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A debate we had to have

By Hetty Johnston - posted Friday, 6 June 2008

The Henson debate is a debate we had to have, not just here in Australia but internationally. It is a healthy sign of a society that is evolving in its understanding of the rights of children to be protected and free from sexual exploitation.

As we see it, this debate is part of a cultural shift, an awakening of the rights of the child and an acceptance and realisation of the dangers adults have historically posed to their safety and wellbeing - intentional or otherwise. It is the best interests of the children that are at the centre of this debate.

Bravehearts Inc exists to protect children from sexual assault, to educate children and adults on this issue, to conduct research and to provide healing to those children who have, or are at risk of, suffering the trauma of sexual assault.


About 20 per cent of the population were sexually assaulted in some way before their 18th birthday, boys and girls, rich and poor, from the city, the country and the outback. Child sexual assault is not discriminatory.

Most offences (85 per cent or more) will be perpetrated by someone the child and family know and trust. Our research and our own statistics tell us that less than 30 per cent of offenders actually live in the home with the child but are more likely to be relatives, friends, neighbours, baby sitters or other adults who have won the trust of the child’s parent(s) in order to gain access to the child. It is an insidious crime.

Since time began, adults have exercised their rights, their greed and personal desires with little or no consideration to the rights of children. To quote the only sensible sentence in Duncan Fines recent vitriolic writings on this subject, “For most of human history children have been sent to work as soon as they were able. In the 19th century the age of consent was 12. London was awash with childhood slavery and prostitution. Australian cities and towns were teeming with runaways and neglected children.”

This goes to support our argument. Unfortunately some parts of the world still have no regard for children and/or are so impoverished that the need to protect the child flies well under the radar of community priorities. These children make easy prey for those who would exploit their vulnerabilities.

Thankfully, in other parts of the world, times are slowly changing to a time when we consider the ramifications of our failure to protect and consider the rights of children - although some of the comments aired during this debate from otherwise “educated” individuals indicates we have a long way to go.

Any institution, organisation, sector of society or group who sanctions, excuses, covers up for, or otherwise fails to protect children from sexual assault or exploitation will invariably attract those whose life’s mission is to sexually engage with children and young people. History has shown this to be true.


Recently the churches have come to realise this and are a shining example of an awakening to the realities of child protection and the wider communities demands that they place the protection of children above all other considerations. It is all a part of, an admittedly slow, cultural shift in how we must respect the vulnerabilities of children rather than exploit them.

As we see it, this debate is fundamentally about two major issues. It is a contest between those defending the historical rights and freedoms of the arts and those defending today’s rights and freedoms of our young. One can not be achieved without the sacrifice of the other.

As well, it is about the law itself - particularly the understood meaning and definitions of the language under the law such as “child pornography”, “sexual context”, “intent”, “consent”, “artistic … public benefit purpose”, “dissemination”, “possession”. What do these definitions mean in today’s ever changing, technologically charged world? We know that art is no longer confined to the walls of the gallery, exclusively accessible by only its visitors. Today’s technology means art is shared or “disseminated” globally within minutes. The content of these images then attracts a wider audience and also comes under the scrutiny of various jurisdictions and statutes.

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Bravehearts has launched a petition to protect children. It can be accessed by logging on to

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About the Author

Hetty Johnston is executive director of Bravehearts. She has held positions as Chair of Queensland Child Protection Week Committee and a Board Member of the National Association Prevention Child Abuse and Neglect, and is a Former Leader of the Queensland branch of the Australian Democrats.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Hetty Johnston

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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