Comes Naturally #83 (May 7, 1999):
Art and the Eroticism of Puberty

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May 7, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


The following talk was part of a plenary panel on this subject at the Western Regional meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, April 24, 1999. SSSS is the principal organization of professional sex educators, counselors, and therapists in the U.S. Other panel members were photographer Jock Sturges ("Radiant Identities"; "The Last Day of Summer") and author Judith Levine ("My Enemy, My Love: Women, Men, and the Dilemmas of Gender;" "Not Harmful to Minors: How We Hurt Children by Protecting Them from Sex -- and How We Can Help Them").

I want to use my portion of this panel to examine some current sex-cultural dynamics that help explain the tremendous emotional charge behind the debate about nude photography of children and adolescents.

What's in need of explanation is not simply the fact that nude photographs of children are considered controversial. This in itself, while a sad commentary on the sexual state of the nation, is hardly surprising. Nudity is still controversial in this country, and nude photography, while accepted as legitimate in the world of fine art, still raises eyebrows in the general population. In addition, we know all too well that any artistic work that treats eroticism or sexuality in a friendly, let alone explicit, way is itself decidedly suspect.

What is surprising about the current controversy is why these predictable aesthetic and ethical disagreements have taken on such intensely loaded meaning and significance over the past several years. By looking at the dynamics behind this particular controversy, we stand to learn a great deal not only about nude photography, but also about how a variety of cultural attitudes relating to both sex and children affect us more generally.

Let me start with a basic observation that I think just about everyone in this room would embrace: That our particular culture still sees sex fundamentally as a dangerous, demonic, potentially chaotic force, a force that requires constant vigilance lest it tear apart otherwise sensible individuals, their primary relationships and, indeed, the very fabric of society. This in contrast, say, to the possibility of relating to sex primarily as a blessing, as a positive, joyous, wholesome, or spiritual part of life, as a way of connecting with other human beings in loving, intimate, creative, and enriching ways.

Because our basic cultural fear and suspicion of sex sets social order in opposition to many forms of natural and common sexual expression, elaborate institutions of social indoctrination and control are required to suppress those forms of sexual behavior and desire that are considered unacceptable. I want to look at two institutions of enforced sexual control that I think animate the extreme reactions we are seeing around the issue of nude photography of children and adolescents.

The first of these is the creation and maintenance of a mythical, idealized class of innocent, supposedly non-sexual, individuals onto which society can project its yearning to escape the conflicts generated by overly repressed sexual desire. I'm going to call these the "designated innocents."

The second is the creation and maintenance of a parallel mythical, demonized class of subhuman sexual deviants onto which individuals can project their transgressive sexual desires as a way of keeping those desires under control. I'm going to call these the "designated perverts."

If we look back historically, we can see that, while the particular groups assigned these archetypal roles of sexual innocents and sexual deviants has varied, the perception of an ongoing battle between sexual innocence and sexual perversion has been continuous. It is a battle that is represented as being the eternal struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan. Sadly, it is also defined as the battle between asexual purity and the sexual contamination of that purity.

In its current incarnation, this drama pits the imagined asexual innocence of children and adolescents against the imagined perversion of anyone who dares acknowledge and respect, let alone appreciate or celebrate, the eroticism or sexuality of anyone who has not crossed the socially-defined threshold into adulthood.

* * * * *


The role of designated innocents in the social drama of asexuality and perversion has well-defined requirements. The social function of this group is to posit the existence of a class of people so pure of heart and spirit that they have not been sullied by sex in any form. Traditionally, this role has been filled not only by children, but also by women.

As late as the mid-19th century, American women were still presumed to have no natural sexual desire of their own. Indeed, an entire culture developed to enforce asexuality on women, whether they liked it or not. Historian Barbara Goldsmith details one aspect of this culture of asexuality in her book, "Other Powers." "In 1868," she writes, "American gynecological surgeons began performing clitoridectomies to quell sexual desire in women, which was considered a form of derangement. Upper- and middle-class white women who had been taught that any sexual urges were sinful, willingly surrendered their bodies to these male doctors, who tested them for abnormal arousal by stimulating the breast and clitoris; if there was a response, they surgically removed the clitoris."

Along with the creation of women as an asexual class came the need to protect women from sexually contamination of any form -- whether this be from sexual predators (men) or from the corrupting influence of sexual awareness and information -- even as we now assume that society must protect its asexual children both from preditors and from sexual information.

As women gained social and political power in the 20th century, they have not surprisingly demanded recognition and respect for the reality of their sexual desires, and for their right to fulfill those desires without being denigrated as insane or immoral. While women's right to sexual expression equal to that of men is still far from complete, the notion that women are naturally asexual, or that asexuality can be forced on them by social commandments and expectations, is certainly a thing of the past. As a result, the group of innocents presumed to be asexual has been reduced to the children alone. It has thus become more important than ever, among those who see sex as a form of impurity, to insist that children are entirely non-sexual beings.

Since, as we know, children are in fact far from asexual, maintaining this myth -- and with it, to some extent, an exaggerated sense of the sexual innocence of adolescent girls -- requires both a significant denial system and an elaborate program of societal enforcement. Pat Califia describes this well in her book, "Public Sex." Children, she notes, "are not innocent; they are ignorant, and that ignorance is deliberately created and maintained by parents who won't answer questions about sex and often punish their children for being bold enough to ask. This does not make sex disappear.... Sex becomes the thing not seen, the word not spoken, the forbidden impulse, the action that must be denied."

* * * * *


The second role in the drama of innocence and violation is that of the deviant or, more precisely, the pervert. As with the role of designated innocent, requirements for the role of designated pervert are both specific and extreme.

To fulfill the function of the designated pervert it is not sufficient for a form of sexual deviance to simply be disapproved by those in the sexual mainstream. Nor is it sufficient for the designated pervert to be seen as merely a misguided soul in need of understanding or therapeutic help. The designated pervert must be so loathsome to the general population that the social outrage he generates (designated perverts are usually male) is extreme enough to serve as a warning to all who would deviate from sexual normalcy as to what will happen to them if they do. Designated perverts must be seen as so vile, so subhuman really, that the full venom of social punishment -- social ostracism, legal confinement, even violent personal attack -- can be visited upon them without any sense of guilt, mercy, or compromise.

As with the designated innocents, the specific incarnation of the designated pervert has varied with changing historical circumstances. In general, the designated pervert of any given era will be whoever most threatens to overturn the prevailing myth of asexual innocence.

In the late 19th century, for example, all that was required to be branded a "Satanic Free Loveist" was believing that women had sexual appetites of their own, and that they should have equal rights with men to choose their sexual partners, in and out of marriage, and equal rights to end their marriages if those marriages were unsatisfactory to them, sexually or otherwise. Those who acknowledged and validated women's sexuality were demed loathesome perverts because they threatened to desecrate women -- the mythical "asexuals" of the day -- with the scourge of sex.

The leading "Free Love" spokesperson of the time was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for the office of President of the United States (in 1872). On the issue of women' sexual desire, she was oustpoken and uncompromising. "Some women," she declared, "seem to glory over the fact that they never had any sexual desire and to think that desire is vulgar. What? Vulgar?... Vulgar rather must be the mind that can conceive such blasphemy. No sexual passion, say you. Say, rather, a sexual idiot, and confess your life is a failure.... The possession of strong sexual powers [is] a necessary part of human character, the foundation upon which civilization rests."

Predictably, Woodhull was subjected to the harshest attacks of the church, the press, and those in political power. Because of her sexual beliefs, she was driven out of the Suffragist movement (where she had until that time played a leading role), vilified in the major newspapers of the day, and driven into poverty. She was the first person prosecuted under the then-new Comstock Act, the Federal law that to this day prohibits sending obscene material through the mails.

As it became impossible to maintain the myth of women's asexual nature, it also became impossible to brand affirming women's sexual desire a Satanic act. As respect for women's sexuality grew in the early 20th century, the issue lost the absolutist edge required for a true antisexual crusade. A new class of designated perverts was needed, and a new class was found.

The new targets of antisexual hatred and vilification were gays and lesbians. Once again, the full symphony of social loathing was called out to define the new designated perverts as truly subhuman, evil-minded threats to decency and social order. Once again, attacks on the designated perversion were justified by the supposed threat these perverts posed to the sexually innocent. Being a gay man was equated with being a vicious molester of young boys. Being a lesbian was equated with slyly seducing decent women out of their heterosexuality. Once again, the Devil was at the door, and the men and women of the sexual mainstream created a vivid image of vile perversion they could use to keep their own straying desires in check.

* * * * *


Recently, however, the horror of homosexuality has also begun to lose its punch. This is not to say that American society has truly embraced or accepted homosexuality, as it obviously has not. But the successes of the Gay Rights movement, and the increased visibility of gays and lesbians, have diluted the subhuman characterization required of true designated perverts. As more and more heterosexual Americans become aware of homosexuals as human beings instead of archetypes of evil, antisexual society once again needs to find a new class of perverts loathsome enough to serve as the vehicles for the general suppression of sexual deviance.

For a while it seemed that sadomasochists would fill the role quite nicely. S/M was just weird and disgusting enough to mainstream American consciousness to justify full vilification and violent suppression. But just as that wheel began to turn, S/M rather unexpectedly slipped into mainstream American culture as an intriguing, even chic, sexual variation, something altogether different from full-on perversion. Madonna's flawed book, Sex, was a significant factor in this rather instantaneous social turnaround, as was the widespread experience with S/M of many media celebrities themselves.

For a while it seemed that transsexuals might arouse sufficient scorn and revulsion to take on the designated pervert mantle but, like S/M, transsexuals have been surprisingly embraced in the past few years both by the mass media and by popular culture -- perhaps, as James Green, a leading transgender advocate points out, because the issue that transsexuals challenge is not sex at all, but gender.

While the precise definition of the new designated perverts is still evolving, it seems clear that it will center on those who acknowledge and affirm the sexuality of young people. The work of photographers like Jock Sturges, David Hamilton, and even Sally Mann, happens to fall in the line of fire of this need to find new villains in the ongoing battle against sex itself. I believe this is why the objections to nude photographs of children have been so vicious and impassioned. The continuing pattern of these attacks suggests that it will not be necessary to be a child molester, or even a pedophile, to be seen as the new pervert. The social need to enforce the non-sexuality of children and the exaggerated sexual innocence of adolescents is so great that the simple act of photographically addressing the eroticism of adolescents in an honest, respectful, and appreciative way has become sufficient to draw the full venom familiar to designated perverts.

* * * * *


While, in this climate, all nude photographs of young people have become suspect, it is worth noting that some photographs seem to generate more reactive heat than others, and not always in predictable ways. A photograph by Czech photographer Jan Saudek, for example, included in a recent book of his work widely distributed in the U.S., depicts a young girl passively having intercourse with Saudek himself. Yet, to my knowledge, neither the book nor the photograph have drawn any criticism whatsoever. On the other hand, two photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, showing nothing more than a nude and partially nude young boy and girl, sitting and standing alone, were considered so objectionable that they helped bring the curtain down on Mapplethorpe's scheduled exhibiton at the Corcoran Museum and were then seized from the Cincinnati museum that went ahead and exhibited the show.

The art photographs that current antisexual critics are finding most objectionable seem to fall into three categories. First there are the photos that portray the eroticism of their subjects so clearly that they force the viewer to acknowledge this eroticism as well. These portraits are threatening because they so clearly challenge the mythical belief in the complete asexuality of young people. The more successful the portrait -- the more deeply and compellingly it captures the full personhood of its subject -- the more threatening it becomes.

Second are photographs that generate some level of sexual response, and therefore extreme discomfort, in the people who look at them. These photos are threatening because they force viewers to acknowledge their own attraction, or potential attraction, however mild, to the sexuality and eroticism of young people.

"It is important to realize that sexual fantasies about oneís children are normal," therapist and author Lonnie Barbach wrote in 1975, appealing to reason at a time when it was more safe to talk publicly about these things. "Many mothers report having some such fantasies at least occasionally. Children are sexual, warm, cuddly human beings -- we can feel turned on and have the fantasies but we donít have to act them out." Yet, despite reassurance from therapists and media professionals that simply having sexual feelings for one's children is natural and almost always harmless, most people still feel intense distress at having any such feelings, and intense anger at any visual stimulus that forces them to acknowledge what they feel, or might potentially feel.

Third are photos that are seen as affronts to innocence whether or not they have anything to do with sexuality, such as the inclusion of the photos of nude children in the Mapplethorpe retrospective. In this case, the mere proximity of photos of childhood innocence to photos of radical sexuality was considered an attack on innocence itself.

In closing, let me emphasize that I strongly believe that protection of the sexual integrity of children and adolescents from the intrusion of adults is a crucial issue of social concern. National attention to the genuine sexual abuse of children is something that has been long overdue. Photography critic A.D. Coleman is correct when he appreciates that our culture is now "in a climate of deep terror over child abuse, and deep concern over the difficulty of catching child abusers. The system and the culture are understandably frustrated about this." But, as Coleman goes on to say, "the problem is that people are taking this frustration out on photographers who have absolutely no intention of contributing to that problem in any way, and whose work, as I read it, does not in any way contribute to that problem."

The current definition of children as a class of non-sexual innocents, and the attack on photographers whose work contradicts that notion, is the latest version of the false dichotomy between asexuality and sexual perversion that has been a long-standing characteristic of American sexual culture. The combination of denying the sexual existence of young people and vilifying those who acknowledge and affirm their sexuality only creates an impossibly conflicted social climate, divorced from sexual reality, that does nothing to support the emotional well-being of children. Indeed, it is the refusal to deal realistically with the sexuality of young people that lies at the heart of our failure to address this social problem effectively. If people like Randall Terry and Operation Rescue truly want to protect children from sexual abuse, they might begin by taking a good, long look at the images of photographers like Jock Sturges and Sally Mann, and take to heart what the faces and bodies looking out at them have to say.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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