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Politics

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.

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(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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