Sexualization of Minors in Art

Another of the Nude Teen Pictures under debate by Bill Henson
Another of the Nude Teen Pictures under debate by Bill Henson.
Picture by the Daily Telegraph

It is now the task of art historians, critics and fellow artists to explain Henson’s work and defend his status as one of our finest artists. Their job is almost impossible.

The current debate about the representation of children and adolescents is so charged that anyone who disagrees with claims that pedophilic images are proliferating before our eyes is open to the charge of pedophilia themselves.

Henson’s work is art and, as such, it falls into a different cultural category to the ads for kids’ clothes and the tween magazines that have been the central focus of this debate. But these distinctions are irrelevant to people who believe that visual representations of children and adolescents are the real source of child abuse.

[From Art, not porn – Opinion –]

I have been thinking further about the issue of sexualization of teens in art. I think if the case against Bill Henson were to go through we will start to see extreme limitations in the freedom of expression and artistic freedom. we will also see a harsh and difficult change in the way we handle teenagers and the way they see themselves. This article fascinated me because I think there is a real fear that if you aren’t shocked and offended by Bill Henson’s artworks you are obviously a pedophile. I think that is the reason so many other galleries are following suit. it’s almost gestapo tactics.
I wonder what it says about the person who sees these pieces and immediately thinks they’re sexual. is it automatically because they are nude or is it because they felt a response and assumed others did as well? or is it that all emotional responses to a nude work, especially one of a nude minor, must be either outrage or titillation? I had an emotional response when I saw the first uncensored piece in the age. it was one of almost sadness, a fear for her going through puberty and experiencing so many new things, physically and emotionally. it reminded me of going through puberty myself and the uncertainty of it all – a sense of pride warring with fear.

Viewing this website forcibly reminded me of the dangers of fetishising innocence. School uniforms may well titillate pedophiles and prompt them to commit crimes. But is banning school uniforms the correct response?

If we go down the path of saying that all images of children and young adolescents can only portray them as ideal Brady Bunch kids, then we will spend our lives, as a society, looking for images of corrupted children and teenagers everywhere. Worse, we risk looking at every image through the lens of the pedophile.

[From Art, not porn – Opinion –]

I agree with this, by trying to anticipate what might turn a pedophile on we may be stepping into their shoes and thereby, not only destroying our own view of art, but possibly ruining the experience for others. the reality is that there are sick people in the world. there are people who will get turned on by the images of corpses in CSI, who will get excited by the shoes in a catalogue or even the feet in the Sound of Music (read this article for more on that surprising development). so what can we do? we can stop trying to predict them, stop trying to anticipate what they might find titillating and risk damaging freedom of art and expression, the reputations of renowned artists and focus instead on making sure our children are safe and educated. that they have control over their bodies and their own sexuality. I don’t want to step into a pedophile’s shoes, I don’t want to try to think like they do. and I don’t want to see beautiful artwork degraded just because some strange person might think it’s sexy.

if this goes ahead, what is on the cards next- huggies ads? Anne Geddes? where do we draw the line?

17 thoughts on “Sexualization of Minors in Art

  1. As a male life model I am becoming increasingly concerned by the conservative agenda in this country. Looks of horror are not uncommon when I inform people of what I do and whilst most don’t verbalize their thoughts, reading their expressions tells all.

    I love what I do and I am proud of my profession. Being a life-model means confronting your vulnerability but in doing so I have always found that it becomes the ultimate way of building mutual trust and respect with others. The teens that modeled for Henson will have an appreciation of that far beyond the upside down hypocrisy of this world.

    The distrust of these critics like Hetty Johnson must surely be the measure of their own insecurities and projections.

    Andrew Stretton

  2. ummm
    how old are you Andrew
    you dont seem to be a minor
    as adults we get to make choices based on our experiences, if you desire to model then good for you
    children have yet to have experiences and rely on adults to make certain choices
    let children be children first
    nurture them
    cherish them
    do not exploit them in the guise of art, it does art no favours

  3. JD, when you take the time to gather your thoughts and express them coherently, you convey them very well.

    I agree with everything you said above.

    The two issues being discussed in Jennie’s essays are: Is ALL artiscally depicted child nudity porn (particularly Mr. Henson’s, in this case)? And, are the subjects being ‘exploited’?

    In the first case, the arguements from both sides are mede according to personal feelings and, like the abortion issue, neither side is likely to abandon their beliefs and embrace the other’s.

    On the second, there can be a strictly logical discussion about whether these young subjects have the ability to understand what they are doing.

    We disagree on the first, agree on the second. I’m not so sure these kids know what they’re getting into, and the possible problems it may make in their future lives.

    So, there we are.

  4. Consent is one of the key issues and one I’m staying out of because I don’t have children yet. but I can say that if it ever came up (apart from my doing back flips) I would discuss it with my kids so that we both together make an informed decision. if the Parents can’t make the decision for the child, and the child cannot make an informed decision then perhaps together they can come up with informed consent.

    Henson’s previous models have all been very supportive of him through this and insist that he was not only very kind and conscientious of their feelings but that their parents were present and constantly kept in the loop. most of his models are pretty intelligent as well which makes a difference.

    What is being a child these days? especially at that age, I remember mostly training my butt off 6 days a week for a few hours a day at diving. dangling the O word (olympics) in front of parents has to be just as, if not more, exploitative. I don’t know any kids that were allowed to be kids at 12. there were the ones who had to study or practice their music at all hours or the ones who ran off to chase boys. it’s a bizarre in-between age where they can’t be a child anymore but they aren’t yet a teenager with all that implies. these days I see so many kids dressed as hookers in micro minis and platform shoes, crop tops and tons of makeup with grown up eating disorders and I think that they are 10 times worse than anything in these pictures – because they are sexualized. because sexualization is becoming the norm.

    Bill Henson has depicted these kids as they are. confused, lost, alone, sad, changing, but they aren’t sexualized in any way – and I think that is what people are so confused by. these are kids being kids. we just forgot what that looked like.

  5. I applaud JD. He seems to be one of the only people defending the child. Let the artist defend himself, he’s a grown man. Let the parents defend themselves. How does this child, who has been described by both Jennie and the artist as confused, lost, alone, sad, and/or changing, defend him or herself? That IS the nature of that age which is why we try to protect them.

    Why do you presume that only pedophiles can be titilated by this image? As Barbara said in an earlier reply, this is not a perfect world yet. I remember that awkward time. Lewd remarks about new body curves from so-called grownups. Men drooling all over themselves at the innocence of someone who has not yet purchased their first bra. And please do some research about sexual abuse. It is not the pedophile who is usually the culprit but a trusted adult friend or family member and it is alot more common than previously thought. It is estimated that 1 in 4 people have been sexually abused as children. If your rationale is correct then there must be an awful lot of pedophiles out there. All the more reason not to put innocence on parade in any way, art or no art.

    As to the kids dressed as ‘hookers’, don’t forget they too have parents who allowed them to exhibit themselves in this manner. Does that make it OK?

    Come on people, this is not the gestapo. It is common sense. – Angie

  6. Hi JD,

    Thank you for your post. Debate, rather than mud slinging or sarcasm, is certainly something we need more of in this country but unfortunately the divisive stance taken by politicians and others with populist power agenda’s simply stifle that process.

    I agree with your comment about letting children be children. Our society however does not do that in any sense. The vast majority or people accept ‘life as it has been sold to them from birth’ and as a consequence develop into human beings with a limited and indoctrinated frame of reference. Once this occurs, they are blinded to that indoctrination and resultant exploitation of children from birth. Ttheir children therefore develop the very same myopia.

    Let’s take an excerpt from R.D. Laings ‘The Obvious’:

    “Once you are hooked you don’t know you are hooked. One comes to be ashamed of one’s original nature, terrified of it and ready to destroy evidence of it in oneself and anyone else. This has been achieved – one can see it being achieved – not only by families but; by all the institutions that are brought to bear on children. First, in babies, through the kinesics of handling and the suppression of their immediate instinctive intelligence of smell and touch and taste.”

    If we wish to use the argument of letting children be children, then we need to be congruent in all aspects of that approach, yet sadly society is anything but. We don’t however see an uproar about this because we believe our society to be sane, even though, if we were to analyze it truthfully we would find it utterly insane.

    May I respectfully suggest reading Eric Fromm’s ‘The Sane Society’.

    Life as it has been sold to you from birth may never be the same again.

    Kindest Regards


  7. saying that children have lots of pressures on them so lets take naked photos of them, that just weird logic
    think about it

    the fact Hensons models have been supportive of him means little really (how informed, therefore intelligent can a 12 year old be?), many children have been lured by nice guy paedophiles, (not that i am suggesting Henson is, only he KNOWS that, anyone else is just guessing)

    Andrew, i am very comfortable with my outlook on like, thank you :)it is something i have achieved over my lifetime, looking at things from all sides from the information i can get
    i dont know Eric and have no reason to trust that his own reasonings are not tainted by his upbringing

    it seems i may owe allnudist and apology for calling you mrnudist earlier

  8. Hey JD, no apology necessary. My error. The guy you disagree with (though sometimes we agree) is me, Steve. The love of my life and partner in crime of our blog (, Angie, decided to pop in and give her opinion here. Sorry for the confusion. We’ll try to be more clear in the future.

    We have had some, ah, interesting discussions around the house on this topic since we don’t completely agree (to put it mildly) but, so far, I don’t feel our marriage is in danger. And luckily, the couch is very comfortable to sleep on…

    Angie says I was rude to you so, uurrrggg, I aplogize. I hate it when she’s right and I’m wrong.

  9. Hi JD,

    I am extremely disappointed. Debate means debate. Entering into a discussion of this nature means following through with facts and information to back up your perspective. The handful of emotional statements you made in your last post, when combined with your attempt to bring the debate to an end by postulating your apparent happiness with your own life, represent nothing more than a cop out.

    The simple fact that you won’t even entertain the idea of reading Eric Fromm’s classic, simply confirms the highly blinkered approach you have to anything even remotely challenging.

    Congratulations, you have succeeded in confirming your own myopia.



  10. what facts would you like me to back up?
    ithe fact that his models were supportive of him mean was mentioned earlier in the blog
    if this is not true then that is a plus for my side of the argument
    i also didnt mention all the pressures children are under, that was from earlier in the blog and i stand by my reasoning that adding to their pressures doesnt make sense

    you can not tell me that you know what is inside anybodys head but your own, if you can i would like to see you prove it

    because i choose not to read a book that you recommend doesnt make me myopic and i take offense that you a stranger who has never met me except in this blog can come up with that remark, sorry but that is a fact, i would especially not read it if it supported using children in naked photos (why else would you recommend it as that is the point of this discussion)

    the discussion is about exploiting naked children in photos
    so far no one has come up with a non selfish sensible answer as to why it is a good idea
    i fear art is being used as the cop out

  11. Allnudist thanks for the apology although i am not sure what it is for myself lol
    and thank you for clearing up my confusion
    ps i have never said i was anti nudity
    what adults do is their business
    this discussion as far as i thought was only about children
    going by the title at the top

  12. To JD and others who think like JD

    Art is needed!
    Art is a visual representation that has made the human race dream of subjects like walking upright, reaching for the stars, contemplating the nature of divinity and of the darkness in humanity.

    Too say that art is not needed (albeit in another post on this blog) shows how small minded your being.

    Your focus here is also the focus of the few yes FEW who are raising a ruckus over this issue, the issue of them being children.

    Ok to cover some points, yes Hensons models are backing him and saying how great and fulfilling the shoots were. This are not comments made by children (although they said as much at the time too) these are made by the models who are now in their 30’s and have children of their own, so I would think that even you would say they have a certain perspective on their side and that as someone arguing “for the sake of the children” that their opinion carries more weight than yours as they have had the relevant experience to judge.

    Next point, what is your definition of exploitation, Henson hires his models just like any other photographer some are even volunteers
    dictionary definition (the negative one that you seem to be referring to):an act that exploits or victimizes someone (treats them unfairly).
    How where they treated unfairly? If they have no problems with it now or later in life as proven by his countless models before where is the exploitation?

    Another point is that they are ..ssshh nude. Ok this is a touchy subject agreed, not going to deny it. But by your arguments ANY nude shot/artwork throughout history would be classed as exploitation whether they be of children, men, women, animals or deities! OMG did you now Adam is naked on the most famous paintings of all time n the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the VATICAN city! You can almost guarantee that the model for that was a teenager. Ahh but here comes the silly “no that is a painting not a photograph” coddswallop there is no difference! Would you deny that the “Creation of Man” is Art even though it depicts a naked boy/man for that is what he is and I’ll bet the model was too! Children in Nude art is not Kiddie Porn but there is a line. Intelligent people can look at these images and they will automatically know the difference.

    Next point, why use children at all. do you really think you could get the feeling and depiction of change, worry, uncertainty, innocence, bravado, ungainly and disconnected feelings of a boy/girl morphing into a Man/Woman by taking a photo of 40 year old? No it cannot be done because there is no way an adult with an adults experience can physically convey those emotions in a believable way. So it has to be these children/adults, and to convey the full spectrum of this journey from child to adolescent to adult one must be free to show that full spectrum.
    Oh and the reasons to show this? To remind Adults what it was like, because we all to soon forget. To show kids that here is another person like you, going through what you are going through and that it is ok to feel that way.

    You comments seem to indicate that you are under the impression that this is Henson’s first show of this kind but he has been showing and producing works like this (and of other subjects to) for over 20 years now to great acclaim throughout the world.

    Trust me I would beone of the first in line with a flaming torch if any harm psychological or physical can been put upon these kids.

    Small minded morons are whom are making these kids feel like they may have done something wrong. If these kids have any regrets now or later it is because of the media and political over reaction being driven by the aforementioned small minded moronic group.

    I wonder if your complaints are also being made to the phys Ed books showing Johnny and Janes naughty parts to the kids for their necessary education (much to the giggles of the kids) or are you one of those people who believes if you shut your eyes your children will stay innocent virgins and never have confusing times about their own bodies.

    food for thought
    Sorry to other readers for the rant/essay and any grammatical errors contained within.

  13. Liam, I wish you could just let it all out and express yourself. 😉

    Now, is there any chance we can move this discussion to a higher level than name-calling and insults? It may be news to you, but people are entitled to their own opinions and by calling commentors ‘morons’ because they disagree with you degrades your arguemant.

    The idea that a twelve-year-old, regardless of ‘parental approval’, can give any kind of informed consent is ludicrous. Just look at the 5-year-old beauty pageants with babies tarted up like whores.

    Many people are of the belief that ‘art’ is largely overblown in importance. For instance, when schools are feeling a money crunch they tend to cut the art programs, then sports, rather than subjects like math, language, science, etc. That’s because, well, art is considered expendable. Art is dessert, not the main course.

    Funding for social services goes to essential needs for survival, not pretty things for the wealthy to hang on their walls. It’s nice to see a work of public art on the Square, but not if you’re homeless.

    The first recorded art we have is scratched in rock or drawn with local pigments. These works were done by someone who had the LIESURE to spend that time, not because the cave community required it.

    ‘Art’ survives because of societal support. And society certainly deserves to express an opinion as to that which it considers art. The artist offers, society decides. – Steve

  14. I have to say that I love a lively discussion with intelligent feedback.

    So far everyone, no matter which side of the issue, has kept it pretty above-board.

    I did not appreciate the ‘small minded morons’ comment by Liam or the ‘myopic’ comment by Andrew. Those are personal attacks on people who you disagree with.

    I certainly know how strongly we all feel about this just from the replies I have read but personal attacks are not necessary. We are not 12 year olds but adults trying to have a healthy debate.

    I notice no one comments on the women’s replies so good luck with your debate gentlemen. – Angie

  15. Hi JD,

    Welcome back to the debate, thank you for your response.

    “There seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing a world for oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture, or remark, shrivelling up the reality in which one is lodged.”

    (Erving Goffman; Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961) Page 41.)

    “The physical environment unremittingly offers us possibilities of experience, or curtails them. The fundamental human significance of architecture stems from this. The glory of Athens, as Pericles so lucidly stated, and the horror of so many features of the modern megalopolis is that the former enhanced and the latter constricts humankind’s consciousness.”

    (R.D. Laing, “The Politics of Experience”.)

    Within these two quotations, there are some beautiful points that enable us, if we open our minds to the richness of their meaning, to understand the Henson issue beyond the bounds of a simplistic, moralistic stance. My use of the word “myopia” is not a personal attack; it describes a physical condition (Wikipedia: those with myopia see nearby objects clearly but distant objects appear blurred), which can merely be used as an example for those who do not see the true depth and complexity of issues.

    By arguing the point from a moralistic “wrong” perspective, and by not backing up his personal moralistic beliefs with any factual evidence from any other source, sources that could link Henson’s work with any untoward effects, JD is clearly demonstrating his moralistic myopia. This simplistic moralistic approach is what our politicians want, it is what the media wants, and it’s what business wants, because it sells.

    I have attempted to open up this debate to a deeper complexity, by using passages from some of the world’s greatest thinkers. To dismiss these people, as JD did, as individuals with their own personal agenda, is to show nothing but contempt. This issue is not about simple “right or wrong” it is about complexity and the use of an open mind to discuss that complexity.

    Where is the Psychological evidence linking Henson’s actions with pedophilia or any other outcome? Please JD put it forward and lets debate it! They are the facts I want to see.

    Eric Fromm’s book is about embracing that complexity, understanding that there is much more to life than simplistic moralism. If you want simplistic moralsim, go find yourself a Klu Klux Clan meeting. I am sure they will oblige.

    If not, here are some passages from R.D. Laing’s book “The Politics of Experience”, which hold further gems of thought if we are willing to open our minds to them regarding the Henson issue and the insanity of our society:

    “In order to rationalize our industrial-military complex, we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond our noses. Long before a nuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste our own sanity. We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brain-washing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high IQ’s if possible.”

    If you need to read and re-read that, do so and then think about how sane our world really is.

    He Goes on:

    “From the moment of birth, when this stone-age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as it’s mother and father have been, and their parents and their parents before them. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its (the babies) potentialities. This enterprise is on the whole successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves. A half-crazed creature, more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.”

    Could it possibly be (shock horror) that this is what Henson is trying to depict? Their inner conflict with their pureness and the insane torment we place on them in order to adapt them to the insanity? Why is it that we are not questioning the cause of that torment and insanity? Why is it that we persist with simplistic moralism? What are we afraid of?

    He goes further:

    “Love and violence, properly speaking, are polar opposites. Love lets the other be, but without affection and concern. Violence attempts to constrain the other’s freedom, to force him / her to act in the way we desire, but with ultimate lack of concern, with indifference to the other’s own existence of destiny.”

    I could go on. But if the picture isn’t well and truly forming by now, I fear that there is little hope!



  16. To Angie and those who where offended by what it seems to have been interpreted as a personnel attack on JD and his supporters I apologize.
    Looking back I can see where that may have come across in my post, I was tired and got a little incensed over some of his thoughtless comments. Art is indeed needed and it is (metaphorically) blood/air/water to some.
    Just because a School bored decided that the Art curriculum could take a hit does not make that decision right.
    Look back throughout history and examine the few eras labeled as “Golden ages” all of them where heavily driven by Art and Artists.

    Point of fact : people are free to decide what they like and what they do not like, I am not going to force them, I myself am not a big fan of Henson’s works but that does not mean that I cannot appreciate the Art involved in their creation or in his and the models right to do so. People do have a right to criticize the work but they do not have the right to get it banned, outlawed or discriminated against.

    Boiled down with out the rantiness my main points where:
    1. That the models do not feel they where exploited. Neither the ones from the works seized last week or from the ones from the last 20 or so years of his career. Only they (plus other models who have done similar jobs whilst young) have they right to claim if it is exploitation or not as they have the experience to decide.

    2. that these people who are narrowing their focus to just one aspect of the works, the fact that the subjects are naked young people, are completely ignoring the intent, mood, feeling and context conveyed by the work.

    People keep trotting out the argument of “they are kids”, that they cannot possibly make these decisions, correct! That is why they have parents, family members, friends, agents or publicists to help guide and INFORM them of any possible negative aspects of their decisions. This is the same of ADULTS, when faced tough decisions you will ask for advice from parents, family members, friends, agents or publicists and you choose from there.

    There will always be more to say on this subject and this post is already much longer than intended (at least it is not as long as the last one=p)


  17. JD, I’m a little disappointed with your attempted sleight-of-hand:

    the discussion is about exploiting naked children in photos
    so far no one has come up with a non selfish sensible answer as to why it is a good idea
    i fear art is being used as the cop out

    You’re right, nobody is defending the exploitation of children. That’s not an issue that is being debated here – I think everybody agrees that child exploitation is a BadThing(tm). The issue is whether the photos in question are (1) pornographic or (2) exploitation.

    Henson’s models (including those photographed as minors and who are now parents themselves) don’t feel exploited, their guardians don’t feel the models were exploited, so how are they being exploited? And the photographs are now legally NotPornographic(tm) therefore it’s a bit of a moot point now

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