Naked Children and Art: Part 2

by bjmuirhead

visual pleasure and paedophilia

There is, perhaps, nothing more exciting and frustrating than changing your mind about something when you are in the middle of writing about it. This, however, is what has happened in my writing about naked children and art. As a part of my attempt to understand the debate as I have so far encountered it, I have expanded my reading into the area of childhood sexuality and paedophilia, and I find that much of what I was planning to write in this post no longer reflects my thinking accurately. Certainly, what I had planned for Part Two of the post is not going to be written.

The difficulty which I attempted to address was that the debate about artworks of or including naked children primarily occurs within discussions of sex, sexual desire and paedophilia, and this debate concerns only the idea that (some) adults are sexually attracted to children, (who are treated as mindless puppets, more often than not) and that therefore work featuring naked children is, according to some, an “open invitation” to paedophiles. I countered this with the observation that children have a sexuality of their own which may, and perhaps necessarily is, shown in such works.

I advanced this view within the context of my previous thinking that the nude in art presents us with aspects of the reality of our psycho-physical existence which we do not otherwise consider in the normal course of our lives, and that this occurs on a variety of levels, from the cultural to essentially pre-cultural tacit knowledge and its blending with what is culturally explicit. I do not think I am wrong about this, but I certainly was wrong to buy into the debate as it is discussed currently, especially when one of the claims made is that sexually mature thirteen and fourteen year old people are incapable of giving consent, and of understanding what they are doing when they model naked for artworks.

In our culture, sex is a deeply mysterious discourse which we may or may not attempt to enact in terms of the discourse itself. What I mean by this is that we all buy into the discourse of sexuality as it is presented to us, and as we grow within it; but not all of us act according the the discourse we are enfolded within.1 The most simplistic example of this is the assertion that nudes are all about sex and sexuality, and never can be anything else. Hence, in an attempt to take the discussion beyond the imposition of adult sexuality and desire onto naked children in art, and in partial response to the Bill Henson furore, Serisier and Pendleton (2008) note that there is a “poverty of imagination” as to what sex is and could be, and claim that

We need to defend sex itself as a site of pleasure, joy and desire. This means expanding the debate beyond questions of harm and consent. (2008, 51)

In saying this, Serisier and Pendleton accept that what is at issue is a matter of sex and desire, and propose that at least a part of the solution is an increase in “the public space for the discussion and realisation of sexual desire.” (2008, 51) Although they do not say so explicitly, it seems that these authors believe that increased and more open discussion of sex and sexuality, without confining it to questions of consent and harm, will benefit everyone, including artists who produce work of naked children. They approach this general position by noting that in the nineteen eighties and nineties,

feminist discourse moved towards conceptualising sex primarily as a site of harm. Feminist sexual politics came to focus almost exclusively on protecting women from unwanted sex. (2008, 49)

This, needless to say, includes children and the unwanted paedo-sex which occurs when they are photographed and the works produced are exhibited and viewed.

This difficulty with the view that we need to defend sex as a site of pleasure “beyond questions of harm and consent” is that, if we apply this to naked children in art, we inevitably will be accused of promoting paedophilia, and I do not believe this is what Serisier and Pendleton intended. Clearly, what they were advocating is a change, an expansion, an elision that would resolve the issue of desire and children, harm and consent, in a general sense. What these writers did not specifically mention, however, is pleasure, be it visual, sexual or intellectual. In this respect it is worth nothing that

[…] in large measure, humans create themselves through their cultural and material practices, but we do not start from nowhere; we are not empty receptacles; we come onto the scene with certain biological endowments. (It is certainly a great irony that contemporary “cultural materialists” in the humanities—who relish speaking of the “body” metaphorically—seem to have a genuine aversion to talking about […] actual bodies […]) (Carroll 2004, 99)

What is at issue, self-evidently, is that actual human bodies both produce and are the focus of a variety of pleasures; we need to question, however, whether or not we wish to call all of these pleasures “sexual” (in a morally reprehensible sense), and whether or not we wish to regard these pleasures as inevitably productive of a focused and specific (genitally based) sexual desire in all and every instance. (To turn all of the pleasures of human interaction into a matter of the morality of sex and sexual desire, which seems to be what occurs in contemporary Australia, closes one of the doors to our common humanity, whilst—potentially—causing untold grief to those who enjoy those pleasures.)

In terms of art it is self-evident that the primary concern is visual pleasure: we are afraid of the meaning of the sexual act of looking, and especially the act of looking at children.

The idea that looking is a sexual act is not at all odd, or difficult to understand. Sexually explicit writing and images have been readily available to everyone since the advent of mass printing. Prior to this, works intended to arouse sexual interest were singular, and and most likely to stay that way, available only for private consumption. (Berkowitz 2012, 193) It was when “dirty books” spread to a wide readership, that laws against them were created; by the mid-sixteenth century sexual censorship was in full flight. (Berkowitz 2012, 194–6) It wasn’t until Freud, however, that the possibility of looking at another person was definitively defined as a sexual act, specifically as a “temporary sexual goal”. (Freud 2006, 133–4)

According to Freud, looking ultimately derives from touching, and becomes a goal in and of itself because it is the means by which sexual desire (libidinous arousal, in Freud’s terms) is most commonly awoken. Hence Freud (2006, 133) says

The uncovering of the body, which is advancing along with civilisation, keeps alive the sexual curiosity which seeks to complete the sexual object by revealing its hidden parts. […] Lingering over this intermediate sexual goal of sexually emphasised looking appears among most normal people, indeed it gives them the opportunity to elevate a certain proportion of their libido to higher artistic goals.

Art, therefore, and specifically the nude, is sublimated (elevated) sexually emphasised looking. Once this conclusion has been reached, it is a short step to the position that all looking at a naked body is sexual looking which can and will arouse unwanted sexual desire from which the person being looked at must be protected.

If we accept this position, and many appear to do so, then any and all looking would appear to be sexual looking. Furthermore, any and all visual pleasure related to looking at a naked adult or child, will be sexual and raise questions about sexual desire, especially when we take our time looking at a naked person in an artwork—such long term visual contemplation almost appears to be a fetish (in Freud’s sense), and it is impossible within our general cultural framework to conceive of this as anything other than sexual. In this respect, the viewpoint is circular, and the conclusion inescapable.

What is ignored by those who advocate this type of view, however, is a different aspect of visual pleasure found in the pleasure we take in the shape, colour and texture of a flower, a building, an animal or the ocean. it is obvious that a flower is quite different to a naked child or adult, but this difference does not entail, as far as I can tell, that we cannot take similar pleasure in the shapes and lines of the naked body. Just as each flower differs from other flowers, so does each body differ from other bodies; just as we can look at a flower without wanting (desiring) to destroy it, so also can we look at a body without wanting (desiring) to engage in sex.

At this point, I have arrived at a very basic, almost entirely simplistic view: visual pleasure in looking at a naked body need not create sexual desire in any viewer. However, I can think of no adequately distant and theoretical argument that could establish this. We can say, however, that sight gives us knowledge and in itself is a type of thought, (see Arnheim 1969, Polanyi 1962) which extends far beyond any mere sexuality. Furthermore, to the extent that mind is embodied,2 vision, i.e., our act of looking, provides us with knowledge of other minds, so that when we look at a naked body, be it with or without pleasure, we are looking at and able to investigate the fullness of humanity and ourselves as human. Seen from this point of view, looking at, and indeed taking pleasure in looking at, naked bodies of adults and children brings us into an entirely different type of contact with humanity and ourselves than that provided by sexual desire and activity. Humorously enough, this does not entail that there is no sexuality in nudes, nor does it entail that people will not be able to find sexuality in nudes—except in those works which are actively investigating sexuality, however, the sexuality involved is the sensuality of our existence: a diversion from “pure” sexuality into the broader nature of physical existence.

Having said this, we need to reconsider Serisier and Pendleton’s notion that we seed to defend sex as a site of pleasure and desire. If we assume that all looking at naked bodies is sexual, as these authors appear to do, then there really is little to be said in the sense that we can say only that this is a shallow notion of looking and of sex and desire, a notion which cuts us away from the deeper aspects of our common humanity, our common physicality. Looking may be a Freudian “temporary sexual goal”, and all looking at naked bodies may be just such a goal from which the model needs to be protected, but if this is the case, what do we say about those who find pleasure in looking at representations of naked children, but who are not interested in sex with children? Or those who look at male nudes but are not interested in sex with men? Or those who look at female nudes but are not interested in sex with women? If we hold strictly to the type of view which has been my stalking horse (and there are many variations), then the inevitable conclusion is that we all are paedophiles and bisexuals, irrespective of our own specific and dearly held beliefs about our own sexuality, and irrespective of our actual sexual activity. Hence, while Freud believed that only children are “polymorphously perverse”, we necessarily must see ourselves in exactly this light.

I must admit that I am quite happy with this conclusion, that it merely is culture which determines our sexuality and our sexual behaviour. I am quite happy to accept, this is to say, that had I been born a privileged member of ancient Greek society, or a similarly privileged member of English society in the Seventeenth century (see King 2004) I would certainly have engaged in pederasty; at other times and places I could cheerfully have married or engaged legally in sex with an eleven year old girl, or even younger (paedophilia).

What I have been talking about and arguing against is a particular culturally entrenched moral viewpoint which says that if I enjoy looking at images of a naked child, then I am a paedophile, or at least well on the way to being so. What it does not say, but which clearly also is the case on the same logic, is that if I, a convinced and somewhat determined heterosexual, enjoy looking at and, in my case creating male nudes, then I also am a homosexual or, at the very least, bisexual.

What this actually suggests to me is that we need to go back to the beginning and begin to think about actual bodies and actual behaviours. It is not so much that we have to defend sex as a site of pleasure and desire; rather it is that we need to defend human bodies and lives against theories and cultures which attempt to deny the fundamental nature of bodily existence. If this means defending the idea that we all are potentially “multi-sexual”—paedophiles, pederasts, homosexuals, heterosexuals, and any other variety you can find, potentially taking pleasure in all possible “perversions”—then so be it. We are human, and humanity has found everything to be acceptable at one time or another. We are, I suggest, no different to our ancestors and neighbours.

Eva, by Irina Ionesco

Eva, by Irina Ionesco

With this conclusion in mind, it now is clear that what we in fact need to do is to defend looking as a sight of pleasure, joy, and even desire.

© BJ Muirhead. All rights reserved, 2014

The photograph by Irina Ionesco was taken from Obvious Magazine, and is, as far as I know, Copyright Irina Ionesco.


Arnheim, R. (1969), Visual Thinking, Univeristy of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.

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

Carroll, N. (2004), ‘Art and human nature’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62(2).

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

King, T. A. (2004), The Gendering of Men, 1600-1750: The English Phallus, Vol. Volume 1, The University of Wisconsin Press.

Polanyi, M. (1962), Personal Knowledge, London, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Serisier, T. & Pendleton, M. (2008), ‘The disappearance of desire’, Overland pp. 48–51.

1This, necessarily, is the subject of much more thought.


I should point out that I do not believe mind is purely or only bodily; there appear to be aspects of cognition and mind which appear to be abstract and potentially quite independent of the body. I should not, therefore, be taken to be presenting a purely materialist position. Indeed, I am what is known in philosophy as an idealist, and am most likely to argue that the physical world is a creation of mind. Never the less, as long as there appears to be a mind and a body, the relationship between them will continue to be a subject of philosophic and scientific debate and research.