The Bill Henson Affair: Shame on Adults for Paranoia over Adolescence

For a friend of mine, adolescence was no time of innocence. It was the worst and most confusing time of her life; made all the worse by the insistence of the adults she knew that the pain would be useful later.

The main problem was that believed she had lost her father’s love. Always such a tactile man, one day he simply refused to touch her. No wrestling on the bed. No more hugs. The mere sight of her body seemed to cause physical pain. He would wince, and turn away.

In her eighteenth year the rift healed as mysteriously as it had opened. Now they are close. But my friend never forgot her father’s sudden and mysterious rejection. To forgive him, to have trusting relationships with other men, she had to understand what went wrong.

This is what she thinks happened. One day she and her dad were horsing around and he got aroused. Dismayed, disturbed and disgusted at such an unbidden physical response, he went into repressive overdrive. Rejecting the feelings and the person who caused them – her – in one fell swoop. No wonder her frantic efforts to discover the nature of her transgression so she could make amends for it and return things to normal between them, failed. Matters would only improve when she had finished growing up.

The hysterical over-reaction to Bill Henson’s photographs of naked adolescents, prompted by a complaint to police by Bravehearts’ Hetty Johnston, has put me in mind of this story. Johnson has her own demons. It is easy to see how her failure to recognise that her father-in-law had indecentld assaulted her daughter might make her hyper-vigilant about the seemingly innocent motives and behaviour of all men.

But we don’t have to share her suspicions. Instead, we could accept the obvious fact that most men are neither pornographers nor paedophiles. Secure in this knowledge, we could welcome Bill Henson’s attempt to prise open the complexity of adolescence, and the response of adults to it. Betwixt and between, neither child nor adult, the adolescent body and place in society is ambiguous, uneasy and paradoxical. Beautiful and awkward, vulnerable yet powerful, Henson’s photographs invite us to consider questions contemporary western societies struggles to ask, little less answer. Can the budding bodies and sexuality of adolescents be celebrated without being exploited? Can we recognise the vulnerability of adolescents, particular girls, without supporting the victim mentality that accompanies dis-empowering conceptions of female sexuality? Can we allow adolescents to feel proud of their bodies and sexuality, or will we – by condemning as pornographic the photographing of such bodies – forever insist on shame?

If our response to those who dare raise such questions is to label them pornographers and paedophiles, I don’t like our chances.

So the final words of this column are for the young woman featured on the invitation to Henson’s exhibit. The one those orchestrating the continuing witch hunt against the artist claim to be so concerned about, and whose image was among those the Prime Minister labelled, “revolting.”

You are beautiful, darling. Be proud. Years from now, you’ll still be admired while those responsible for the current stupidity will be long gone. Thank you for giving us insight into this complex time in your life: into who you are and the strong woman you are becoming. Find it in your heart to forgive adults. It is we, not you, who are in the wrong.

Publication history

Shame on Adults for Paranoia over Adolescence  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)