Nudes are in the news again. Specifically, under-age nudity has reared its terribly inappropriate head recently with the abolition of the artistic purpose defence in child pornography cases. It’s never been more exciting, or perhaps dangerous, to be doing stuff in the buff.

The reforms to current child pornography laws emerged from the NSW Child Pornography Working Party which, set-up to examine the state’s child pornography laws and sex offence sentencing in the wake of the furore Bill Henson’s photographs created in 2008.

Artists who create images of nude children would have to pay $500 an image to get Commonwealth classification to make absolutely sure they would not be prosecuted under the new laws. That seems like a stretch in a profession where au naturel photography and making shit-all profit go hand in hand. This may mean artists will not bother to have their work classified at all and risk prosecution, or not even produce the pictures in the first place. I’m not sure which is worse.

Ignoring my previous point, the reforms seem well intentioned, but let’s not forget the authorities have thrown around accusations of child pornography and abuse rather liberally in the past. In May 2008 police seized up to twenty-one photographs of naked child models and said they would lay charges over an exhibition by Henson. The charges would be for publishing the photos of adolescent girls on the Internet as publicity for the exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington. The case was eventually dropped after legal advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions. In addition, the decision followed a ruling by the Office of Film and Literature Classification that the exhibition photograph was ‘mild’ and ‘not sexualised to any degree’. It was given a Parental Guidance classification.

Henson photoDespite this apparent non-event, the mainstream media went into fits of excitement and righteous outrage on whatever side seemed most viable at the time. In the coverage it was notable that most organisations blurred the photos so as to avoid offence. The Nine Network, for example.

Sure, the photos were available elsewhere. Sure, the case was dropped. But why risk free expression?

Politicians weighed in too of course. Our very own Kevin Rudd told the Nine Network:

I find them absolutely revolting. Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff – frankly, I don’t think there are any – just allow kids to be kids.

Art Australia MonthlyIn a somewhat tactless response to Henson’s troubles, Art Monthly Australia put this image by Polixeni Papapetrou on the cover some months after.

The image of Papapetrou’s then six-year-old daughter was referred to the classification board and the issue went no further.

Nonetheless the woman who led the campaign against Henson’s work, Hetty Johnson, the founder of Bravehearts, whipped the media into a storm. She went on the attack, telling news outlets:

This is manufactured by adults for the pleasure of adults, the financial benefit of adults, whatever it is. This is an adult desire being projected on to children.

In a depressing recycling of events, the politicians weighed in too. One of our many recent Premiers Morris Iemma described Papapetrou’s pictures as a ‘cheap, sick stunt’. The Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell, who is likely to be our next Premier incidentally, called for a review of the funding the magazine received from the Australia Council. And of course, K Rizzle, ‘Frankly, I can’t stand this stuff.’

At every opportunity our elected officials publicly denounce anything related to nude children and exert pressure to have it banned.

In a lot of media representations, the image was censored as with the depiction on Nine MSN. Not wanting to cause controversy they black out the offending body parts: her right nipple and the hint of a buttock. Thank the good Lord we were spared.

These debates have caused sexuality in photography to become quite taboo. While the previous photos strive more for a sensuous affect rather than sexual, and there is quite a distinction, it has caused popular images since then to be distanced from sexuality.

Tunick’s The Base installation was commissioned by The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival to bring the straight and homosexual community together on 1 March 2010. Tunick made nude hip and acceptable again with the images of thousands of bodies amassed on, in and around the Opera House.

The images of the event were then splashed all over the media all over the world. Everyone seemed to embrace nudes with the major news corporations especially revelling in the chance to fire out pun after nude themed pun in headlines ranging from ‘Five-thousand bum salute’ to ‘Opera House early birds flash with success’. (To which, it should be noted, I hope to contribute to in any way possible.) And a politician couldn’t be heard complaining.

Of course one has to be over eighteen and the distance de-personalises the faces into one in thousands. Instead of intimacy, it’s a sea of rumps and humps. In fact, there is barely any need for the media to blur the images.

Tunick's 'The Base installation'

What’s more, the press couldn’t quote enough people saying that it wasn’t even, like, sexual, it was just, like, a tribal gathering of humanity. You know? Unity man, yeah. Even on Tunick’s website in a short bio paragraph he goes at length to point out that ‘these grouped masses which do not underscore sexuality become abstractions that challenge or reconfigure one’s views of nudity and privacy.’

I’m not sure when sexuality became a dirty word. Long before my time probably. To suggest that in thousands of naked bodies brought together, an essential part of humanity – sexuality – is not important seems somewhat naive, if not repressive. Especially when Tunick asked these naked thousands to cuddle and kiss. If it is a celebration of The Base of humanity, why can’t sexuality be a part of that? But Tunick probably wouldn’t be able to take these extraordinary pictures if he mentioned it.

The implications of these reforms, or perhaps more accurately this attitude in general, goes beyond child nudity whether we admit it or not. Nude photography is having to distance itself from sexuality to avoid controversy or being labelled porn. We won’t be able to see the effect of these new laws until another Henson-type situation. But if non-sexualised photos of children are accused of pornography and adult imagery has to distance itself from sexuality, it may not be long before we have another debacle with a more sinister ending. Until then, nudists beware.

Peter Francis

Peter Francis is a student at UTS undertaking a Communications degree and majoring in Writing and Cultural Studies. This in no way prepares him for life outside university.

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  1. In their book The Porn Report, Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby argue that concern about nudity and sexual representations were traditionally phrased in terms of their effects upon God. Later, the concern shifted to the effects upon the working class whereas today the argument is invariably about children. It’s an interesting progression and perhaps partly explains something I’ve wondering about for a while, which is to do with why society no longer censors novels. That is, you can write a book about the most violent sexual fantasies and it’s displayed on the front shelves of every bookshop, even though if you filmed the same novel it would not receive a classification. I had thought that this reflected the decline of the status of literature but it might also be something to do with the focus on children, in that they’re presumed not to read. Or something.

  2. Wow, interesting thought, Jeff! No need to censor novels because children don’t read? Sounds about right sometimes.
    And I suppose the act of adults protecting children from something/hiding something from children (like an R rated film etc) is what makes it so alluring to kids in the first place.

    So, do we need to censor books and ‘ban’ or blacklist them etc in order to get kids reading more?

    Sorry kinda hijack the post a bit with this kinda off-topic question

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