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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What is a sexual image?

(Again, republishing this from Talking Philosophy (2012). The post ended by saying "discuss away", but that does no mean I am opening it to discussion here. We did have some good discussion at the time of first posting.)

I frequently encounter complaints that public spaces are being sexualised, filled with “sexual images”, and so on, as if this is a serious problem. My first thought is to wonder why the spaces where mammals like us interact publicly would not contain much sexual imagery, given our interest in sex, being sexually attractive to others, etc., but let that pass. A further thought is to wonder what even counts as a “sexual image”. How erotic or suggestive does an image have to be before we regard it as a “sexual” one?

In Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I argue that (subject to countervailing values) it is legitimate for the state to regulate the public display of images that cause large proportions of the population high-impact offense. That might apply to hardcore pornographic images, but it applies equally to, say, graphic images of feces, medical procedures, and exit wounds.

Not all high-impact images are sexual and I doubt that all images that most of us would classify as “sexual” are high-impact (in the sense of causing ordinary people shock, psychological disturbance, nausea, and so on). When we’re talking about what images should be regulated in public spaces, you’d think that concepts such as “sexualisation” or just “sexual” would be almost irrelevant. These simply do not provide the test.

But perhaps that depends on what people mean by a “sexual image” – if it means certain kinds of images that are high-impact and which most of us would classify as pornography, then perhaps it’s fair enough to object to such images in public spaces. However, I never see images of that kind on, say, billboards.

Ever since I became sensitised to the issue some years ago, I’ve amused myself now and then by looking for such an image on the billboards, or in shop windows, of large cities that I visit – whether it’s Sydney (just down the road from where I live), New York City, or wherever. I have yet to see an image that meets at least my understanding of pornography. So presumably images of much lower impact (but with some erotic charge) are being objected to.

So, what counts as a “sexual image”? I’m going to offer some images that have undoubted sexual suggestiveness or erotic charge. In each case, I probably would therefore classify them as “sexual”, but that is not a pejorative term. I see nothing terribly wrong with any of these images (some may be kitsch, some may be open to some sort of political criticism for their possible messages, but I don’t think any are sufficiently egregious to keep out of public places).


First, consider this pic of tennis player Rafael Nadal, from a jeans advertisement.

Surely this contains plenty of erotic charge and I don’t need to elaborate on the composition, the way Nadal’s undoubtedly beautiful body is further idealised, or the significance of the jeans that are not quite on. Is this a sexual image?

How about Steve Pearson’s famous “Wings of Love?”

This is often regarded as kitsch. Perhaps so, or perhaps that is just snobbery. I’m not so interested in the debate about its aesthetic characteristics, much as that might be interesting. I do want to ask whether it is a sexual image. If not, why not? It has plenty of erotic charge – surely it is, in part, a celebration of the erotic beauty (sometimes) of the human body, and of sexual love. The message is pretty clear, and the nude human figures are themselves erotically charged.

How about this Boris Vallejo image (a tame one by Vallejo’s standards)?

Again, I’m not interested so much in its aesthetics (you may consider it kitsch and unimpressively populist) or its politics (you may find a lurking message there – perhaps valorising some unfortunate view of women or of gender roles). I am not defending the aesthetic or political characteristics of any of these images. I simply want to know whether they count as sexual images or not, because I’m trying to get a handle on what that actually means. Surely this one is a sexual image, if not heading slightly in the direction of pornography? Right? I would not, however, think of it as the sort of high-impact image that it is the concern of the state to regulate under a strict application of the offense principle.


Finally, a bit of high art. Here is Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

I’m no art critic, so I won’t go into the composition or aesthetics of the image, though you are welcome to. My question, yet again, is whether this counts as a sexual image.

I imagine that, with a lot of research, we could find out how the expression “sexual image” has been understood by various censorship boards and similar authorities. But I’d like to see what a general educated audience thinks about the phrase. Do the images above count? And if not, what more would you require? Actual depiction of people having sex? Close ups of human genitals? Less emphasis on aesthetic qualities? Clearly all these images are heavily focused on visions of beauty, however unrealistic or even oppressive to people who think they need to live up to them; they are meant to give aesthetic pleasure, not merely sexual arousal, even if some aim at the latter as well.

Discuss away!

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