IT'S 3 A.M. - do you know where your children are?, runs the joke mocking a TV public-service announcement popular a few years back. Yet those words invariably send chills down most parents' spines. And it hasn't helped that media-hyped debates about everything from Columbine-style school massacres and violent video games to Internet predators has heightened the sense that American kids live in an all-out war zone of physical, emotional, psychological, and moral danger. In the past, parents could seek solace and direction from religion, from their faith traditions and clerical leaders. But now, even that source of comfort has been thrown into question. The ongoing, deepening, and seemingly endless scandal of alleged abuse by Catholic priests has raised the specter of endangered children to nearly unimaginable heights. How could this stuff get any worse? What's a mother to do?
Now, 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 already in the middle of a political firestorm - and it hasn't even been released yet. 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 one of a rare species - she's 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 (Doubleday), Levine is a social activist and public intellectual who believes passionately that ideas matter.
Harmful to Minors, which is being released by the University of Minnesota Press on May 1, 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 pathologizes 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 verboten 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.
Basically, then, 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 that doyenne of the air waves, the redoubtable Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who also issued a stirring condemnation of the book. After this, events began moving fast and furiously. 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 cheap, 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 still-to-be-named 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. And Armato has forthrightly defended the decision to publish Levine's book, systematically debunking the disinformation campaign being waged by its 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 - under pressure from conservative politicians - is 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 herself (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." By caving in to this right-wing assault on its press, the university is leaving both Levine and Elders flapping in the wind - with predictably chilling effects on writers and publishers everywhere.
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 the Pelvis and rock and roll in the 1950s. But as Levine points out in an interview with the Phoenix, the meaning and intent of these worries have 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 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.
Looking over the major child-protectionist frenzies from the late 1970s onward, a clear pattern emerges: the popular media, insatiably hungry for hot-button topics, will go for any scandal - particularly if it involves kids, sex, race, violence, or pornography - that will fan the flames of the culture war. Once the flames begin to diminish, the press veers off to a new topic ("Museum gets city funds to cover Virgin Mary with shit!"). Hardly anyone notices that the original story was based on half-truths and misconceptions.
But 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 day-care-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. Levine dismantles the misconceptions surrounding most of these examples, but the myths continue to rule popular thinking and social policy nonetheless.
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 became the 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 all these people, protecting children seems to have been driven as much, if not more, by personal gain as by ostensible 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. It is no surprise that all these groups - including Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, American Family Association, 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 precisely what they seek to undo.
It is tempting to see in all this a vast right-wing conspiracy, à la Hillary Clinton. Levine would take 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 - are 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."
But 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. The world is a scary place, and teaching children how to navigate it is not easy. As Levine and others point out, however, the situation does not get any 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.
It is easy to ridicule right-wing sex panics because, despite their immediate political effectiveness, they almost always turn out to be based on lies, falsehoods, and disinformation. But they also play to real fears and anxieties about children. No one wants to see kids hurt, no one wants kids to be harmed, no one wants kids to go through that whole range of terrible things that all adults have gone through to be, well, "grown-up." Almost all people have an urge to "protect" kids from things that are bad for them. But the question is, 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. Hell (so to speak) for atheist parents might be to see their kids fall prey to the irrationality of religious belief. Part of the problem here is that many, many people honestly disagree about what is "bad" for children. And the other part of the problem is that social and religious conservatives often have a deeply driven 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 - which makes almost no allowances for moral frailty, emotional fragility, confusion, complicated desire, or just plain old dissent - 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 - in the words of the inimitable Old Testament prophet Isaiah - the world has been turned upside down. And so much the better.
But in truth 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 delighted 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 - they are confusing to everybody a great deal of the time. And 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 Children, Levine tries to chart a third course: she actually talks to people about their experiences, examines scientific studies and 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 is quick and 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."
The right's appreciation of the power of ideas also explains how conservatives so effectively use issues concerning children and sex to push everybody's buttons. 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 indeed, 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." How's that for an attempt to try to mediate desire, age, experience, influence, and the social good?
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 CONTROVERSY swirling around Levine's book - and let's remember that the attacks against it are still in the early stages - give us as a society an opportunity to confront some of the fears and myths she has exposed. Rather than panic about sex, what would happen if we actually began talking about it, honestly and openly? The irony is that at a quick glance we are a culture obsessed with sex. From Britney Spears's proclaiming she's a virgin while affecting a teen-slut look and the huge billboards promoting well-filled Calvin Klein briefs to Viagra ads in women's magazines, we're inundated with it. But for all the sexual show-and-tell, 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 began to ask children and teens their thoughts about sex? What would happen if adults began to discuss 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? Can we actually get to the point where we can discuss the reality of lived lives? 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 people's 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. Political jargon on either side is useless and unenlightening here. Even harmful.
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: actually talking - openly and honestly - about our sexuality.
Michael Bronski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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