March 21st, 2016

The consent of children

Photographer Sally Mann wrote a lengthy article in which she justifies, explains, expounds, and defends some controversial photos she took of her own children. She asserts that, since her children had the final say over every photo and whether it should be published, how could they have been exploited? But Mann ignores an essential element of the equations, which is that, because of their very nature as children, they could not give informed consent.

There is a need to take great care before assuming, in activities where one person has power over another (parent/child, for example), and that the less powerful is able to give consent to something the person with more power wants. It’s especially perilous when the powerful person is in a position in which he/she is supposed to protect the other. The child cannot consent to that which fails to protect that child; the child’s judgement is colored both by the greater influence of the powerful one (the parent) as well as the fact of the child’s age detracting from a child’s ability to make informed decisions in general. Not for nothing is it said that a child has not reached the age of consent; that’s what the term means.

Does Mann not know that? As a person, and as a parent?

That is the reason that even post-pubescent adolescents cannot consent in the legal sense to seemingly consensual sexual relationships with adults, and especially with teachers or clergy or scout leaders or others who have abused their position of power and influence. In addition, even if a child is not one of the parties, differentials of power make it impossible for an adult patient to legally consent to sex with a therapist or a priest and do away with the therapist or priest’s obligation not to exploit that person. The obligation always remains, whatever the patient might say.

Sally Mann did not have sex with her children. But she has been accused of taking sensual photos of her children that border on the sexual. Mann is of the opinion that her photos are not sexual in nature, although the children are often naked. But she is well aware that by putting those images out into the world, she might expose her children to the eyes of pedophiles who could easily think otherwise. What she does not appear to be aware of—even after all this time, at least not from the evidence of the article—is that children cannot possibly give consent to that process.

Mann says that her children have suffered, just as some critics of her work had predicted they would:

One New York Times letter-­writer predicted an outcome for my children that did, in fact, come to pass: a “third eye,” as this writer eloquently put it. By this she meant a shameful self-­consciousness, a feeling of guilt and moral doubt about the pictures. And of the three kids, this most afflicted my youngest, Virginia — my carefree, lissome river sprite.

There were also demented letter-writers, including a stalker who seemed obsessed. All of this appears to have come as a surprise to Mann, who comes across as having been both ambitious and naive. She thought she could create a world apart—in the country far from the madding crowd—and she did. But when she recorded images of it and brought it back into the marketplace, how could she have expected to have preserved that innocence?

There used to be a vogue for taking photos of young children, sometimes naked, which were perceived as expressing their innocence and purity. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) worked in that tradition. These days, with so much sexualization of children, people find it hard to believe that he was not a child molester. But I am convinced that he was not, and that an impulse similar to that of Mann’s drove him.

[NOTE: For more background on Dodgson and the cult of the child, see this.]

23 Responses to “The consent of children”

  1. Michael Adams Says:

    Sorry, but that link does not work.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Michael Adams:

    That’s odd. It works when I click on it. And I’m not a subscriber, either.

    I bookmarked the link quite a while ago, so maybe that’s why?

    Does this link work better for you?

  3. Artfldgr Says:

    Monica lewinsky can tell us all about that…

  4. Ira Says:

    She actually published in this context that her young daughter is lissome?

  5. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    The importance of photographer Sally Mann’s ‘art’ transcends any plebeian concerns like informed consent. A typical self-absorption, that sees all in terms of its usefulness to the greater good (as she defines it). Her children should be properly humbled at the sacrificial honor she has bestowed upon them.

  6. miklos000rosza Says:

    Sally Mann’s photos of her nude children are kiddie porn. It doesn’t matter one tiny bit whatever put-up statements she coerces or brainwashes them to say later on. One of the prime idiots of the literary world, Rick Moody, once announced that a Sally Mann photograph was his favorite photograph of all time, and went on and on about it in Artforum next to a full-page reproduction of the picture. In the photo, a teenage girl with long blonde hair is in a barn, swinging from an overhead horizontal bar, hairless pudendum clearly on display — I thought: “How is she going to feel when she’s at college and someone puts this up on her door?” I was amazed at how every feminist in the world defended Mann at the time.

  7. Beverly Says:

    I read the article. She’s a very talented photographer, BUT her apologia pro sua vita is all about HER. All Sally’s motives, Sally’s art, Sally’s good intentions, Sally’s good mothering, etc., ad nauseum.

    What a jerk.

  8. AMartel Says:

    Those poor kids!
    What a completely self-absorbed horror of a mother. Not the kind of horror mom that’s obvious to everyone but the kind that everyone will find “charming” and “whimisical” and “well intentioned” while secretly being relieved that they don’t have to deal with her on a daily basis. Hippie horror mom, the good intentions witch. Simply incapable of thinking outside the box that holds her brain.

  9. Gail Finke Says:

    I agree with you about Charles Dodgson. This woman does not have the excuse of working in an early medium when there was not a well-developed market for child porn. The woman’s excuses are not credible, IMHO. She says she knew perfectly well, and was told repeatedly, that some people would view the photos that way. And let’s face it, she’s a professional photographer — she knew that some of them were sensual and others were “just naked kids.” Surely any lawyer on earth would have told her not to publish them. I have no sympathy for anyone who does something to mistreat her kids, and she did. I feel very sorry for the kids, and all kids whose parents’ ambitions or stupidity puts them in such positions.

  10. n.n Says:

    Progressive morality.

    Progress is merely monotonic change. People really should demand that ambiguous terms be qualified and not accept for granted their popular connotation or even denotation. Principles matter.

    Anyway, abortion rites, cannibal rites, transgender (e.g. homosexual, crossover, promiscuous, etc.) rights, and children, too.

  11. n.n Says:

    re: progressive morality

    It should be interesting if generational liberalism will turn the corner and retreat from the looming precipice.

    Probably not. There is sufficient crossover interests that a dysfunctional convergence seems inevitable.

    This is why more people are looking for a Patton to organize the troops and lead the charge.

  12. parker Says:

    We took nude photos of our young children playing in a mud puddle and later in the bath tub. There was nothing erotic about these photos that were few in number. And they were taken with the intent that they would remind us years later of those early years of total innocence.

    Mann’s photos were staged and often crafted to invoke sexuality. That is weird and sick. Publishing the photos demands cultural shaming of photographer, publisher, and fawning critic alike.

  13. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “Cultural shaming” is so reactionary. So judgemental. So intolerant.

    A society that has no moral boundaries has no identity. Which ultimately is exactly what Soros’ “Open Borders Society” is all about. A world without moral boundaries cannot condemn George Soros’ monstrous history of betrayal. Follow the money…

  14. Dennis Says:

    I have mixed feelings on the subject. There have been far too many witch hunts in which adults have been unfairly charged with child molestation and jailed for life. So I’d say society has to dial down the hysteria.

    I’m glad that she has not been prosecuted. There are some things which are in poor taste but shouldn’t be illegal. I do agree that some of her pictures are inappropriate and shouldn’t be promoted as fine art. I can imagine different circumstances in which an adult with similar pictures stored on his/her computer would face child pornography charges with a stiff jail sentence.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    I’m glad that she has not been prosecuted.

    That’s not dialing down the hysteria. That’s proving that the innocent are accused and jailed, while the guilty are set free.

  16. Clarence Says:

    All I can say is that of the pictures I looked at in the link, none of them seemed to go to ‘prurient’ interest.
    There were none that emphasized sexy positions or had them wearing adult clothes or making adult affectations.

    About the only people who could get aroused by these pictures are true pedophiles (not the 15 and older teen lovers) who like prepubscent children.
    And there are very very few of these people despite all the hysteria about it.

    If these were strictly private parent/child photos I’d have no issue whatsoever. It’s only the fact they were published that makes me pause. And yet if similar pics had been taken of me when I was that age, I doubt I’d feel ashamed now. Nudity pers se is not wrong or weird, and like I said these are not posed so as to suggest adult or sexual stuff. Half of them seem to be at a distance or you see a 4 year old’s butt.

    I’m conflicted, but overall I don’t think she should have published them, at least until the kids were grown and could give consent.

  17. miklos000rosza Says:


    Of course the pictures chosen for the article by Sally Mann were the most innocent she could find. How naïve are you?

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    Reminds me of that Leftist singer that had Hollywood style parents that were decadent and prone to sexualizing photos.

    It’s like their souls are empty and they have a pit in themselves, which they attempt to fill with the life energy and vibrancy of children or other pure(r) targets.

  19. Ymarsakar Says:

    Other examples are teachers who the unions protect, who are hyper sexualized, cougars, Leftist child rapists being protected by certain factions, Islamic rapists being protected by certain traitorous and Leftist factions.

    Then there’s the “normal rapists” like Hollywood directors, Polansky, and so forth.

  20. Cap'n Rusty Says:

    So many young parents now try to “reason” with their three-year-olds, rather than serving as the authority figure their children need. Little kids should not have to “reason things out,” they should just get to be imaginative and active and play. The authority figure can certainly teach them to behave. When a child knows that there is an authority above them, they will also sense that they are protected by that authority. They know they are in a “safe space,” that they don’t have to be responsible, and that lets them experience freedom. At least for a little while

    The parents who try to reason with toddlers must think that those little kids are capable of consenting.

  21. Beth Says:

    Where have all the adults gone? Sally Mann is sick, but how about the NY Times not having the moral clarity to know it is wrong to take pictures of your naked kids and print it?

    The Left are moral idiots and while proclaiming to be morally superior to all else demonstrate when it comes to children, sex, and drugs depravity is where they descend.

  22. AesopFan Says:

    parker Says:
    March 21st, 2016 at 6:22 pm
    We took nude photos of our young children playing in a mud puddle and later in the bath tub. There was nothing erotic about these photos that were few in number. And they were taken with the intent that they would remind us years later of those early years of total innocence.
    Some years ago there was a big to-do about a father being arrested because the WM photo developers reported his pictures of young children in a bubble bath (totally non-prurient, and who wouldn’t think they were just the cutest things?) — took him months and big money and some national media outrage to get out of the charges.

    I never took photos of my kids that couldn’t be put on the front page of the newspaper — but it appears the front pages have left me behind.

  23. Ymarsakar Says:

    I never took photos of my kids that couldn’t be put on the front page of the newspaper — but it appears the front pages have left me behind.

    The aristocrats are often above the law. The peasants, not so much.

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