Nakedness of children—the text

by bjmuirhead

I completely forgot that one has to join to read articles and papers on that site. I have decided, therefore, to post the text of this short essay here as well, and will do so with any future articles I may write and publish. If, on the other hand, you want a pdf of the work, then you will have to go there and join in order to download it.

I have to say, however, that I am not sure just how much further work there will be. I am feeling as though I need a change of direction (again), and I have said nearly everything I want to say about art, children, “paedophilia” and adult-child sexual relations. I will, however, make a post about childhood sex arising out of comments made by one reader, though that will be a little way away as yet. In any event, for those who do not wish to join, but wish to read the essay, here ’tis.



The nude is not highly regarded in contemporary art, especially when the nude is a photograph of a naked child. The seizing of some of Bill Henson’s works from his 2008 exhibition, after complaints of child pornography, is an intriguing example of the low regard in which the nude is held, and of how easy it is to make an unfounded claim about the status of such artworks.

Amongst all of the outrage an amazing set of comments were made about child pornography and child sexual abuse; even one of Henson’s “defenders” said that Henson should “come clean about his hidden desires” whilst others claimed that his work was the equivalent of “handing our children to paedophiles on a platter.”

Claims of this nature would not be possible except that the nude is automatically thought to be focused on sexual desire, which is presumed to be what brings viewers to see the work which, in turn, is presumed to be the end product of the artist’s sexual desires. Nothing explicitly sexual, other than a naked body or part thereof, need be in the artwork for this set of assumptions to be applied.

In partial response to issues around sex in art and the Bill Henson furore of 2008, it was suggested that “there is a clear poverty of imagination as to what sex is and could be,” and that “we need to defend sex itself as a site of pleasure, joy and desire” by “expanding the debate beyond questions of ’harm’ and ’consent’.” What is needed in order to achieve this is an expansion of the public space “for discussion and realisation of sexual desire.”i

In respect of photographic art showing pre-pubescent, pubescent and post-pubescent children, this would seem to be an approach fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding and hysteria reaching far beyond what already has occurred: apart from Bill Henson, to mention only the most famous, we can talk of Jock Sturges, Sally Mann, David Hamilton and Irina Ionesco, all of whom either have had works confiscated, been arrested or hounded with public accusations of paedophilia and/or child pornography. Less famous artists working in the same area have suffered also, in some instances to the point of giving up art altogether.

The one common element in their work, apart from naked children of various ages and gender, is that their works are discussed only in terms of sexual desire and paedophilia. Always emphasised, firstly, is that artworks containing naked or partly naked children necessarily are paedosexual in content and intent and, secondly (in the background) the assumption that children are so potently sexually alluring that, merely by being naked, their hearts, their souls, their innocence, will be broken in the most harmful of ways because no one could avoid lusting after them.

Although an occasional gesture is made toward the history of the nude, these discussions take place as though the works in question are separate to art and without any aesthetic purpose or interest, as though there can be no interest other than paedosexuality. Partly this is the fault of those artists who rejected beauty as a valued aesthetic goal, and the nude as a viable aesthetic subject, over one hundred years ago. The all but inevitable result of this rejection was that photographers took the nude for their own and attempted to rehabilitate and maintain it at the same time that photographs of sexual acts became readily and omnipresently available. In Western societies, the religious, moral and legal suppression of such images, meant that all photographic nudes tended to be branded as pornographic, irrespective of content, long before feminism and page three of The Sun.

Another aspect of the problem is our changing concept of childhood, to the point where we see children as asexual and innocent (ignorant) of all sexual knowledge. Children, who are physiologically capable of orgasm and all types of sexual activity from a very young age, (including, according to some, genital sex,) are restrained from any form of sexual play or exploration, on the basis that they are and should remain completely ignorant of any sexual/bodily pleasures. Even though the majority of people are aware that this is mythology rather than fact, it seems to me that this is the foundation of the idea that being seen naked in an artwork causes children harm—it permits what we think of as their already sexual bodies to be seen. Even worse, it permits these bodies to be seen as attractive, even if not sexually mature. Indeed, the idea that children have a powerful sexual allure is a backhanded recognition of childhood sexuality and an associated desire in children for the pleasures of the body, irrespective of any particular child’s ability to discuss it in anything approaching adult terms, especially the idea of consent, something which most adults neither entertain nor discuss in their own sexual lives.

The point, of course, is that if we are going to discuss desire and defend sex as a site of pleasure and joy, and relate this in any way to photographic art showing naked children, then we also need a much more open and expansive discussion of childhood sexuality and childhood sexual desire. Outside of academic journals, however, where some of this discussion has been taking place, the likelihood of such discussion appears both limited and doomed. Moreover, and more importantly, it is not at all obvious that such a discussion can tell us anything about the artworks in question. All that it can do is remind us that some adults find children sexually attractive, that in the past children have, to our contemporary Western horror, married and engaged in “adult” sex long before puberty, in accordance with the laws and culture of their time and place. (That some of these cultures still exist, and that there are attempts to stop this type of tradition, does not alter the point being made.)

This discussion, if entertained to its fullest, would open the door to the possibility that at least some children (pre-pubescent, pubescent and post-pubescent) both enjoy and pursue what adults call sex (boys are particularly renowned for this; as Paul Wilson once said: “Young boys are sexually active from a very early age and will pursue their sexuality whenever they can find an opportunity to do so”). It also would open the door to the possibility that children might engage in some form of child-adult sexual activity on the urgings of their own (sexual) desire. (Indeed, the awkwardly named “participating/willing victim” has been inexplicable to many, except by Machiavellian “grooming” which results in the child acting against their own desires—to remain ignorant? The “willing victim” becomes easily explicable, however, if we admit, firstly, childhood sexuality and, secondly, that the deep level of trust required for “grooming” to occur, exists primarily in the family, where the majority of child-adult sex occurs, and where the child is most likely to take an active role. The idea of the participating/willing victim, however, has been written out of consideration by re-conceptualising childrena not only as totally sexually ignorant, but as having no responsibility at all for any interaction with an adult. This is a significant change in our view of children who, up until the early Twentieth century tended to be regarded as having responsiblity in all areas of their lives.ii)

Not only is this a discussion which the public is unwilling to have, it also would tell us nothing that we do not already know about humanity, namely that we are a sexual species and polymorphous in our sexual desires and actions. It also is a conversation which requires careful detailed thought about the results of existing research and how to interpret it; I merely have pointed out some of the more obvious aspects of this here. More importantly, this is a discussion which has limited application to the meaning of artworks and which, in fact, provides little or no information about the work of Henson or Sturges and the others. Rather, it is a discussion which focuses on culturally specific moral questions which evade any serious thought about human nature and meaning.


In every culture which has created works featuring the naked body, those works have meant something by virtue of representing some religious or cultural belief which was commonly held. Over a period of many centuries, the nude in the West lost any such role and what gradually came into being was what Kenneth Clark called the nude as an end in itself. As such the nude no longer represents any particular cultural or religious ideas or ideals, and this leads directly to the idea that the raison d’étre of the nude is to express sexual desire. Neither contemporary culture nor contemporary art theory have a context within which to extend the meaning of the nude beyond sex. A goodly part of the reason for this is the emphasis we place on words to express meaning and create concepts and theories which appear to be separate from the world of experience, and so to objectively explain the world. Concepts, propositions, logic, however, all emerge from our our sensual, visceral connections to life, out of our movements, perceptions, emotions.

Meaning and knowledge come to us as children as we make sense of ourselves and our world through movement and the senses. What this entails is that, from the outset of life, eros is the foundation for what has been described by child psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen as an immediate, conceptless, unrational, unverbalisable and totally atheoretical potential for rapport with another and oneself. This potential exists at the core of every human consciousness, where meaning is directly grasped. It comes about because as infants we learn the meaning of the world via our bodies.

It is true that there is a sense in which the human body always is sexual by virtue of anatomy and physiology (this is why sex and sexuality can so often be put aside as unimportant). It also is true that eros, the physiological drive to experience, meaning and knowledge always is present in our relationship with the world and others simple because our existence entails embodied, perceptual meaning.

This approach to meaning, especially in relation to art, has been championed by many people, from Michael Polanyi, John Dewey and Rudolf Arnheim, to contemporary researchers Mark Johnson and many neuroscientists trying to understand thought, mind and the meaning of the body. Even the idea that our most basic relationship to people is erotic is not a new idea, although Freud undermined this by declaring it to be sexual and by focusing only on explicitly sexual theories.

There is no doubt that many will respond to these ideas with a shudder as they reject the idea of erotic feeling between an adult and a child. This unease, however, is the result of failing to understand eros as containing sexuality and from thinking of eros in purely sexual terms. It is eros, however, which builds and informs the love between parent and child and which, according to Canadian researcher Alison Pryer, is the foundation of successful classroom teaching.

What this means is that whenever we interact with another person, it is our basic erotic potential for rapport which responds. Rather than being sexual or referring only to sex, eros in its broadest sense is our “life force,” the sensual desire and energy which flows from and between each of us. As such, eros infuses life into everything we do, into all of our interactions and friendships, into our contact with the inanimate world itself.

From this point of view the nude always has been an end in itself, irrespective of moral, cultural or aesthetic explanations. In contemporary art, for example, the idea of “the nude” is frowned upon—we are supposed to talk about “the body”, its socio-cultural implications and signification, and to analyse art using the naked body accordingly—however the term reminds us that the majority of nudes do not have an art theoretical justification, even when artists attempt to manufacture one. The term also serves to remind us that the human body is the most basic aspect of our existence and, more importantly, that the nude is invariable, irrespective of cultural considerations, having remained the showing of a naked body in some medium or another; having remained, this is to say, the one means of representing humanity in its natural embodied state.

The idea of embodiment is common enough in talking about art. The philosopher Roger Scruton, for example, uses it to distinguish the nude from pornography, on the basis that a successful nude embodies the “subjectivity” of the person shown. What this seems to mean is that some subjective mental or emotional state is shown which overpowers any merely sexual interest which may be provoked by or exhibited in the naked body. But what lies behind and prior to this is the human body itself.

It is trite, but none the less profoundly meaningful, to point out that without the human body, there would be no human culture, no thought, no subjectivity or sexuality to express. Whatever a disembodied existence may provide, it would not and it could not be human simply because everything we are is embodied and on show through our bodies.

What this means is that all bodies—all art featuring the naked or clothed body—is erotic in the sense described. The extent to which sex and sexuality is involved doesn’t depend on nudity alone. Indeed, to a great extent, the sexuality involved depends on the experiences and viewpoint of the viewer. Simplistically, sexual desire does not depend on nudity, nor even on photographs of genitals.

The meaning of the nude in art is found in the presentation of carefully conceived and executed images which permit the embodied rapport which brings meaning to the image via the viewer’s own visceral connection with the bodily conditions of life. Hence the claim that paedosexual desire is involved is a diminishing of the eros, the life force, that informs our lives, and our art.

It is true to say, therefore, that we do need to create new ways of talking about desire, but only to the extent that we necessarily must find ways to deal with the extent and depth of eros and human desire that do not rely on narrow moral concepts which, if accepted as absolute, would have all of us, male and female alike, branded paedophiles simply because our relationship to each other is erotic in the broadest, and most personal of senses. To be attracted to and to enjoy a photographic artwork of a naked child needs to be understood as a simple human response to the eros that is life. Unfortunately, for some, this also entails accepting the polymorphous perversity of human life; accepting that children possess a sexuality which they cannot necessarily express in words, and which doesn’t fit our current concept of childhood sexual ignorance. More importantly, outside the realm of artists like Henson, Mann and Sturges, it means accepting that we cannot continue to expand the one sided definition of paedophilia.

Nudity, in children and adults in art, is an expression of the fundamental eros of human life, and carries with it the essence of human knowledge and meaning. This, it seems, is something which we need to relearn and appreciate again.

i Tanya Serisier and Mark Pendleton, The Disappearance of Desire, Overland 193, Summer 2008

ii The history of the participating/willing victim, why children may have been willing victims, and the reasons for the removal of the idea from contemporary thought are discussed in detail in Augustín Malón, The ‘‘Participating Victim’’ in the Study of Erotic Experiences Between Children and Adults: An Historical Analysis, Archives of Sexual Behavior, February 2011, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 169-188