Jock Sturges: artist or pornographer?

As long as we’re talking about the line between appropriate and inappropriate adolescent sexuality, I thought I would bring up Jock Sturges. There is much controversy about Jock Sturges‘ photography. Mr. Sturges primarily takes pictures of nude adolescent girls on nude beaches.

The contention is whether or not Mr. Sturges’ pictures are nude art or under age pornography.

The answer, of course, may lie in whether you’re French or American – that is, what kind of cultural and sexual understanding you have of the human body. This is really so similar to how people understand the FLDS debacle – so much is based on how you see girls between the ages of 12 and 16. (And yes, it is absolutely a tragedy and a debacle, regardless of which “side” you’re on.)

Me? I think that girls between the ages of 12 and 16 should be free to find their own sexuality – but should not be the objects of adults’ sexual desires. Basically, I think the FLDS folks shouldn’t allow their daughters to marry under age 18, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for Jock Sturges to publish images of girls under 18 naked.

Mr. Sturges talks at length about the quality of his relationship with the girls he photographs and their parents. And I commend him for that – or, rather, I don’t condemn him as I would if he didn’t make it crystal clear that he has a great relationship with them. Nevertheless, it’s hard enough for young teenage girls to make sense of their developing sexuality without their naked images being published online and in books.

Give teenage girls time and space to develop sexually and romantically. There is plenty of time – plenty! – for them to get married and pump out babies if that’s what they want or to pose naked for photographers if that’s what they want. I just don’t think that a 13 year old is ready enough to make those decisions – and I certainly don’t think her parents should be making them for her.

And to stave off the comments I already see in the rear view mirror: No, I’m not sure an 18 year old or even a 24 year old is always fully ready to make those decisions either. But I am absolutely confident that a post-adolescent woman of 18 is more capable of making decisions than a pre-adolescent girl of 13.

I am not including any of Mr. Sturges’ pictures in this blog post on purpose, but you can find plenty here and in the links above.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Is a picture of a naked girl necessarily pornographic?

  2. Well, yes, that’s generally the question, isn’t it?

    But I have decided to punt on that particular question. Rather, the position I am supporting is that regardless of whether a picture of a naked girl is necessarily pornographic, I don’t believe it’s healthy or supportive for a young girl’s developing sexuality to have her naked pictures online or published in art books.

  3. It’s possible the photographer doesn’t intend them to be pornographic, but posting naked pictures of teenage girls on the web is irresponsible, disrespectful, exploitative.

    Maybe in the context of a gallery somewhere it’s art. On the web, it’s porn.

  4. This could lead to an interesting discussion about how the Internet differs from other forms of publication. I know someone who lost custody of his/her children in part because ex-spouse found naked pictures of them on the Internet.

  5. The web is so choked with porn I think you have to view anything you post as being interpreted as porn at some point. Not such a big deal for 99% of things, but pictures are different, and pictures of children more so. The case Alice mentioned is a good example of how the web is different. Had those pictures stayed in photo album, they couldn’t have been used as effectively in the custody battle.

  6. Anyway, I’ve thought about it and I think you’re right, that although from what I’ve seen I don’t think those pictures are inherently offensive, they pose a problem because adolescent girls should not be the object of adult sexual desires. They need more space than that.

  7. I agree that an adolescent should not be making the decision about having such photos published (something with lifelong consequences). Yet I think it wouldn’t be unethical to take such pictures (nor inappropriate for an adolescent to choose that s/he wants to participate in this experience) if the photos are locked away until the subject turns 18 and signs a disclosure form as an adult.

  8. […] starlet, because it’s an actual documentary of Shelby’s actual life over three years. Several blog posts ago, the conversation arose about what’s appropriate for teenagers to have put out there in this […]

  9. […] is a really very similar argument to the basis for my post (and the following comments) on Jock Sturges’ images of nude teenage girls. It boils down to […]

  10. It’s obvious that the writer of this article has not experienced the freedom of society’s stranglehold on training people in shame.
    Jock Sturges subjects both male and female (funny how only females are mentioned here) are brought up in naturist families who do not feel that their bodies are anything to be ashamed of, or should be covered up. Their basic ideals are far beyond the “western” way of thinking. Do some real research into family naturism and the healthy benefits that it brings and you might change this article. If you are a doctor, I’m so surprised to see that you are so judgemental without exploring fully the subject you write about.

  11. Christine – thanks for your comment. I’m sorry you understood my thoughts to be condemning of nudity. They were certainly not meant that way, and I certainly do not object to family naturism as it is promoted by the Naturist Family Network.

    However, adolescent nudity in the family environment or an appropriate nudist environment is a far cry from adolescent nude images online.

  12. If I understand this opinion correctly, the author acknowledges that cultural differences can exist, but feels the American understanding of nudity is the correct one. I can’t see another explanation for how “Give teenage girls time and space to develop sexually and romantically” would be a relevant comment.

    In some following comments the author seems to acknowledge that naturism could be ok, and that the problem is that some American-minded people might enjoy the pics too much. Aside from the question of why Americans must be correct in interpreting it as sexual, I wonder how it is clear that the people being photographed can be exploited by people they’ll never meet or have any connection with. There is literally an ocean between America and Europe.

    If someone in an extremely conservative country (I won’t name any) gets enjoyment from an American juniors’ clothing catalog (say, has he done harm and exploited those models? I guess you probably dislike this guy and wish he would jump off a bridge and be eaten by sharks, but has he really hurt anybody? The actual harm he has done is totally theoretical.

    I could argue that I don’t think teenagers’ bare arms in a catalog should be banned, but that would be a bit of a straw man. The American viewpoint is what counts, and even Americans know there’s nothing sexual about a girl’s bare arm.

  13. Marcy,

    My guess is that you haven’t read a lot of my posts on American culture. I think Americans are totally screwed up in how we approach sexuality – and one of the ways Americans are screwed up is that they oversexualize to an amazing degree. I far prefer the European approach to nudity and bodies to the American one.

    Nevertheless, I live in America. Through this blog I speak primarily (although certainly not exclusively) to American parents about American children and teenagers. I had very different things to say when I spoke to a group of French film makers recently. Take my comments in whatever form you wish to – but regardless of the conclusions that people are jumping to here, I stand by my statement – as it applies to American teenagers.

    Sexuality, bodies, and so much about adolescent development is dramatically culturally-based. There is simply no way for me to appropriately address parents world-wide about adolescent sexuality at the same time. There is just too much variance.

    Perhaps it is this disconnect where most of the comments on this post are coming from – parents outside the US who are taken aback by my words. If that is the case, please disregard them! (My words in this post, that is.) I may speak very differently to you, in your and your children’s specific situations. But please do not make assumptions about what I think about nudity and other cultures or take my words out of context and apply them to real-life situations rather than photography.

  14. Hi Karen,

    First, I can totally understand where you are coming from, and your concerns – especially considering the culture in which we Americans were raised.

    I am going to structure my response in the most honest way I possibly can – not being concerned by what the left or the right thinks, the religious or the non-religious would have us believe, or what many of those in the “justice” system would seek to pervert and crucify for.

    I have found that the more I study Jock’s images of young girls, several things start to become apparent to me. First, by the mere presentation of these adolescents in predominately B&W format, and obviously not posed in some provocative fashion, immediately dismisses them from being pornographic in any way whatsoever. Any person of reason would have to readily admit that.

    Some of the images can be erotic initially, (and I suppose to a certain element, very erotic) but only because of the culture in which we Americans were raised – that all people nude are perversions, and it is taboo for us to view them. But we all know that anything “taboo,” or “off-limits” will only spark interest, not denial!

    Little time passes before any initial reactions wear off however, and we begin to see inside these creatures – their innocence, their purity, their shining spirits – not yet tainted by the outside world and all of it’s inequities and cancers.

    I think that a review by “People Magazine” says it best: “…Sturges’s people are grave, well-formed, and poetic. Best to think of his world as an inviting fiction: one photographer’s Eden, where a little knowledge doesn’t get you expelled from the garden[!]”

    I sense that Jock’s work gives us just a splinter of insight into the world that God intended ours to be… beautiful, peaceful, graceful, innocent, respectful, loving, forgiving, sensual, lasting, one of pure light.

    If I were a female – like Misty Dawn – for example, I am quite sure that I would be most thankful and proud to be able to present such a wonderful and beautiful chronicle of my life, and representation of my infinity, to my children one day, and to theirs, and on and on. What a beautiful, and priceless gift to be able to pass on.

  15. Hi MC, and thank you for your comment. I completely agree with everything you’ve said. In fact, I’d stopped approving comments on this post, but yours just had to be put up.

    I would love to live in a world where nudity was accepted! One of the reasons I live where I do is that I and my kids can run around outside naked much of the year.

    And I have no problem at all with people taking nude pictures of themselves, their friends, and their lovers, erotic or otherwise.

    But we don’t live in the Garden, and there are serious potential repurcussions for American teenagers who have nude pictures published.

    It’s ugly, but it’s there.

    And I continue to work in my job as a sexuality educator to change the stupid, ignorant, sex-fearing American culture.

    I hope that in ten years I can come back to this post and dramatically re-write it. Who’s with me?

  16. Americans laud themselves as being the most open and democratic country on Earth – yet constantly showing themselves to being the most prudish and controlling in the Western World – forever trying to turn Art, Culture and innocence into vulgarity …

    Like many things pertaining to being “American” hypocrisy certainly seems to be highest on the list … the uncanny inclination – ability of wielding double-standards – beyond “free will” – imposing their “narrow” dictates upon the rest of the world – about which most know very little choices … being denied the right to disagree let alone the reproach of (constructive) criticism …

  17. I was just watching a documentary about Jock Sturges and decided to google him. I am a 24 year old female, living in a western-european country (the Netherlands) where we are very open about sexuality.

    That being said, I was absolutely disgusted when watching the documentary. This whole talk about how it is art and nature to me is a total irresponsible egocentric view of the photographer and the rest of the art culture.

    Although I do not think the photographer has an erotic or pornographic goal with his pictures, I don’t see the need in photographing naked girls under 18 and publishing this all over the world for everybody to see. I don’t think young girls are developed enough to make these kind of decisions and their parents should not be allowed to make them for them either.

    Whether it is intended or not, they are becoming objects of adults sexual desires. And no art or nudist theory will prevent this.
    It has nothing to do with prudish mentality or “american” hypocrisy.

    It is artistic egocentricity while not taking responsibility when publishing pictures like that.

  18. Hallo,
    18-06-2010, 23.20 – 00.20.NPS Holland.
    I was watching Dutch TV ( NPS Holland ).
    There was Jock Sturges taking pictures from half naked women.
    That’s ok with me, but why was he halfnaked , only a shirt and with his ass and mayby more naked ? ( Se film) ,While his assistant’s are
    normal dressed.
    Waiting for your answer.

    Greetings Theo Zwanenburg, Holland

  19. Theo, I don’t know! But if you find an answer, I hope you’ll post it here too!

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