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In issue 2011:1 of Fotografisk Tidskrift, the journal of the Swedish Photographer’s Association, is a fine essay in Swedish by Jens Liljestrand (Twitter @jensliljestrand) about current attitudes to images of children and the definition of child pornography. Before the piece could be printed with the accompanying photographs, the journal’s editor, my friend Jenny Morelli, had to clear its contents with the rights holders, who don’t know Swedish. So she asked me to translate it into English. For reasons of space, the journal then printed a shortened version of the text. Jens Liljestrand and Jenny Morelli have kindly given me permission to publish my full translation here on Aard.


The Sacred Child

By Jens Liljestrand

English translation by Martin Rundkvist

Goa, India, 2009. A shimmering white beach. Clear blue water, a cloudless sky. The rush of waves and a constant din from jet skis. Behind us: rust-coloured sand, skinny cows browsing among trash and dry bushes.

I’m lounging on the sun bed with a mystery novel and keeping half an eye on my three-year-old daughter, who is sitting in pink swimming pants and playing with a bucket and spade. She is blonde, blue-eyed and unbelievably cute. People here stare at her, ensorcelled, love-struck, touching her hair, pointing at her. The other day the restaurant waiter – stoned? – approached and bit her tenderly on her yummy upper arm. And above all, they want to take her picture. In this country headed headlong into the future – the little dirt track back to the hotel that we walked when we arrived a week ago has already been tarred over with asphalt – every Indian seems to have a camera phone. Often they ask me, or more rarely my wife, civilly if they may take a picture. Having been brought up on Swedish school pedagogics, I relay the question to my daughter: “Is it OK for you if they take your picture?” I guess I think it’s her decision.


A well-dressed slender Indian man in white pants and shirt wanders past on the beach. He smiles and coos at the playing Swedish child and takes out his cell phone. My sister-in-law is already there, asks my daughter, who says no. The man pays no attention, takes the pictures anyway.

My daughter is clearly stressed and uneasy with the situation, the strange man who stands before her with his phone portraying her, laughing lightly. My sister in law tells him off sharply, “Please! No!”. He pays no mind, takes some more pictures.

I run down to the water and confront the man. “You respect my daughter!” I yell repeatedly. He apologises, looks nervous, says something in Hindi that I don’t understand and points at hos phone, as if showing that hey, he just took some pictures, what’s the harm? He hurries away.

One of the beach guards soon catches up with him and takes the phone, clearly in order to flip through the photo folder. The man, by now visibly sweating and piteous, explains and gesticulates to the grim guard. Apparently there is nothing on the phone to suggest that the man is a sex tourist or pedophile, as he soon gets his phone back and slips off.

I sit back heavily on the sun bed. Conflicting emotions. I feel indignant and aggrieved – dammit, I should have thrown that phone into the sea, would have served that perv right. Uncertain – OK, he shouldn’t have done that, but what if he’s really just an everyday Indian guy who loves to see European kids on the beach and wanted a lovely holiday souvenir? Is that really such a big deal?

No more strangers take any pictures of my daughter on the trip. I quit offering her to decide. I just say no, categorically. Her image becomes untouchable. Her likeness becomes sacred.

*

I should perhaps begin with the disclaimer we all seem forced to start with when we talk about this issue. To wit: I hate everything about child molestation. I hate pedophiles, child porn, all the dirt and darkness and nauseating shit those awful people do. I have two little daughters and I’m prepared to kill or die to protect them against that kind of evil.

This is not actually an essay on child pornography, at least not if we take that to mean images of children being sexually abused, images that could not exist unless children had been violated, defiled, victimised. But in 2011, in Sweden, that is not the definition of child pornography. Instead there is a boundary zone between images that are OK (legitimate though potentially provocative) and such that are a crime to produce, disseminate and possess. That gray zone raises a number of difficult questions about children, art, society and sexuality. Those questions have rarely been more topical than today, and they touch upon the most personal, forbidden and sacred of issues.

*

Biddick Hall, north-east England, 1976. This time the three-year-old’s name is Rosie Bowdrey. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a guest at the wealthy family’s garden party, the sun beats down and he takes innumerable pictures. Rosie has been swimming and runs around in the nude; her mother hurriedly gets the child into a dress. She sits down, a little huffily, on a stone bench. Mapplethorpe takes a picture, probably using his new Hasselblad. Then the skirt comes off again.

34 years later this picture is considered the single most controversial work in Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre. We’re dealing with an artist who, later in life, took pictures of BDSM, of coprophagy, sexually charged images of African American men, pictures of himself with a bull whip up his posterior. But the picture where the genitals of a three-year-old can be made out is worse. Wherever “Rosie” has been shown, it has soon been taken down again, most recently in November 2010 at Bukowski’s fine-arts auction house in Stockholm.

It makes no difference that Rosie’s mother, Lady Beatrix Nevill, signed a release for the image, stating that she does not find it pornographic and that she wants it to be exhibited. It makes no difference that Rosie Bowdrey herself, now an adult, has said that she is proud of the picture, that she can’t see how anyone would find it pornographic, and that she wants it to be exhibited. It makes no difference that nothing suggests that Mapplethorpe, who incidentally was gay, had any sexual interest in little girls.

Who is eroticising the child in the picture? The photographer – or the viewer?

Because at the same time: isn’t there something erotic about that image? Or what? About the large luminous eyes, about the sullen mouth with its slightly drooping corners? Something like posing, provocative, that we recognise from a thousand sexually explicit or implicit pictures of adult women? Or what? What do you think?

People in art circles rarely condemn a work of art; more commonly one will encounter a “permissive” attitude to the sphere of aesthetics where anything smacking of censorship will be loudly decried. Thus it is interesting to note mystery novelist Mons Kallentoft writing on his blog that the image goes “way, way across the boundary to child porn” and noting with pleasure that this time “the alarm bells” had worked. “It’s never ever right to eroticise a child, not even for the most self-aggrandising, priggish artistic purposes”, he added. When I reach Kallentoft on the phone he is at first happy to develop his thoughts further.

“The girl in the picture can’t choose, she’s being watched. There are people on Earth who get turned on by pictures like these, and that constitutes abuse against her no matter how you shake it. Nody has that right.”

But as an adult, the girl in that picture has said that she doesn’t view it as pornographic?

“It doesn’t work that way. That’s like saying that with consent, we’re allowed to do whatever we like to each other, and we might as well sign contracts permitting others to murder us … That picture is child porn and exhibiting it to the public is wrong! I mean sure, OK, you can keep it to yourself in your home.”

So would the image be acceptable if it sat in somebody’s photo album – where pictures of nude kids are pretty common?

Our interview takes a left turn here. Mons Kallentoft is very upset by my question, or by my matter-of-fact and slightly impersonal way of phrasing it. He asks me if I have experienced any sexual abuse against children. Before I can answer, he angrily declares that he isn’t willing to intellectualise this issue further and abruptly ends our conversation.

I feel bad about this, like a cynical and superficial asshole. Somebody who is happy to sit in a comfy desk chair under pleasant lighting with a cup of tea and soft music in the background, writing about this issue as if it were all about aesthetics – while in fact we’re talking about children’s lives being ruined, children being violated and defiled in unimaginable ways. Do we even have the right to a lukewarm analytical attitude regarding an issue were the stakes are so high?

I don’t want to use a fellow human being and colleague’s emotional reaction as a rhetorical tool or pedagogical example, but Kallentoft’s reaction really shows me how fraught, personal and painful this issue can be. And suddenly I also think I have gained a deeper understanding of how devout Christians or Muslims feel about pictures such as Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin’s Ecce Homo or Lars Vilks’s Mohammed cartoons. It’s such a gross violation that it’s impossible to speak rationally about it, a violation that can only get worse when some uncomprehending respectless bastard asks why you feel violated.

Suddenly I understand better how difficult it is to get anywhere when it comes to things that touches the depths of our souls. How much really is at stake.

Later that day Kallentoft texts me, explaining in a friendly manner that he thinks there is a need for frank discussion about these issues, but that he is not the right person for it, and wishes me luck with my magazine piece.

*

Uppsala, October 2009. Simon Lundström, since many years a leading Swedish expert on and translator of manga, Japanese comics, comes home and finds the police busy removing computers, comics and DVDs from his house. A no-holds-barred custody battle is having unforeseen consequences. The fact that Lundström has used the incriminating images in his work is irrelevant. In the summer of 2010 he is found guilty of child pornography with reference to certain drawings found on his hard drive. In January 2011 his case is heard by the Royal court of appeal, and he is resentenced.

The case has drawn a lot of attention, and many – including law professor Madeleine Leijonhufvud (Dagens Nyheter 5 August 2010) – has protested a law that makes it a criminal act to draw pictures of fictional children. The Pirate Party got a lot of press before the parliamentary elections of 2010. Things are not improved when people who have actually seen the drawings describe the characters in them as nude, hairless, ageless fantasy beings, several of them being cartoons that are said to have provoked laughter in court. Some of them are apparently amateur drawings of famous Japanese comic characters shown in sexual situations, a bit like if we were to draw nude caricatures of Huey, Dewey and Louie. Most people appear to agree that in this case, the law has been applied in a way that contradicts popular ideas of criminal justice. The fact that Simon Lundström’s fine for child pornography was lowered by the appeals court (from $3800 to $900) also suggests that the judicial system is finding the case hard to handle. According to the letter of the law, he is guilty, but the sentence – less than $4000 for child porn!? – is as fictional as the manga fantasies he was charged for.

But in the media buzz around the manga sentence, Attorney General Beatrice Ask (Conservative) says something that takes on a great significance for how I look at the issue. In a television interview she defends the current legislation with the words, “You can’t just violate children and childhood without consequences”.

Children and childhood. See what she did there? What we are trying to protect against violation is not just the individual, physical, real child, but also the abstract concept of childhood. From that perspective it is logical to go after comics experts and rummage through their computers, or, why not, force galleries to remove Rosie’s portrait. Everything that can be seen as demeaning to children must be prohibited, or at least kept out of sight in the public space.

The Attorney General’s phrasing invests the child with a metaphysical, almost religious status. The child becomes sacred and every inappropriate image of a child – or of something that looks like a child – is blasphemous.

*

Of everything written during the fairly one-sided manga debate – I wrote a piece myself in Dagens Nyheter 3 August 2010 – the Sunday column for 1 August 2010 by Svenska Dagbladet’s editorial writer Sanna Rayman was probably the most eloquent:

“The hysteria around the fight against sexual abuse against children has to come to an end. Because yes, all those ugly things do exist. Malicious people, sick transgressions, coercion and cruelty. All of them exist and we fight them – armed with the law.

But we can’t do this at any cost. We can’t allow the existence of cruelty to decide how we should view everything that is beautiful. It would mean that in that same instant we would condemn and cast suspicion upon both the human capacity for fantasy and the nascent sexuality of children. And by then, we will already have lost.”

You use the word “hysteria”. What do you mean by that?

“Firstly it’s a fully understandable hysteria, since everybody becomes extremely upset at the thought of sexual abuse against children”, says Sanna Rayman. “But it can all be compared to the ‘war on terror’. We always have to consider the consequences of any given measure. Just as we don’t want to hand victory to terrorists by creating a repressive society, we don’t want to hand victory to pedophiles.

If we always look out for risks we will start to look at things in a different way. Our first thought when we see a nude child is “What would a pedophile see” instead of “What am I seeing?”. And then we’ve already given up part of our own worldview. Something that didn’t use to be a problem becomes something inappropriate.”

What sort of reactions did your column meet with?

“I got a lot of e-mail. Some people were really grateful for the stand I had taken, but several others were incredibly upset that I could “take child pornography so lightly”. It’s as if there’s this wall that gets lowered in front of some people’s eyes when this issue is discussed. They really, really don’t want to touch the question.

In her column, Rayman referred to Soft Core, a much-debated exhibition at the Museum of National Antiquities in 1998 when Stockholm was the EU’s Capital of Culture. The exhibition featured monochrome photographs of nude boys by Donald Mader – who is an unapologetic “boy love” activist with a documented erotic interest in underage boys. The museum’s director, Jane Cederquist, regretted offering exhibition space to the Capital of Culture organisers who refused to remove the photographs upon her request.

“I didn’t want them in my museum. I was led to believe that it was an art exhibition, but this is child porn”, Cederquist told Aftonbladet (31 May 1998), and representatives of Ecpat Sweden agreed.

Writes Sanna Rayman, “One guy sat on a chair. Another was shot standing in profile, glancing at the camera. Sure, in some cases their genitals were visible. But porn? Of course, that’s how Donald Mader saw them, but any sexual innuendo went over my head. The child porn debate is problematic because it demands that we decide what’s sexual and what’s not. And a lot of porn, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Where I see only nudity, somebody else may see all-out pornography.”

The Soft Core controversy came to a dramatic end when neo-Nazis visited the museum and destroyed the photographs.

But are you really not perturbed at all by pictures like these?

“No, I think the Soft Core images are fully within the limits of what should be allowed at an art museum. On the other hand, I’ve flipped through a couple of issues of a gay magazine called Destroyer, with young male models, that made me feel queasy. A lot of the pictures there were taken in Asia and parts of Russia, and there was this whole dimension of colonialism and exploitation of boys in poor countries that I found really offensive. It’s really important to me that art is kept free of violence and coercion.

Destroyer was an English-language magazine produced as an art project with ten issues from 2006 to 2010. Berlin-based Swedish magazine publisher Karl Andersson was its publisher. The magazine’s explicit focus was “young male beauty”, and it mixed intellectual or academic writing with pictures ranging from celebrity portraits over pictures of poor boys in the Third World to art photography. Destroyer’s unapologetic erotic interest in underage young men caused an uproar in gay circles, it was condemned by the Swedish Federation for LGBT Rights and could not be sold during the Stockholm Pride festival. Nonetheless, established writers such as Oscar Swartz, Unni Drougge and Daniel Björk contributed columns to the magazine. Karl Andersson later published a book whose Swedish title translates as “Enemy Number One of Gays” about the magazine’s history. Interviewed for this book, Unni Drougge explains her participation as follows.

“I very strongly oppose pedophilia. And you can’t really be sure if the boys felt exploited. But they didn’t look like they did. And since I’m slightly acquainted with Karl and we had been talking, I didn’t see Destroyer as a pedo mag. I was rather seeing parallels to Michel Foucault’s praise for boy love in ancient Greece. And I kind of feel that those images approach artistic expressions closely. … You know, it’s an aesthetic ideal for a lot of people, a boy on the cusp who has just barely discovered his sexuality and as yet doesn’t feel anything but untroubled joy for it. Not a man, not a child. More androgynous.”

I repeat these words because they offer samples of what we might call “contextualisation”. Drougge points out a number of factors outside the images themselves: philosophical and historical links, links to aesthetic ideals, the assumption that the boys in the images had not been exploited, her personal relationship to the publisher. In this manner material is legitimised that would in other contexts be condemned as child pornography.

Destroyer, again, did meet with massive criticism, but was also seen as a legitimate and acceptable publication, or at least an interesting one, in wide circles within and outside the gay subculture. In October 2010 “Enemy Number One of Gays” was reviewed on two-page spreads in several major Swedish newspapers. I believe that a similar art project in straightdom (with nude pictures of poor girls perhaps in Russia, Thailand and Cambodia) would have been ignored under embarrassed silence. The idea that I would contribute columns to a magazine whose theme was an erotic interest in young girls – another aesthetic ideal with venerable traditions – is absurd. It would be a social disaster and professional suicide. The limits of propriety depend on the intellectual, cultural and artistic codes surrounding an image. It’s not just about power relationships between children and adults, but also between men and women, between industrial and impoverished nations, between different systems of norms and values that direct our gaze.

*

The editorial board of Fotografisk tidskrift receives a letter. It’s from a lawyer who asks in a concerned tone for some kind of guidelines or ethical code for photographers regarding sexual content. This lawyer is defending a woman whose camera was examined by the police: they found images of an eight-year-old boy that led to the woman being charged with “exposing her child in a sexual and thus criminal manner”.

Neither the lawyer nor the young woman – who is the boy’s mother – can understand the prosecution. In one image, the boy’s father tosses his boy in the air, the bathrobe parting to reveal the little one’s willy. In the other image the boy is sitting bare-chested between his parents on a beach. That’s it.

Can this really be true? Yes, at least that’s what the letter says. Is this just about an over-zealous district attorney? Or somebody who wants a case to establish legal precedent? What’s going on?

I have nude images of my girls on digital cameras, phone cameras, computers, memory sticks and external hard drives. My favourite is one where my older daughter is about 18 months, toddling around the lawn at our summer house brandishing a paper flag. Green grass, blue sky, the blue-and-yellow flag, her endlessly beautiful body, her blonde hair – that picture is such a massive dose of Swedish summer that you almost choke. It’s just pure joy.

“I’d like to publish this picture with my magazine piece”, I tell my wife. “As an experiment, to find out how this private, completely innocuous family snap is received in another context. Whatcha say?”

“No way”, she replies, rapidly.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not for us to decide.”

“OK. But if I ask N.N. Herself?”

“No no no no. She isn’t old enough to bear that responsibility.”

“So what you’re saying is…” I’m lost in thought. “You’re saying that nobody has the right, the moral right, to publish that picture?”

“Yes”, says my wife. “It’s as simple as that. That is a non-existent right.”

*

Karl-Olov Arnstberg is an ethnologist, professor emeritus, and author of several books including one whose Swedish title translates as “Swedish Taboos”. There he discusses examples of more or less implicit social norms and patterns that direct our behaviour, including our ideas about children. Arnstberg argues that we treat children as if they were sacred:

“Children do different things than adults do, they wear different clothes, they eat different food, they listen to different music and have different rights … We do our best to treat children as if they were gods.”

As examples, Arnstberg points out that our society does not punish children who commit crimes, that they aren’t expected to work to support themselves, that we are not allowed ever to hurt them, that schools are no longer allowed to grade their orderliness and manners, and, of course, the strong sexual taboo. All of this goes without saying in present-day Sweden – but not internationally, and nor historically.

“Children fill other functions in our lives today than they did in the past, Arnstberg explains over the phone. In the old days children were not exalted or deified, rather they were seen as less important people, a kind of unfinished adults. You were expected to feel great love for them but at the same time not to get too attached to them, as many of them died very young.

In this manner our ideas about children have changed in the opposite direction from most other things in society. In the Late Modern West, we have severed a lot of old ties. These days anything can be attacked and commersialised. Religion no longer provides our norms. Gender differentiation has gone, homosexuality is widely accepted and legally speaking on a level with heterosexuality.

We also see an artistic development coloured by modernist thinking, where provocation and transgression is considered important and valuable, as with exhibitions like Ecce Homo or Anna Odell’s performance “Unknown female”. This is also why many Muslims, upon arriving in the West, become strengthened and radicalised in their religion, as they experience a permissive world where nothing is sacred any more.”

Except the child.

“Exactly. When it comes to images of children, we see the opposite development. If somebody displays an image that desecrates children, it is seen as an extreme provocation. Pedophilia wasn’t a big issue a century ago, but today it is one of the most shameful crimes on the books. I mean, I have grand-children and I think twice to avoid misunderstandings when they’re around me. It’s not that I am being questioned, just that there is this ghost of our age, you take care not to end up in situations that might be misconstrued.

Because while the child has become sacred, everything else around us has become sexualised. As observers we have become so conditioned – or brainwashed – to constantly wear sexualised glasses that we see things that weren’t there before. We have discovered that it’s possible to add “… as the girl said” to any sentence at all. You know the road signs along walking paths where a man leads a little girl by the hand? Today when you see it you immediately think ‘Hey, look, a pedophile’. We didn’t two or three decades ago.”

*

I suddenly come to think of a suspense novel I read as a kid, Jesper och gubbligan, “Jesper and the Gang of Old Men”. I only recall the title, so I look it up and find that the author is one Maja-Brita Larson and it was originally published in 1969.

Gang of Old Men is about a boy who is kidnapped by a tall old man and kept locked inside a closet for an entire summer. Jesper is neither beaten nor molested, he’s just held in the man’s apartment to keep him company. Sex doesn’t seem to exist, neither for the old man nor for the boy.

With time Jesper finds out that other youngsters are also imprisoned by old folks in the same building. All are fed and treated well. Though they would all like their freedom back, they nevertheless quite enjoy talking to the seniors. On one occasion the oldsters organise an outing in the archipelago.

After a time Jesper manages to flee the closet and return to his family. The old man and his accomplices are apprehended by the police, but the book still ends on a happy note: Jesper promises to visit his captor in jail.

I must repeat that Gang of Old Men was written for kids. Something has definitely happened since 1969 (years before the Norrmalmstorg bank hostage episode that gave the Stockholm Syndrome its name). Instead of teaching revulsion, the novel encourages its young reader to feel empathy with lonely and vulnerable old people. Granted, the imprisonment of children is seen as wrong here, but as comprehensible in the social context, and above all it has no sexual overtones whatsoever.

Today, 42 years later, in the age of the Fritzl basement, Gang of Old Men is a souvenir of a strangely naïve age when the relationship between children and adults was still innocent and largely mutually respectful. This was the story people wanted to tell and the image they wanted to see. And then I realise something else: I wonder why in particular, of all the kids’ books I binged on during the page-turner years of my adolescence, I remember Gang of Old Men so clearly. Was there perhaps something uncomfortable about it? That made me feel there was something very wrong about what I was reading?

*

Katarina Wadstein MacLeod is an art scholar and a critic, writing in Svenska Dagbladet among other venues. In 2006 she defended her PhD thesis about painter Lena Cronqvist’s suite of pictures of young girls, made from 1990 to 2001. Wadstein has analysed the difference between our perception of a photograph compared to a painting, when the motif is the same.

“Cronquist’s paintings of little girls provoke strong emotional reactions, but not controversy, she explains. There is a clear difference in audience reactions to her work when compared for instance to photographer Sally Mann, who shot her own children in the nude for her suite Immediate Family, where there are many similarities of content.”

After a Cronquist retrospective in 2009, writer Natalia Kazmierska (Expressen 8 September 2009) complained that nobody problematised the painter’s depiction of little girls:

“She’s been completely obsessed with painting Lolitas. Her girl pictures sell for millions of crowns at auction. And her print retrospective at Lars Bohman’s gallery simply crawls with nymphettes frolicking in tubs, skipping rope while wearing cute underpants and posing provocatively for swarthy male gorillas. … Academic theses and pretentious catalog copy keep insisting that her art is about life, death, childhood, existence and motherhood, yes, about pretty much everyhting under the sky – except the one really obvious thing.”

“The reason is that painting is created through memory, while we’re used to perceiving a photograph as something real”, says Wadstein MacLeod. “Therefore Sally Mann’s photographs have a completely other expression of reality than Cronquist’s paintings. And this despite the fact that in recent years digital image processing has become available to everyone and caused us to lose our faith in the authenticity of photography.”

But haven’t nude bodies, pleasure and unease always been themes in art?

“Yes, that’s what the history of art is like, and those themes are still accepted when it comes to adults. Surrealist painters worshiped and idealised la femme enfant, the “child woman”, just as the history of Classical art is full of eroticised depictions of boys.

Generally speaking there have been two main modes in the depiction of children. One is the innocent, the other is the Lolita, where innocence is eroticised. What happens in Lena Cronquist’s work – and I see this development in painting in general – is that a third category is introduced between the two traditions, with the little girl as subject. The child is given a full identity and complexity, an identity and a voice of its own.

But when it comes to photographs of children, things have become much more complicated. Today knowledge about sexual abuse and pedophilia has become much more commonplace and the issue is covered by the media in an entirely different way. And images of children are always seen through a cultural screen.

Take Mapplethorp’s “Rosie”. To the child sitting there in her dress the picture is nothing special. It’s us adults, as observers, who have a sexual mindset and an awareness of the problems in this world, who make the image controversial – because it is controversial! It’s an example of what I just mentioned, a kind of eroticisation of the innocent child. I find it hard to interpret that image without charting its intertextual links with other works of Mapplethorpe’s, that often approach the obscene.”

*

The digital revolution has also played a part here. The ability to copy images from one computer to another has in all likelihood influenced the spread of child porn greatly. “Internet pedophile” is one of our age’s uglier concepts. The fear that images will be let loose and abused is spreading. Private sex tapes are stolen and published on the net to be downloaded by half of humanity, men publish nude images of their former girlfriends as “revenge”. We think twice about what we publish on blogs and Facebook. At my kids’ daycare centre the staff is no longer allowed to give parents pictures of the kids or receive professional photographers. For reasons of “integrity” us parents are no longer allowed to take group pictures during the annual St. Lucy pageant.

Giant digital corporations also contribute to censorship. Apple does not allow images of sex or nudity to be downloaded through its App Store. YouTube deletes film clips that are judged too risqué. Facebook intermittently culls its members’ photo albums and removes anything deemed too sexual. We continue to move towards a world where an endless supply of on-line porn – for those interested – is balanced by a mainstream public space being scrubbed of anything of a sexual nature. Girls above age three no longer swim topless. In 2010 the Swedish Association for Sex Education and Swedish Educational Broadcasting co-produced an animated instruction film for high school students. It caused great consternation and led to the team being reported to the police for the offence of “leading youth astray”. This is an old, old law that is being dusted off. According to the legalese, it covers writing and images with the potential to “coarsen” young people and “cause serious damage to their moral upbringing”.

In an interesting Svenska Dagbladet piece (4 January 2011), Carolina Hemlin, editor-in-chief of Ottar, the journal of the Association for Sex Ed, writes that a fear of nudity becomes the norm and spreads from Facebook into sex-ed class in school:

“The most everyday thing anyone can do is to check stuff on their iPhone, on Facebook or YouTube, and if nudity is forbidden there, then what does that do to our ideas about sexuality and the body? A positive attitude to sex is not helped if there can be no non-pornographic nudity.

And what happens if there can be no nude children in the public space that are not child porn? Wouldn’t that also eventually influence our way of taking care of our kids when the camera is off? How we touch them, wash them, play with them, sleep at night with them?

*

Recently I read an article where a girl said that she had heard from other children at age six that she has a “cock-sucker mouth”. That’s the reality our kids live with. Do we really protect them by harassing manga experts and concealing monochrome photographs from the 1970s? By reporting film shorts from the Federation for LGBT Rights? I talk for a while with Katarina MacLeod about life as a parent.

“I take my kids a lot to the beach where we live, and they like to run around there in the nude. Why shouldn’t I let them, even if there were a pedophile sitting around on some bench and ogling them? That’s just a symbolic violation, like burning a flag.

Is the child sacred?

“I’m more interested in asking, whose sacred childhood are we protecting? Our memories of our own childhood, or the real childhood of our children, right now?”

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Olson
    April 26, 2011

    This is an incredibly well written and thought provoking article. It really does bring to mind the notion that all things are in the eye of the beholder. If I shoot vid of my kid playing in the tub, it is all innocent family fun. On the other hand, if some adult is unusually interested in seeing repeated images of such family fun…what should we think? There is an old story of two monks coming to a river where a young woman wishes to cross, but fears doing so alone. The older monk picks her up and carries her across where he sets her down. The younger monk is troubled by this. Monks aren’t supposed to have contact with women. The two men move on and continue walking for many miles through out the day. At the end of the day the younger monks asks, “Brother, how could you have contact that woman? We aren’t supposed to have such contact.” The older monk looks startled and says, “I set her down on the other side of the river. You’ve carried her all day. How did you manage that?”

  2. #2 Kevin
    April 26, 2011

    Here in the US most anti-pedophile laws have the quaint “for immoral purposes” added to the statute which recognizes, correctly I believe, that the crime is in the motive, not the act.

  3. #3 Art
    April 26, 2011

    Seems to me to be anti-nudity is to be, at some level, in denial. Everyone is naked under their clothes. No matter how much you cover it, how much you deny it, you’re still naked. It is the perpetual and everlasting human condition. Issues over nudity seem to me to be an interesting contradiction. A situation where being human and having a human body is both too much, and not enough.

    Also, covering the human body up doesn’t keep people from thinking about it. I read an account of a man in a nation that adopted Sharia law. Before this the women were clothed but their form was not always obscured. Faces, necks, feet and the occasional flash of leg were common. Occasionally the boys would obsess over the bits of exposed skin and think of sex.

    After the women were covered and segregated the boys would obsess over the smallest hint of female form. A hint of figure revealed by the drape of the covering. A glance. It didn’t take much. And the boys obsessed about sex all the time.

    Making the natural object of desire more distant and harder to see fosters obsession. As the object of desire becomes more abstracted and idealized the physical reality falls away. Pedophilia may have its roots in a desire to see the object of desire as pure and perfect as youth is associated with both.

    Of course anyone who has cared for children knows that real, non-idealized, children are anything but perfect and pure. They are in fact noisy, smelly, messy, frequently sick, and completely imperfect. If humans were not genetically and hormonally programmed to love and protect children few would have anything to do with them. Keeping kids farther away from adults who may be pedophiles may be adding to the problem by allowing the pedophiles to more easily maintain the separation between the idealized concept of purity and perfection in children and the loud, stinky, inconvenient reality of what a child is.

    It may also work the other way round. A high percentage of child molesters are family members. Keeping outsiders away from the children can serve to keep the children isolated and under the control of their abuser.

    Unfortunately, as you point out, nudity has become almost completely sexualized and no depiction of a child can completely avoid being seen as porn. For a deep-dish exploration of the contradiction as it has developed into a complex look into the child pageants.

  4. #4 Raging Bee
    April 26, 2011

    Yeah, child beauty pageants and “purity balls” — both amazingly creepy and fetishistic in ways a simple nude photo can never be.

  5. #5 Martin R
    April 26, 2011

    Oh yes, in Sweden we view US child beauty contests and purity balls with horrified fascination.

  6. #6 Anna
    April 26, 2011

    Martin, here in America we find child beauty contests sick. It seems to only be popular in the southern part of our country and only with a small group of people.

    A while back a child beauty star was murdered and the rest of us in America thought the parents did it, partly because of the evidence but I also think that partly because the rest of us thought that by submitting their child to the whole beauty contest thing, there was something inherently evil about these parents to begin with.

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 26, 2011

    … and the idea of “inherent evil” is deprecated in Scandinavia.

  8. #8 Anna
    April 26, 2011

    “So what you’re saying is…” I’m lost in thought. “You’re saying that nobody has the right, the moral right, to publish that picture?”

    “Yes”, says my wife. “It’s as simple as that. That is a non-existent right.”

    Agreed. I don’t think parents have the moral right to release such a photo and the child certainly isn’t old enough to.

    It is best for society in general that such photos aren’t released. It should go without saying that photos are different than seeing people in real life. In real life even if someone seems “too interested” in a child that person can be stopped.

  9. #9 Martin R
    April 26, 2011

    I certainly wouldn’t publish nude pics of my kids in any mass medium. But I would probably be fine with my friends seeing such a pic, held to our fridge with a magnet for instance. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable if one of my friends looked at a pic of my kid and said “Aaaw, look at that yummy baby!”. Despite the fact that my kid couldn’t be consulted on the matter.

  10. #10 Raging Bee
    April 26, 2011

    Anna: If you’re referring to the Jon benet Ramsey case, the parents were also suspected because of their refusal to cooperate with the police at a few key points in the investigation. Also, no other credible suspect ever emerged.

    It should go without saying that photos are different than seeing people in real life. In real life even if someone seem “too interested” in a child that person can be stopped.

    But if a pedo was “too interested” in a photo, he wouldn’t HAVE to be “stopped” because he’s nowhere close enough to the subject to cause any trouble. It’s the photo he’d be looking at, not the kid; so if he’s in a private place when he’s acting “too intrested,” we won’t even know about it, and there won’t be any real threat to respond to.

  11. #11 Yori
    April 26, 2011

    This is an incredibly well done article… I see the paranoia about Lolicon/Shotacon manga as… ridiculous. Dressed up McCarthyism. So called obscenity laws which currently exist in every state (except Georgia oddly, not exactly a place you think of as being a liberal hotbed) are probably the greatest scandal of the 20th century (excepting Bush getting away with war crimes). I’m highly disappointed to see Sweden even attempting to prosecute this guy. It’s fascist at best (sorry getting side-tracked here) my point was even if you don’t necessarily agree with me I found this to be very thoughtful. Thanks for writing this.

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    April 26, 2011

    Several years ago a child molester here in the states had his parole revoked because he wrote a story in which he described sexual sadism and rape of a child. For all that I am fully capable of realizing the heinous nature of such crimes, I do have a real issue with the notion of pursuing charges against or revoking the probation of, those who engage in artistic expression of their fantasies. In such cases there is no victim. It becomes about an idea so vile that it can not even be spoken or represented. Not something that should be a part of any free society. Having said that, if such free expression is granted, it also allows others to be very aware of who is interested in what sorts of activities and the danger they might present. This could also, potentially allow for some sort of therapy or treatment which might help. But, forcing such expression underground would seem to only make it all the more dangerous.

  13. #13 Isabel
    April 26, 2011

    Great article and important subject. I was just having a related discussion with some Europeans, who were trying to understand American prudery, and one of the things that came up, as far as causing paranoid fears of potential child sexual abuse, was the series of daycare molestaton trials in the 80’s. The most famous was I think the McMartin Preschool case, where a family daycare was shut down because of really crazy accusations which turned out to be fabricated by the pre-schoolers after the ideas were planted in their heads by therapists. The charges were truly bizarre, like that the staff sacrificed animals in front of the children, played piano in the nude, made them do unspeakable things in secret chambers, etc – things that you knew would not be possible in a busy daycare with people coming and going all day, yet, it was all believed. The family was later completely exonerated (after their lives were ruined of course). We were trying to figure out where that came out of in a cultural context.

  14. #14 Raging Bee
    April 26, 2011

    Olson: what, specifically, was this guy convicted of? I do share your concerns about free speech, but if someone’s already been duly convicted of a sexual crime against a child, then showing continued interest in committing such crimes may be good reason for revoking parole; especially if the terms of his parole included not showing any more pervy criminal tendencies. (That, of course, is based on the premise that this guy really was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.)

  15. #15 Mike Olson
    April 27, 2011

    Frankly, I don’t recall his name. It did make a bit of news. He was in fact a convicted pedophile. The person he showed his story to was his parole officer. As to “pervy tendencies,” frankly, at this point I’ve never heard of anyone speak of a legitimate cure for such “tendencies.” To me, it seems that asking such people to simply not communicate their ideas and feelings on the matter is asking for trouble beyond compare. On the otherhand, when you immediately jail them for communicating those ideas…they learn to shut up, making them harder to treat, harder to identify, harder to see, and frankly, it makes it harder to prevent future victims. It was a stupid, emotional, knee jerk reaction whose ramifications weren’t clearly thought out in my mind. And to add insult to injury…a huge blow to civil liberties. He wrote down an idea…for that he was put in prison. It was a fictional creation, not a description of a plan of action towards an individual child.

  16. #16 Giliell
    April 27, 2011

    This is a highly interesting and very, very thoughtful article. It is something I’ve been wondering about, too.
    When did we lose that innocence towards children?
    I remember running around naked practically all summer as a child, roaming the neighbourhood (in which, as I know now, there lives a now convicted child molester) in nothing but yellow wellingtons (for some reason I loved the wellingtons).
    Nowadays some people (in supposedly liberal Europe) are freaking out if fathers, when taking a bath with their kids, are naked (shoking, I’m always naked when taking a bath or shower, what about you?).
    Sometimes I think that we need more pictures of naked children. Lots of them. All over the place. Until no normal person ever thinks anything bad about them anymore. Until we don’t push our sexualized perspective onto them anymore. I’m not a nudist, but I think they got something right: a view on the human body as something that is not only about sex and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
    I took a look at the “Rosie” photograph and I needed a few seconds to even spot the alleged crime.
    I’m worried about what we teach our children if we install some kind of “child-burkas”.

  17. #17 Jens Liljestrand
    April 27, 2011

    In my opinion, the most important aspect of any discussion on this topic, is the discussion itself: to continue having a debate – frankly, openly, respectfully. Even if we disagree. Let’s talk about it. It’s when the open discourse stops from fear of repression, that things start to get really ugly.

    So, thank you all for reading, commenting on, linking, liking or disliking my story. And thanks for a great translation.

  18. #18 Rikard
    May 1, 2011

    Martin, you have been Dished

  19. #19 Rikard
    May 1, 2011

    Seems I managed to screw up the link. Let’s try again: http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/05/is-the-child-sacred.html

  20. #20 Stephane
    May 1, 2011

    What constitutes pornography is in the intent of the author and the eye of the beholder. For people with a foot fetish, photographs of feet would be their pornography.

    It seems that in our attempt to protect children sexual predators, we have actually sexualized them. When I was young, photos of nude children were cute. People didn’t think of sex when they saw child nudity. But today, a person’s first thought when confronted those same images is of child pornography.

    As naturists, we think that this attitude is very harmful. We believe that casual (non-sexual) nudity is an essential tool in raising children with a healthy self-image and strong self-esteem. So you can imagine how upsetting these current trends are. Yet few naturists are willing to speak out. Criticisms of these laws invariably leads to accusations of protecting pedophiles. That is ridiculous to anyone who is willing to put logic ahead of emotions. But it is the reality of the world we live in today.

    I’m sure that the thought of children running around nude in large groups is even alarming some people who are reading this. Rather than take up more space here, I’ll simply provide a link to an explanation: http://www.bareoaks.ca/index.php/en/about-naturism/children.html

  21. #21 Martin R
    May 1, 2011

    Neither my parents nor myself are naturists/nudists, but I’ve been used to being around nude family members since I was a small kid. During my two childhood years in the US I became pretty prudish, but it wore off. In my house we don’t even lock the toilet door. I believe many Swedes are like that.

  22. #22 Pascvaks
    May 3, 2011

    “morality”?
    “immorality”?
    “inherent evil”?
    “herent evil”?
    hummmmmm…. life is getting very complicated… I guess instead of liberal arts being the foundation of education we need to make pre-law the foundation… but, doesn’t that fail to answer the multitude of ‘questions’ surrounding this, or any other problem with life? There must be something else that matters more, and upon which we can frame Western Civilization; right? People sure are complicated!

    There has to be something obvious and simple that a law seeks to “do” or “prevent”, and the more “simple” the law the (–usually–) better it is. Why is “everything” so complicated? Why are we so knit-picky about such miniscule matters and failing to grasp the gigantic? There just has to be something bad in the water. Or the air? That’s it! “The Air” is bad and we’ve all gone mad!

    “What” was done? “What” was done that the law simply, and specifically, prohibits (or demands of us)?…

    It MUST be something in the air… or maybe there’s more to life than “The Law”? hummmm… if THAT were true things really would be kind’a complicated: different neighborhoods, towns, cities, countries, customs, ethics, traditions, ethnic groups, religions, classes, ways of dressing, ways of public display and acting… the list is endless. What are we to do? Really, “WHAT” are we to do?

    Life’s a beach! Surf’s up!

  23. #23 thordora
    May 7, 2011

    As someone who had pictures taken of her as a child by a predator, it is very much in the eye of the beholder. I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that all images of children can be construed as “kiddie porn” because I know that those taken of me (and likely distributed far and wide) were taken with intent. And it’s the intent that disturbs me. But I would hate to think that it would keep me from taking a shot of my young children playing in a sprinkler or at the beach, out of fear that it would be construed as pornography.

    We’ve lost something in the fearmongering, the ability to truly judge a risk, the ability to separate art from crime…I’m not sure, but even as a victim, I’m not necessarily comfortable with the automatic tack that seems to be taken so often these days.

  24. #24 Bill
    May 15, 2011

    If someone takes a photo of their child on the beach and posts it on a photo album on the internet, and I masturbate to that picture, how has harm been done to anyone?

    I am not going to obsess about the girl or boy in the photo and I am not going to make ugly comments on the photo website, or contact the family in any way. Masturbating to the photo is not going to make me molest a child.

    How is it wrong for me to masturbate to the photo?

  25. #25 Martin R
    May 16, 2011

    I don’t think it would be morally wrong, and I don’t believe it’s illegal. But personally, I would find it a major problem to be sexually attracted to children. A) they don’t have a sexual urge, B) it’s illegal to seek such contact with them. I would seek medical attention to turn down my sex drive by chemical or surgical means.

    It’s scary to think of how it would be for me if my strong attraction to women of child-bearing age could never be reciprocated.

  26. #26 P.S. Paaskynen
    August 1, 2011

    Comics author Tinet Elmgren commented aptly on the ludicrously interpreted child pornography law and the court case against the manga translator that resulted from it: http://www.kommiekomiks.com/Spoiler.gif

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