Is Sensual Child Photography Ever Okay?

That is the question being raised this past weekend.

Photographer Meg Bitton has started quite the stir with one of her most recent images. The image shows two girls, possibly ages 10-12, in an intimate embrace; the girl on the right, looking sensual, goes in for a kiss--something that the artist refers to as just 'two kids gazing at one another'. It is a possibility that the sensual look was an act of chance, but it is still there, nonetheless. You can find the image on her website at: www.megbitton.com

It wasn't long before her Facebook post was filled with the opinions of her followers, both for and against the image; Some reactions were of disgust, gratitude, ambivalence, hate, fear, praise and confusion.

Some of the marked comments were that she should walk out into traffic and die for making the piece and some tried to state their dislike of the image in an objective way just to be attacked by those who liked the image saying that those who objected were bigots, homophobes, and that they should die.

The artist expressed her joy that her image started a conversation, but that she would delete and ban anyone who started to name call on her post. The Facebook post was soon filled with only those followers who supported the image and opposed and name called those who didn't; It appeared that anyone who had opposed the image had been deleted and/or banned. One follower pointed out the discrepency and the image and post were quickly deleted with a new post that stated that the artist took the image down because she didn't have time to moderate the fights.

It appeared that the artist had received many private emails concerning the image and added another post telling her followers to make remarks/comments and that her page was now "their page", but seemingly got flustered when some of those comments were in opposition to her stance; this is based on many comments from followers stating that she has to be able to handle opposing opinions as much as supportive ones if she is going to put her work out there for critique (some of her images are posted on Facebook with the description line saying "Thoughts?").

One sarcastic comment by a male was brought to my attention and it read:

"I agree that we need more art like this. In fact I'm going to open a studio in my basement to take pics of and film children in many provocative and thought provoking poses. It feels so good to be in a like minded community. You guys make me feel so at home. {blushing emojis}"

I will leave the author of that post anonymous for his security since the original post has since been deleted, but if he wants credit, I will most certainly give it.

The post received laughing and wow emojis. One woman commented, but since then the entire thread was deleted by the artist and I cannot quote it. The gist of what it said, though, was that the woman was moved by his post and agreed and wondered herself why it is that if a male had taken the same image he would be accused of trying to fulfill some evil sexual fantasy of prepubescent children, in this case two young girls. Why is it that thousands of Meg Bitton followers were willing to see her work as 'starting an important and vital conversation about tween (homo)sexuality' and yet, if a man did the same, he would be labeled a pedophile and, quite possibly blacklisted by the industry? Did she take her work too far or is this just a simple case of double-standards?

And, if an 'important conversation' had been started, why is it that those people who engaged in the conversation who said that they didn't take issue with the content, but the age of the girls, were told that they were "prudes", "fearmongers", "bigots", "cowardly keyboard warriors", "judgmental people lacking respect for art", "tone deaf and ignorant", and "insecure"? People were gas-lighted by being told that if they saw anything negative in the image it was their own evil inside of them showing through. Meg Bitton started an "important conversation' and told her followers that they would be deleted if they name-called or the like. Yet, only one side of the conversation was allowed and those in opposition were attacked, name-called and deleted or banned.

Another photographer, Sally Mann, received backlash for famous black and white images of her nude children. A piece by the New York Times asks the question: "...Do these sensual images emerge from the behavior of her subjects or are they shaped by the taste and fantasies of the photographer for an affluent audience? Is it pandering or bravery, her willingness to photograph what other adults have seen but turned away from?"

When do you step over the line? Was it okay for Sally Mann to photograph her children the way that she did? If so, why? Was it because she was just recording life as they actually lived it? Unlike Mann, Bitton posed her subjects with the intended purpose of starting what she considered an important "conversation". Is this the difference? Or was it that Bitton was commenting on sexual desires between two prepubescent children, whereas Sally Mann was not; she was recording childhood. However, Bitton could argue that she was recording childhood, as well, no matter how dark one found it. But, with children, is there ever a line of content that quite possibly should not be exploited?

And, exactly how much young sexual desire is being explored at the ages of 10-12? I have an eleven year old son and he has not even started to think about such things. He is starting to notice that girls are pretty and calls his crushes his "girlfriend", but he hasn't started to explore kissing and touch yet. Personally, I find it hard to believe that at those early ages boys or girls are struggling with sexuality like it was portrayed in the image. I have raised many children and never witnessed sensuality being an issue until late junior high to early high school. And since Bittons subjects were models, were they--or their parents--fully aware of what work they would be doing and how it would be portrayed by the mass public?

Sally Mann has become a beloved photographer with many 'moms with cameras' trying to emulate her work. But, at one time, her work was argued by critics to be gross and exploitative. Is Bitton a pioneer or has she pushed her art so far that she needs to shock her audience? Has she sacrificed the sanctity of childhood for more "followers"?

As a mom, I would really prefer that children be allowed to stay children. And, while hard subjects such as childhood sexuality or early childhood sexual assault need to be addressed, I think it is best addressed by the adults in the childs life versus through art for all to consume.

Do you agree? Yes or no? Let me know below.

Jennie Root