WARNING: The following article contains images of child sexual abuse which may offend sensitive viewers. Not recommended for children under 18.
You’ll have to excuse me, because this article will be long. But I think it’s warranted and long overdue.
I must confess, my recent discussions with a respondent to our blog who goes by the deceptively mundane, everyman moniker “a parent” has gotten under my skin in a big way. The underlying accusation, though not put into these words exactly, is that Pigtails in Paint is guilty of “sexualizing” children. This we do, according to “a parent”, by repeatedly claiming—whether doing this directly or indirectly he does not say—that children are worthy objects of the sexual attention of adults, or in terms of art, by attempting to “normalize” what some critics refer to as the “pedophilic gaze.”
Let me be absolutely clear here: I object nearly outright to the concept of the “sexualized” child, as well as to “normalization.” These words are loaded language, armchair psychobabble/political spin designed to instill by default the opposite notion that the “normal” child is by nature asexual, a being entirely without carnal thoughts, feelings or motivations, their minds and bodies veritable blank slates upon which only pubescence justly and impartially writes the erotic code that makes them into what we designate in our culture as a full-on adult.
The problem with this viewpoint is three-fold: first and most obviously, there is a ton of evidence that contradicts this supposition, as almost any reputable expert on children can tell you; second, it neglects to incorporate the fact that authorities—parents especially—control the dialogue and shape children sexually whether they believe they are doing so or not; second, it ignores the reality that the moral panic surrounding child sexuality, child sexual abuse and pedophilia (which are related but not inseparable issues) have grown in strength over the last few decades, to the point that we now have an aegrescit medendo situation where children and adults alike are being harmed as much or more by the overreaction of society as by the folk devils to which it is responding.
In one of my replies to “a parent” I held up as evidence for this two major examples: the side effects of conservative regions where girls are more likely to get pregnant because of lack of decent sex education, lack of access to birth control, and so on (not to mention getting stuck with a baby before she’s ready thanks to harsh anti-abortion measures in those places), and kids themselves getting arrested as sex offenders after being caught up in sexting cases. I will add to those the following:
- The sex offender registry, which has resulted in more problems than it’s solved, foremost among them that it creates a perfect hit list for legal, physical and social persecution.
- The courtesy stigma, name-calling, threats, and educational shutting-out and funding issues that many scholars and researchers face when exploring these issues, especially when their conclusions do not match social and cultural expectations or feed into the biases of politicians.
- The growth of a powerful and unduly influential victim culture surrounding sexual abuse which often exploits the moral panic for its own gain at the expense of many innocent people and organizations.
- The blatant exploitation of the sexual abuse moral panic by political entities and demagogues, particularly on the right but also on the left, utilizing it as propaganda against their political rivals. (See: Pizzagate and Qanon)
- The largely unhelpful “stranger danger” myth, which invests in children a lifelong dread of mostly benign strangers and takes the focus off the real source of most sexual abuse, the child’s own family.
- The unhealthy guilt complexes, body image issues and fear of intimacy that many children learn as a result of being taught that good/normal children are sexually (read: morally) pure, a personification many of them are simply unable to live up to, and which our society goes to great lengths to enforce, one way or another.
- And, of course, the irreparable harm that has been done to artists such as Graham Ovenden and Jock Sturges and their subjects, forever tainted by their names being dragged through the thoroughly raked muck—not to mention art as a whole, the entire history of children in art being reinterpreted through the child pornography/child exploitation lens, and many artists unwilling to tackle what has traditionally been a favorite subject for them, the nude child or youth, due to fears of social stigma and/or legal reprisals.
There are others, but these are quite sufficient, I think, to get the point across. We at Pigtails are primarily concerned with the last one.
The thing about “a parent” is that he comes across as quite reasonable in general, and that concerns me more than a thousand trolls posting death threats or idiotic insults ever could. Those types of people tend to be so broadly ignorant and clownishly obnoxious that their take on these matters cannot be taken seriously. On the other hand, “a parent” has positioned himself as an admirer of simple child nudes, which is understandable. As I have said on a number of occasions, child nudity cannot be equated with sexuality across the board. The conflation of those two things is mainly a Western conceit, predominantly in the Anglophone West: Great Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States. So far, so good.
Another thing is that “a parent” does not believe in the asexual child (or so he claims), and so none of what I wrote above is directly applicable to him. But he plays into this prejudice regardless, because one cannot extricate the idea that children are asexual from the position that they should be seen as such when we look at art featuring them. How is “a parent” able to compartmentalize these two conflicting ideas? His argument basically boils down to this: the artist and the art observer can think such things in an abstract way, but an artist who acknowledges this directly in their work is in violation of the all-important taboo and that must remain forbidden lest it endanger children. In essence, then, intellectual recognition of this scientific fact is fine, but woe to the artist who explores this concept directly in his or her work, who has the unmitigated gall to present the sexual child in imagery. That can only be, according to “a parent”, a sign of a pedophilic wet dream expressed on paper or canvas. Artists who present children erotically must be pedophiles, or why else would they create such work? Moebius? Pedophile. Tamburini and Liberatore? Pedophiles. Neil Gaiman? Obviously a pedophile. I mean, not only did he create the Lantiman of Sauk, he also wrote a rather stirring defense of lolicon with his essay Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech? on his web journal.
Examples of the traditional arts (drawing, painting, sculpture—I’m purposely avoiding dipping into photography here) that either play with eroticism or where children and sexuality meet in some sense are Paul Peel’s A Venetian Bather, Jules Marie Auguste Leroux’s The Mirror, Egon Schiele’s Mädchen mit Federboa, Donatello’s David, Louis Ricardo Falero’s The Planet Venus, works by the Die Brücke collective featuring Fränzi Fehrmann, and Ramon Casas i Carbó’s Flores Deshojadas (Depetaled Flowers), to name a few. But what I want to focus on here is what all of the links in the paragraph above this one have in common: they all feature work from comics artists and writers.
More than any other medium, these have been the target of would-be censors. It’s probably no accident that the one time in American history where an artist was actually convicted on obscenity charges it was for his comics, a medium that has long been viewed as little more than children’s funny books or superhero fantasies by ignorant snobs who don’t understand it. In any case, Mike Diana‘s story is fascinating and should be studied by anyone with an interest in free speech issues and legal precedent. In the late eighties and early nineties the teenage Diana wrote and drew a series of comics with extremely gruesome content—graphic violence and mutilation, rape and child sexual abuse, incest, and likely the most damning offense in the small Florida community where he lived and worked, religious blasphemy—published them in very limited runs at his own expense, and sold them via mail to about three hundred customers around the US for two dollars a pop. Diana had the bad luck of producing his ostentatiously subversive and distasteful work at the same time as the Gainesville Ripper was operating. Diana even became a suspect in those murders, though he was eventually exonerated there. Still, the obscenity charges stuck.
While I cannot defend Diana’s work on its merits (I’m not going to share any of it here; just google it if you’re curious—honestly, it’s so badly drawn and noxious in content that it makes my head hurt to even look at it), the idea that an artist who created something which involved no actual children and that’s about as far from erotic as one can get seems patently absurd to me. I mention this case because it is the extreme, and because, far from accomplishing the goal of “protecting” children from Diana’s work, which almost certainly would’ve been ignored otherwise and slipped into obscurity, all his Kafkaesque trial and conviction really accomplished in the end was putting the spotlight on him and his atrocious art, and now any child who has access to the internet can google it for free. Diana has even had his work shown in international museums. Ho-hum.
Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough. Let’s get to the examples (besides the ones I’ve already linked to). Here is a single panel from a comic I will wait to identify. Out of context, all we can really discern about this image is that it is sexual. The female in bed is performing fellatio on a man, who hovers over her. I will clarify further, because it may not be immediately obvious: the female is a child. Take a good look at it, and withhold judgment if you can. Is this the sort of thing “a parent” would have the government censor?
Now I will identify this image. It is a single panel from the Ignatz Award-nominated semi-autobiographical comic Daddy’s Girl by Debbie Dreschler. This image comes from my own copy of the comic, the square-bound softcover first edition published in 1996 by Fantagraphics. It’s a comic that deals frankly with a young girl’s sexual abuse at the hands of . . . well, a father (not “a father”) during the late fifties and early sixties. In between episodes of sexual abuse, the girl’s life is filled with moments of irony and pathos, such as when her parents take their four children to present gifts to a poor black family during Christmas. The fact that the comic is not subtle about the abuse and does not shy away from depicting it gives Daddy’s Girl a disturbing power that simple fiction could probably never achieve. By design, you cannot look away or consider the abuse as an abstraction. Dreschler forces you to confront it head on. Here are a few pages of this sequence—called Visitors in the Night—for context.
I ask again: is this the sort of image that “a parent” would have the state censor? Perhaps. He says:
So my view is that this particular highly specific kind of expression (a drawing graphically depicting sexual abuse of a prepubescent child) should be illegal, even where there’s no proof of direct harm.
He offers a specific set of criteria by which he judges what should or should not be illegal. Many of Dreschler’s images would fall into that category by default. That would be a huge shame, because the work would lose much of its shock value without these scenes. In fact, I’d say it would be nearly impossible for this comic to exist as what it is without such scenes. Maybe “a parent” would differ on that point, but there can be little doubt that these scenes make the work more disturbing than it would otherwise be. And that is the point of them.
Says “a parent”:
Suppose, for example, there is a pen-and-ink drawing in comic-book style of graphic sexual abuse involving an older adult and a prepubescent child. And suppose the artist did not work from photographs or live models in making this drawing, so it can be claimed that there was no “real, direct” harm done. (I’m pretty sure such a thing would be illegal under our current laws, but I’m not absolutely certain, and I’m definitely no expert.) Besides serving as child pornography, what’s the purpose of such a drawing?
I offered an example which fits this description exactly. (And no, such images are not illegal per se, at least not in the US—this has been tested multiple times, and with the exception of Mike Diana, all those artists won their cases.) So, what is the purpose of such drawings? According to “a parent” they can only serve as pornography to stimulate pedophiles. I wonder what Dreschler would think of such an accusation? Maybe I should ask her.
Here is another example from a different comic, Phoebe Gloeckner‘s A Child’s Life. This too is semi-autobiographical . . . and disturbing. Gloeckner’s character Minnie Goetze is a thinly disguised stand-in for her, though Gloeckner herself has never confirmed this, referring to her work simply as fiction. That’s understandable, as she doesn’t just tell her own story—she recounts events from other girls’ lives as well, including a girl called “Tabatha”:
Is this image erotic? Would it turn some folks on? Possibly. But that is not the intent of the artist. Calling this or Dreschler’s blatant depictions of sexual abuse “child pornography” is ignorant and insulting to both of them. Alright, “a parent” might say, so biographical work which clearly isn’t designed to titillate the viewer might get a pass, but what about examples which are less obviously negative?
Okay, let’s take one from Neil Gaiman’s (that perv again!) multiple award-winning series The Sandman, from the one-off issue Ramadan, drawn by the fabulous P. Craig Russell. (Side note: I have the first three of Russell’s Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde books, and they are absolutely gorgeous.) Ramadan is not really about child sexuality or abuse (you can read a summary of the story here if you’re interested, though I recommend reading the actual comic), but it does feature a relevant scene which I remember being somewhat controversial at the time the comic came out in the early nineties:
Here is the full page for context:
So now we have an example of straight fiction, nothing autobiographical here. There is a single panel (with an inset) in the whole of the story that fits our topic, and unlike Dreschler’s or Gloeckner’s comics, it does not portray it negatively. In fact, the description written by Gaiman makes the “beautiful boys” sound quite appealing. We see no actual sex there, but arguably the boys are drawn sensuously. Is this, then, child pornography? Of course it isn’t. The drawings reinforce the text, but the intent here is certainly not to arouse the viewer. They are presented as part of a larger tapestry, a lovely scene to reinforce that the narrator is a man who enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, be it women or boys. Since the story’s point-of-view character is Haroun al Raschid, the caliph of a medieval-era Middle Eastern city, it makes absolute sense that his perceptions are not modern, and that Gaiman and Russell, presenting us this scene through Haroun’s eyes, would give us boys that are sexually provocative, not presented as victims but as willing and knowing partners, even if they are technically sex slaves. Now, I’m quite sure Russell does not approve of child abuse, and I know Gaiman doesn’t. Nevertheless, it would’ve been ridiculous to offer this scene judgmentally, through modern eyes. It would’ve been obvious and clumsy, taking the reader out of the story.
“Okay, but why include the images at all? Surely they weren’t necessary,” I can hear “a parent” grumbling now. That is beside the point. It is not an artist’s job to go out of their way to avoid triggering sensitive readers. No one doubts that the abuse of young boys occurred in harems like the one described. That’s a historical fact. To gloss over that detail is to feed into political correctness, and the more artists do that, the more they will be expected to do that, until they face arrest for not doing it. Censorship will not stop where “a parent” thinks it should. It doesn’t work that way. It never has. As Gaiman himself said in Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?:
The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don’t. This is how the Law is made.
Whether I find any images of children sexually provocative or not (some might find that image by Dreschler to be arousing; I certainly don’t), my tastes should not be the deciding factor on whether something is illegal or not. Nor should the tastes of “a parent”, nor should the tastes of any particular person or group of persons.
Says “a parent”:
Well, I feel that freedom of expression is very, very important. But it’s not really freedom of expression that’s at issue. It is freedom of a highly specific and narrow range of expression, namely depiction of children as objects of sexual desire. Out of all art and ideas, I think this is an exceedingly tiny slice of a huge pie. Any legislation in this area would leave the vast, overwhelming majority of artistic expression completely unimpeded.
I doubt very much that “a parent” actually believes this, or that he would stand against it if, say, adult porn was on the censor’s chopping block. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I doubt it. He adds, in defense of his view:
It’s critical to realize that child pornography is not on even ground with other “ideas.” We not talking about appealing to the thoughts or the emotions. Appealing to sexual urges–particularly to urges that must harm children if they are fully gratified–is a different basic kind of thing from other types of expression.
Okay. Disregarding for a moment the fact that this is special pleading, I have to ask why is “child pornography”—remember, we’re talking about drawings here—different? Because it is the image of a crime? No, I’ve seen actual photos of murdered children (I wish I hadn’t, but they’re out there)—those are also images of actual crimes, yet they aren’t outlawed. But images of violence do not encourage some unspecified fraction of humanity to commit more crimes, right? Do we know this for a fact? I mean, there have certainly been murderers who have claimed that violent imagery pushed them towards their own murder sprees. Who’s to say it isn’t true? Ah, but it’s a very small percentage of humanity who would be influenced to those ends, eh? Well, “a parent” himself says that pedophiles are such a meager minority that censoring images that might influence them shouldn’t be considered on the same level as other sorts of images, and he says “normal” people, which he defines as the vast majority of humanity, is appalled by such images, and certainly aren’t turned on by them. In other words, not only is he guilty of special pleading, he’s also spouting the bandwagon fallacy as a defense.
Are there folks who get off on violent imagery? Unquestionably. But “a parent” suggests that sex is somehow very different from other provocative concepts like violence, because it doesn’t appeal to thoughts or emotions. Well, what the ever-loving fuck does it appeal to then? A base drive? Is violence not a base drive in us too? Are some people not compelled by their lizard brains to violently destroy that which they hate and fear? Of course they are. But that’s different, because . . .
Because why? Because it doesn’t appeal to pedophiles. That’s it. That’s all it comes down to in the end. They are a tiny minority says “a parent”, and children are too precious and vulnerable to risk them being abused by those few weak souls who might be (not have been, not definitely will be, but might be) encouraged to offend. Look, the only reason to outlaw actual child porn is because it’s consumption encourages the production of more, and we are talking about actual abuse in that case. Children are offended against for the explicit purpose of the production of child porn. In other words, it can only exist because sexual abuse has been committed, and the producer(s) did so with that express purpose in mind. But to extend that argument to drawings, paintings and the like where no real children were actually harmed in its production, on the grounds that it might cause a few people to act out on their sexual urges, is a clear example of thought-crime. You can argue that pedophilia is more than thoughts or feelings all you want to. Hell, I’ll even agree with you on that. But the fact is, when you get right down to it, you are outlawing a thought, an idea, a concept. Make no mistake: if we can outlaw erotic drawings of kids on the grounds that it might cause some people to commit sexual abuse, then it’s not a stretch to suggest that adult porn could likewise be outlawed because it might push some people into rape (sex drive, right?), but we don’t outlaw it on those grounds. Not in America anyway.
Ah, but that’s not why adult porn exists, “a parent” will say. And around and around the circle we go. Most artists, even those who deliberately draw pedophilic erotica, aren’t sitting there thinking, “Ha! I’ll make drawings in order to push people into molesting kids! Mwa ha ha ha!” To make that argument is to assume that anyone with the least bit of interest in such content is inherently immoral, prone to abusing kids and seeking to make others like them. “A parent” says if such content is allowed to exist, kids will be abused because of it. He states it as fact, yet offers no evidence to back it up. Well, I know of a country where a great deal of such content exists, is legal for purchase, indeed is found in comics and magazine shops all around the country. I don’t think I even need to name it. And yet there isn’t scads of child rape and abuse happening there. In fact, that country has low crime rates all the way around. Moreover, many studies show that where porn exists legally, sex offenses tend to plummet. Why would it be any different for child erotica? After all, sex with kids is forbidden across the board, unlike sex with consenting adults. Clearly, having such outlets is more beneficial than harmful. But, by all means “a parent”, offer me evidence which demonstrates that I’m wrong and I’ll reconsider.
Finally (whew!), I will offer this. Here is a comic which actually condones child abuse, brought to you by way of the Kids Tract Club. You reckon it’s been influential?