Harmful to Minors


Michael Bronski 

Just
as the predatory-priest scandal is capping years of heightened anxiety
about our children’s well-being, here comes Judith Levine’s
Harmful to Minors:
The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex
(University of Minnesota
Press). Not surprisingly, with a title like that, the book is in
the middle of a political firestorm. The culture-war battle sparked
by the publication of Levine’s book has serious ramifications
for both civil liberties and freedom of expression. That’s
because the choked agitation triggered by Levine’s book is
both a reaction to our excessive cultural obsession with kids and
sexuality and a symptom of how unable we are, as a culture, even
to begin discussing such issues. 

Judith
Levine is an independent scholar and journalist who publishes in
mainstream venues such as the Village Voice, Nerve.com, and
Ms., and who, unlike many in the academy, writes clearly
and with great force. Already noted for her 1992 book My Enemy,
My Love: Man-Hating and Ambivalence in Women’s Lives
(Double-
day), Levine is a social activist and public intellectual who believes
passionately that ideas matter. 

Harmful
to Minors
is a carefully researched examination of the myriad
ways American culture attempts to control, monitor, suppress, and
even eradicate children’s access to information about sexuality,
sexual health, and reproduction—all in the name of protection—and
how it patholo- gizes and criminalizes children’s and teens’
sexual expression. The book addresses such varied topics as federally
funded abstinence-only programs (which ban even mentioning contraception
or condoms) in public schools; the myth that predators and child
rapists are lurking all over the Internet; the appalling lack of
access teens, especially young women, have to sexual-health and
reproductive information; and how it is nearly forbidden to discuss
masturbation in sexual-education classes. Levine argues strongly,
thoughtfully, and persuasively that children are far more harmed
by these misguided attempts at “protection” than they
would be by having full access to honest information about sexuality,
as well as (in some cases) the ability to discover and explore their
own sexual desires and feelings. 

Levine
argues that children should have accurate sex and health information
and the chance to grow up with safe, fulfilling sexual attitudes.
Who could complain? Well. First it was Robert Knight of Concerned
Women For America (CWA) who, on March 28, issued a press release
that called Harmful to Minors “evil,” “hideous,”
and “every child molester’s dream.” Within days his
message was trumpeted by the redoubtable Dr. Laura Schlessinger,
who also issued a stirring condemnation of the book. Republican
Tim Pawlenty, the majority leader of Minnesota’s House of Representatives
and a potential gubernatorial candidate, publicly condemned the
book (which he admittedly had not read) as “state-sanctioned
support for illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting
children.” Along with Schlessinger and CWA, he issued calls
for the University of Minnesota Press not to distribute the book.
Within days, the press and university received more then 800 phone
calls and e-mails to complain about the book. (It is safe to say,
since Harmful to Minors had not yet been shipped to bookstores,
that none of these complainers had actually read the book either.)
This right-wing political grandstanding proved effective when Christine
Miziar, who supervises the press as the University of Minnesota’s
vice-president for research, announced on April 5 the establishment
of an outside advisory committee to survey the press’s peer-review
and acquisitions policy. By all accounts, it is an unprecedented
step. 

Although
it appears that the university is bowing to political pressure and,
since external review of a university press’s acquisitions
and peer-review process is unheard of, everyone seems to be taking
a wait-and-see attitude. Douglas Armato, the press’s director,
is confident that the review committee will certify that the press’s
policies are appropriate and were complied with in this case. In
fact, he says, because of the scope and interdisciplinary approach
of Levine’s book, the press had her book vetted not just by
the usual two reviewers, but by five, including a child psychologist,
a sociologist, and a journalist. Armato has defended the decision
to publish Levine’s book, debunking the disinformation campaign
being waged by right-wing critics: “Harmful to Minors
is being presented as a book about pedophilia, and it doesn’t
advocate pedophilia, and it isn’t about that,” he says.
“There are four pages in the book that talk about intergenerational
sex… [but the book] focuses on many different issues concerning
sexuality.”

Armato is clearly
in a difficult position for, while the university has certainly
not pulled Levine’s book, it has cast a shadow over it, as
well as over Armato’s directorship. The Minnesota Civil Liberties
Union has condemned the university’s actions, stating in an
April 5 press release: “It is…unfortunate that the University
of Minnesota, a research university, should appear to bow to the
displeasure of powerful political forces. The University’s
decision has the appearance, at least, of a capitulation on the
premise of academic freedom by creating the threat of prior censorship
of academic titles.” 

 But
Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American
University Presses, responded with a diplomatic, slickly evasive
statement: “All great universities promote freedom of inquiry,
but that freedom is empty without the will to publish its results,
no matter how unpopular or controversial. Association of American
University Presses stands behind the University of Minnesota Press
decision to bring out Harmful to Minors, and we applaud the
University of Minnesota for its courage and determination in upholding
its press.” 

The
attack on Levine and her book is the same sort of well-orchestrated
effort we have seen from the right in the past. What is shocking
is that the University of Minnesota is apparently refusing to fight
it. Even worse, the down- and-dirty tactics of Dr. Laura and the
CWA have centered not on the book, but on Levine (who has mentioned
in interviews that as a minor she had an affair with an older man),
as well as on former surgeon general Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who wrote
the book’s foreword. In his March 28 press release, Knight
wrote: “Not content to advocate for adults teaching children
to masturbate, [Elders] is giving cover for adults having sex with
kids—so long as the kids give their consent. Everybody except
for the molesters and their apologists knows that children cannot
give meaningful consent to sex. Everybody knows that children are
coerced into giving ‘consent,’ and that the damage can
last a lifetime. The author of this book, Judith Levine, is Exhibit
A. She was molested as a child and now advocates it for other children.” 

The
vehemence fueling the attack on Harmful to Minors springs
in part from Levine’s head-on confrontation with the ever-increasing
cultural backlash against discussing children and sex. Of course,
parents have always been concerned with the moral well-being of
their children—think of how old folks fretted about wild new
dances such as the Black Bottom and the Charleston in the 1920s,
or the perils posed by Elvis and rock and roll in the 1950s. But
as Levine points out in an interview with the Boston Phoenix,
the meaning and intent of these worries has changed radically over
the past two decades. “There has probably never been a time
when adults didn’t think that the younger population was going
to hell in a hand-basket, but for most of that time the politics
about child protectionism were actually about children,” she
notes. “There has been a strategic shift in the past 20 years.
Since, say, the Anita Bryant campaigns in the late 1970s, the right
has used the idea of protecting children to impose their sense of
decency and morality on everyone.” Bryant’s campaign was
called Save Our Children, but the Miami gay-rights law she campaigned
against had nothing to do with children. It had to do with the right’s
obsession with homosexuality and its ability to use homophobic fears
to spearhead a broad range of other agendas, including dismantling
education programs, instituting prayer in school, attacking public
funding for child care, and abolishing affirmative action. 

It
is important to remember that these campaigns, no matter how benighted
they may seem after the fact, often do enormous harm. Bryant’s
call to repeal the Miami-Dade gay rights law was successful and
the measure has never been reinstated. The daycare center cases
led to incredible miscarriages of the legal process and the court
system. Child-porn concerns have led to the craze for Internet filters
in public libraries (which the American Library Association and
the ACLU are still valiantly battling). “Megan’s Laws,”
under which neighborhoods were to be notified if a “sex offender”
moved in, gave way to the widespread emergence of sexual predator
notification programs and sexual offender registries— most
of which have been deemed deeply flawed by law-enforcement experts
and largely unconstitutional by the courts. In the end, these programs
do almost no perceptible good, and indeed, Levine and others argue,
are actually harmful because they promote the mistaken notion that
children are most at risk from predatory strangers and not, as statistics
show, from family members and friends. 

Along
with the harm these panics have caused, it is also vital to scrutinize
the motives of the people who have propagated them. Bryant is now
seen as a self-promoting lackey of the then emerging political Christian
right wing. The most conservative members of the Meese Commission
on pornography have all met fitting ends: Father Bruce Ritter of
Covenant House was exposed as a hypocrite, a closeted but active
homosexual who played fast and loose with public funds; Charles
Keating, who was a key figure in the S&L scandals, laundered
funds through his charitable, child protectionist organizations;
Judianne Densen-Gerber was accused of embezzling public monies from
Odyssey House, her drug- rehab center. For these people, protecting
children seems to have been driven as much by personal gain as by
altruism and civic concern. 

As
Levine explains so convincingly in her book, many of those who have
advocated for the “protection” of children over the past
two-and-a-half decades have used the issue to advance political
agendas that go way beyond preparing the next generation for adulthood.
Such agendas have included controlling adults’—not just
children’s —access to information about such matters as
contraception, safe sex, and abortion; promoting heterosexual marriage
as the only legal and moral place for sexual activity; and a full-fledged
attack on all forms of gay and gender-expression rights. All these
groups, including Concerned Women for America, the Family Research
Council, American Family Association, and the National Law Center
for Children and Families, constantly rail against the permissiveness
of the 1960s, for the personal freedoms for women, people of color,
homosexuals, and children secured during that decade are what they
seek to undo. 

It
is tempting to see this as a vast right-wing conspiracy. Levine
takes exception to that charge. “This isn’t a conspiracy,
but a strategy,” she says. “The right is using people’s
legitimate anxieties around sexuality to fuel their own larger goals.
The right, which is very well organized and often effective in its
methods, is exploiting these fears. The terrible thing is that this
will just make the situation worse. The shutdown of knowledge about
sexuality will just make us, as a society, more anxious in the long
run, and the denial of information to kids, such as safer-sex information,
actually puts their lives at risk. They are, really, perpetrating
harm to minors.” 

In
the current political and social climate, the attack on Levine’s
book makes complete sense. People do have real, and often not unreasonable,
anxieties about how to raise their kids. As Levine and others point
out, however, the situation does not get better by making the world
scarier or by lying about what really happens out there. The reality
is that children are more likely to be harmed or abused by people
within the family circle, not by strangers. The reality is that
sexual abuse of children is overwhelmingly heterosexual, not homosexual.
The reality is that very little evidence suggests that children
are hurt by sexual information—indeed, most evidence points
to the fact that they are hurt by a lack of knowledge. The overwhelming
evidence from studies at Columbia University and in the Journal
of the American Medical Association
shows that programs such
as abstinence-only sex education and “chastity pledges”
actually increase risks for pregnancy and HIV transmission. 

Almost
all people have an urge to “protect” kids from things
that are bad for them, but who gets to decide what is “bad?”
For sincere, conservative, religious parents, “bad” might
be any sexual contact outside of marriage, including masturbation
and sexual fantasy. For liberal parents, “bad” might be
children lacking information about safe sex and contraception. Part
of the problem here is that many, many people disagree about what
is “bad” for children. The other part of the problem is
that social and religious conservatives often have a desire to enshrine
in law and social policy their convictions about the immorality
and danger of sexuality outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
From this perspective, there is no room for doubt (after all, it’s
in the Bible), no room for disagreement (after all, the Bible is
divine revelation), and no room for discussion (who can argue with
God?). This winner-take-all view of sexual morality is what brings
us to the messy battles we are in today. 

For
Levine, as for many feminists and sexual liberationists, the right’s
obsession with sex and its desire to legislate a strict, traditional
sexual morality is, at heart, an attempt to reconstruct and reinforce
a patriarchal worldview that has been crumbling over the past 50
years. Men are no longer on top, queers are no longer invisible,
children have sexual needs and desires, and the world has been turned
upside down. So much the better. But there are plenty of liberals
and middle- of-the-roaders who share conservatives’ reservations.
How many liberals had qualms about their nine-year-old daughters
looking to Madonna (in her pre-motherhood days) as a role model?
How many liberals want their teens to have access to information
about contraception, but don’t really want them to have sex?
How many heterosexual parents, even when they support gay rights,
are upset when a daughter or son comes out? Indeed, for two decades,
some feminists concerned about violence against women and the abuse
of children have espoused policies dovetailing with conservatives’. 

Sex
and desire are confusing to everybody a great deal of the time.
We live in a culture that does not foster open and honest talk about
sex. As a result, many people do one of two things: they either
talk about the subject in shallow and unserious ways or, as with
the religious right, they seek to impose on the world a simplistic
moral schema. 

In
Harmful to Minors, Levine tries to chart a third course:
she talks to people about their experiences, examines scientific
studies, analyzes statistics, looks into the history to see how
we got here, and tries to figure out how to create a society that
fulfills people’s sexual needs while being nurturing, loving,
and supportive. No wonder she’s getting so much shit. 

When
asked why she and her book have been targeted by the right, Levine
was clear: “The germ of what is correct about the attacks on
Harmful to Minors is that the right takes ideas seriously,”
she says. “They are frustrated by what they see as academics
throwing around ideas as if they had no consequence. The right understands
that culture and images matter. That they can influence how people
think and act. That is why I wrote the book: to show how bad ideas
become practices—in psychology, education, the law, and parenting—and
these bad ideas can have grave consequences in the real lives of
children, families, and communities.” 

While
only a short chapter in the book actually deals in part with intergenerational
sex, it is that material that has been targeted as the most dangerous
and it may make even liberal readers pause. “Legally designating
a class of people categorically unable to consent to sexual relations
is not the best way to protect children, particularly when ‘children’
includes everyone from birth to 18,” writes Levine. She sees
as a model a 1990 Dutch law that “made sexual intercourse for
people between 12 and 16 legal, but let them employ a statutory-consent
age of 16 if they felt they were being coerced or exploited.”
Parents can overrule the wishes of the child, but they have to make
a good case to the Council for the Protection of Children. “What
this law does is balance respect for minors as autonomous sexual
beings with the recognition that minors can be exploited by adults.
It respects kids, but it also protects them.” You might agree
with this law or react vehemently against it. But the reality is
that in the United States, even its proposal would be, as with so
many sexual issues, undiscussable. 

The
irony is that at a quick glance we are a culture obsessed with sex.
But for all the endless parading of sexual fantasies in advertising
and on television, the reality is that we don’t talk about
sex very much. What would happen if we asked children and teens
their thoughts about sex? What would happen if adults discussed
honestly their sexual desires and experiences as children and adolescents?
What would happen if some adults said that their experiences with
teen sex were okay? What would happen if some adults said that their
teen experiences with older partners were okay? 

At
one point in her book, Levine says that one out of every five women
who undergo abortion is an evangelical or born-again Christian.
It is an amazing statistic because it brings to light the complexity
of real lives. These women can’t be tossed aside or dismissed
as cynical, self-serving hypocrites like Father Ritter and Judianne
Densen-Gerber. Not having that child was as important to them as
being “saved” by Jesus. Not only do they and their community
have to deal with the complexity of this contradiction, but so do
liberals, progressives, and feminists. 

Levine’s
book is an invitation to public discussion and that is the real
reason why it is being attacked by the right. It will be interesting
to see if liberals and progressives can take up the challenge and
genuinely discuss the issues she raises, or if they too are simply
incapable of delving into the most terrifying sexual experience
of all: talking openly and honestly about sexuality.