Mark Owen writes

Delight in the sensual


Life as we know it is a tapestry woven out of threads of many colours, some light, some dark. There are times when we are plunged into gloom as the dark overtakes the light; some folk seem to have more of this than others. And life is not even, life is not fair. There are times, too, when we find ourselves bathed in light and happiness. I remember, for example, a very happy holiday I enjoyed with my daughter in the uplands of the Snowy Mountains and, in particular, the most exciting flight I have ever experienced - soaring high above those mountains in a powered glider.

Our language has some great words that express the happier aspects of life - ecstasy (not the stupid drug substitute, of course, but the real thing), delight, harmony, peace, contentment. But, alas, much of life's joy was diminished when mankind's psyche became entangled in religion. Perhaps there was some inherent defect in the human genome as it evolved, a defect that sparked the first stirrings of religious sentiment. Humans became slaves to the gods, the very deities that they themselves created!  It was as if we invented a computer and the computer then began controlling its inventor.  Shades of Hal!

It is difficult for most people to extract themselves form the thrall of religion, don't I know? But some of us have managed this feat. And now, as a freethinking human being I take issue with the manner in which religion stains with impurity what is pure, the way it tells us something is harmful when it is harmless. We see this in particular in the distorted attitude religion has to human nudity and sexuality. In the Genesis myth Adam and Eve discover they are naked [Genesis 3:7] and cover themselves. The subsequent supposed discourse between GOD and the humans implies that nakedness is something 'nasty'. We must not forget, of course, that this is pure myth. Only people with limited intellectual capacity will accept the Genesis creation story as being true (and, yes, I did once).


Religion spreads its gloomy prognostications, miasma-like, over all things.  But why? Quite simply because this is the road to power. Like the abductor who cleverly manipulates a captive to accept that he or she cannot escape and that the only way to survive and not die is to obey, religion acts in the same way. Convince someone that he or she is a lost sinner, heading for eternal death, and that salvation comes by conformity to the particular religion's teachings and in a stroke you have gained power of the person - and access to their purse. Those who have managed to escape from cults will bear testimony to their powerlessness as cult members.

Sexual activities of any kind have long been, in the eyes of religion, subject to suspicion, to put it mildly. The Fathers of the Church, for example, had some appalling ideas about sex (and, for that matter, women) which I have written about elsewhere. Yet, curiously, those who proclaimed so loudly the dangers of sex often succumbed to its lure. Even today we have seen many times the spectacle of the Christian preacher who, even as he spouts morality from his pulpit, is engaged in 'illicit' relations - heterosexual and homosexual - on the side.

Unfortunately the censorious attitudes of religion often overreach with troubling results. We saw this in recent times with the ridiculous uproar over Bill Henson's photographs of naked children. Fortunately an adjudicating court saw through the haze of ill-informed comment ascending from a rabble who would not know a good work of art if they saw it and Henson was left alone - eventually. But in the aftermath expensive and wholly unnecessary restrictions have been imposed on photographers who are supported by the Australian Arts Council. Shame on our government!

In a later aftershock of the Henson fuss a photograph of a young girl, Olympia, taken by her mother, appeared in an arts magazine. Our then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, well known for his Christianity, jumped into the fray again, as he had done with Bill Henson's work, describing the photograph as 'offensive'. Olympia Nelson, an intelligent, well-adjusted young girl, appeared on TV with her family. Olympia, then aged 11, quite rightly expressed dismay at Mr Rudd's remarks. The real offence, Mr Rudd, came from your comments, not the photograph.


Watching Olympia and thinking about earlier reactions to Bill Henson's photographs as also to the magnificent photograph of Miley Cyris taken by Annie Lebovitz (subject of much controversy) I finally realized what it really bugging the critics. For all their talk of protecting children and not 'sexualizing' them (as they quaintly put it, as if children are sexless beings) the hidden core of their objections is, quite simply, the fear of human nakedness and, just beyond that frontier, their own perhaps unsteady relationship to the sex urge itself! Thus in such circumstances it is so often claimed, 'the model will be sorry when she gets older.' Sorry for what? For baring her beautiful body?

Clearly human nakedness frightens many Christians and other religious people who are quick to condemn those artists and photographers who find beauty in the nude body. Obviously they are still in thrall to the primitive fear expressed in the Genesis fable - the naked-and-ashamed syndrome.

But much of our fear comes from cultural conditioning. No better example of cultural conditioning in this respect can be seen than the activity of the totally-naked Nuer girl of Ethiopia, who clothes herself in a leather skirt before participating in a night-long dance that results at length in sexual intercourse. The skirt raises the male desire, even though normally he has viewed all there is to see on many occasions!) And, note, the majority of naturists happily move about with no covering whatever over either male or female sexual organs and such people are not noted for their promiscuity.

Rather than accuse the makers and publishers of such photos of harming the child (which is patently a nonsensical claim) politicians should explain to the Australian people why they are pouring millions of dollars of our money into promoting the Catholic Church, e.g. the schools, the chaplaincies, and that great promotional festival called World Youth Day which was going on around the same time. This is the body that has harboured hundreds of child-abusing priests and nuns over many years, and worse, has covered up that abuse, shielding many of the abusers and their protectors from prosecution.

So we have the contrast - on the one hand, children like Olympia who are not being abused and who, in fact, live wonderfully full lives and who share something precious of themselves with the rest of us - freely and happily. And on the other hand, children (droves of them, too, remember) whose lives were forever blighted by being forced into sexual activities unwillingly at an early age by the representatives of the very Church that parades itself blatantly through Sydney's streets, supported by Government largesse.


There is quite a body of children's photography, including nude photography, stretching back to the dawn of the art. One of the major workers in this field was Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), famous for his enduring fantasy tale, Alice In Wonderland. Poor Lewis Carroll, labouring under an overweight of Victorian hypocrisy-prudery, struggled within himself endlessly over his photographs of small children, sometimes with little or no clothing.  It was with a guilty sense of concern that he hesitatingly wrote of photographing one young girl in bare feet!  [A delight I and some others share with the great man.]

Carroll, this curious bachelor-cleric, this inventor of great tales for little girls (and, for that matter, boys, but mostly for girls), was also a great child photographer at the very dawn of the photographic era.  What wonders might he not have produced for us had he not been so hemmed about with the moral strictures of his religious-social milieu? As it was he managed to convey in many of his child portraits a definite element of sensuality. (But we must distinguish sensuality from sexuality!)  It is certainly there in some of his portraits of the original Alice (Liddell). One can hardly find more sensuality anywhere!  What an attractive subject she was (and is). 

A further interesting insight comes from a letter Carroll wrote to one of his illustrators, Harry Furniss, on the subject of drawings for another book he had written: 'I wish I dared dispense with all costume; naked children are so perfectly pure and lovely, but Mrs Grundy [the prudish character in a well-known novel] would be furious - it would never do. Then the question is, how little dress will content her? Bare legs and feet we must have at any rate.' (And, incidentally, the great Ruskin once criticized his protégé Kate Greenaway for not having more of the children in some pictures she'd done in bare feet.)

The well-known artist, Julia Margaret Cameron produced a number of sensual images involving children. Perhaps the chief was her study, ‘Venus Chiding Cupid and Removing His Wings’ [copy held by Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England].  The young model is naked, although posed discretely for a side view.  The figure is, interestingly, androgynous in nature.  At first sight, with the lanky hair falling down, one might suppose it to be a little girl. Perhaps the child was a girl posing as a boy for the photographer’s purposes.

And then there are the movies and still photographs done by David Hamilton. He was fortunate to work in Europe where the idea of naked teenage girls exposed to public view through a camera lens was not shocking. He would not have gone far in the USA and, I suspect, in Australia.


Others find more artistic pleasure in the male. Donald Friend in his art delights in beautiful images of bronzed Balinese boys. Children, taken as a whole, are attractive creatures. Some stunningly so. They usually possess an unspoiled simplicity of beauty, largely lost in the adult human.  Even a gruff tousle-haired schoolboy can exude a certain charm. Freckles? No matter; they are cute too! And the all-singing-all-dancing ballet girl with her piping voice and frozen smile. She also is a thing of wonder.

But let us not try to hide from the fact that the sensual nature of that beauty and charm is closely related to the emerging sexuality of the child. But one can surely enjoy the sensual nature of something or someone without engaging in sex with that same subject, that person - or that child! Or even desiring to do so, for that matter!  While I enjoy looking at and listening to my favourite female film star, Winona Ryder, in no way have I any interest in her as a fancied sex partner.

And I hasten to add a further comment. I can do no better than quote a feature writer in The Gympie Times, Greg Wildie, who wrote during the anti-Henson brouhaha: 'Why have our supposed civic leaders such twisted infantile minds that they cannot look at the image of a naked child without immediately having sexual thoughts? Assuming we are all of equally puerile mentality is insulting.'

Amen to that! Quite frankly I think children have beautiful bodies and I can certainly view a naked child without experiencing sexual excitement, for that matter naked adult women.  I have photographed some of the latter and would have liked to have photographed some of the former but opportunities have not come my way other than on an odd occasion on a beach, etc.

I will never understand the fear of nakedness.  Naked human are often unattractive, true, but unattractive is one thing, offensive quite another. Perhaps the male body, with the possibilities of an erection, poses a problem but why, on earth, are people so uptight about female breasts? In 2007 Facebook took down photos of breastfeeding women which it found 'offensive'. The pictures were deemed to contain 'obscene content'. Are they serious? Unfortunately they are just that, as Americans in particular seem to have this fear of women's breasts. Remember that silly outburst over the 'costume malfunction' experienced by Janet Jackson.

Bare female breasts are not officially allowed on YouTube - so they say but they are if you look for them. And adult TV viewers are continually insulted by blurs and strips covering women's breasts on TV shows. (But, even more curiously, breasts are highlighted in a strange way by the emphasis on dress that almost spills the breasts out of the top of the clothing and by such institutions as the restaurant chain that uses the common - and, to my mind, rather disgusting - name for women's breasts, Hooters, as its name. Talk about weird!)


And not even the Christian, with his somewhat constricted view of the body, can escape delight in the sensual. Naked angelic figures gambol through the art adorning cathedral walls but the artist merely hides the reality beneath the symbolic heavenly beings. The figures, clad with wings, are those of real human children; indeed, boys and girls served the artists of old as models. And this is but one of innumerable manifestations of sensuality in religion. Is there not a strange and subtle sensuality in the figure of the Christ, stripped, standing before his accusers, being whipped, or hung near-naked upon a cross? The women who fell at his feet thought so, at least. 

The Church may condemn sensuality so defined and especially the wanton display of nakedness, whether that of children or adults, in the flesh, so to speak, while uttering merely an occasional grumble at the sight of this selfsame nakedness in the great art adorning its walls. And forgetting, too, the sensuality of its ceremonies (sometimes graced with altarboys! No wonder altarboy has almost become a byword for a sexual plaything). 

Shall we, intelligent clever humans that we are, forever deny ourselves an open and frank expression of delight in things sensual. Shall we continue to slink about, casting anxious and guilty glances over our shoulders, while we snatch a little secret pleasure here and there? Shall we forever give hostages to outmoded religious dogma and superstition? Shall the unhuman and foreign-to-our-nature concepts of the dark and gloomy ages past rob us of delight?

And what turns some on does turn others off. Never mind. Let the other fellow have his or her turn-on, whatever it is, provided only that it wounds not and that the other party, being of age, is willing. Thus it is implied by the unclad beachgoer on the public sands that he or she may become an object for someone else's delighted (if at times furtive) gaze. Such folk cannot rightly complain. But to climb aloft to a enjoy a peepshow through somebody's window is clearly an invasion of another's privacy.


But sensual delight is not confined to the art of painter and photographer. It is discovered through the outpourings of the wordsmiths of poetry, drama and the novel. Could any words be more sensually arousing than this verbal-visual picture from Tennyson's Lotos-Eaters :

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes....

And we must not forget the melody-makers of our world. And I use the word melody in the broadest sense of that term. I am moved emotionally by the sensual and overmastering eroticism of the Love-Death music of Wagner's Tristan and by unerotic but equally powerful music of Sibelius' Violin Concerto or Elgar's Cello Concerto.  But there is also a compelling sensual element in the rhythmic chant of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby.  Wagner surrounded himself with silks and perfumes in order to enhance his sensual creativity. The Liverpool spell-weavers no doubt had a more earthy experience of sex!

Music had an extra sensual touch when some years back a noted musician of the classical school thumbed her nose at the stuffy world around her and displayed a bit of naked flesh to sell her product. Jane Rutter, flautist, may have turned the hair of some music fans grey but she enjoyed her life and music-making. On the cover of her record album, Nocturnes & Préludes For Flute, she appeared in a tasteful but near-nude risqué photo. Those whose thought-processes are constricted by religion might object.

And there are yet more types of sensual delight. My late-lamented Siamese cat with his warm little brown paws and his quaint long-nosed face, and my common shorthair puss with his tubby cuddly body are objects of sensual pleasure.


Sensuality is here to stay; it won't go away so long as human beings are prisoners of their biology. And denial leads to distortion and ultimately to evil, as when so many nuns and priests found a perverse satisfaction in inflicting sadistic punishments on their young charges, and worse, abusing them sexually.

Let us then cast off the artificial restraints imposed on human nature by dogma and superstition. Let us delight in things sensual, the sounds and sights, the tactile sensations. The joy and the beauty of sunset or sunrise. Or the scent of the rose or the sensual feel of the cat's fur or the child's shapely leg or of birdsong (for me, the warble of the magpie reigns supreme). Let us touch one another without guilt, for touching is an important and near-lost medicinal.

Life is terribly, terribly short. And death is  the end, of that I at least am sure in the face of all the claims of religious dogma. We must enjoy what we have while we have it; hedonism, restrained and governed by compassion towards others, should be our philosophy of life. Let sensual delights reign, but only if we do not harm others or act against their will. And, above all, let us protect children. Their time for choice will come soon enough. They will be consenting adults almost in the twinkling of an eye.

© Mark Owen, 2011 -

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