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Jun 2, 2008

Hetty Johnston: Henson debate a healthy sign

Since time began, adults have exercised their rights, their greed and personal desires with little or no consideration to the rights of children. That's changing, and about time, writes Hetty Johnston, founder of Bravehearts.

(Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston insisted that this piece be published unaltered.) 

The Henson debate is a debate we had to have, not just here in Australia but internationally. It is a healthy sign of a society that is evolving in its understanding of the rights of children to be protected and free from sexual exploitation. As we see it, this debate is part of a cultural shift, an awakening of the rights of the child and an acceptance and realisation of the dangers adults have historically posed to their safety and wellbeing – intentional or otherwise. It is the Best interests of the child that are at the centre of this debate.

Bravehearts Inc exists to protect children from sexual assault, to educate children and adults on this issue, to conduct research and to provide healing to those children who have, or are at risk of, suffering the trauma of s-xual assault. Roughly 20% of the population were sexually assaulted in some way before their 18th birthday, boys and girls, rich and poor, from the city, the country and the outback. Child sexual assault is not discriminatory. Most offences (85% or more) will be perpetrated by someone the child and family know and trust. Our research and our own statistics tell us that less than 30% of offenders actually live in the home with the child but are more likely to be relatives, friends, neighbours, baby sitters or other adults who have won the trust of the child’s parent/s in order to gain access to the child. It is an insidious crime.

Since time began, adults have exercised their rights, their greed and personal desires with little or no consideration to the rights of children. To quote the only sensible sentence in Duncan Fine’s recent vitriolic writings on this subject, “For most of human history children have been sent to work as soon as they were able. In the 19th Century the age of consent was 12. London was awash with childhood slavery and prostitution. Australian cities and towns were teeming with runaways and neglected children.” This goes to support our argument. Unfortunately some parts of the world still have no regard for children and/or are so impoverished that the need to protect the child flies well under the radar of community priorities. These children make easy prey for those who would exploit their vulnerabilities. Thankfully, in other parts of the world, times are slowly changing to a time when we consider the ramifications of our failure to protect and consider the rights of children — although some of the comments aired during this debate from otherwise ‘educated’ individuals indicates we have a long way to go.

Any institution, organisation, sector of society or group who sanctions, excuses, covers up for, or otherwise fails to protect children from s-xual assault or exploitation will invariably attract those whose life’s mission is to sexually engage with children and young people. History has shown this to be true. Recently the churches have come to realise this and are a shining example of an awakening to the realities of child protection and the wider communities demands that they place the protection of children above all other considerations. It is all a part of, an admittedly slow, cultural shift in how we must respect the vulnerabilities of children rather than exploit them.

As we see it, this debate is fundamentally around two major issues. It is a contest between those defending the historical rights and freedoms of the Arts and those defending today’s rights and freedoms of our young. One can not be achieved without the sacrifice of the other. Too, it is about the law itself – particularly the understood meaning and definitions of the language under the law such as ‘child p-rnography’, ‘sexual context’, ‘intent’, ‘consent’, ‘artistic…public benefit purpose’, ‘dissemination’, ‘possession’. What do these definitions mean in today’s ever changing technologically charged world? We know that art is no longer confined to the walls of the gallery, exclusively accessible by only its visitors. Today’s technology means Art is shared or ‘disseminated’ globally within minutes. The content of these images then attracts a wider audience and also comes under the scrutiny of various jurisdictions and statutes.

Let us explore the issues. Firstly, our understanding is that the law is quite explicit when it deals with issues of ‘consent’. These child models can not give ‘consent’ under the law. That the parent/s made the decision to ‘consent’ for them or even with them, is a moot point.

The law clearly intends to prohibit the taking of images which portray or use children in a ‘sexual context’. It is our strongly held view that Bill Henson’s art clearly breaches that intent. It is the s-xual transition of these 12 and 13 year olds that is the focus of the work even according to the artist himself. “I think the that period in between childhood and adolescence is a really interesting period….(they have) one foot in childhood and one foot in the adult world, which produces a disposition I find really interesting”.

We believe, given the photos focus on their nakedness (regardless of the ‘artistic’ lighting, shadows etc) and that the artists stated intention is to focus on their transition from child to adult, that the images are clearly taken in a ‘sexual context’. What else that means remains to be argued.

Under the law as it stands, photos taken of children in a ‘s-xual context’ are classed as child pornography, are illegal and with some exceptions, are actionable by law.

The exceptions are in part: “that, having regard to the circumstances in which the material concerned was produced, used or intended to be used, the defendant was acting for a genuine child protection, scientific, medical, legal, artistic or other public benefit purpose and the defendant’s conduct was reasonable for that purpose.”

The definition of ‘intent’ then comes into play. This is always going to be a matter of opinion of course. Did Bill Henson do this work with the genuine intention of acting for the public benefit, for genuine artistic purposes? Or did he do the work to achieve economic gain and notoriety by taking nude photos of children to satisfy his own purpose, despite the public benefit and the law.

We of course believe the latter.

That money was paid for the use of these children in the taking of these naked photos, which are then to be sold, makes it a case of sexual commercial exploitation. That these photos were then published and downloaded via the internet makes it ‘dissemination’.

We do not believe that any adult should be free to usurp child protection laws for their own personal satisfaction — be it artistic, monetary or sexual. This comes at the expense of the rights and freedoms of children and plays directly into the hands of those who want to liberate children and young people from the laws which protect them.

There is no denying that art has an important role in society. But artists, like every other adult, have a responsibility to protect children from exploitation. The artistic pursuit of personal emotion, curiosity or expression cannot be sanctioned where this pursuit violates existing human rights and betrays the same laws by which the rest of society lives.

What of the pedophiles who are watching this with great interest? Can they call themselves ‘artists’ too? Define an ‘artist’. Can they then take photos of naked children and call it art? What about their defense when they are caught with sexual images of children and claim its research for their artistic endeavors? How do we prove this is not the case? This is a dangerous scenario for our children and families.

As a society, we simply can not legitimise the sexual portrayal of children in the name of art or anything else. There is too much at stake. Bravehearts will continue to fight for the protection of children against sexual assault and exploitation.

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22 thoughts on “Hetty Johnston: Henson debate a healthy sign

  1. Chris Johnson

    Queensland unedited 2008. At odds with itself over what is art and what is teenage or child porn. Until our PM yelled in horror – “this is absolutely revolting” the international art and culture stage viewed Henson’s works as sensitive, creative gems. But Hetty and Rudd will have you believe the rest of the world is sick and sordid and that portrayal of this one stage in the evolution of the human species, is disgusting – a window for perverts. Rudd’s idealistic determination to draw Queensland from its archaic yesteryear is just that. But right now, profiling Johnston as an advocate for abused children will do nothing more than further consign carefree innocent kids playing in parks and playgrounds and living life publicly to the exhuvberant max, to a dark insidious place in people’s minds. It simply encourages the very behaviours Rudd and Johnston want to stamp out. The answer is educating and raising intellectual and maturity levels that have been abandoned for as long as child abuse has been rampant.

  2. Venise Alstergren

    Hetty Johnson: You should have let Crikey edit your elementary history lesson. The ‘so called’ debate has nothing to do with defending historical rights nor to your so-called ‘freedoms of the arts’. Your contemptuous drivel is an exercise to pump yourself full of self-justification and pious cant. You have encouraged the police to interfere in a subject which has everything to do with your own self-justification and nothing to do with solving the problem of child pornography.
    You may have noticed how quickly the news media was to drop your pathetic efforts off the front page. Why? Because they knew you were out to promote your own shonky image, with the kids getting the thin edge of the deal.
    NO SANE PERSON wants to hurt children. NO ONE. Have you managed to get this far Hetty?
    How you can see pornography in a child’s un-titillated, naked body is, quite frankly, as sick as the perverts who get their jollies looking at the work of the advertising industry. This is where child pornography is rampant. It is part of being an artist, to hold up a mirror to society, foetid, beautiful, as sinful as your crooked soul or as dire as the darkest hell.
    I would think you are by this stage of reading this comment, red in the face and ringing up your like-minded friends, telling them what a fiend I am.
    There is redemption to be found, even for people as squalid as yourself. And you can provide it. Please supply Crikey with photographs of you and your pals, picketing some of the large advertising companies. They were the ones who encouraged the sexualization of children. Remember Hetty? Models got down to the age of fifteen, then fourteen, thirteen and twelve.And starting from the other end of the equation they encouraged parents to dress their female children like little sluts . Nail polish had to be worn. The children were encouraged to demand all the cheap and tawdry trinkets that are for sale at every supermarket. Skimpy fairy dresses and bras for toddlers all became fashionable for kids. Make-up on the face of a five year old girl is obscene-in my eyes- bare legs up to their fa*nies and skimpy knickers are to be desired. The list is limitless. So please send us, the much despised Australian public, the photographs of you in the vanguard of your fellow goons, locked in combat with the police, outside a big advertising company. Can’t do it? Thought not. You haven’t got the guts to tackle the big offenders. But you do have the guts to monster a lone artist.
    Of course, if you did have these sort of photographs, we would all know you were holding an honest opinion.
    So, lady, get off your t*at and stop wanting to be the woman who wants to see her own name in the press.

  3. Kez

    Good on Crikey for giving us a range of opinions. Though I disagree totally with what Johnston has to say.

    Her comment that 13 year olds can’t consent is interesting. I’d like to see her take on the Gillick competence test. If 13 year old girls can get prescriptions for the pill without consent, then I don’t see posing naked to be a serious extension of the law.

  4. seanbedlam

    Yep. Hetty, getting the cops involved is real “healthy”.

  5. Venise Alstergren#2

    Perhaps Hetty Johnson is getting to know what it’s like to be thrown to the wolves? Did I read somewhere that Bravehearts Inc is the name of your company. Sounds very American to me. Yet you claim to have founded your witch-hunting enterprise, off your own bat?
    Interesting is it not?

  6. Tony

    I accept that Crikey gives Mrs Johnston a forum for her views – unedited or otherwise untouched by another human hand. As is often the case with sclerotic dogmatists, however – even if they have good intentions as I am sure Mrs Johnston does – any reason is corroded by her bias, rationalisation and near hysterical preoccuptaion with a single issue.

    Polar extremes do nothing for reasoned argument and add little to the pool of useful knowledge. Neither Mrs Johnson nor a number of the arts special pleaders do themselves much credit. Barry Cohen at least tried in today’s article.

    In this case, Mrs Johnston, you are wrong. This is not a case of child exploitation. In the last decade I have worked in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan and I think I have seen a couple of cases.

    Mr Henson’s work might not be to everyone’s taste either but I am more inclind to the view that it has artistic merit than that it is exploitative, damaging to this child or any others, nor would it (at least before being made a cause celebre) have been the direct cause of instant gratification or other frissons (well maybe…).

    Your call to rabid fear does nothing for your case or your cause, laudable as its foundations may be. Whipping up a state of fear and loathing is not helpful.

  7. JamesK

    Venise , it seems, is suggesting that Hetty Johnson is judge, jury and executioner of one adult male by the name of Bill Henson. It is obvious here who is more irrational, emotional and guilty of “cant and hyperbole to the detriment of” another human being.

  8. Rob Gerrand

    In a nutshell, Hetty Johnston makes an excellent case against sexual assault. The only problem is that if you consider the spectrum of all the available images of young girls, Bill Henson’s work would have to be at the “least pornographic” end of that spectrum, while Hetty ignores the blatant porn and sexualised images that abound in the media and the internet. By encouraging the campaign against Henson, she in turn is assaulting the young girl whom Henson photographed.

    Unfortunately there are elements of our society who are repressed and who confuse nudity with sex, regards sex itself as often immoral, and who either rave on about “trays of meat on display” or become perverts themselves.

  9. Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Psychology, psychology, psychology is everything.
    So, I propose a hypothetical situation of the issues in a different context to help me understand Hetty’s meanings and understandings that I am talking to here.
    I am a father who has a very healthy European liberated attitude to nudity. Like all fathers of any kind I have seen my children naked and notice how they love to romp about in that state sometimes some of their friends get caught up in the same but while a ‘leave it alone’ approach at the time is adopted there is no positive encouragement to nudity displays nor condoning, just no judgement. However the whole family is quite comfortable with long walks along a nude beach which when I was in my late teens was a source of excitement especially with certain girlfriends, but now with my family in tow, it is a serenely beautiful time together and the kids seem to enjoy it especially. If I wasn’t so inclined they probably would never experience it. I know what the strange guys in the slightly distant sand hills are doing and the older children are a bit curious about them. I don’t know if we are being photographed or filmed. In time I noticed that the girls at about 9½ to 11 years of age suddenly switch from giggling when they prance naked to keeping clothes on and closing doors at changing with startled yelps and urgent special points cover-ups with spread hands (especially down there).
    The girls still want to see the boys naked as often as they can who to a much lesser extent are undergoing the same transformation particularly in terms of those dreaded female junior brats they have known all their lives and who now seem to be focused now and then on catching the boys with there pants down to deride them about a stiffy. I still wonder exactly how to psychologically interpret the occasions when the girls, all the way up to 15 and 16, have walked in on me dressing or bathing when I am naked. Their rules have been since they were nearly 12 that no one sees them naked and they assert that with tough enforcement. Yet on occasion they want to join in the walks on the beach with the family maybe to remember their childhood. That was then. Now official statistics or not, children by age 9 to 11 (some, years younger) will have had multiple exposures to, if not quite versed in dealing with, explicit adult porn. A reality that saddens my heart and not even Hetty has any way to change this and what would my family nude experiences pre-internet porn have been like now post-porn flood. I don’t know (only have one life). So ends the hypothetical. Now days Hetty and I are in danger of being laughed at behind our backs by quite sassy children who think they know stuff we don’t. The moralising always stays with the moralisers, it’s their adult party and the children grow up pretending. If Hetty is helping children it’s the other things she does not the moralising that’s of value to them. But to be of real help to demanding problem children you must not be a fraud so know the reality of the problems in terms of the children. Adults not children will give you credit for getting rid of the unknown paedophiles, and the most successful way to get 100% rid of them is to get rid of everyone.

  10. Raymond R

    If the present day calendar read, 1935, Hetty Johnston would be leading the cause of that time and convincing the sheep to burn books she found offensive. I assume she found her own adolesend image unbareable to look and has taken the “view” that all humans see the nake body as pornographic. What a pathetic and missurable view of the world she lives in. I am glad I have taken the steps to educated my children the difference between their beauty and pronography and the sickness inside a Hetty Johnston.