The photographs of Joel Peter Witkin are not for the faint-hearted: their subject matter includes dissected cadavers, dead babies, aborted fetuses, the deformed, circus freaks, severed heads and limbs, naked dwarves, various transsexuals and intersex persons, all often in sexually explicit tableaux referencing great works of Art.
I remember looking through a book of his work with a colleague – she seemed untroubled by the dark and grizzly material, and appreciated the wonderful aesthetic qualities Witkin brought to it.
Untroubled, that is, until she came across one photo called ‘Nude with Mask‘.
This photograph shows a girl of about eight, lying across an armchair, naked other than for a black velvet ‘bat-mask’ which covers the top half of her head. The way she is draped across the armchair, perpendicular to the viewer’s gaze, reveals nothing intimate. But her body looks soft, shapely and warm; her nipples are distinct; her posture is languorous and sensual, her mouth half-open in a pout. The old, over-stuffed, satin cushion she’s laid across molds itself to her form as if doing so gave it pleasure. It feels like she’s awaiting a response from the viewer.
On seeing this image my colleague pulled a face and gave an ‘eeugh’ of disgust and quickly turned to the next page and the next picture.
Her reaction won’t surprise those of us who are sensitive to such things. Yet my colleague was no prude: she was a lively and courageous-minded sort of person, an artist and mother to at least one daughter. She was someone whom I liked and respected.
I’d long learned the expediency of not being seen to question the orthodoxy on these matters, so my initial impulse was to say nothing.
But I also wanted to subtly needle her into having to explain and defend her reaction. I counted to ten then, disingenuously, said something like:
‘Yes, I know how you feel, children can be kind of yucky, can’t they.’
She gave me a startled, puzzled look.
“No, there’s nothing wrong with children – what bothers me when I see a photo like this is what a child molester would feel if he saw this photograph.”
I left it at that. Pursuing this exchange would have only drawn attention to my interest in this issue, an issue which can only legitimately preoccupy a criminologist, an abuse survivor or a law enforcement agent – and preferably a female one rather than a male.
But this exchange has stayed in my memory.
I’m not sure what I would have said next, had I felt it safe to prolong the exchange and challenge her openly. Her reaction raises a lot of questions: would it have been different if the photographer had been a woman? Did the fact that a man took it contribute to her difficulty with the image ?
Why had she reacted with disgust at something that even she acknowledged wasn’t of itself disgusting, whilst showing no disgust at images that showed genuinely shocking things?
And can one take someone’s evaluation of their own gut reactions at face value? Do we really know why we react in certain ways to particular stimuli? For example, could it be that she actually felt in herself a positive response to the child’s sensuality and, uneasy with that response, defused it by attributing it to an imaginary paedophile?
What does it mean when a person’s reaction to beauty is not to appreciate it but to imagine it (according to their point of view, that is) being somehow misused or ‘abused’? Isn’t this like looking at the Mona Lisa and feeling distressed because one can’t stop thinking what it would be like to have a pot of black paint and uncontrollable impulse to deface it?
Maybe she might have justified her reaction by comparing it to that of someone who cannot enjoy a walk through a beautiful woodland, knowing that there was a developer out there longing to grub it up to make room for a shopping mall and parking lots?
Anyway, my response to her ‘eeurgh’ was clearly not the one she’d hoped for – she’d been surprised that I’d so misinterpreted her response to the image. Her little performance was something she’d probably already acted out several times, and each time it must have elicited the desired response: kudos for her evident disapproval of anything that had the slightest hint of paedophilia, ‘child abuse’ or child pornography.
Maybe I could have questioned her about the nature of her archetypal paedophile – presumably an ugly, greasy haired middle-aged man, with ‘paedo moustaches’ and his cardigan tucked into his sweatpants; her ‘eeugh’ suggested that she imagined the image in question would provoke him into a bout of furious masturbation.
Well, I could have assured her that there existed at least one paedophile whose response to this image was primarily an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities: the beauty of the posing, the lighting, its composition and atmosphere. Yes, I found pleasure and very mild stimulation from the girl’s body and pose, but nothing more than an average, heterosexual man would presumably experience in front of, say, Cranach’s ‘The Nymph of the Fountain’: a ‘twinge’, but nothing to send anyone scuttling off looking for the privacy of a lockable room, well-supplied with hand oil and tissues.
And from all the paedophiles I know, either in person or through the internet, I’d say that her imagined paedophile is very much a creation of the unfettered popular imagination; a ‘creation’ that doesn’t even qualify for for the status of ‘caricature’ since the latter derives its potency from the amplification of recognisable elements of truth
Indeed if any sexuality or love requires gentleness, sensitivity, attentiveness, restraint, responsiveness, selflessness and serenity it is paedophilia. As so often the public imagination has got it 180° wrong: that which they imagine paedophiles to be is exactly what they are not, exactly what they can not be.
Just as I had to leave my colleague’s false ideas about paedophiles unchallenged it is likewise risky and generally counter-productive to try to speak out and correct the untruths and mistakes of the public imagination.
The internet is rife with images of cruelty, suffering and horror.
One can, if one chooses, look at photographs and films of decayed and damaged cadavers, accidents and injuries, one can watch people being executed or murdered, one can watch violent closed-circuit camera recordings of crimes, or cruelty to both humans and animals, one can look at deformed new-borns destined to live only a few hours, or maybe even snuff pornography (if indeed it even exists).
A Google search for the phrase “illegal imagery” brings up only results concerned with the depiction of children and/or their sexuality. You will find no mention of any of the types of imagery listed in the above paragraph. Indeed even ‘snuff porn’ seems to be a grey area and may be only illegal to make and distribute, not possess.
It seems that, in the West at least, one can look at all of the above with impunity: the only type of imagery which it is illegal to see are those relating to children and their sexuality.
Why could this be? Why are the worst and most disturbing horrors permissible yet something as universal and unremarkable and everyday as a child’s genitals not?
Let’s imagine someone like my artist colleague defending her attitudes. She might make the following points:
“Such images should be illegal because they depict the commission of a crime.”
The internet is rife with footage of crimes being committed, recorded either on CCTV or by onlookers with mobile phones. These can be viewed by any man, woman or child on Youtube. Indeed most of our films and television series centre round the depiction of crimes.
Nor does all illegal imagery of children depict the commission of a crime: a child is not committing a crime by simply being naked, nor is a man holding a camera committing a crime by being in the same room as her – indeed that man could be her father capturing his daughter’s enjoyment of her bath-time.
“Child sexual abuse is a crime more serious than any other.”
Really!? Does this mean that she’d rather her daughter were (non-sexually) tortured and murdered than have her bottom or genitals stroked by a friendly neighbour?
“Such images may incite paedophiles to offend.”
Well, couldn’t the same be said about depictions of other crimes? violence? robbery? murder? As noted above, our culture is awash with depictions of such crimes. And the popularity of violent computer games suggests that there are a large number of people who get some pleasure from at least simulating such acts. Some of these might develop a desire to actually perpetrate the acts they’ve been simulating on the screen. However society chooses not to make the depictions of such crimes illegal.
Moreover there seems to be evidence that porn reduces ‘offending’ rather than incites it.
“Every time someone looked at such an illegal image the child depicted suffers anew the abuse.”
Whilst this is plainly a ridiculous statement as it stands (as if sticking nails into a likeness of someone could deliver them pain) there is some tangential validity to it. I imagine the feelings of the loved ones of a victim of one of Daesh’s filmed murders. It must be terrible to simply know that footage of your loved one’s execution is circulating round the internet, and people are watching it, maybe even getting some kick out of it.
Also, inevitably, there must be a terrible process in which those close to the victim inevitably recreate, from snippets of information and rumour, and against their will, the things they imagine depicted in the footage.
So likewise I can imagine that someone may feel distress at the idea that illegal images of themselves, made when they were children, are circulating round the internet, especially if they become aware that they are much-viewed.
But that does not explain why the images of child sexuality are illegal and not the ones of other crimes and events that could be distressing to those depicted, or their families and friends.
Nor does this explain why there is an increasing number of prosecutions for the possession of cartoons depicting child sexuality.
Are these images, in fact, illegal because they act as persuasive witnesses to the existence of child sexuality?
Could the true goal of laws relating to sexual images of children in fact be the effective eradication of the notion of child sexuality from the popular discourse, culture and the minds of the citizenry?
And what else is there in our society that could act as a witness to the existence of child sexuality? To quote from my own “18 common misconceptions about paedophiles & paedophilia”
“Who in our society has knowledge and experience of child sexuality? Parents (who too often teach their children ‘shame’ so that by the age of 5 or 6 most children are fully aware that ‘sex’ is a taboo subject about which their parents are not willing to be open)? Teachers, police, doctors, psychologists, social workers? Which of these could a child be sufficiently at ease with to express their sexuality towards? The answer is, of course, ‘none of these’.
The fact is that in our society it’s only the ‘paedophile’ who accepts child sexuality; who, when a child displays sexual behaviour, doesn’t react negatively, doesn’t shame the child, doesn’t make her feel that her sexuality is ‘bad’. Even celibate paedophiles often have the experience of being the object of a child’s sensual or sexual interest.
Society and the Law, by criminalising the means by which such knowledge could be gathered, have, a priori, defined any evidence which disagrees with the orthodoxy as ‘inadmissible’ – thus depriving society, sociology, psychology and the law of the possibility of insights into the important subject of child sexuality, and hereby maintaining the belief that children are not sexual or interested in sex.”
Are Paedophiles feared and reviled because it’s not possible for society to openly fear its own children? Does society instead deny the existence of child sexuality and transfer its hatred onto those who, against the tide of society, would accept, encourage and reveal its existence? Maybe society’s hatred of paedophilia is a case of ‘shooting the messenger’ because society doesn’t like what he might report.
If those descriptions I’ve read of films showing children happily, ‘joyfully’ even, enjoying intimacy with other children or adults are accurate, then such experiences and imagery would seem to furnish a strong and persuasive witness to the existence of child sexuality.
‘Furnish a strong and persuasive witness to the existence of child sexuality‘ – how strange to find myself writing those words! As if ‘Child Sexuality’ were some vanishingly improbable or rumoured-to-be-extinct phenomenon!
As if Freud had never written his “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” over a century ago! As if no mother or father has ever had to brush away their toddler’s hands from their genitals and distract the child’s attention from the feelings they were evidently experiencing there!
As if each and every one of us hasn’t at some time been a child who’s felt love and desire for another child, or an adult, maybe even pleasure at their touch and attention! As if the majority of pre-industrial cultures and societies have not been accepting, encouraging even, of childhood sexuality (if you don’t believe this have a browse through the ‘Growing Up Sexually‘ atlas)!
As if this fear of child sexuality were not a very recent phenomenon in our Western societies!
In living memory children’s sexuality was accepted and part of our culture and even considered as something to value and nurture: during the 70s French philosophers, writers, politicians and artists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Daniel Cohn-Bendit called for the decriminalisation of child-adult sexual interactions, in the UK P.I.E. could actively and openly campaign for reforms to the Age of Consent laws, in 1978 Louis Malle made the film ‘Pretty Baby’ &c &c
If this is the true reason why imagery depicting child sexuality is illegal then the next question is why are our WEIRD societies so suddenly determined to eradicate child sexuality?
I have suggested one possible nexus of reasons in the essay “Towards the Aetiology of Paedophobia“: that the nuclear family, and other cultural phenomena of late capitalism, isolate children in relationships that can only thrive if those children are considered as asexual. But I suspect that this is not the whole story. The search will continue…
In the second part of this essay I will examine more closely some of the ethical problems and difficulties posed by child pornography.