Why is it that “artistic” images of a young girl have created such uproar, and yet s-xualised images of children in the advertising, media and clothing industries remain effectively unchallenged? Have we become so desensitised that we only respond to overt nakedness?

Bill Henson used his skills and experience to create photographs which are considered to have artistic merit. The corporate world utilises sophisticated techniques and big dollars to create their marketing and advertising images. They are very adept at manipulating us, and we have failed to recognise the impact on our children.

It is certainly easier to target an individual than take on a big corporation, and that’s one of the reasons “they” have got away with too much for too long. We can demand accountability from Bill Henson the artist, the individual – but who is accountable in the ubiquitous corporate world where the notion of “individual” is lost?

  • Who made the decision to put the song Ooh I am so s-xy, soft and smooth on a Barbie CD for little girls?
  • Who decided that the “woman” in the Premature Ej-culation and Er-ction Problems billboard should look 14 years old?
  • Who decided that playboy t-shirts were a good idea for Girlfriend magazine to give away?
  • Who decided to put the wallpaper ads for mobile phones in Dolly magazine that read “I’m a good girl dressed in the body of a sl-t” and “Save a virgin do me instead”? These magazines are read by 9–13 year olds.
  • Who decided that soft p-rnographic music video clips are acceptable for P and PG time slots where children have every right to be viewing?
  • Who decided that a blowup doll titled “Granny I’d like to F-ck” is fine for kids to view in a chain store that markets to children, and is the ‘Official Home of the Beanie Kids’ stuffed toys?
  • Who decides that it’s ok to flog push-up bras and skimpy undies for little girls?
  • Who decides that it’s acceptable to make young kids look way too grown up and adult-like in catalogues?

Interestingly, in the case of both the Henson exhibition and the corporate s-xualisation of children, many people engage in debates away from the core issue. This is not about moral panic, censorship, freedom of speech or artistic expression.

In the current social and global context where children are increasingly s-xualised in adult ways, the focus must be on the psychological health and wellbeing of the child. We must be guided by children’s health professionals who work daily with children and understand the harmful impacts on their development. A body of research supports their concerns. These are independent witnesses whose testimony should be given greater weight than others, whose motives are questionable, entering the discussion.

The current senate inquiry into the s-xualisation of children is a good example. Without exception, the submissions from organisations and experts working with children have expressed major concerns about how children are being portrayed and what they are exposed to in the media environment. Others, with vested interest in the corporate and media worlds are defensive, protective of their product and seemingly ignore concerns expressed by the Australian Psychological Society.

The s-xualisation of children is linked to an increase in anxiety, depression, body image problems, eating disorders, self harm, and s-xually transmitted Infections. Statistics state that one in four girls and one in seven boys will experience some form of s-xual abuse by the time they reach 18 – and these are conservative figures. Child p-rnography is a major global concern and over 1.2 million children are trafficked every year, many for the s-x industry.

Given this social and global context, it is understandable that there is public outcry over the naked images of a young girl, whose ability to understand the ramifications of her actions may be limited.

Previously, silence has rendered us complicit in allowing the pernicious and insidious commodification of our children.

The terms moral panic, prude and wowser are losing traction. It’s time to risk being labeled by academics and groups with vested interests. It’s time to speak out and put children’s wellbeing first.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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