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Rudd and the cultural elites

By Mark Kelly - posted Monday, 2 June 2008

Last week brought news that an American tennis player I’ve never heard of is planning to be the first professional tennis player to pose naked for Playboy.

This is her reasoning:

I thought about it and thought, well, I'm not really doing anything right now and it was something that I did. I'm proud of my body.


Implying that the only reason not to pose naked in Playboy is a lack of pride in one’s body. This justification of course occludes the likely motivation, namely remuneration. It seems rather likely that Harkleroad would be unwilling to expose herself to the world in this way if there were no financial incentive.

I think this is indicative of a prevalent assumption among men and women that pornography is OK. But it isn’t. What Harkleroad is doing is allowing herself, via financial inducements, to be exposed by men for men. Playboy is a publication by men for men that trades on men’s fantasies of a transcendent lifestyle in which women exist as their playthings. Men desire to expose women’s flesh as proof of their sexual domination, and by pooling their money via magazine subscriptions, are able to reduce the great and the beautiful to cavorting for their delectation.

As I say, Harkleroad is here not exceptional, but indicative of a shift. This shift is a lamentable one in which the cultural tropes that allowed women to protect themselves from men have been eroded.

This situation is completely unlike the situation of Bill Henson’s allegedly obscene photographs.

Here, the models were not paid (if anything is a criterion for pornography it’s this, “porn” etymologically stemming from the Greek word for a prostitute). Here, the models were to be seen precisely because of their appearance. Here, the motive for seeing the models was completely asexual, rather aesthetic. Here, the forum in which the photographs were shown was not one devoted to laying bare women for the predilection of men, but of laying bare life for the predilection of humans.

There is no doubt that in the eyes of many Australians, a naked breast is in and of itself an obscene and titillating image. But there can also be no doubt that Western art long ago developed the convention of showing nudity where it would ordinarily be socially unacceptable. That the models here were underage makes this more, not less, controversial.


While pornography featuring children is considered abhorrent in our culture, the nudity of children in non-pornographic contexts is generally more tolerated than that of adults. Showing naked children in art works is thus pretty safe territory. Perhaps Kevin Rudd, Morris Iemma and the rest are confused because they associate photography with pornography, and art with painting, but I would assure them that photography is now a fairly well established art form in its own right.

I suspect we are today seeing a neoliberalisation of sexuality in which the bodies of women are up for grabs to the highest bidder, but the bodies of under-18s, qua commodities, are radically unavailable because under-18s are unable to freely contract.

Thus, with women, any kind of degradation and exploitation is allowable, but with children, nothing is allowable. In effect, we see a taboo investing not nudity per se but the bodies of children. Since any presentation of a child in public is in effect an invitation to the illegal sexuality of the pedophile, the logic pushes us towards the veiling or seclusion of children, until they are of an age when they can enter the entirely marketised public realm.

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About the Author

Mark Kelly is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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