a nation of never-nudes


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds


Photo: Getty images

The walls of my parents' home are adorned with images of naked children. There's a frolicsome four-year-old running under a sprinkler, two giggling pre-pubescent sisters in a bath and plentiful full-frontal beach shots which had been taken by an older clothed man. My parents are not pornographers and nor are the children victims of paedophilia. My siblings and I were simply born in what today looks like an age of innocence; a time when nudity didn't always means sex or sin.

Metaphorically speaking we were born before The Fall. Before a gigantic paranoid fig-leaf wrapped itself around our naked humanity and turned nudists into perverts, parents into pornographers and children into nymphs. We were born in a time when nudity meant joyous unselfconsciousness rather than vulnerability. This was a period when the police interrogation of a 70-year old grandfather over his six-year old granddaughter's nudity would have been unthinkable. (In case you missed it, last month a grandfather was reported to police as a presumed paedophile because his granddaughter was nude at the beach.) You could photograph children at swimming pools and topless bathing didn't require lying down. I would also guess that a mass nude dip would not have seen the police fretting over breaches of public indecency laws (as Tasmanian police did recently over a proposed nudie swim for the Dark Mofo festival).

So why the puritanical disgust at the sight of our own flesh? More specifically, why is stripping off today so much more of a problem than it was 10 years ago? Is it that we're tumbling back into the Victorian era, or are we simply protecting our children from a harm we have only recently begun to take seriously? Are we just more conscious of sun damage? Is it our fear of camera phones? Or, given our sexually saturated media culture, is it just some forms of nudity that we don't like – those forms that are wilful, self-possessed and uncommodified?

Let's start at first principles: the naked body in and of itself means nothing. It depends on which cultural narratives we decide to wrap it in. Why else would Europeans in the 19th century see Michelangelo's David as a symbol of the highest point in Western civilisation and an image of a naked Aboriginal man as a symbol of savagery? The same image can also change its meaning over time. In the 11th century Lady Godiva's naked trot through the village was a powerful affront to her husband and a political challenge to his imposition of taxes. A few centuries later the exact same trot came to symbolise female licentiousness and unruly sexuality. Nudity depends on culture.


So what is our culture saying about nudity today? Social theorist Jeff Klooger says our responses to nudity are determined by the Christian Genesis myth. We associate nudity with sex and sex with sin. Thus, Bill Henson was seen as robbing his pre-pubescent nudes of innocence. As though, in Klooger's words, "the introduction to the world of sexual gratification is an initiation into a world of guilt and burdensome knowledge that spoils the perfection of childhood.' In a culture that is fearful of children's sensuality, and which sees sex as something which corrupts, we end up hysterically equating their nudity with sinful adult sexuality. If we accept Klooger's analysis then the answer is obvious: teach kids that sex is natural and a nice way of expressing affection. Then it's easier for us to point out instances when sex is harmful or abusive.

Personally, I think it's more complicated than this. Firstly, Christian art is full of representations of nude children. You can't just blame Christianity for our current tendency to sexualise the nude body. Second, Klooger suggests that we need to be more permissive in representing child sexuality – that sex is good and natural and therefore representations of sex are also positive.

This argument ignores gender and the fact that our culture is already engaged in sexualising children. We are bombarded with images of sexualised girls. And as a corollary, our standards of female sexual attractiveness are infantile – think Brazilians, Botox and and little girl voices on adult women. This, more than Christianity, explains why we have stopped being able to see children naked without thinking that their bodies could be read as sexual. It's because we are awash in images of Lolita.

Our hysteria around child nudity is not just because we're more proactive about paedophilia. The '80s and '90s also saw moral panics around the paedophile. Our banning of child nudity coincides with the recent increasing sexualisation of girls in the media. A 1997 Australian Law Reform Commission Report on children's rights was silent on the topic of child sexualisation, which, as Biggins argues, would be unthinkable in today's world of padded bikini bra tops for five-year-olds or Bratz dolls wearing lipstick. In a world of commodified and eroticised infantilism, we're incapable of looking at nudes outside the frame of sexualised consumption.

Equating nudity with sex does amount to a loss of innocence for girls, but not because sex is sinful. The loss is of childish unselfconsciousness. Becoming a woman in a patriarchy means going from seeing your body as a thing that acts to a thing that exists for other people's pleasure. It goes from an autonomous body to a body that is surveilled and that needs to surveil itself.

Our culture is not opposed to nudity per se. Rather, we have limited its appearance to images that use sex to sell products and outlawed its more blissful incarnations. A woman walking down the street topless would be arrested for public indecency but boobs in fashion advertising is fine. Of course this is nothing new. We have long been happy to see naked women in art peering seductively from chaises lounges. But if they decide to strip for their own pleasure rather than that of a male spectator then they'd be arrested. The difference now is that seduction is marketed at children and representations of women's bodies have become more child-like. Child nudity has come to be linked with the sexually accessible female body.

The result has been catastrophic. Girls are encouraged to value themselves based on how they appear to others. The relationship between men and children is made suspect. And this in turn naturalises the connection between mother and child as the only publicly sanctioned parental bond, thus burdening women with an even greater share of child-rearing duties.

Child Commissioner Megan Mitchell said that we need to foster community to prevent baseless accusations of paedophilia every time we see a nude child. But I think we need more than this. We need to stop eroticising female inequality through tropes of childishness and to begin celebrating adult female sexuality. We need to prohibit the sexualisation of children in the media. And we need to protect children from all sexual harm, including that which comes when we tell them that their bodies are anything other than the animalistic, energetic, pleasure-seeking instruments they are.