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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What is a sexual image?


(Again, this is a post that I'm republishing from Talking Philosophy (2012). I've used a different Vallejo image, as I couldn't find the more anodyne one that I originally used, and I've slightly altered the text relating to it. I'm always a sucker for a good picture of a dragon. I've made a couple of other minor rewordings for clarity. The post originally ended by saying "discuss away", but I am not opening it to discussion here. We did have some good discussion at the time.)


I frequently encounter complaints that public spaces are being “sexualized”, 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 a large proportion 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 “sexualization” 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 description on, say, billboards.
 
Ever since I became sensitized 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 high-impact pornographic imagery. 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 idealized, 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 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 might consider it kitsch, or whatever) or its politics (you might find a lurking, if unintended, message of some kind – perhaps it valorizes some socially unfortunate view of women).

In fact, 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. Let's consider Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

I'm no art critic, so I won't go into the composition or aesthetics of this. My question, yet again, is simply whether it 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 would like to see what a general educated audience thinks about the phrase.

Do the images above count? And it not, what more would you require? Actual depiction of people having sex? Close ups of human genitals? Less emphasis on aesthetics qualities? Clearly, all these images are heavily focused on visions of beauty, however unrealistic they might be, or even oppressive to people who think they have to live up to them. They are meant to give aesthetic pleasure, not merely sexual arousal, even if they aim at the latter as well.

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