28 April 2009

Pretty Babies

At Eurozine I came across a provocative essay (first published, it seems, at Index on Censorship) entitled "Pretty Babies" by art historian Anne Higgonet. She has a truly sensible, non-alarmist assessment of the recent rash of "child pornography" and censorship cases that lately have popped up in among art and commercial photographers, as well as elsewhere [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]. Higgonet, it seems to me, is pretty much on the money:
"Contrary to what hopeful censors would have us believe, the overwhelming majority of pictures of children, clothed or unclothed, are ambiguous. Sexuality is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Yet despite the subjectivity of virtually all interpretation, child pornography law persists in attacking pictures, rather than in pursuing cases of actual abuse against real children. If you can prove that a photograph was made by forcing a real child to commit a physical sexual act in front of the camera, then by all means hunt down and prosecute the adults involved in those acts. Pictures could be used instrumentally as evidence, instead of becoming the crimes themselves. Prosecute actions. Let the pictures go.

[. . .]

Economists believe in a concept called revealed preference. Don't pay attention to what I say, the concept teaches, pay attention to what I've done. According to the revealed preference of our laws and budgets, we care more about pictures than about people. How can we justify spending precious resources on the gargantuan yet futile surveillance of the Internet when we claim to have none for the simplest social programmes that protect and shelter children from abuse where it is most likely to happen? How can we have the resources for endless expensive law cases about pictures when we supposedly don't have enough to pay for social workers, health care, preschools or after-schools?

As with all so-called sexual crimes against adults, the real issue is the way in which sex can be turned into a form of power. If we fixate, not even on the most convoluted and indirect definition of sexual abuse against children, but on fictional representations of that convoluted and indirect definition of sexual abuse against children, then we will not confront the most horrible ways in which we systematically abuse our power over children. The purpose of child pornography law is to protect children. The effect of child pornography laws ultimately hurts children."
And, if you are inclined to object that this is a liberal apologia for permissiveness, I suggest you first consider the example that animates Higgonet's essay. The absurdity brings home her point.

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