17 November 2005

Wrapping children in cotton wool

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the Australian Federal Government is considering laws banning unauthorised photo taking in public places and publication of said photos. This is to cover cases of pedophiles taking what would otherwise be perfectly innocent photos of children at the beach or in the playground, and then publishing them on websites - a kind of legal voyeurism which creeps people out. Well it is creepy, but what is really going on here?

Nanny state is rearing her ugly head again - ready to stop all well meaning good people from taking photos in public places which may or may not include children - without permission from the parents. What if parents do this with their own children? (after all a fair proportion of child molestation cases involve relatives). One approach is commonsense - if you see someone creepy taking photos of your kids - tell them to fuck off, take your own photos of them. It also reflects the tragedy of the commons - in that publicly owned space cannot set limits on who goes there - I'm not suggesting gates around beaches and parks necessarily, but if such places WERE privately owned - the owner could set rules about taking photos, and the Police could intervene if someone breaks them, because then it would be trespassing. Private parks exist in the US, UK and other countries.

One of the problems of any laws on this are that is presumably this also covers TVNZ when it has a reporter on Lambton Quay at 4pm in the afternoon when countless school kids walk past – otherwise the defence will be “I was photographing the park, the children happened to be in it”.

I know what this is trying to do – people feel uncomfortable about images taken in public places when they are published. I, like countless others, have numerous photos of strangers that happen to be in photos of places I have photographed. There are photos of me as a child that my parents took in playgrounds, with other children there.

However, if anyone wants to understand why I fight rigorously against nanny state – this is one example. Yes there are perverted (mostly) men who masturbate about children – there always will be – unless we adopt a Taliban type approach and cover children in burkhas, this will happen. Most will never do more than that – in fact there are people who masturbate about strangers every day, including those they photograph. Ah, you say, but photographing children is creepy – no it is not. The only thing that is creepy is the motive. There are plenty of parents, relatives, caregivers who happily photograph the kids they are responsible for, or looking after, with their friends, and the motive is - 99% of the time – not sexual. You’ll never know when it is. There are strangers, photographers, journalists who will take photographs which include children, and again, it wont be sexual – but occasionally it is. When it is, 9 times out of 10 you will never know – and most importantly, the child is not harmed, anymore than it is harmed because someone has an image in their mind. See a photograph (not including child pornography here) of a child will to almost everyone be that – it wont have any consequence, and wont be sexual. However it will be to a pedophile. Fetishes are another example – there are countless people into all sorts of bizarre fetishes that would otherwise be seen as nonchalant – women holding balloons, white socks, knee high boots, watching people eat – all sorts of everyday things that if photographed mean nothing to anyone, except the fetishist. Frankly if everyone knew everyday everyone who thought something sexual about them, many times they would be horrified (though often intrigued!).

The line is crossed when the pedophile either acts on his desires upon a child, or threatens to – that is where the law steps in. The law simply cannot tell patrol thought crimes – though it often tries.

Even the Swiss are in on the act, with the Society of Saint Nicholas banning children hopping on Santas laps at Christmas time. This is incredibly sad. I sat on several Santa Claus laps when I was little, I don't recall Santa offering me some "special gift" from his pants, or trying to find one in mine, but it was special - now the society is reflecting fears of parents. What evidence is there that Santa Clauses are perverts? Except of course for workplace Christmas party ones - where it is the perfect excuse to get women to sit on your lap (I was work Santa for four years in a row and it paid off very well one year, and I am going to miss it this year!).

This sort of nonsense needs to end – just like the ban on parents videoing their children in a play or at the pool. Yes there are perverts out there, and yes a tiny minority hurt kids – but until they act or threaten to act to hurt the child, the law should not step in, and it certainly should not ban what are otherwise harmless activities. Pedophiles probably record kids talking too, they probably draw them and probably buy kids clothes because they turn them on – so are we going to ban everyone doing those things without permission too?

The one thing that is most ignored in all of this is that technology is also meaning that children, or more particularly adolescents also take their own photos, of each other - clothed and unclothed, and they distribute them. Not smart perhaps, but it happens - so do you ban 14yos taking digital photos of each other dressing up, or in bedrooms? Again, the law is really not the solution, it is just a tool.

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