Who is looking?

by bjmuirhead

Artists who create nudes with naked children in them almost always encounter difficulties with the authorities and conservative public. These artists often are accused of creating “child pornography” and of being “paedophiles”.

Assuming that there is such a condition (or state) as paedophilia, and leaving aside the debate about just this point (Malon2012; McManus2013), the question Does it matter who is looking? needs to answered—we want to know if it matters if a paedophile is looking at such art.

A paedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children, although pubescent and post-pubescent children often are included in this definition, i.e., anyone beneath the age of consent. This is a simple enough and commonly held definition which seems clear, but which is not, especially in it’s current incarnation in DSM-5, where the distinction is made between paedophiles and those who have a paedophilic disorder. This distinction appears to serve the purposes of law enforcement rather than being informative or meaningful in terms of human sexuality in that all it really tells us in that there are people who have a sexual attraction to children who do not act on that attraction, and that there are people who act on the attraction who, when they fall foul of the law, can be categorised as suffering a psychiatric disorder.

This compromise position came about because it is not clear that paedophilia is a perversion of “normal” human sexuality. Child-adult and child-child sexual activity have been common throughout human history; often illegal or in other ways forbidden, but just as often accepted (under approved circumstances) and occasionally promoted. Knowledge of this, coupled with contemporary research, (e.g. Blanchard et al., 2012) has led to the claim that paedophilia may be a normal, but relatively rare, aspect of human sexuality which no longer has acceptance or approval, but which in itself is not a matter of mental health as a psychiatric illness.

By accepting this distinction between paedophilia and paedophilic disorder, the American Psychiatric Association, in effect, has given half-hearted approval of the idea that child-adult sexual attraction is normative as long as it is not acted upon. Once acted upon, it becomes a psychiatric disorder which acts to support conviction in any associated criminal proceedings.

If we accept this distinction—and avoid thinking about the idea that paedophilic disorder exists solely on the basis of the illegality of child-adult sexual activity, the description of such a disorder being unnecessary if child-adult sex is legal—our problem becomes one of discovering what paedophilic behaviour may be when it is not child-adult sexual contact.

Benjamin Costello, (Costello) using the DSM-5 criteria and distinction, maintains that there are two characteristic types of morally reprehensible (and illegal) paedophilic behaviour:

1. Actual sexual contact.

2. Looking at child pornography.

Actual sexual contact cannot occur when looking at an artwork. The question, therefore, is whether or not artworks featuring naked children are pornographic or non-pornographic. Alternately, and perhaps more importantly, is looking at artworks of naked children morally reprehensible, and a sign of paedophilic disorder, if the works in question are not pornographic?

Pornography”, however, is more a moral term than it is a simple, easily defined category. Beliefs and laws about what may be shown will vary from culture to culture, and between jurisdictions. In some jurisdictions, e.g., showing a child’s genitals is deemed sufficiently sexual (alluring?) that the creation of an image showing a child’s genitals is a criminal offence, irrespective of any other consideration such as, e.g., it being a photograph of a child playing in the shower, taken by the parents.

As a moral category “pornography” is infinitely malleable and inflatable—some have gone so far as to claim that any image of a woman is pornography by virtue of the power relationships inherent in the patriarchy. In order to avoid this type of definitional difficulty in this conversation, I will define “pornography” as works which show the explicit sexual activity (penetration, oral sex, masturbation, etc.) of one person or of two or more people together.

Even with this definition, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that looking at non-pornographic works of naked children is paedopilic behaviour:

Paedophiles can express their sexual urges in different ways. They may limit their activities to undressing the child and looking, exposing themselves, masturbating in the presence of the child, or gentle touching and fondling the child. Others perform fellatio or cunnilingus on the child, or penetrate the child’s vagina, mouth or anus, sometimes using varying degrees of force to do so. (Spiecker1997-SPIPSD)

This statement of paedophilic behaviour assumes person-to-person contact, of a type that is lacking in looking at a photograph or painting of a naked child, without any other form of contact, is paedophilic behaviour in that the paedophile has induced the child to be naked in order that the paedophile’s desire—to look—can be satisifed. What is at issue, therefore, is the gaining of sexual pleasure merely by observing a naked body.

On the assumption (which I believe is wrong) that all looking at naked bodies is sexual, it is none the less important to note that similar pleasures can be gained at the beach or public swimming pool, with only the slight difference that the children will be in swimming costumes, although some, all but inevitably, will be naked, especially at the beach. If we imagine someone who regularly goes to the beach for the sole purpose of looking at children playing and swimming, and if he enjoys seeing them naked in the water, what are we to think of him? Is categorisation even necessary? Imagine also that he never approaches a child, never masturbates or otherwise has a fantasy about sex with a child, never favours male or female children with his looking, he simply enjoys looking at them all.

In these days of suspicion, it would not be long before his behaviour would be noticed and action taken, most likely contacting the police and reporting his “suspicious behaviour”. How would he explain, under questioning, that he simply enjoyed the verve and happiness of children, that it gave him joy to watch, and be believed?

Imagine another man who actively avoids children and never looks at pornography or images of any variety of children. He never does anything to bring suspicion on himself, nor does he own anything that could arouse suspicion, but he actively masturbates to fantasies about sex with children and often imagines that his partner is a child whilst they engage in sex. How would we discover his fantasies, presuming he doesn’t tell anyone? And what could we say about them except to openly accept that, even though we know nothing about his fantasies, he may be a paedophile, simply by virtue of being a man.

The point of these two scenarios is that looking tell us little or nothing about the person who is looking or not looking, unless we assume and believe that looking necessarily always is sexual, in which case both would be involved in sex acts—we merely have no knowledge of the second man’s sex acts.

This assumption, that looking always is sexual, has a great hold on the imagination in the majority of Western societies (see Barcan, 2004) which regard both looking at naked bodies and being naked as sexual. Hence, to look at a naked child is to be sexual, and to be sexual with a child is to be a paedophile.

This seems to be the foundation and structure of hysteria about naked children in art, which often is referred to as pornography, and so conforms to Costello’s notion of paedophilic behaviour. On this view it not only matters who is looking, it matters that they are looking at all because they must, simply by looking, be paedophiles. Unlike the American Psychiatric Foundation, the general public and commentators do not allow that this may be harmless and of no moral or legal concern if there is no physical sexual contact occurring. For society at large, the act of looking is in itself sufficient to demand action against the person looking; it is, to repeat myself, a sexual act, albeit a very one sided act involving no contact with the child being looked at. (This, of course, applies to all nudes, up to and including cadavers, in terms of the logic involved—necrophilia is rare, but does exist, apparently.)

The difficulty, as James Kincaid (Kincaid1998) has pointed out in detail, is that many, if not all, of our child actors and stars are independent and sexually provocative in their films and are much admired for their appearance. Although they rarely appear naked (there have been exceptions), their attire often is revealing, but usually not as revealing as their actions, which often emphasise their sexuality in an entirely “adult” manner. To the extent to which this is the case, and on the same logic applied to art, watching movies with sexually provocative children, and looking at photographs of these same children, is paedophilic behaviour—a “theoretical paedophilia”, as Kincaid has called it.

The notion that we all are paedophiles in this manner is ludicrous, if only because it reduces all of our interactions with children in any art form to a single, sexual aspect, admits no other possibility. Any visual pleasure, any slight rapport with the character or the actor, is paedophilic. (I am exaggerating slightly, of course, but not overly.)

From this point of view the question of who is looking is answered: the viewer always is a paedophile and looking always is morally impermissible.Kincaid’s theoretical paedophile and the paedophile of the DSM-5 are present constantly. Needless to say, the artist who produces the work also is a paedophile on this view,and never can be seen as anything else. But…

This type of definition of (theoretic) paedophilia abstracts the idea of “the paedophile” from people, behaviour and life, just as the idea of the “innocent child” abstracts in respect of real children. It doesn’t even consider whether or not the people looking at artworks of children are sexually attracted to children; the attraction is assumed because they are looking. Moreover,there can be no appeal to beauty or insight into childhood; both of these, but beauty especially, are disguises for paedophilia and encouragements to indulge in paedophilic behaviour.

This extreme but publicly approved and politically correct view is circular to the point of absurdity,as should be clear from my characterisation. none the less, it is a commonly held view in the public arena. It also is a view which is partially supported by DSM-5 by virtue of the notion of the “hidden paedophile “ who at any time may become subject to paedophilic disorder.

The idea that looking at artwork featuring naked children is a sign of paedophilia extends the notion of child pornography into the realm of art, adding extra depth to the generalised moral concern about the nude, a concern which has been present in Western culture in its current form for at least one hundred and fifty years. (This, however, was not the reason for the rejection of the nude in art; rather artists at the turn of the nineteenth century sought the “sublime” in place of mere “beauty”, and turned away from the nude as being incapable of achieving their aesthetic ideal. See Steiner (Steiner2002) for a discussion of this.) Previously, moral concern was religious primarily, and revolved around the representation of explicit sex acts and, of course, representations which may promote sexual activity, and the nude was thought to be such a representation.

In itself, however, the “plain” nude could not be morally impermissible prior to the modern era because the notion of sexual immorality was based in the acts performed, acts for which forgiveness could be asked and given, acts which could, so to speak, be wiped from the slate. In contemporary Western culture, however, sexual immorality tends to be judged on the basis of “who engages in that behaviour”. To the extent that this is the case, sexual behaviour is now “seen as indicative of some deep truth about the individual’s character”, (Fischer2011) a truth which cannot be changed and for which a person may be, and usually is in respect of child-adult sex, permanently morally condemned.

It is this change in the basis on which our culture makes moral evaluations which supports the belief that creating and looking at art which features naked children is a sign of a moral flaw, deep and unchangeably within the people who create and look. But on this basis it no longer is a mere moral or character flaw, rather it is seen as a malformation of the person which may erupt into uncontrollable child sexual assault at any, and perchance every, opportunity. This is the fear and ground of so much (moral) hysteria surrounding both child-adult sexual activity and art featuring naked children and young adults(ie., pubescent and post pubescent minors who have not reached the age of consent).

With a cultural and theoretic background such as this, the problem of “who is looking” becomes impossible to answer in any satisfactory manner because it always will be a paedophile by virtue of cultural(discursive) definition,which will change only as the culture changes.

The more important question is whether or not child-adult sexual interest and sex (“paedophilia”) is normative within the human species?

We know that “common” assault and sexual assault (rape) are normal and encountered in every human society we are aware of, each of which has had to develop ways of dealing with these types of assault. We know that child-adult rape occurs, but we also know that non-violent, consensual child-adult sexual activity (and marriage) is normative in many cultures, often from a very young age. (Whether or not there is a latency period as proposed by Freud contra Moll and others, is a matter for another discussion, but I must point out here that I do not believe a natural latency period occurs; it is much more likely that children simply learn not to let parents know about what they are doing.) We also know that non-violent consensual child-adult sexual activity is and has been relatively common in every culture we are aware of (and we have come up with some startlingly dull explanations as to why this is the case), although we cannot say just how common it is because the majority of such activity is unlikely to come to the attention of the statisticians.

Knowing all of this, it behoves us to consider seriously the proposition that non-violent consensual sexual-activity is a normal, albeit small, aspect of normal human sexual behaviour. It was just such an argument which was raised as a reason for removing paedophilia entirely from the DSM-5, and which resulted in the “official” distinction between paedophilia and paedophilic disorder. And it is just this argument which leads me to suggest that it doesn’t matter who is looking at the relevant artworks. As a moral question, it is a nullity. As a legal question, it rather depends, firstly, on whether or not some act has been performed by the putative paedophile and, secondly, on whichever direction the wind of public outcry pushes the legislators.


I have chosen not to deal with sexual assault in this piece, but to adopt Rind, Tromovitch and Bauserman’s (Rind1998) distinction between consensual child-adult sexual activity and child sexual assault (CSA), and to talk only of the former. I also have chosen not to talk about those people whose only sexual interest is in children contra having a sexual interest in both children and adults. Both fall under the rubric “paedophile” but I do not feel equal to a discussion of the former until I have completed much more research. I suppose that I also should note that I have seen no “child pornography”. I assume that it involves child-adult sexual activity, but I have no idea whether any of what has been declared to be child pornography includes work that is similar to the work of the artists I have spoken about on this blog. As I have already indicated, I define pornography as work which shows explicit sexual activity, and on this basis, I do not reject images of children which may be thought to be “sexually provocative but which do not show actual sexual activity. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, sexually provocative images of children are far too common in advertising and film to be easily included in the category of child pornography. Secondly, it is impossible to say just what will be sexually provocative to someone who has a sexual interest in children. An image need not be overtly and specifically sexually provocative to be taken as sexual by any particular person. Indeed, some of the most sexually provocative images I am aware of show the face, and only the face. But that may just be my particular turn on.


© Copyright B.J. Muirhead, 2015

All rights reserved


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