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4a Nude Children in Aussie Art 

Kids need protection, but art isn't porn

Paul Rapoport, National Post, July 23, 2008

Dr. Paul Rapoport is professor emeritus in the School of the Arts at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., editor of the magazine Going Natural / Au naturel and a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality

Two recent Australian fiascos are edifying for North America. At issue in both: photographs of naked children by well-known art photographers.

In May, Bill Henson found that police had raided and closed an exhibition of his work at an art gallery in Sydney. The catalyst: the picture of his on the gallery invitation, of a nude pubescent girl standing in near-darkness. 

In response to the furor over that incident, the magazine Art Monthly Australia created another. Its July cover features a nude six-year-old girl sitting on a rock. Her mother, Polixeni Papapetrou, made the photo. Her father, Robert Nelson, also an art critic, painted the background. 

The public response was frantic. Hetty Johnston, director of a child protection group, declared that Bill Henson 

"has a tendency to depict children naked and that is porn." 

The police went to other galleries in Australia that possessed similar photographs by Henson and advised them to keep the works in storage.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who hadn't seen Henson's exhibition, nonetheless declared the photographs "absolutely revolting." About Papapetrou's photo, he said: 

"I can't stand this stuff."

Eventually, Australia's Classification Board officially passed all the controversial material as "unrestricted."

But the debate over images of naked minors in public went on. Many Australians declared all such images pornographic. Others claimed that because no minor can rightly consent to such photos, they should never be shown in public, if taken at all.

Not mattering to such people is that images of naked children don't increase crimes against them. Nor do the critics acknowledge that nudity is often not pornographic. The naysayers would cheerfully wipe out millennia of tradition in which artistic nudity has represented not only sexuality and poverty but innocence, youth, beauty, well-being and timeless humanity.

The girl in Henson's photo and her mother praised Henson's work strongly; they were ignored in the commotion. Papapetrou's daughter, now 11, stated on television that Art Monthly Australia's cover photo was her favourite of all those her mother had made of her, and that she was offended by the Prime Minister's remarks.

That didn't stop Hetty Johnston. She had complained to the police about Henson's exhibition without seeing it. Now she declared with no further thought that Papapetrou and Nelson had brainwashed their daughter.

Why the fear about nearly all child nudity? 

The media may report that an accused child abuser had a collection of pictures of naked children. From there, the idea grows 

that pedophilic crime is an epidemic 
and that almost every photo of a naked minor causes people to go out and abuse children sexually 

- both contentions are false.

The rallying cry to protect children often masks different aspirations or failures. Authors James Kincaid, Anne Higonnet, Judith Levine and Nicola Beisel have shown that some significant "child protection" measures have concealed ideological posturing, psychological weakness and investment in social status. One vicious Australian commentator even pushed his blog readers to label Robert Nelson a threat to children for writing about child sexuality.

The goal of protecting children should have no argument. But making children afraid of all nudity doesn't protect them. It makes them anxious, insecure and more susceptible to poor body image and other problems, including abuse.

The desireless subjectivity that we construct as childhood innocence seems never to work. Then we construct dangers to justify our wrong notion, like pedophiles lurking on every street, or good sex education causing teens to have sex. These are contemporary versions of warnings about masturbation causing blindness.

Australia's insidious media frenzy in these fiascos may seem exaggerated to us. But the censorious attitude is also found in North America. To develop real child protection and teach teens about responsible sexual health, we must stop misconstruing photographs, over-sexualizing children and fabricating a moral panic.

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