Innocence defiled, again? The art of Bill Henson and the welfare of children

kylie valentine, University of New South Wales

On May 24, 2008, Sydney police ‘seized up to 21 photographs of naked child models and said they would lay charges over an exhibition by the renowned Australian artist Bill Henson’ from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington (Tovey et al. 2008). Henson’s highly stylised photographs often depict adolescents. In this case, police were acting on a small number of complaints about images of a naked twelve or thirteen-year-old girl. One of the complainants was Hetty Johnson from the group Bravehearts, which advocates for victims of child sexual abuse. Johnson was among those who named the exhibition ‘child pornography’ (Masters & Vallejo 2008). Other commentators outlined broader concerns: about the protection of children from sexualisation, and the irresponsibility of the models’ parents in consenting to the images being displayed (Fife-Yeomans 2008; Tovey 2008). Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and NSW Premier Morris Iemma spoke out against the exhibition, calling it, respectively, ‘revolting’ and ‘disgusting’ (Marr 2008a; Masters & Vallejo 2008).

Defences of Henson were also vigorous. Artists and curators described Henson’s international reputation as an artist. John McDonald (2008) viewed the exhibition, less the seized works, and wrote that to ‘view Henson’s work in context is to understand why 65,000 people visited the artist’s 2005 retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and no one complained’. David Marr (2008b) recalled the prosecution of Phillip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, the failure of which was ‘virtually the end of book banning in this country’. In the event, efforts to prosecute anyone over the Henson photos quickly foundered. On June 5, the Classification Board ruled that one of the images required a PG rating (material which some children may find confusing or upsetting, and may require the guidance of parents or guardians) and were not sexualised to any degree (Marr 2008a). On June 6, the Department of Public Prosecutions advised police that there was no reasonable chance of conviction relating to the artworks and police announced they would not be proceeding to prosecution (Marr & Tovey 2008).

For the most part, defenders of art have argued with defenders of children.

In the short time since the police raid on Roslyn Oxley9, Henson’s work has sparked vigorous debate in Sydney and throughout Australia. One measure illustrates clearly: a search of media database Factiva, using ‘Bill Henson’ as a search term yields 1,468 hits for Australian media sources for the two years prior to 11 June 2008; 1,301 of these occurred in the last month.) Some of this debate—David Marr’s citing of older obscenity trials, for example—is fairly familiar. Some, such as the unrealised expectation that photos on the gallery’s website would result in prosecutions under internet sex crime laws, is fairly new. One striking aspect of the debate, however, is the lack of engagement by each camp with the arguments of their opponents. For the most part, defenders of art have argued with defenders of children. Those concerned to defend Henson’s exhibition as art argue that no harm has been done to children because the models’ parents have consented and Henson’s practices are ethical. Those concerned to defend children argue that the images sexualise children. The images are of naked children, and are, therefore, sexually exploitative.

The debate has largely been cast, in other words, as a debate about whether Henson produced art or pornography. Aside from a brief interview with Henson himself, published on the day of the police raid (Tovey 2008), there has been very little discussion about adolescent sexuality, about the representation of sexuality, and about the agency of children and young people in negotiating both sexuality and representation. The welfare of children is either defended by those decrying the Henson exhibition, or dismissed as irrelevant to the issue. The debate has largely been between adults over the values that adults should hold in protecting children and viewing art. Children and young people themselves have been almost entirely absent.


This exclusion of children and young people from the Henson debate is not really surprising: there is a tradition of treating children as both incapable of contributing to the public arena and in need of protection from its dangers. Yet there is also an emerging body of work that argues children are both more capable and more rational than is often assumed. Many also argue that children are entitled to greater participation than they are currently allowed in decisions that affect them. In academic terms, the ‘new sociology of childhood’ recognises children as actors who shape the world as well as being shaped by their circumstances (James, Jenks & Prout 1998). Children and young people are described increasingly as capable of participating in their lives and in research. Recent and current studies in Australia and the United Kingdom have explored, for example, children’s perspectives on their mothers’ return to work (Ridge 2007); on caring for a family member with illness or disability (Cass 2007); on poverty; and on out-of-home care and the child welfare system (Mason & Gibson 2004). Social theorists of childhood argue that many psychological theories of human development and socialisation inaccurately depict children as incompetent, asocial, and acultural. Instead, they argue, children’s exclusion should be understood in terms of power, if not oppression (Cockburn 1998; Qvortrup 1994).

Children are both more capable and more rational than
is often assumed.

One of the most important mechanisms for recognising the capacities of children and advancing their interests is rights, and a key document in much of this scholarship is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (United Nations General Assembly 1989). The UNCRC is composed of 54 articles covering a range of concerns, from freedom of expression to human trafficking and criminal law, summarised as rights to provision, participation, and protection. Advocating rights for children serves a number of functions simultaneously. It invokes the benefits and entitlements of citizenship. Most particularly, it invokes T.H. Marshall’s (1964) classic model of social citizenship, as the right to participate in society and live according to that society’s prevailing standards. It provokes resonances with the rights-claiming gestures of the major social movements of the twentieth century such as feminism.

Advocates for children’s rights, then, argue that those set out in the UNCRC are the best means of allowing children to participate in the decisions that affect them most, and so redress injustices and harms (Freeman 2007; Invernizzi & Williams 2008; Valentine 2004). The UNCRC is a valuable document for advocates in that it describes children as requiring particular protections based on their status as children. With this argument of difference within equality, advocates of children’s rights invoke another lesson from feminism and other social movements: the importance of articulating both children’s universal capacities that are suppressed by present social arrangements, and children’s particular vulnerabilities and capacities (Lister 2008).


What are the consequences of considering the Henson controversy using this conceptualisation of children as agents who deserve rights? One answer is that children should be more involved than they currently are in deciding the terms by which children’s bodies can be represented in artistic images. This answer echoes a recent call by Catharine Lumby (2008) that children should be participants in public debate around advertising standards and sex education in schools, and maps broadly onto the participation rights of the UNCRC.

Feminist stances towards sexualised images of women have always been diverse.

But such an answer is likely to be insufficient in this context, not least because it involves a tension between participation and protection rights. The rights of children to be protected from the risks of exploitation and sexual abuse would, in most cases, be considered to trump the rights of children to participate in these decisions. Even if, as seems most plausible in the Henson photos, the child models consented and were in fact active participants in the process, the precedence of protection over participation would suggest that consent is no proof against harm. Opponents of children’s rights, and most legal and social conventions, argue that children cannot consent to many activities because they have impaired capacity due to their immaturity. In practice, this translates to a blanket prohibition of children’s participation in activities that adults regard as damaging, such as the Henson photos. Bernadette McMenamin of the child protection charity Child Wise argues that not only does the UNCRC prohibit the parents of adolescent children from consenting to the photo shoot, it prohibits the children themselves from doing so: ‘children, at the age of 12, 13 or 14, do not have the experience or the understanding to make an informed consent’ (Bibby 2008). Advocates of children’s capacity to exercise participation rights could argue against this, and call on studies investigating children’s capacity to participate in decisions around medical treatment to do so (Alderson & Montgomery 1996).

Yet a second strand of argument can be anticipated. This would not be based on the impaired capacity of children to give informed consent but would instead call on the injuries caused by sexualisation of children. In the Henson debate, advocacy for children was cast almost entirely in terms against this sexualisation, and in terms which resonate with particular feminist arguments against pornography. Anti-pornography feminism, associated most closely with Americans Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, and Australian Sheila Jeffrey, argues that pornography is the means by which women are objectified and gender domination perpetuated. In the United States, during the 1990s, the deployment of rights-talk was particularly effective and salient strategies for these feminists. Pornography was described as a violation of women’s civil rights, this violation was described as injurious, and legal means were sought to vindicate women injured by pornography (for a review, see Brown & Halley 2002).

Feminist stances towards sexualised images of women have always been diverse and remain so today. There is no such ambivalence when it comes to representations of children, but debates around the apparent sexualisation of children invoke similar deployments of right violation and trauma. In these arguments, even if children consent to participate in their representation, and even if they do not grow up to regret it, representations of unclothed children are injurious and the apparent consent of individual children to participate in these injurious representations can be understood in terms of bad faith, ignorance or trauma. Feminist arguments around sexualised images are especially complex, because they involve questions of choice, agency, differences between women, sexuality, and the politics of representation.

Claiming rights is a political gesture, but one that is often cast in non-political terms.

The Henson photos represent, in other words, a particularly thorny arena of children’s agency insofar as it evokes a particularly thorny arena of women’s agency. It also evokes important questions and arguments between women that remain unresolved. Increased participation by children in public debates about the representation of adolescents such as Henson’s would produce new knowledge. Such participation would also be likely to add to the complexity of these questions. A straightforward response to this complexity, apparently advocated by those who have spoken out so far to defend children’s welfare, is a blanket prohibition on representations that could be perceived or used as sexualised. In contrast, the participation of children would add new voices to the debate. It would also produce more and different representations of children in response to the adult-produced images of Henson and others, just as feminism has produced an extraordinary range of representations of women. One response advocates, in the name of protection, banishing children from the arena of public visibility. The other, which is far messier and unknown, would make children publicly visible and active in new ways. It would take, it seems to me, an extraordinarily cynical view of participation to argue that the former has greater emancipatory potential.


The tension between participation and protection rights in this case is evidence of the complexity of this question of representation. It is also, perhaps, evidence of dilemmas around the uses of children’s rights discourses that are rarely discussed. One of the most important of these is that claiming rights is a political gesture, but one that is often cast in non-political terms. Those who claim rights for children sometimes do so as a means of going ‘beyond’ needs, entitlements, or interests. Priscilla Alderson and others, for example, conclude a study of premature babies in neonatal wards by arguing that babies’ attempts to feed, comfort themselves, and express pain and discomfort are best understood as rights rather than needs. Moreover, these rights have many dimensions: they are embodied, aesthetic, interactive, and exist within moral communities (Alderson, Hawthorne & Killen 2005).

Yet this invocation of rights for premature babies involves no concomitant recognition of the political effects of claiming rights. Recasting needs as rights has many strengths, some of which were noted earlier. Rights are associated, in ways that needs may not be, with participation, citizenship, and capacities. But recasting needs as rights does not depoliticise the issue, however apolitical the terms in which this recasting takes place. As Wendy Brown points out, when it casts itself as a moral discourse, or a defence of the individual against power, rights discourse disavows not only its political effects but the very fact that it is political: ‘we must take account of that which human rights discourse does not avow about itself. It is a politics and it organises political space, often with the aim of monopolising it’ (Brown 2004, p. 461).

Henson's child models have been excluded from representing themselves.

Proponents of children’s rights claim the entitlements of political recognition and regulation by the state. They rarely discuss, however, the regulatory and juridical dimensions that inevitably accompany state interventions (Ford 2002). In the case of the Henson photos, the legal-regulatory function of rights could scarcely have been more literal. Police confiscated the images. The model was classified as a possible victim of sexual abuse and more than one commentator advocated for her parents, Henson, and the gallery owners, to be arrested. This was doubtless done with the intentions to protect the best interests of the child. But it seems reasonable to suppose that being described as the victim of sexual exploitation, and facing the prospect of her parents being arrested, could also be damaging to the child. The exercise of protective rights in this case underlines the dilemmas of rights as a political aim. If rights are to be anything other than normative statements then there must be power to enforce them, and if they are enforceable then they are part of the regulatory and juridical functions of the state, not only its functions of provision and participation.

A more complex theoretical point comes from Michel Foucault’s (1991) concept of ‘governmentality’, which insists on the multiple, diffuse means of governing subjects in modern societies, including through self-regulation. The subject who speaks is the subject of power. So far in the Henson case, most of the concern for children has been described in terms of recognising their rights to protection. This recognition, in both legal terms and media commentary, has meant that child models have been excluded from representing themselves. They have been cast as victims of sexual exploitation, or as protected by their parents and Henson, but the only person so far to describe publicly the experience of being a Henson model is an adult who posed for him more than 20 years ago (Bibby 2008). Were children and young people able to speak for themselves in the Henson case and others like it, one result would be new kinds of representations and agency. This would demand, in turn, new accounts of representation and agency, and the forces at work in their formation.

There is, in other words, nothing politically innocent about arguing for a different view of children. Recognising children as holders of rights is recognising them as political subjects and political agents, with all the complexity and ambivalence that being a citizen of a contemporary society entails. Recognising children as holders of participation rights must also involve changing our understanding of what participation involves, and who participants are. The increased participation of children in public discussions that affect them, to be meaningful, would not simply involve inviting children to participate in existing structures of governance. It would also involve reshaping these structures, perhaps radically, to allow for children’s specific needs. None of this would resemble very much the response by Kevin Rudd to the Henson photos: ‘just allow kids to be kids’. Yet if we are to contest the sentimental and simplistic vision of childhood as vulnerable innocence, and replace it with something more unfamiliar and rich, there needs to be debate about what granting full personhood to children should entail. This debate is at least important to the well-being of children as those around the distinctions between pornography and art.


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kylie valentine is a Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre. She is the co-author (with Suzanne Fraser) of Substance and Substitution: Methadone Subjects in Liberal Societies (Palgrave, 1998).