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A debate we had to have

By Hetty Johnston - posted Friday, 6 June 2008

Let us explore the issues. First, 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 sexual 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 and so on) 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 “sexual 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 defendants 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 defence when they are caught with sexual images of children and claim its research for their artistic endeavours? 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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Bravehearts has launched a petition to protect children. It can be accessed by logging on to

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About the Author

Hetty Johnston is executive director of Bravehearts. She has held positions as Chair of Queensland Child Protection Week Committee and a Board Member of the National Association Prevention Child Abuse and Neglect, and is a Former Leader of the Queensland branch of the Australian Democrats.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Hetty Johnston

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