Of late, both politicians and the media are confusing three related – but distinct – concepts, viz: sex education, sexuality, and child sexualisation. The Bill Henson controversy is a case in point: but before that, some definitions.
Let’s be clear. Sex education is, funnily enough, educational: explaining the whats, whys and huhs of the downstairs plumbing for no smuttier purpose than the stoppage of misinformation. Sexuality is where things get naughtier – although more nebulously defined, it connotes a willingness to engage in, or a curiosity about, what one might actually do with a partner. Child sexualisation is essentially age-inappropriate, marketing overtly sexual products or ideas to a too-young demographic, to a detrimental (or at least, morally reprehensible) effect. It is also tied to exploitation: portraying pubescent or pre-pubescent youth in an inappropriately adult, sexual fashion.
If looked at on a scale, we might consider sexual education the least innocuous of the three, and child sexualisation the most damaging. Sexuality dwells in the expansive middleground of context, sometimes clear-cut, sometimes grey. And now, three topical issues: Bill Henson’s photographs, Parliamentry debate over sexual content in Dolly magazine, and the primary school teacher fired for posing nude in a women’s magazine.
Ready? Then let’s dive in.
We in Australia are highly confused about sex, particularly as relates to young people. While John Howard has left the building, the Religious Right has not, and despite our being citizens of a 21st century Western nation, moral unhappiness about public sexuality remains a contentious issue. Parliamentarians debating the content of Dolly magazine are concerned with the prospect of stray seven-or-eight-year-olds reading material almost universally intended for those in their early and mid teens – but why? It seems logical to acknowledge that if we live in a sexually enlightened society, younger children might end up hearing about sex before the official deadline. But if we, as adults, are mature and sensible enough to reassure them, this seems a small price to pay for producing, in turn, teenagers who are mature and sensible about sex. Let’s go further: it is a fact that whenever age-sensitive material is produced, someone outside the intended audience will see it. But should that alone stop us producing it? More than anything else, political posturing about hypothetical small children reading grown-up columns betrays a different fear: that the intended audience of such information is under eighteen and more legitimately curious than pundits find comfortable. Put another way: adults don’t like that teenagers think about sex.
The grey area here is, unsurprisingly, the fault of sexuality. Although the legal age of consent in Australia is 16, many adults struggle with the idea of fourteen-or-fifteen-year-olds wondering – perhaps innocently, perhaps not – about what lies ahead. Ultimately, it seems wiser to educate intelligently about sexuality and sexual practice (a la the disputed Dolly columns) as well as biology where interest is shown: the alternative is a potentially harmful ignorance, or learning from unsuitable sources. Not all young teens are interested in sex, but then, this is not the percentage of the population most likely to be reading Dolly Doctor.
We are just as confused about adult sexuality in the context of younger folk. When Lynne Tziolas was fired, it wasn’t for bringing sexually explicit material into her primary school class, publicising her nude photos to students or inappropriately referencing her employers: it was simply because, as a primary teacher, the school found the idea of her public sexuality offensive. That the intended audience was adult changed nothing; nor did they seem moved by the fact that, until they fired Lynne and the issue hit the media, her students were entirely unaware of what had happened. Having a healthy sex life didn’t impact on her ability to teach well (her students petitioned to have her back), but the school’s reaction was all too familiar to anyone who keeps an eye on the headlines. Whenever a figure in public life has an affair, swaps lovers, gets divorced or generally appears to be more sexual than a crotchless doll, society gets in a tizzy. We like our celebrities to lead nice, compartmentalized lives: the bits we want to see, and the bits we don’t. Poor old Miley Cyrus learned this lesson recently after posing in mildly explicit photos. Had the media not had a field day about a teenaged children’s entertainer getting some of her kit off, it seems doubtful that any of her tiny fans would have noticed. The impact of moralists worldwide publicly shaming a 15-year-old for daring to feel comfortable in her own skin seems a more genuine cause for concern than the idea that a 15-year-old might want to take such photos in the first place. Similarly, even assuming Tania Zaetta did sleep with troops in Afghanistan, she should be guilty of nothing more sensational than breaking the military conditional against hanky-panky. Instead, society is up in arms that she might’ve had s-e-x, which makes our collective media covering of the issue look like a bunch of ten-year-olds giggling behind the bike sheds.
Which, with depressing inevitability, leads us to Bill Henson’s oh-so-controversial photos of young, nude girls. Now, I’ll happily admit to voting for Kevin Rudd, and I still maintain it was a fantastic idea, but I do wish he’d keep his moralising mouth shut on the subject of art. Depending on who you’ve been reading, the ‘problem’ arising from Henson’s work might be described as: the inability of twelve-or-thirteen-year-olds to give intelligent consent to being photographed nude; the idea of child pornography; why the photos constitute art; whether banning the display is an act of undue censorship; or all of the above. For me, it boils down to the following question: does nudity alone make an image pornographic? To which I answer: no, nor should it ever. Henson has a history of taking disquieting, melancholy snaps; the purpose of art is to provoke thought and emotion; and he has certainly fulfilled both criteria. Better than anything else, both the photos themselves and the public’s reaction has put a finger on what I’ve spent the last umpteen paragraphs trying to elucidate: that we are uncertain about our sexuality, the sexuality of our youth, and what it means in the context of our society.
Yes, the images are unsettling: they’re meant to be. Are they explotative? Regardless of what the law says, it seems intellectually condescending to say that teenagers don’t have the intelligence to speak on their own behalf, and hypocritical that advocates of children’s rights have here declared themselves uninterested in children’s voices. Similarly, it would be naive of me to claim that all Henson’s models will feel as happy as they do now for the rest of their lives: everyone changes. From person to person, the photos have probed a tender spot, because rather than child sexualisation, they touch on sexuality in youth. The models and their families are content with the results; the unease is in the viewers, and if so many people are incapable of looking at naked girls and seeing nothing but Hustler, then the problem is bigger than we think.
How, then, do I define child sexualisation? How about: kids’ pole-dancing kits and sexy clothing, child beauty pageants, children’s make-up kits, and post-pubescent models selling clothes to women decades their senior. How is this last different from Henson’s photos, I hear you cry? Call me new-fashioned, but there is a world of difference between pretending twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds are 25 for the purpose of marketing, and showing that twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds can possess a disquieting sexuality of their own. Rather than being superficial, it is the distinction of context – why we create an image, and for what purpose – which determines how it should be labelled. Photos become pornographic when they are made with pornography in mind; Bill Henson’s photos became thought-provoking when they were made with povoking thought in mind. And whether or not people are happy to admit it, this is the context in which they have been overwhelmingly viewed: they have made us think, debate, argue and consider our idea of sexuality in a way we otherwise mightn’t, and that cannot be to anything but the good.
Ultimately, then, the same is true of all societal sexual discourse. The thoughts or arguments might not always be comforting; but that’s why they’re important.
Addendum: For those interested, I agree entirely with Larissa Dubecki.