Pedophilia – Or Pedophilia Phobia?

Just what do you make of the raid by police on the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and confiscation of 21 photographs immediately prior to the opening of an exhibition by Bill Henson? Or the stated intention to bring obscenity charges against, presumably, the artist and gallery?

When the State starts brandishing the Arts censorship cudgel my standard reaction is reflexive and unequivocal condemnation. I say ‘standard’, because there are some cases that challenge the validity of a black and white stance on censorship. Freedom of artistic expression is vital to any society that calls itself democratic – except, I’d argue, where that freedom erodes democratic principles and/or the founding laws that uphold them.

In snuff movies, for example, the lives of those who involuntarily ‘star’ in them are extinguished – who but a fellow psychopath would march under placards of protest in defence of a director who claimed artistic license to murder? In my own rhetorical interests, this example is about as extreme as it gets. However, while I have not heard of any recent defence of snuff movies as ‘art’, the historical precedent exists in literature.

I refer to the works of the Marquis De Sade. Sade is said to have pushed the boundaries of hedonistic libertarianism to torturing and killing prostitutes for sexual gratification, and to have drawn on this experience in his pornographic writings.

I can’t verify this – I have not read any of his surviving stuff. I suppose I am not sufficiently interested to chase it up. Interesting, though, that the French State of the 18th and 19th centuries appears to have been more tolerant of sexually confrontational cultural artefacts than contemporary Australia, isn’t it? (Sade’s son appears to have judged papa’s efforts too depraved to entrust to posterity, however – apparently he burned all his father’s unpublished manuscripts after he died).

Whatever its moral standing, Sade’s work is evidently philosophically substantial, since he has been seen as a precursor of surrealism, nihilism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Scholarly heavyweights including Simone de Beavoir have written on him, and some leading feminists have – astonishingly – defended him! Indeed, Angela Carter sees him as ‘a “moral pornographer” who creates spaces for women’!! Sisters for De Sade! Never have understood the thinking of literary critics, but there you go. It must be true – Wikipedia told me so.

Even with extreme works of sadistic erotica such as Sade’s, then, which in its day (and beyond) stretched the generally accepted bounds of morality to the limit, we have credible writers, artists and critics building upon it, defending it, validating it as at least worthy of debate.

Closer to the Henson furore, I vividly recall an argument years ago with a female friend educated in literature and literary criticism to post-grad level, whose intelligence and opinion I respected, who insisted that Nabokov’s brilliant novel Lolita should be banned. She saw it as legitimising pedophilia through its first-person narrator pedophile character, Humbert Humbert.

I do not wish to get sidetracked into a considered defence of Lolita here, or why I rate it as one of the great novels of the last century (that I have read, anyway). Suffice it to say that my reading was other than hers. In essence, I argued on the simple basis that art should be judged on its own terms, and that the clay of the artist should be the stuff of human experience, unrestricted.

I was taken aback when my friend informed me that she had been molested as a child and raped as an adult. I maintained my anti-censorship stance, but I had an uncomfortable sense at the time that the firmness of my conviction was shaken. My friend’s emotional truth was clouding her judgment of Lolita, I reasoned. I stuck to my position, but the edges of my black and white view had blurred grey.

Which brings me back to the Henson case. Why do I not recoil aghast from this latest State affront to freedom of artistic expression? Because the great media-appointed scourge of our time has been invoked – pedophilia!

Decent citizens rail en masse at a whiff of suspicion that a pedophile is in their vicinity. In this atmosphere of vigilante righteousness, deferring to evidence on whether a witch is really a witch before joining the mob in burning her exposes you to the charge of heresy. Choose your words pretty damned carefully, or you run the risk of being chucked on the bonfire with the evil one! So, why all this hysteria?

There is a sense of almost supernatural threat about the pedophile today. No matter how tight the security of the suburban home, no matter how careful parents to guard their children from the lurking menace by accompanying them to and from school, educating them on ‘stranger danger’ and a thousand etceteras, the perception is that like some shape-shifting vampire, the pedophile’s power to violate is almost unstoppable. This perception can be traced to two sources: the media and the Internet.

The media feeds on (and feeds) public fear, of course. Sharks! Terrorism! Home invasion! And the biggie – Pedophiles! The real odds of sensationalised threats like these striking you or your loved ones, or even someone you know, are small. Generally infinitesimally so. And certainly vastly disproportionate to the headlines and coverage these commercially potent items receive when the media pounces on a “story”.

Of all their favourite bogeymen, the pedophile is today’s number one by a long way. Pedophilia is routinely referred to as a “crisis” in our midst. But is it? Are there proportionally more pedophiles preying on our kids today than ever before? In the absence of any rational reason that today’s society should produce more pedophiles then yesterday’s, you’d think not. But in fact, the answer is yes!

Pedophiles are no longer merely a local community concern. The Internet has dissolved geographical boundaries and given the world’s pedophiles unprecedented access to private suburban homes, violating their sanctity and the innocence of children within much like Freddie Kruger through the static of a TV set. Kruger has escaped his cage of harmless Hollywood horror-schlock and is here amongst us in multinational variety, perhaps spiriting himself through a monitor in your child’s bedroom right now. Suddenly, impossibly, the nightmare is real. And so, understandably, is the hysteria.

In this milieu, would any of today’s politicians dare to come out with a balanced, carefully considered statement on the Henson case? Paul Keating might have, but then, today’s leaders do not share his informed appreciation of the arts, and spin has gone up a notch or three since his time. The electorate – and especially the constantly wooed “working family” demographic – wants moral swashbuckling on the issue of pedophilia, and that, naturally, is what Rudd and Nelson clambered over each other to deliver within hours of the Henson story breaking.

Malcolm Turnbull has come out an eternity later in defence of Henson, but it is difficult to see his late arrival on the scene of public comment as other than opportunistic and carefully calculated strategising. Now that the initial clucking in the chookpen has subsided and a few big-name Arts-affiliated celebrities (Blanchett etc) have spoken out against the raid on the Henson exhibition and the pending obscenity charges, Turnbull, I suspect, sees that the time is right to distance himself from Rudd’s and Nelson’s moralising and brand himself as more sophisticated leadership material.

The bar is not raised very high. Rudd described the confiscated images of Henson’s as “revolting” and summarily dismissed the notion of artistic merit from the equation. Nelson, ever the competitive baboon, thundered that the exhibition “violates the things for which we stand as Australians and indeed as parents.” Two big red ticks in the boxes of their respective populist politics checklists. And a black cross against both these cardboard cutout moral crusaders for their philistinism and bigotry. Neither appear to have actually seen the offending pictures!

And neither have I. For that reason alone, I’m struggling to find moral direction on this issue. My attitudinal compass needle, which reliably and resolutely points to freedom of artistic expression, is instead swinging around wildly in the static of hysterical interference.

And that pisses me off. It’s frustrating not to be able to make my own assessment of Henson’s controversial photographs. I resent the State for depriving me of this opportunity, this right!

All we are left with are dry arguments disconnected from Henson’s work.

I cannot blithely dismiss the concerns of people like Hetty Johnson from the child sexual assault advocacy group Bravehearts who argue that depictions of 12-year-old children in sexual contexts open the door to the pedophile. I am extremely sceptical, though, that many pedophiles would bother to attend an exhibition to ogle Henson’s art when at the click of a mouse they can file through a global exhibition of hardcore pedophile pornography. But posting his pictures of naked pubescent children on the Net…that adds a contemporary complication that was not a factor with art of the past.

Which leads on to another point that has surfaced during the current furore – that kids in early teenage are not capable of making a properly informed decision to allow naked images of themselves out into the public domain (particularly on the Net, where control of an image is relinquished the moment someone copies it or emails it on). I can think of no direct counter-argument here. Except to move to what I see as the central issue…

I refer to Henson’s contention that his art is an exploration of “something which is absolutely inviolate and unknowable”. He makes the unarguable point that the artist cannot be held accountable for the response of the individual to his/her work. And that, surely, is fundamental to this current debate.

Let’s assume the worst – that these publicly unseen photographs of Henson’s do show pubescent children in a sexual context.

What of it? Adolescence is a time of awakening sexuality, physical and psychic. In that metamorphosis from child to adult is mystery, and tender, fragile, singular beauty. Surely this is the province of art? Where is the crime in seeking to capture this most complex and delicate of human transitions from multiple angles, of articulating “the unknowable” in the only way open to us – through art?

For the sake of argument, let’s postulate that our moral guardians are decent, simple-minded folk with a pure uncluttered agenda of protecting the child subjects of Henson’s work from the lustful attention of pedophiles. Isn’t their mission doomed to failure?

Who knows what depraved fantasies those kids might inspire in some neighbour as benign in appearance as Ned Flanders waving from next door as they come in from school? Or in some pervert at the local supermarket? Or, terrifyingly, in family members in positions of trust, perhaps resident in the family home? Not to mention the obvious – the Freddie Krugers haunting the kids’ monitors. Is confiscating a few pictures from a photographic exhibition really going to strike a blow against pedophilia?

Rudd’s position that “kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected” is disingenuous, or ill conceived, or both. How do Henson’s photographs sully the innocence of his adolescent subjects? Has he betrayed them, perhaps, giving them the impression that they were posing for an artistic shoot, subsequently and without permission creating some ghastly pornographic imagery through wicked Photoshop manipulation? Don’t think so – he has at stake an international reputation as an accomplished artist.

Whatever, let’s set aside questions of artistic merit and say the pics do inspire lustful fantasies in some viewers. How is the innocence of the subjects compromised? Does a baby in its mother’s arms in public lose its innocence if it attracts the foul gaze of a passing pedophile? Of course not. Similarly, art is not sullied by a depraved viewer interpretation, and neither are its subjects.

I’m conscious in this current climate of moving into dangerous territory here, but could it be that our moral guardians are projecting a deep unacknowledged communal fear in their righteous damnation of Henson’s work? A projected fear of contemplating the full reality of human sexuality, of experiencing complex and confusing reactions to Henson’s work that are outside wilful moral controls?

How can we ever know? The over-zealous nanny State has deprived us of the work that has spawned all this debate.

It is dismal that the Australia of today should crucify on the cross of political correctness one of its most respected artists. And it is downright dangerous to the community at large – far more so than pedophilia – that the nanny State should impose this sort of dumb-arsed quixotic righteousness on our art, stomp on our right to assess controversial works for ourselves, and undermine our cherished democratic values in the guise of protecting them.

Copyright Ross Buncle 2008
All rights reserved

Pedophilia – Or Pedophilia Phobia?


Perth, Australia

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Artist's Description

The Bill Henson exhibition raid and pending obscenity charges present potentially far more danger to our society than pedophilia. Is there more to the agenda of our guardians of public morality than meets the eye?

First published yesterday in my blog, The Boomtown Rap

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