification of an ‘evil lust’. It would be regarded as normal and acceptable. (see Berkowitz, (2012) who discusses this in several places from an historical point of view.)

Nelson’s view also is simplistic in that it fails to take into account the rôle of personal psychology within the situation. It seems to me to be quite possible, though not necessarily probable, that an image could create an ‘evil lust’ where no such lust previously existed, if the psychological ground was suitable. A part of the reason for this possibility is the conjoining of the ‘innocent and ‘sexually alluring’ notions of the child—this is a child whom the paedophile cannot ignore, and everyone is a (potential) paedophile.

What this means is that, as long as we hold socio-cultural views which promote children as sexual objects for adults, we also promote paedophilia and hence may intensify and sexualise our response to images such as Papapetrou’s. (This idea, and its relation to desire, will be the subject of part two of this post.)

But this has little or nothing to do with the image itself; it has to do with our cultural conditioning.

Bearing this in mind, the most astounding aspect of this particular image by Papapetrou is that it personifies the ‘innocent child’. The viewer needs to put in a lot of effort if they are to discover any sexuality in it. There is nothing in the posture or expression which suggests sexuality or eroticism, to my eye at least. Nor is there anything in other parts of the image which can be seen as ‘suggestive’. It merely is the fact of nakedness and age which caused the controversy about the image. That, and the ‘innocence’ that has been removed with the clothes.

Irrespective of Papapetrou’s stated artistic aims, which are meaningless for someone seeing her work without prior knowledge of them, her photographs push the portrayal of innocence to the extreme. To such an extreme, in fact, that there almost is nothing interesting in them, nothing which captures the eye and entices you to look and look again, which is not the case with the original, which Papatetrou has ‘copied’ in such a way as to purposefully undo the eroticism of the original and replace it with a feminist challenge.

Lewis Carroll, Beatrice Hatch (1873)

Lewis Carroll, Beatrice Hatch (1873)

 With this in mind, Papapetrou’s version, in making its intellectual and political point, strikes me as being without any sense that the model is a thinking, feeling, living person. In Lewis Carroll’s original hand coloured photograph, on the other hand,we see the force of Clark’s (1984, 8) statement that

no nude, however, abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.

As an artwork it is on this account (the lack of some erotic feeling) that Papapetrou’s photograph fails, in my opinion. Carroll’s, on the other hand,whilst in the cliché based style of the time, is much more successful because it does display and appeal to that vestige of eroticism which is a sense of humanity, of the sensual presence of the mind-body of the model as mediated by the artist. Beyond this there is nothing particularly sexual about it. To remove this basic human, sensuous presence is the ‘false morals’ which Clark mentions, for it is to falsify the body and its place in our life, whether we are talking about children or adults.

This, of course, plays directly into the hands of the narrative of the alluring child and paedophilia. If we admit that children are sensual/erotic, then we open the door wider for paedophiles because we have removed childhood innocence entirely.

Earlier work by Papapetrou, where she does not appear to be pursuing an intellectual goal, show just how apt Clark’s view is. Consider, e.g., Olympia wearing her grandmother’s jewellery #4 2001. (This work also aroused controversy and accusations of exploitation, paedophilia, and so on.)

Olympia wearing her grandmother's jewellery 4 2001

Polixeni Papapetrou, Olympia wearing her grandmother’s jewellery #4 2001

This image has just a hint of the child’s own sensuality, of her awareness of her body, and this, needless to say, is even more outrageous that mere nudity itself, for it reminds us that children do have a sexuality (in the broadest sense) of their own. Furthermore, it is a sexuality over which adults cannot exercise control, just as we cannot control how some will react to it. This, as I noted earlier in this piece, creates a (cognitive) dissonance which, it is now clear, depends on seeing and refusing to acknowledge the broad sexuality of children, along with the fear that some will respond to it with unacceptable sexual acts.

The big question now seems to be whether or not we can accept childhood sexuality in life and in art. If we cannot accept this, and instead insist on the ‘innocent child’ who is completely unaware of their own sexuality, the only possible moral reaction we can have is hysteria and moral panic.

© BJ Muirhead. All rights reserved, 2014

Polixeni Papapetrou’s images have been taken from her official website. Lewis Carroll’s image is in the public domain, and was sourced from wikimedia commons.



Berkowitz, E. (2012), Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, Counterpoint, Berkeley.

Clark, K. (1984), The Nude—A Study In Ideal Form, Princeton University Press.

Freud, S. (2006), The Psychology of Love, Penguin Books. Trans., Shaun Whiteside; Introuction by Jeri Johnson.

Kincaid, J. R. (1998), Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, Duke University Press, Durham and London.

Nelson, R. (2008), ‘An analysis of the art monthly australia controversy’, Web page.

Robinson, K. H. (2008), ‘In the name of “childhood innocence”’, Cultural Studies Review 14(2), 113–129.


1I leave the debate over whether or not there are only two sexes alone. There are many, perhaps infinite, sexualities, and that is enough for me.

2Freud’s (2006, 154–169) essay Infantile Sexuality is interesting in this respect, for his willingness to discuss the breadth of childhood sexuality in what was, essentially, a puritan time.

3I once asked an adult thumb-sucker with whom I had a sexual relationship why she continued to do it. Her answer was to take my thumb and suck it for a while. I refuse to try and describe the sensation (it would be too difficult), but it was extremely erotic and led to my knowing a little more about auto-eroticism.

4Whilst doing internet searches on ‘paedophile’ and ‘theoretical paedophile’, (a term used by James Kincaid) I came upon a PDF of a book Paedophilia: The Radical Case by Tom O’Carroll (Peter Owen, London, 1980). Paedophilia is not an area I have researched in detail, my main interests being in accusations made in respect of artworks, and my main reading being academic texts. This particular book is written by a self-confessed paedophile, however, and is perhaps the only account of paedophilia of its type that has been published. If nothing else, it promises to be an interesting read.