Earlier this week, multi-hyphenate celebrity Jessica Simpson posted an Instagram pic for her 1.6 million followers of 3-year-old daughter Maxwell in a swimsuit. Most of the commenters declared it adorable, but some found Maxwell’s seemingly flirty pose inappropriate, even worryingly so, considering the presence of online (and real-world) pedophiles, not to mention our pop culture obsession with celebrity children.
It is a cute photo. Little Maxwell is seated in a very age-appropriate swimsuit with one hand on outthrust hip in a pose that might be considered sexy from a sexy adult – say, if the 34-year-old Jessica were doing it. But it’s unclear if Maxwell was posing at all or was simply caught by the camera in a casual moment that happens to look posed; if the former, then she was probably merely imitating what she has seen her mother do. In any case, a three-year-old has no idea what sexy even means.
But the showbiz site Closer blamed mother Jessica for causing a “controversy” and polled its readers, “Did you think Jessica’s picture was inappropriate?” Some certainly did. One Instagram follower wrote: “Wtf can our children just b children like why every little girl poses like a woman dont they know they're freakin pedophiles out there ?!!!!sh*t what happen to a kid being a kid.” “Why would she have her posing like that?” commented another.
Seventy-two percent of Closer’s nearly 1500 poll respondents voted that the pic was adorable and that it was unnecessary to keep it off social media. A common reaction from that majority was along the lines of, “If you see this as sexual, then YOU’RE the problem.”
Not necessarily. It’s perfectly reasonable to see how a pic like this could be perceived inappropriately by pedophiles for whom pics like Maxwell’s provide a sexual allure. Some might consider this concern to be paranoid, but we live in a world in which we have surrendered more and more of our privacy to a technology that is increasingly out of our control, and we have a responsibility to take every precaution to prevent sick people from having easy access – like through social media – to photos of our children.
My friend Bob Hamer is now a novelist and screenwriter, but for 25 years he was an undercover FBI agent (you can check out his exploits in The Last Undercover). One of his longest and most successful assignments was infiltrating and ultimately bringing down a pedophile ring. Sadly, this made Bob an expert on what makes these predators tick. I asked him if pedophiles would swarm on celebrity children pics like Maxwell Simpson’s photo, and if the pose or dress made a difference. He replied,
The more provocative the better in the minds of these men, and provocative photos of youthful celebrities was a real plus. What we might deem “cute” would be viewed in a whole different light.
Little kids are hilarious and charming when they act like adults – shuffling around in mom’s high heels, for example, or posing hand-on-hip with a pout like a grown-up swimsuit model. But as Bob says, pedophiles see that behavior in a different light, and that’s what we must be aware of when we share pics of our children on social media.
As psychologist Sandra Wheatley told Closer:
Although getting your toddler to pose in an adult way wearing a swimming costume may be fine if you're keeping the pictures within the family, sharing them on social media is not a good idea – whether you're a celebrity or not. As a parent you are taking responsibility for someone else's decisions until they are adult, and Jessica's daughter may not be happy with this image when she hits 18.
Was Maxwell Simpson’s photo inappropriately sexual? I and most others don’t think so, but what matters is that there are disturbed people who would find it sexual and be drawn to it precisely because it excites their perversity. You might argue that that’s their problem, not Maxwell’s – but as the father of three very young girls, I wouldn’t want pictures of them feeding the fantasies of sexual criminals.
It’s hard to fault Jessica Simpson. She’s just a proud parent with a parent’s impulse to share photos of her pride and joy. But for the sake of our children and our culture, all of us – celebrities and otherwise – need to be more conscious of the casual ways in which we unwittingly compromise the privacy and innocence of our daughters, and potentially even endanger them.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/29/15)