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Debate Over Child Actors and Sexuality Is Decades Old

Jaws dropped over the controversial new movie "Hounddog," which features 12-year-old actress Dakota Fanning in a rape scene, but the debate over child actors and the portrayal of their sexuality is one that has been raging ever since Sue Lyon batted her eyelashes in "Lolita."

"Hounddog," recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival, has been raising a storm among child advocacy groups due to the simulated rape scene of underage Fanning.

But it's far from the first time Hollywood has seen this kind of controversy. Since the film era began, the issue of boundaries for children on film has been up for debate.

"The issue of children on the screen was always treated with a lot of gingerness," said Jim Parish, Hollywood historian and author of "The Hollywood Book of Scandals."

In the beginning of the movie era, strict production codes kept moviemakers from crossing any boundaries with child actors, said Parish, and the issue of child sexuality remained generally taboo until the early 1970s.

"Up through the mid-1950s, Hollywood was in favor of not being controversial in any way that might get them into trouble with morality groups," Parish said.

After that point, several films were released that included children in violent or immoral situations, including Patty McCormack starring as a child serial killer in "The Bad Seed" at age 11.

But the first major film that really raised questions about children's sexuality on film was Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita."

The 1962 film, based on the literary classic by Vladimir Nabokov about a professor who becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old girl, was the first to openly broach the subject of underage sexuality.

In the movie the character is 14, played by 15-year-old Lyon; the book had been banned in America.

While there were no explicit scenes in the film, the implications of the relationship between the girl and the middle-aged professor pushed the moral boundaries of Hollywood.

A remake of the film was made in 1997, and starred a slightly older, 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. The newer version was more overtly sexual, but still failed to show any explicitly sexual scenes between the characters.

In the 1973 film "The Exorcist," 14-year-old Linda Blair played Regan O'Neil, a 12-year-old girl who becomes possessed by the devil.

Several scenes from the film caused a public stir due to their violent and religious nature, but the most controversial was Blair's character masturbating with a crucifix until she became bloody.

Then, in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film "Taxi Driver," starring Robert De Niro, 13-year-old Jodie Foster had a star-making role as a young prostitute, Iris Steensma.

De Niro's character, New York City cab driver Travis Bickle, becomes obsessed with "saving" Iris from a life on the streets.

While there are no graphically sexual scenes in the movie, Foster's character is identified as a child prostitute and the sexual nature of her lifestyle is evident.

Actress Brooke Shields became known for her portrayal of childhood sexuality through two separate starring roles.

The 1978 film "Pretty Baby" showed an 11-year-old Shields in a nude scene as a soon-to-be child prostitute.

Shields played Violet, the 12-year-old daughter of a New Orleans prostitute, played by Susan Sarandon.

Shields' character has a scene where she bathes in the nude, and her mother offers her to a man, saying "Now, how about it? Pure as the driven snow?" Sarandon and Shields' characters also pose nude for a brothel photographer in the film.

Shields also took a turn in 1980's "Blue Lagoon" as a young teen shipwrecked on an island with a boy the same age, played by Christopher Atkins. The film caused a lot of stir due to nudity and perceived eroticism as the couple discover their sexuality together and eventually conceive a child.

Then, in 1995, "Kids" was released. It told the story of the exploits of inner-city teens, including one boy, Telly, who is unknowingly infected with HIV and whose main goal is to deflower as many virgins as he can, most of whom are 12 or 13 years old.

Chloe Sevigny plays Jennie, a 16-year-old who is infected by Telly. While Sevigny was 19 at the time of filming, the graphic nature of the movie, and its depiction of sex, drugs and disease among children was hugely controversial.

Initially, the film, which ended with a graphic rape scene, was given an NC-17 rating; it was downgraded to an R after some scenes were cut.

Most recently, actress Jena Malone, 12 years old at the time, starred in "Bastard Out of Carolina," the story of a poor South Carolina woman played by Jennifer Jason Leigh who marries a man who begins to sexually abuse her daughter.

Jena's character, "Bone," reportedly is graphically raped by the husband in the movie, but the film never received a theatrical release, and so did not garner much attention.

Even with so many films paving the way, "Hounddog" remains hugely controversial, and as of yet no distributor has picked it up.

"The subject is still titillating. Certainly each of these past instances has been controversial but it hasn’t really pushed the boundaries so far that everyone feels obliged or OK to do it afterward," Parish said.

As for the future of "Hounddog," Parish isn't sure what will happen.

"I think this really is a decided change, and I don’t know how it will be received," he said.

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