To Assume Virtuosity

By Madeleine Rose Elliott, 2017

The desire to be recognised by others is inseparable from being human. Indeed such recognition is so essential that, according to Hegel, everyone is ready to put his or her own life in jeopardy in order to obtain it. This is not merely a question of satisfaction or self love, rather, it is only through recognition by others that man can constitute himself as a person.

(Agamben, 2011, p.46)

The concepts of sexuality and identity are entwined together throughout history and psychology; sexuality represents a part of the self and persona, who you are as a person. In recent years we have witnessed the gradual acceptance, and then legalisation, of same-sex marriage in the U.K and many other countries. However, one group of people have become increasingly demonised over the years: paedophiles. Whether this is a consequence of the rise in celebrity-child abuse scandals coming to light, or a major crack down on child protection and welfare, public awareness has increased. Recently, a group who call themselves ‘Virtuous Paedophiles’ have been fighting for recognition and acceptance amongst society. Advocating against child abuse in any form and stating that ‘paedophilia is a sexual attraction that [they] did not choose, cannot change, and successfully resist’ (Virtuous Pedophiles, 2016). Is society heading down a road in which all sexual orientations are accepted? And, if not, how is it decided which are “right” or “wrong”? In the mid-Victorian era the age of consent was first raised to thirteen in 1875 and then to sixteen in 1885 in the U.K (Silverman and Wilson, 2002, p.14). Our sense of morality is a continually developing phenomenon based on societal values. As put in Innocence Betrayed: ‘why is it that we “discovered” the paedophile at exactly the same time as this process of sexualising our children?’ (Silverman and Wilson, 2002, p.46). Throughout advertising children are used to sell products and are targets as consumers themselves. This practice developed at the same time as photography’s rise in popularity, thus, ‘the child and the photograph were commodified, fetishised, developed alongside each other: they were laminated and framed as one’ (Mavor, 1996, p.3). In trying to protect, or even exploit the innocence of children, what happens to their identity? This essay uses the term paedophile as a person with a sexual attraction to prepubescent children, and although acknowledging that women can fall into this category, as it is not deemed as common, men will be the main focus. The Virtuous Paedophiles face immense hatred in publicly identifying as paedophiles, so why is it that, as humans, we crave recognition so far as to possibly place our lives in jeopardy to achieve it? And why do we refuse this recognition in the first place?

To recognise someone is to acknowledge his or her existence. ‘Other human beings are important and necessary primarily because they can recognise me’ (Agamben, 2011, p.47). The act of seeing is the primary shift to recognition, however this is not yet adequate enough to the individual. If it were, the camera, when used as a tool for self portraiture, could act as an apparatus of recognition in itself; presenting evidence to the subject of his or her own existence. What must happen in the act of recognition is the acceptance of the subject by others, in the truest form that he or she can take. Nowadays, identities are a ‘reflection of the most irreducible elements of their being, for example, female, lesbian, black’ (Doy, 2005, p.157). These are the acceptable subcategories of identity that we all fall into; they hold with them certain stereotypes surrounding western culture. However, amongst the controversy surrounding paedophilia and the distorted fear of “stranger danger” (with reports showing that abuse is more frequently committed by someone known to the victim [Ahmad, 2013]), people become blinded by cultural disdain and thus, the initial sight that precedes recognition is interrupted. The concepts of paedophilia and child-molestation are entwined to such a degree that the idea of the two being separate entities could almost be completely dismissed. The result of denying this acceptance is an effect called the ‘deviancy amplification’ in which a group is isolated from normal functions of society, thus allowing ‘such a group to develop its own norms and values, which society thereafter perceives as even more deviant than before’ (Silverman and Wilson, 2002, p.9). Although, it is crucial to specify that there is a percentage of paedophiles that do not resist child abuse, exiling those that do will only isolate and exacerbate the situation. In 2002, the BBC released a three part series The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles that, whilst justifying the paedophile-as-molester idea, presents the view from a police officer that ‘you just have to talk to [them] like a human being’. Our moral outrage takes over in our plight to save the innocence of our children; anger and fear engulf reason, however, ‘beating him up’ (BBC, 2002) will not make any difference to the situation; he will still be a paedophile, more withdrawn and isolated form society than ever. Thus, acceptance without advocacy may be the solution.

Fig. 1. Dodgson, C. (1879) Unknown.

However, much has changed in terms of society’s recognition since 2002. The trouble that many paedophiles have in gaining recognition from adults is why they embrace recognition by children. Looking back to a time when paedophilia was a seldom-discussed issue, a time when the age of consent was held at age twelve, a thirty-year-old man befriended three young sisters, taking a special interest in the middle child of age ten. He told stories between realities, of an adventurous and innocent little girl trapped in another world. That time was 1862, when Lewis Carroll, his real name Charles Dodgson, first told the story of Alice in Wonderland to Alice Liddell and her two sisters (The Nations, 2015). The controversy surrounding Carroll focuses on a collection of photographs – some clothed, others nude – that he took of young girls, the most shocking of all being a photograph of Evelyn Hatch, taken in 1879 (See Fig. 1). The young girl spreads her body, fearlessly meeting the viewer’s gaze, her body bold and unflinching, glowing amongst dimly painted scenery. But do we read this as a child absentmindedly slipping into a comfortable position, or is she a child-woman, conscious of her pose and the power she holds over her viewer. How much of a role did Carroll have in her arrangement? With so much similarity to those reclining nudes of the 16th Century, it is hard to imagine that Carroll did not have some influence over her pose. But it is impossible for a modern day viewer to analyse this image without imposing onto it our cultural disdain. In the Victorian Era, children were continuously the subject of art, and it was deemed more appropriate for a man to associate with a young girl under the consent age of twelve, rather than older, of whom he may be viewed as courting without intention to marry, a complete opposition to modern values (ibid.). Hence, the idea of paedophilia was so absent in this period that the thought did not even occur in the minds of many individuals. Children were sent to work, married off; they were considered adults at a much younger age.

Fig. 2. Fenty, R. (2017) Badgalriri [Instagram].

However, comparing a similar event in 1995, Julia Somerville, 48, and boyfriend Jeremy Dixon, 56, were arrested over images taken of Somerville’s young daughter naked in the bath. Although found to be innocent family photographs, this case pointed out the ‘grey area here on what indecency means’ (Alan Levy in Fowler, 1995) to a modern viewer and how much is dependant on intention. A similar event occurred when a photo emerged of singer Rihanna kissing her young niece on the mouth (See Fig. 2), which received cries of outrage and indecency from the public. This begs the question; how does our contemporary culture identify and interpret nudity and intimacy with children?

It is quite purely familial. It’s the familiarity, that feeling of – I hate to use the word ‘intimacy’ because I know that would get conflated with sexuality – but how much you know each other and that innocent comfort and that lack of self-consciousness.

(Rubin in Woudstra, 2016)

Our society has become to obsessed and terrified of child abuse that we have become suspicious of any intimate moments with children, compared to the Victorian Era which almost wholly refused the idea. It seems the only choice we have is to leave children vulnerable or accommodate to the ‘contradictory set of attitudes, in which a determination to protect childhood purity coexists with an acute awareness of its inevitable violation’ (Fehily, Fletcher and Newton, 2000, p.117). What harm could this lack of intimacy cause to a child’s ability to identify with his or her familiar’s, if they do not have an adult’s guidance?


Fig. 3. Gross, G. (1978) The Woman in the Child.

Nudity is shameful and indecent; it is reserved for our most private moments that are not to be shared to the world. Yet, to be naked is freeing, it is unrestricted and natural. These are the exact contradictions that Fehily, Fletcher and Newton are depicting of our modern society. Only once sinned do Adam and Eve realised their nakedness; ‘nudity is something that one notices, whereas the absence of clothes is something that remains unobserved’ (Agamben, 2011, p.57). Nudity has the capacity to oscillate as much as our moral values develop. However, photography has the ability to freeze nudity; ‘In a photographic image nakedness becomes suspect, vulnerability more obvious and the possibility of exploitation only too real’ (Fehily, Fletcher and Newton, 2000, pg.113). It becomes fixed and unchanging, challenging our moral perceptions. In 1978, Gary Gross provoked this very argument in his photographs of, a then ten-year-old, Brooke Shields, naked in a bathtub (See Fig. 3). The work, which was intended for a publication named The Woman in the Child, aimed to expose and question the femininity of young girls in comparison to adult women (Selwyn-Holmes, 2009). In looking at this image, we become so fearful and ashamed of our own desires; we cannot help in asserting sexual views onto the image of a young girl, leading us to question our own desires and, in fearing that we may be judged as perverse, we condemn anyone who challenges us to that very same judgement. This is the artist’s intent; it is designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. But, what is troubling is that we possess the same reaction to an intimate portrayal of family life between Rihanna and her niece. In a guardian article, written after the photograph’s appropriation by Richard Prince in a show at Tate, Gross’ lawyers are quoted from the 1981 trial, stating that ‘she had made a profitable career “as a young vamp and a harlot, a seasoned sexual veteran, a provocative child-woman, an erotic and sensual sex symbol, the Lolita of her generation’ (Turner, 2009). Whilst the Judge concurred the images ‘have no erotic appeal except to possibly perverse minds’ (ibid). These two very statements, quoted consecutively in the article, aim to blame the ten-year-old for her own sexualisation, whilst also denying any sexualisation of her (by “un-perverse” minds). Thus, what now comes into question is not the identity of the viewer or photographer as perverse, but the identity and persona of the child and their role in the formation of an image.

To be a subject means to influence the photograph and put forward an identity of one’s self; ‘the very act of posing as a model means making a specific contribution to the final image’ (Fehily, Fletcher and Newton, 2000, pg.118). In a society where identities are a ‘reflection of the most irreducible elements of [our] being’ (ibid.), including sexual preferences, by denying sexuality within children, are we denying them part of an identity? This sexuality, if acknowledged, would not be categorised by typical labels (heterosexuality, bisexuality and so on) but by a sexual curiosity that is usual in the normal development of becoming a self-aware individual. The common conception is that young girls are either pure, virtuous cherub-like creatures that need protecting from the evils of lascivious men, or they are sexual harlots, twisting and tempting the wills of men. And yet, in reality, harlots and cherubs alike are just seeking the recognition that we crave from others, as many artists contended:

Believing that my young girls are perversely erotic is to remain on the level of material things. It means understanding nothing about the innocence of adolescent languor, and the truth of childhood.

(Balthus in Waters, 2009) 

Fig. 4. Stieglitz, A. (1923) Spiritual America.

In Prince’s appropriation of Gross’ Brooke Shields image, he named the piece Spiritual America after Alfred Stieglitz’s 1923 photograph (See Fig. 4) which displays a harnessed, castrated horse; ‘a pure representation of eradicated sexual prowess and restrained muscular energy … he suggested that America was lacking in spirit by reinterpreting the horse, a traditional American symbol of unstoppable force’ (Met Museum, 2017). Prince could then be referring to the ‘sexual prowess’ hidden within the girl-woman that has an unequivocal power over men. However, read in a contrasting way, and from the view of a woman, Prince could be imposing this prowess and muscular energy himself as the artist/appropriator, drawing attention to and condemning Gross’ and America’s own damnation of Shields as a sexual harlot. In all the artworks discussed in this essay we have seen the depiction of sexualised young girls through the eyes of a male, and although the subject has presence and influence over an image, this can be repressed and manipulated. This is a repression perfectly portrayed by Nabokov in his controversial work Lolita (See Fig. 5), in which the reader is led through a series of events by Humbert Humbert – a paedophile – and his obsession with a twelve-year-old ‘nymphet’ girl – not too dissimilar Lewis Carroll’s own friendship with Alice Liddell. Her loss of identity is so prominent that she loses her real name, Dolores Haze, and becomes his own Lolita. Nabokov writes so that we only see her through Humbert’s eyes, his words misleading and manipulating so that his crimes maybe excused; ‘I am going to tell you something very strange; it was she who seduced me’ (Nabokov, 1955, pg.132). However, she clings to him because Humbert is her only form of recognition, and she his: ‘At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had nowhere else to go’ (ibid. pg.141).

Fig. 5. Nabokov, V. (1955) Lolita.

The real controversy with Lolita, much like Gross’ image of Shields, is the fear of our own desires, the way in which the reader could be so easily seduced by our unreliable narrator into not only condoning and forgiving his abduction and rape of a young girl, but also feeling sympathetic towards his character. In psychoanalytical theory ‘the person becomes a paedophile as a result of searching for a love object that most closely resembled that person as a child’ (Silverman and Wilson, 2002, pg.37). Humbert’s abrupt and immature loss of his childhood love causes his loss of identity, doomed to endlessly attempt to fulfil his adolescent sexual desire, thus he carries this undeveloped need into adult life. Although we, as a moral society, cannot condone actions of paedophilia, we must accept the idea of the paedophile as a damaged human; we must recognise the child-victim within. What is presented to us is a man who has seemingly lost touch with his identity and the world around him, but through the complex phantasm of girlhood he is momentarily satisfied in his own humanity.

The difficulty is in understanding the distinction between taking pleasure in the intangibility of childhood youth and the violation of innocence; the difference between Julia Somerville’s joyful snaps of her daughter in the bath, and Gross’ probing of the girl-woman; the difference between a Male Gaze and the Maternal Gaze. Parents archive photographs of their children, and, in doing so, memorialise moments that pass in an instant. ‘Children grow up with the speed of darkness’ (Mavor, 1996, pg.6), an event to which only the camera is quick enough to capture.

Pictures of oneself as a child are more usually melancholic. Simultaneously outside of time and of a very particular moment, such photographs are the visual keystones to how we see ourselves then and perceive ourselves now.

(Fehily, Fletcher and Newton, 2000, pg.33)

Photographs from our childhood are used to reminisce and in doing so they remind us of the passing of time, in consequence, they reveal to us our own mortality: our death. Much like how the paedophile looks to the child in search of lost love, we look to photographs in search of lost time. Thus, to paedophiles, the child becomes the photograph, their search for recognition. However, recognition in this way becomes dangerous, grazing through morality and ethics, but it is essential for their humanity. In our persecution of the paedophile-as-molester, and inability to view the two as separate, we have made it impossible for paedophiles to identify as such without the fear of their life being put in jeopardy. In 2000, News of the World launched a ‘name-and-shame’ campaign which published the names of 150 paedophiles, after which many named men, including ones mistakenly identified, were attacked by vigilantes (Guardian, 2000). Nonetheless, even with this threat, communities like the Virtuous Paedophiles are fighting for their voice to be heard, for recognition of their truest selves. Our British law states that accused are innocent until proven guilty, so we should not condemn people for an identity they did not choose. The paedophile-as-molester is a false belief that needs to be examined and abolished.

Fig. 6. Mann, S. (1983) At Twelve.

Sally Mann’s At Twelve series serves to present to us the importance of girlhood, and our search for identity in a time of constant change and growth. ‘These girls still exist in an innocent world in which a pose is only a pose—what adults make of that pose may be the issue’ (Beattie in Mann, 1988, pg.9). As an artist, Mann’s images received similar controversy over the exploitation of children, but as a woman and a mother, the images become a witness to girlhood, rather than a portrayal. It is evident that child exploitation does happen, and that these actions cannot be condoned; however if we do not accept these forms of identity and sexuality in children, we leave them vulnerable. Young girls are sexual, ‘but without the sexual organs to generate themselves; their only reproduction is photographic representation, infinitely repeated sameness’ (Mavor, 1996, pg.26). Once grown, this eluding identity of innocence is lost. Little Alice would never grow up; this is why Carroll drew her. Yet, no matter how much we search for recognition within a subject, be it a photograph, a young girl, or a photograph of a young girl, we can never be satisfied without receiving that very recognition and acceptance back. ‘The photograph is concerned with surfaces, not souls’ (Fehily, Fletcher and Newton, 2000, pg.34). Our need for recognition is part of our search for meaning in life, without it we do not die, but our sense of self becomes ethereal and nameless. The other is needed as witness. Under these considerations could the struggles for recognition one day be accepted without prejudice? Or will the politics of society forever condemn the paedophile’s identity as an abomination? 






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Fig. 1. Dodgson, C. (1879) Unknown. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2017).

Fig. 2. Fenty, R. (2017) Badgalriri [Instagram] 7 November 2016. Available at: (Accessed: 19 February 2017).

Fig. 3. Gross, G. (1978) The Woman in the Child. Available at: (Accessed: 19 February 2017).

Fig. 4. Stieglitz, A. (1923) Spiritual America. Available at: (Accessed: 19 February 2017).

Fig. 5. Nabokov, V. (1955) Lolita. Available at: (Accessed: 23 February 2017).

Fig. 6. Mann, S. (1983) At Twelve. Available at: (Accessed: 24 February 2017).