Sexuality Finds a Champion—and Conservatives Attack
Underage and Under Siege
by Sharon Lerner
Week of July 3 - 9, 2002
Ask Judith Levine when a kid ought to start having sex, and she'll respond like the levelheaded, Brooklyn- and Vermont-based liberal she is: "There are some 16-year-olds who can handle it, and there are some who aren't ready for sex at 20," said Levine, reached on the San Francisco leg of what turned out to be a profoundly embattled book tour. "People at 13 and 14 are generally not mature enough to carry out safe sex. And if a 10-year-old is engaging in what you or I might call real sex, that's a real problem."
Utterly reasonable stuff. But read the ongoing press coverage of Levine's new book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, and the public intellectual somehow morphs into a crazed pedophile. The madness began before Levine's book was even published. Arguing for recognition of young people's sexual pleasure, Harmful to Minors was rejected by a string of publishers (one dubbed it "radioactive") before being picked up by the University of Minnesota Press. Various outraged Minnesotans then demanded that the academic publisher stop printing the book (it hasn't) and begin a review of its editorial policies (that's under way). The ultra-right Concerned Women for America decreed Harmful to Minors an "evil tome." And Dr. Laura, the fang-toothed radio conservative, went on air to accuse Levine of condoning child molestation.
The New York Times explained the witch-hunting of Levine by her book's release in the midst of the Catholic Church's explosive sexual abuse scandal. From a publicist's perspective, at least, the timing has been a boon; Levine's footnoted, scholarly work made it up to No. 25 on the Amazon.com bestseller list and has just gone into a 20,000-copy second printing. But what's so frustrating about the hysteria (aside from giving groups like the conservative Family Institute an excuse to host press conferences with lurid titles like "Pedophilia Book") is that it obscures Levine's astute analysis of what's gone wrong between adults and children in the U.S.
Drawing on social science and history, Levine makes a strong case that the denial of sexuality is the true cause of harm to minors. The book uses most of its 300 pages to detail the mounting anxiety over sex play between children, the restriction of youth access to the Internet, and a blackout on critical sexual information in the name of government-funded abstinence education. But Levine might just as well have focused on abusive priests. "If I wanted to design a historically accurate, long-term study to prove the point of my book, [the subject] would be the Catholic Church," the author sighed wearily across the phone lines from California.
Indeed the same prudishness that has backfired wildly in parishes across the country has dominated social policy in recent years. Harmful to Minors' most important contribution is tying that protective impulse to adults' deep-rooted discomfort with their own sexuality. In the section that secured her a central spot on the right's radar, Levine teases apart the disproportionately large spot the pedophile occupies in the American psyche. She doesn't deny that strangers sometimes rape children ("I can't believe I've had to clarify that," said the exasperated author), but points out that such crimes are far more often committed by family members. Levine describes the obsession with pedophiles as stemming both from a reluctance to confront incest and the rampant sexualization of children throughout the culture. Rather than focus on ourselves, she says, adults "project that eroticized desire outward, creating a monster to hate, hunt down, and punish."
For this intellectual take on such primal stuff, Levine has been branded a member of the "media elite"—and the charge of hyper-intellectualization contains a nugget of truth. Hers is an academic take on an issue about which few are willing to be totally rational. And while her criticisms of statutory-rape laws, say, are astute (she points out that age-of-consent laws originated to protect girls' virginity as their fathers' property and now define sex as nonconsensual solely on the basis of age), her own sexy camp tale, told this week in the Voice, is worth several such tightly reasoned analyses. "Jake," the 26-year-old embodiment of the gray areas in sexual relations, photographed a 14-year-old Levine with her shirt off. As she tells it, the experience was thoroughly enjoyable, though today such an encounter has been made all but impossible by the panic over sexual predators.
Talk to three female friends and you're bound to turn up at least one story of getting bedroom eyes and back rubs from the camp counselor (or friend's older brother, or windsurfing instructor, etc.). The problem is, it's almost as easy to hit upon the version in which the older guy doesn't refrain from sex with his camper (or student, or the baby-sitter). And often these stories have fairly messy endings. Levine's lack of sensitivity for the real problems—from crushed emotions to pregnancies —wrought by these relationships is partly to blame for the frenzied response to her book. Similarly, the book's vagueness about age—a fuzziness that could have been cleared up with a few clear statements like the one at the top of this piece—leaves unnecessary room for panic. And, since she never approvingly writes about young children having sex, she could have just as easily used the less provocative words teen or adolescent instead of child in the subtitle.
Levine does write about young children's sexual pleasure through masturbation and touch, though, defending the exploration of their bodies as natural and—gasp!—good. Perhaps the saddest chapter details how adult discomfort with children's sex play has, in some cases, turned kids' curiosity into pathology and crime, with hundreds of juvenile sex offender programs springing up to accommodate this new "epidemic." Levine tells of Tony Diamond, an unfortunate nine-year-old who was diagnosed with a sexual behavior problem and made to live in a foster home after touching his younger sister's genitals and poking her butt cheek with a pencil. Other kids caught up in the punitive mania include a 13-year-old boy accused of rubbing against his sister, and an eight-year-old girl who sent a note to a classmate asking if he wanted to be her boyfriend.
Even progressives have been cowed by this conflation of sexual expression and abuse—and Levine is as hard on them as she is on the religious zealots. She chews out sex educators for adopting new blend-in-with-the-conservatives names for their curricula like "abstinence plus" and "abstinence-based." She criticizes the nonprofit Sexual Information and Education Council of the U.S.—a frequent target of the right—for recommending that parents intervene if they stumble on their five-year-old consensually touching his friend's penis. (Better just to have "no reaction at all.") Even Planned Parenthood has apparently been running scared. Levine says the group's pamphlet "Birth Control Choices for Teens" originally contained a list of "outercourse" options, including reading erotica, fantasizing, and role play. But the racy suggestions were later deleted, and while the sanitized version was distributed, according to Levine, the contraband copies were burned.
Levine has a vision for swinging the pendulum back in the other direction. Adults are central to this plan, both because children eventually grow up and because the shame and secrecy about their sexuality start with adults' feelings about their own bodies and pleasure. Levine would have adults first reckon with their own desire. It's more utterly reasonable advice; were the tortured Catholic Church ever to take it to heart, it could be downright cathartic.
That's not likely, of course. With the possible exception of a few incendiary bits, Harmful to Minors will probably go unread by those who could benefit from it most. The missed opportunity brings to mind the image of those sex ed pamphlets burning in a warehouse somewhere, with so much hard work and daring effort being lost to the fiery shame around sex.
X-Rated Advice About Kids
Parents Balk at Author's View That Minors Are at Age of Consent
By Laura Sessions
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 11, 2002; Page C01
Once again: a provocative new book about child-raising that seems to be written for everyone except ordinary people who are actually raising children.
"Will the real sex educators please stand up? Mom and Dad aren't talking," writes New York feminist Judith Levine in her new book: "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex."
She attacks right-wing anxiety over pedophilia, pornography and child molestation -- anxiety that is unwarranted by the facts, she says.
She denounces mainstream authorities for spreading hysteria by focusing on disease and pregnancy rather than children's rights to sexual pleasure and privacy.
She recommends looking at Dutch law, which allows children ages 12 to 16 to have sex with an adult if the young person is willing.
"Sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors," Levine writes, "and America's drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing. Adults owe children not only protection and a schooling in safety but also the entitlement to pleasure."
That is, the adults who teach the sex education courses Levine likes, but not necessarily parents, who don't count for much.
"Laudable protective parental instincts notwithstanding, an intimate consensual sexual relationship, including one between minors, is private business," she states.
Ingrid and Erick Gutierrez, natives of Guatemala living in a row house on Euclid Street NW, might be surprised to be told that they're not talking to their 13-year-old daughter.
Erick directs housing programs for the Latino Economic Development Corporation. Ingrid works with parents of students at Oyster Elementary School. They don't spend a lot of time debating the laws Levine gets worked up over, such as the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act. They have other concerns to talk over with their daughter, simpler perhaps but no less pressing: rumors that a classmate is pregnant, or their daughter's question about why women have to suffer through monthly menstrual cycles and men do not.
"We're going to have to learn the right terms, and confront things before they happen," says Erick, sitting next to Ingrid at their dining room table.
They say it's up to them and not childless theorists like Levine to talk to their child about how one can give and receive sexual pleasure short of intercourse, and to discuss whether oral sex is safer than vaginal sex. They feel it's their private business to help their child think through when she might be ready for intercourse and the role that love and commitment should play in that decision. If their child is uncomfortable with them talking about these issues, they've already thought of a relative who can step in.
Citing research that asked adults about childhood romances they had years earlier, Levine argues for lowering the age of consent. What she doesn't say in the book, but has said in interviews, is that she had a sexual relationship with an older man when she was 17, unknown to her parents.
It's hard to picture Erick and Ingrid Gutierrez sitting back and doing nothing if their daughter, a pretty, dark-haired girl just easing into maturity, took up with a guy who was 19 or 20. Or 30.
"These are not informed-consent situations, where the child has all available information," health professional Sarah Brown says. "It's not like saying, 'Here, sign up for this appendectomy.' " Brown is executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, one of the mainstream organizations Levine says promotes fear of sex over pleasure.
Sharon Parker, who lives in an Olney colonial with husband Chuck, a car dealer, and four sons, ages 12 to 26, worries more about girls pursuing her boys than her twenty-something sons hopping in bed with teenyboppers. "These days, the girls are the aggressors," she says, "and I've told my sons that. Especially as girls get older, they can be very deceiving. They'll say they're using birth control when they're not."
Levine suggests that popular culture -- TV, movies, street talk -- is no trashier than it ever has been, but Parker says she has missed the real messenger. The culture Parker worries about is more neighbors down the street than "Sex and the City." It's the mother she knows who purchased birth control pills for her 13-year-old daughters "just in case." It's the parents who provide beer at parties in their homes and then let everyone, boys and girls, sleep over.
Her 14-year-old son is already asking to go to these sleepovers. She has said no.
Parker, in her mid-forties, remembers as a girl calling her mother at a party the evening she started menstruating and asking where she could find "those things women need." She got married when she was 18, had her first child at 23 and was "still clueless about sex" when she went into labor.
"I don't want my sons to be in that dark," she says. That is why she, like the Gutierrezes, is grateful that schools now teach youngsters about sex.
When Ingrid Gutierrez was her daughter's age, she was still wearing knee socks and playing with dolls. What little bit she learned about sex came in a vocational training class over a couple of weeks when she was 15. Erick Gutierrez picked up information at age 12 outside a bordello in his home town, listening to same-age friends recount their exploits inside.
Ingrid Gutierrez shakes her head and laughs, remembering the time her child came home bragging that she had gotten an A on her "gonorrhea test."
"In my time, that word was taboo," she says, "but I'm glad that they're teaching her about disease." Ingrid says the school gave her and her husband an approach for talking about sex that was scientific and therefore easier to manage.
Their point is, sex education in school, as comprehensive and necessary as Levine and many others believe it is, doesn't and shouldn't reduce parents to also-rans.
Parents must be partners with school for sex education to really work, and when they are, the results are rewarding, says Baltimore educator Deborah Roffman, author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex."
Sharon Parker agrees. She remembers one of her sons assuring her that he was preparing for his sex-education test in sixth grade. Each afternoon she would ask him what he had learned and each afternoon he would say only, "Mom, I'm okay."
He flunked the test. So she marched over to the school office, retrieved the packet of material, and drilled him every afternoon during spring break.
At his first smirk during their first session, she stopped mid-sentence. "Okay, we're going to be mature about this," she said. "We're not going to call the male organ your ding-dong. We're going to use the word penis."
Now she recalls, "Even as I was saying that I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I'm saying this.' I had to take a deep breath, several times, that first afternoon."
Her son took the test over and scored 98 out of 100. More importantly, she says, he realized he could talk to her about sex and she knew she could talk to him, even if she stumbled now and then.
The details of her instruction to her sons has obviously changed as they've gotten older, Parker says. She has told her boys she hopes they wait until marriage to have sex, but she has also counseled them on using protection.
Parents are in the business of deciding what is good for their kids, she says. They shouldn't be encouraged to abandon the job to schools, much less theorists, ideologues, provocateurs, shocking authors or even soothing ones. The Parkers, the Gutierrezes, on and on -- these are the actual people who have to deal with the blizzard of ideas that drifts down from intellectuals and politicians. They're the parents, after all, and their children are their children.
Romance a Teenage Camper Couldn't Have Today
Summer of Love
by Judith Levine
Week of July 3 - 9, 2002
This is an innocent story. In 1967, the summer before my 15th birthday, I fell in love. It was my first intense erotic love, and its object was the photography counselor at camp—a lean, bearded, blue-eyed guy I'll call Jake. He was 26. Nothing sexual happened. Still, I think of those two months as the summer of my épanouissement, a French word meaning blossoming or opening, which also means glow. Jake took hundreds of pictures of me, and his affirmation and his camera opened me to myself. They helped me begin, sexually, to glow.
If the same events had occurred in 2002, they would not be viewed as innocent. The adults around me would write my chaste romance as a perverse tale, casting Jake as a predator and me as his hapless, clueless prey. Had I started my sex education with good-touch-bad-touch lessons in kindergarten or listened for a decade to media reporting on a world allegedly crowded with sexual malefactors sniffing the world for young flesh, I might even have believed that my friend and mentor Jake was one of them. That sweet idyll would have been, instead, the summer of my victimization. And instead of opening me, Jake's attentions might have closed me down in fear and confusion.
Levine at 14: Blossoming under the lens of her counselor's camera
The photographs were another kid's idea. Jake and I and a few other campers were messing around in the dining room after supper early in the summer, and a boy named Ezra suggested I model for Jake. "Judy would make a gas model," he said. Gas, in 1967, meant cool. And looking back, I have to say, I was a cool kid. I wrote poetry; I played guitar and piano pretty well. According to the adults who knew me then, I was precocious and perceptive. My friends remember me as witty and impassioned. I affected a late-beatnik-early-hippie look: skimpy tank tops worn without a bra (I didn't need one anyway), low-slung bell-bottoms that revealed the curve of my belly where it dipped between my hipbones. Come to think of it, the clothes weren't so different from the ones today's parents (who wore them as kids!) condemn for prematurely "sexualizing" their daughters. The clothes were sexy then; they are sexy now. And to this day I can almost taste how good I felt in them. Before that summer, I still considered myself a little ugly and plenty awkward. In my high school, girls like me, who didn't have pageboy haircuts and didn't wear mohair sweaters with matching knee socks—and worse, who were smart—were untouchable.
At camp, though, I had suitors to spare. That summer several boys pursued me. One wore wire-rimmed glasses—avant-garde at the time. Another kept pleading with me to take my first acid trip with him. I was unmoved. I idolized the glamorous Jake, who had spent a year photographing guerrillas somewhere in Africa, who drove a battered Volkswagen, who meditated at an ashram. And he—miracle of miracles—liked me, a lot.
He liked me, I felt, and he saw me—saw the person I was beginning to know as myself. I could read his recognition in the photographs. They are straightforward, not arty, not pushy. I posed as I wanted; he shot. My body in them is at that heart-stopping stage between baby plump and adolescent fleshy. My face varies from picture to picture: Here I am a giggly kid, here a dreamy near-woman. One photo, which still hangs on my mother's wall, shows me holding Queen Anne's lace, gazing into the distance. It's a bit hokey: I'm working hard at looking soulful. But Jake's camera didn't mock. It's as if he believed I really was thinking deep thoughts.
What I was thinking about was sex. I tried to seduce him. In the flowery fields where we often went, I struck what I thought were enticing poses, leaning back in the long, scratchy grass, arching my back to reveal a bit of belly, dropping a shoulder so that a strap would fall invitingly off. In the little hand mirror I kept in my bunk, I rehearsed sucking in my cheeks and pouting my lips. And in the evergreen-smelling nights, I fantasized the day Jake would ask me to take my shirt off, brush his lips over my nipples, then pull down the short zipper of my pants. I imagined the bristles of his beard as he kissed me there.
He never did. In fact, he mentioned sex only once that I remember, as I sat on the counter in his darkroom, watching his red-lit face concentrate on the images emerging in the trays (the smell of developing fluid is still erotic to me). He said, "There are two things I know I can't do while I'm working here: smoke pot or make love to a woman." Was that woman me? I closed my eyes for a second and imagined I was, pictured him stepping between my dangling legs, taking my face in his hands, and kissing me. I opened my eyes, unkissed.
Maybe Jake considered me a little girl, not a woman at all. But somehow, as he gazed at me through that lens, I began to see myself as a woman, at least a little. One hot sunny afternoon, shingling a roof with Jake and some other campers, I admired the muscles of his tan, bare back flexing with each hammer swing. The bitter-salty odor of his sweat drifted toward me on a breeze. "Hmm," I said to myself, smiling as I noticed that I liked the smell. "This must mean I'm growing up." Once, skinny-dipping, I felt my body go as liquid as the lake as I watched him climb onto the shore, the red-blond fuzz on his body beaded with water.
Today, camp policy, like that at many schools and community centers, might forbid Jake and me to spend those hours alone in a dark little room. The camp director might pull him aside and ask pointedly what we were doing out in the fields. A counselor might interrogate me about his actions and insinuate that he was exploiting me. She might even persuade me it was true.
Of the dozens of rolls he photographed, there are a few shots of me with my shirt off, folk-dancing in a downpour with some other girls. I remember stepping back toward him, breathless and ecstatic, my face hot in the cool rain. "You're amazing," he said, and raised his camera again. Today those photographs could be called child pornography, and Jake could be arrested for taking them.
He never touched me, except to drape an arm over my shoulder or sit close to me on a bench. He kissed me on the lips only once, mouth closed, on the last day of camp—and gave his boots to another girl, throwing me into paroxysms of jealousy. But he made me feel beautiful. He made me feel desirable.
Recently, the publication of my book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex lit a conflagration among conservatives, who called for its suppression—and called me an apologist for, even an advocate of, pedophilia. Why? In one chapter, I suggest that statutory rape laws are often unjust and unrealistic. They not only criminalize consensual teen relationships and categorically deny teens the right to consent to sex, they erase the very possibility that young people might desire—or initiate—sex at all, especially with an older person. At the same time, the book says, we've come to suspect all adults as sexual con artists, cajoling kids through popular culture and advertising to want sex, or seducing or coercing them to have it, before their time. It's as if adults, should they find a young person sexually appealing, could never control their impulses.
My book acknowledges that kids desire —and I know they do, because I did—and this apparently makes me a pedophile's patsy. Writing the book, I often felt lucky that I came of age during the brief moment when young people's sexuality was considered lovely and good and when adults who appreciated it were not regarded as perverts. In the summer of '67, a man gave a girl the innocent gift of her emerging erotic self. I wonder if I could receive it with such happiness and grace were I a girl today.
04/16/2002 - Updated 10:58 PM ET
Experts debate impact, gray areas of adult-child sex
By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY
Sex researchers and academics are tussling over a topic that most Americans don't even want to think about: sex between adults and children. Some of these experts are making the startling assertion that not all sexual activity between adults and minors is necessarily harmful. The result is a questioning of one of the country's most strongly held taboos.
Parents and others may gasp at the concept, especially in the current climate of scandal over sexual abuse by priests. But some serious researchers and academics want to review the term "child sexual abuse," preferring a more neutral term such as "adult-child sex."
They do not say coerced sex is acceptable. Rather, they debate questions such as whether a 25-year-old man should be prosecuted for statutory rape if he has sex with his eager 17-year-old girlfriend. Laws vary by state.
How about if an older woman provides a sexual initiation for a teenage boy? It's a fantasy dear to the hearts of many young men and a frequent theme of TV shows and movies, including the classic Summer of '42.
Experts debate whether sex with an adult is more damaging for an adolescent girl than for a boy, as some research indicates. Also being discussed is whether it's really possible for a minor to initiate sex with an adult. However, if the older lover is an authority figure, such as a teacher, coach or priest, most respected social scientists say the power imbalance is clear.
The controversy is engaging some researchers at top universities. "I think the evidence has been clear for some time that child and adolescent sexual abuse does not always do harm in the long term," says David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, one of the nation's foremost researchers on the sexual abuse of children. "That is the good news." One question now, he says, is determining if some youngsters are more mature and "able to consent to sexual relationships with older partners."
The belief that children can truly consent to sex with an adult horrifies critics across a wide spectrum. "Our major task is trying to figure out how to stop this nonsense, this justifying and encouraging adult-child sexual behavior," says Paul Fink, past president of the American Psychiatric Association.
"Is it open season on our children?" asks Stephanie Dallam, a researcher for the Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice and the Media, a non-profit advocacy group for children that focuses on pedophilia.
The issue should not be blurred by talking about sex with a 17-year-old versus a younger child, Dallam says. "That is just one hill in the battle" pedophiles are waging, she says. "Once they have the 15- to 17-year-olds, then it will be OK with the 12- and 13-year olds."
There is still "a lot to be cleared up," Finkelhor says. The adult-child issue would be easier to deal with, he says, if America had fewer children who had been victimized and "so badly hurt by the imposition of adult sexual activities."
Alarmed critics often quote a list of negative effects Finkelhor has catalogued. His inventory includes depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, an earlier entry into sexual activity, a larger number of partners and a greater tendency to be sexually victimized later in life.
Discussions about adult-child sex are appearing in professional journals, including a special issue last month of the AmericanPsychologist, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Researchers are not trying willy-nilly to turn traditional American values upside down, says APA spokesman Rhea Farberman. There is no drive among mainstream mental health professionals or social science academics to "legitimize adult-child sex." But she says there are reasonable questions for research, including analyzing types of sexual activity that include everything from fondling to rape.
Defining terms is one of the problems researchers face, she says. "Your definition, mine and the researcher's down the hall can all differ. Are we talking about homosexual or heterosexual sex? What is sex? How old is a 'child' ?"
The APA thinks child sexual abuse is by definition abuse and is "immoral and wrong," she says. But "we can all agree it is a much more serious and potentially harmful situation when a 9-year-old is raped than when a 16-year-old has 'consensual sex' with a 19-year-old. We need to be very careful of what we talk about."
The adult-child theme has been picked up on TV shows such as Boston Public, Once and Again and Dawson's Creek.
Actor Peter Krause's character on Six Feet Under recently revealed his sexual initiation occurred when he was 15 with a woman 20 years older. And a sequel to the 1971 movie Summer of '42, in which an older woman pleasures a teenage boy, reportedly is in the works.
The debate has spilled over into a public battle over a book due May 1 on children and sexuality. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex is from the University of Minnesota Press, a noted academic publishing house. The author, Judith Levine, is a respected journalist and activist who has been writing about sex and families for 20 years.
The book has prompted bitter attacks from critics who say its publication should be stopped. The University of Minnesota, which provides 6% of the Press' budget, responded to the criticism in early April by announcing an independent review of how the Press chooses what it publishes.
Contrary to what some critics say, the book does not advocate pedophilia, says Douglas Armato of the University Press. Instead, it makes a case for open and honest discussion about adolescent and children's sexuality. "We published a 300-page book, and people are paying attention to four pages of it," he says.
E-mails are running 2-to-1 against the book, Armato says, but a corner has been turned. "We are beginning to hear favorable things from those who say these topics must be addressed."
A number of respected groups including the Association of American University Presses released a statement Tuesday in support of the Minnesota Press and its decision to "enrich the public debate."
Levine's book focuses on the need sex educators feel to get solid sexual information to adolescents. Frightening them, overemphasizing the dangers from pedophiles and from predators on the Internet, and overprotecting them does more harm than good, she writes.
"In my book, I deplore any kind of non-consensual sex between persons of any age," she said in an interview. "But teens deserve respect for their decisions, and they need from us the emotional and practical tools to make good decisions."
Levine had sex with "a man in his 20s" when she was "about 17" and believes such sexual contact is not always harmful. But in her book, Levine goes much further. She applauds a Dutch age-of-consent law that permits adult sex with a child ages 12-16 if the young person consents. Either the child or the child's parents can file charges if the sex is coerced.
Reaction has been swift. "We are really appalled," says Fink, who also is director of the Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice and the Media. "Children need to grow up unencumbered and unused by adults. This whole movement is justifying the needs of adults by utilizing children in a negative way."
Dallam says: "Children should be off-limits sexually. There is a concerted effort among certain academics to change society's basically negative attitude toward sex with children. They try to say scientific data show some children are not harmed, therefore society is wrong in thinking that this is harmful."
Others object passionately to Levine's book. Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute calls the book "evil." The institute takes its guidance from God and the Bible, its Web site indicates. "The book makes a case for pedophilia," he says. "I have not read it cover to cover, but I am familiar with its themes. She is drawing on quack science. It gives a scientific gloss to the arguments that child molesters use."
The American Psychological Association is once again coping with the hot-button issue of adult-child sex. A 1998 article in one of its more obscure publications, the Psychological Bulletin, created a firestorm that included a denunciation by Congress. Now a March 2002 special issue of the American Psychologist published by the APA examines how it handled what turned into a debacle of criticism and counter-criticism.
In the 1998 article, three authors analyzed 59 studies of college students recalling sexual abuse. The researchers reported that despite what many think, child sexual abuse "does not cause intense harm on a pervasive basis regardless of gender in the college population," although boys fared better than girls. And they concluded that some children experienced positive reactions in "willing" sexual encounters with adults, according to the March APA analysis of what happened after publication and why.
One of the authors — researcher Robert Bauserman, who was with the University of Michigan in 1998 — now says, "I have the feeling that if you don't say anybody under 18 is permanently psychologically harmed by any type of sexual experience," then you are called a supporter of pedophiles by critics. He has never, he says, called for lower age-of-consent laws or "changing social norms." Instead, he says, researchers "need to identify the situations and circumstances that produce the most harm."
Researcher Finkelhor says that, as a society, "We seem to have an extremely difficult time recognizing the need for boundaries. We will be talking about this subject for some years" to come.
Girls are getting older younger - padded bras and thongs for pre-teens are this week's controversy. But how do we foster a mature attitude to sex, asks Marina Cantacuzino
Wednesday April 17, 2002
Acknowledging that your child is turning into a sexual being is, for parents, one of the greatest challenges of adolescence - especially when it seems to come so fast on the heels of childhood. I recently made a few dismal attempts at offering sex education tips to my 12-year-old daughter ("sex should be special," "virginity is a precious thing," that sort of thing) - and all because that four-letter word, "boys", has entered her vocabulary.
Like many parents, I've been taken unawares by the sudden onset of adolescence and am frankly aghast at the overt sexual behaviour of some of her peers. So much has changed since I was a teenager: back then, 14 was the age when the first girls in my class lost their virginity, while 16 was more normal and 17 or 18 the average. There has been a steady downward trend in the age of first sexual intercourse since the 1950s, when the average age was 21. Now it is 16 and, according to a survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles published last year, 30% of young men and 26% of young women report having sex before the age of 16.
A condition aptly named "precocious puberty" is one related factor: girls are becoming sexually mature younger. A hundred years ago, menstruation started at 15; today, the average age is 12. But, just as significantly, even pre-pubescent girls are encouraged to think of themselves as sexual beings. Pre-teens dress like Kylie, Mylene and Co in crop tops and hipster jeans. And now the high-street chain Argos has just launched a new lingerie line for girls, the Tammy range includes padded bras and thongs - for nine-year-olds.
If girls are having sex earlier than ever before, it can't help that we have no statutory requirement for sex education in schools to tackle the emotional aspect of sex and relationships. According to Simon Blake, director of the Sex Education Forum, "We know that if sex education meets certain criteria, it delays sexual activity but, unfortunately, adequate sex education in schools is very patchy. Mostly, it's too little, too late - and too biological."
Blake blames the high rate of teenage pregnancies less on our imperfect sex education than on British attitudes towards sex, drawing comparison with the Netherlands which has the lowest teenage conception rate of developed countries. "Although their sex education is similar to ours, they don't have the tabloid press or our smutty culture. They're very grown-up about sex and don't believe that telling a five-year-old that people have sex and enjoy it is going to hurt them," he says.
It seems a topical controversy. In the US, a book about children's sexuality, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex (University of Minnesota Press), is already causing a storm, ahead of next month's publication. Its author Judith Levine argues that young Americans, though bombarded with sexual images from the media, are often deprived of realistic advice about sex. This heresy has been enough to provoke a campaign of vilification from commentators, activists and parents.
Jane Stanley, a freelance PR consultant from south London, agrees that you can't underestimate media pressure. She believes that girls like her 12-year-old daughter Millie are in danger of skipping a process of maturation: "Their behaviour is that of 16- and 17-year-olds - and they look like it, too - but they don't have the chance to find out what to think and feel about things."
She describes her daughter's social life as junior-league clubbing - ticket-only events for 12-16 year olds which, while well supervised, encourage young girls to dress up and wear make-up, in other words to rush forward to embrace a culture they're not mature enough to understand. "Millie is a little girl but looks sexually mature when dressed up. To some people, that's sexually seductive and might illicit a response from those people you'd least want to be interested in your child."
Dr John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence and author of Sex and Your Teenager, believes some parents of teenagers today need to change their attitudes about teenage sex and drug use because society has changed. He acknowledges, though, that having sex too young can be both damaging to a child and distressing to the parent. "If a parent is deeply upset by their daughter already being sexually active at the age of 12 or 13, there's no point in locking the bedroom door. What's important is to tell her how you feel: in other words, say that you think it's far too young, but if they're going to do it, you're going to help them do it safely."
This is precisely the conclusion Stanley has arrived at. "If I felt Millie was about to have sex, I wouldn't give her a packet of condoms because that would be endorsing it, but I'd make damn sure she knows how to get hold of one. But I really hope she doesn't start yet. I was 16 when I first had sex and, by that age, I'd expect her to have reached a state of emotional maturity where she could take responsibility for her own decisions."
Judging from my conversation with six girls aged 12 and 13, it would appear that girls like Millie are only a step away from having sex. These girls seem confident and strong, and are proud to be asked about their sexuality. They inhabit a world where there is abundant discussion of sex, and the way they articulate their feelings suggests how much they've been raised on "soap" culture. They may not say it outright, but being sexually active is clearly considered cool.
All but one has kissed a boy, but none has yet lost their virginity. Significantly, only one enjoys snogging, though all aim to get better at it. Even at 12, these girls are being called "frigid" by boys who aren't getting what they want. Tara, 13, says she was at a party when a boy opened his flies and presented himself for a blow job. She told him to get lost. "I'd have bitten it," shrieks her friend, still in that twilight zone of finding sex both fascinating and disgusting.
At an age when the peer group is suddenly much more important than the family, it's not easy for parents. "Communication is the most important thing to focus on," says Dr Coleman. "Teenagers want to know their parents are concerned about them. If you can get that right, you've won half the battle." Stanley tries to keep the channels of communication open with her daughter, but at times despairs. "I'm doing my best, but I wish Millie was more comfortable discussing sex with me. I worry that I make it more difficult for her."
The girls I spoke to are well aware that, even though they're underage, condoms and pregnancy tests can be bought at most chemists - and now from Tesco's, too. They all know other girls their age who have lost their virginity; none apparently regretting it. Those girls they know who have had early experiences of sex are, they say, the ones least able to talk to their parents. Studies have consistently born this out, showing that the more parents talk and express their concerns, the more likely the child is to delay having sex.
But the pressure is intense: the girls claim to be constantly fending off boys. Some have repeatedly been asked for sex. "My answer is 'When I'm old enough'," declares Scarlet, the most assertive of the group, who wants to wait until 16, but suspects it'll probably be more like 14.
Tara is the most sexually aware of the group. "My mum can't believe I fancy boys already and tells me to take contraception because she's not looking after the consequences," she says. She confesses that she'd much rather her mother was like other mothers, anxious about their daughters becoming sexually active too young. "But at least," declares Tara, "it makes me more determined not to turn into the person my mum expects me to become."
Names have been changed
What's so bad about good sex?
"Harmful to Minors" author Judith Levine talks about why American parents are afraid of their teenagers' sexuality, says kids know the difference between coercion and consent -- and blasts critics who say she advocates pedophilia.
By Amy Benfer
April 19, 2002 | In the introduction to her new book, "Harmful to Minors," Judith Levine writes, "In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too."
And once you publish such a book in America today, she can now add, it is nearly impossible to escape the wrath of those who believe that such a statement is nothing less than dangerous.
Since the publication of her book, which is subtitled "The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex," Levine has been set upon by a mob of furious critics, many of them of the opinion that the author, in at least one chapter of the book, has endorsed pedophilia. It is a predictable response, coming in the midst of general panic about child molestation by the clergy, and a Supreme Court ruling last week that reverses a ban on virtual kiddie porn. But it is also a groundless and inflammatory claim that Levine, a self-described expert in "the sexual politics of fear," does not find surprising.
If the process of researching the book -- which includes a look at campaigns against sex-positive thinking -- didn't prepare her for the firestorm following its publication, says Levine, certainly the experience of trying to get the book published gave her a hint of what was to come.
"Harmful to Minors" was rejected by many major publishing houses: One editor called the contents "radioactive"; another said that the timing "couldn't possibly be worse"; another asked her to remove the word "pleasure" from her introduction. And once the book was finally picked up by the University of Minnesota Press, it was the target of a campaign spearheaded by the conservative right to keep it from being published altogether.
Levine's book reached the shelves just as the sexual abuse scandal was enveloping the Catholic Church, a coincidence that spurred the author's detractors to focus on a single chapter in the book that questions the motivations behind "age of consent" laws. Levine suggests that the laws -- which define a "child" as a person 18 or younger, depending on the state -- fail to consider the complexities of adolescent sexual relationships.
Age of consent laws are made, writes Levine, by lawmakers who fail to "balance the subjective experience and the rights of young people against the responsibility and prerogative of adults to look after their best interest." Also in this chapter, Levine questions why teens continue to be prosecuted for having consensual "adult" sex at the same time that, in the area of violent crime, "children" as young as 11 are being prosecuted as adults.
The furor about "Harmful to Minors" began when conservative radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger denounced the book on the air. An associate of Schlessinger's, Judith Reisman, had brought the book to Schlessinger's attention, claiming that Levine was another in a long line of "academic pedophiles," who were trying to make pedophilia more acceptable. Reisman also alerted Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute at Concerned Women for America, who called the book "very evil," and launched a campaign on the CWFA Web site, asking Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to halt publication of the book because it had been published under the auspices of the University of Minnesota.
In fact, nothing in Levine's book suggests that the author condones pedophilia. ("No sane person would advocate pedophilia," she said in her interview with Salon.) And, as it turns out, Reisman and Knight have admitted that they hadn't actually read much of Levine's book before they decided to campaign against it. (Reisman told the New York Times, "It doesn't take a great deal to understand the position of the writer. I didn't read 'Mein Kampf' for many years, but I knew the position of the author," while Knight told the same reporter that he had "thumbed through" the book.)
Of course, had they read the whole book, Reisman and Knight probably would have found ample reason to raise the conservative alarm. Levine takes abstinence-only sex education to task, arguing that it limits crucial discussions of contraception and abortion, while depriving teenagers of information they need to have safe sex. Indeed, says Levine, the programs, which are enthusiastically endorsed by conservatives as well as the Bush administration, frequently put teens at greater risk of harm. If abstinence is presented as the only "surefire way" to prevent pregnancy and STDs, she says, students get the impression that "birth control and STD prevention methods don't work." The result, says Levine, is that students in abstinence-only programs are 70 to 80 percent less likely to protect themselves when they do have sex, compared to students who were given accurate information on birth control and condoms.
Pressure from conservative groups has reached past Levine to the publisher, prompting the Minnesota Legislature to ask the University of Minnesota Press to submit to a process in which it must disclose how books are acquired, and the details of each book's peer review. (Levine's book was reviewed by five outside scholars, instead of the usual two.) Lining up to defend the book are a number of civil liberties organizations and book publishers, including the American Association of University Presses, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, PEN American Center, the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Office of Freedom of Information at ALA and the Freedom to Read Foundation. All have signed a petition condemning censorship and supporting Levine and the University of Minnesota. Regardless of the outcome of these debates, publicity surrounding the book seems likely to boost sales. The first print run of 3,500 copies has sold out, and the University of Minnesota Press has decided to print an additional 10,000 copies. And the book hit No. 27 on Amazon rankings before its official publication date; as of today, it was No. 54.
Levine, who says in retrospect that she's glad she didn't include an author photo on her book jacket, spoke to Salon from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., about the book's critics, Britney Spears, virginity pledges, what really helps in stemming teen pregnancy and AIDS and the inevitability that each generation will believe its children are being corrupted more than ever before.
You've been accused by the conservative right of advocating pedophilia. How do you respond to that?
The first thing I have to say is that no sane person would advocate pedophilia. It seems ridiculous to me that I have to say that: It's a "When did you stop beating your wife?" kind of question.
Your readers might be interested to know what else the Concerned Women for America are campaigning against, besides me. They are against teaching what they call the "lie" of evolution in the schools; they're worried about the "homosexual agenda" of the Bush administration evidenced by the appointment of members of the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republican delegation. They are really incensed about the United Nations' Sustained Development Conference, which they said was promoting the "special agendas" of a number of things, including preservation of the world's ecosystems and human rights. So that's all I'd say about my detractors.
Their critique of your work seems to be based in a reading -- perhaps a misreading -- of the part in your book that deals with age of consent laws. I'd be interested to know how you arrived at the arguments you make for abolishing age of consent laws, and how that would apply to the pedophilia controversy plaguing the Catholic Church.
What age of consent laws are about is criminalizing consensual relationships. Statutory rape is the prosecution of a consensual sexual relationship; if it were non-consensual, it would be prosecuted under regular rape laws, which, I am here to say, are the greatest thing in the world.
What I say is that it is possible for teens to tell the difference between coercion and consent, and that most statutory rape prosecutions have to do with conflict within the family over the sexual lives of their children, most often their teen girls or gay boys. Trying to adjudicate or deal with those conflicts in the context of criminal law -- which only recognizes a perpetrator and a victim, guilt and innocence -- is really a primitive instrument for trying to figure out how young people can have relationships of true consent.
The priest situation is a perfect example of how sexuality always exists inside a culture. It can be a local culture like the Roman Catholic Church, or it can be a national culture, like Afghanistan. In that culture, you have secrecy about sex, you have prohibitions against homosexuality, and, most important, you have the requirement of complete obedience to authority. Those would be among the worst conditions under which any person, young or old, could be involved in a truly consensual relationship. The most important thing to look at is the conditions under which a person -- whether adult or teenager -- engages in sexual behavior that may be harmful to that person. It's not sexuality itself that is the problem.
That's also true when we return to the question of statutory rape law: What conditions would allow, say, a teenage girl to negotiate equally in a relationship, any relationship? I think she needs to feel good about her own desires, and also to be able to stand up for her own limits. She needs to have a life that's rich in other things -- like friends, and community and school. In general, young teenagers who have sexual relationships with adults also have other troubles going on in their lives, though it's not necessarily true 100 percent of the time.
The Dutch law has been brought up a number of times, and I've been attacked for saying that I support something like it. This law covers the ages 12 to 16: Anything under age 12 is considered sexual abuse, and above 16 is considered the age of sexual consent. [Under the Dutch law, children between the ages of 12 to 16 have "conditional" sexual consent; i.e. sexual intercourse is legal, but they or their parents can press charges if they feel they are being coerced.]
In the United States, if we were to have such a law, it might not begin as young as 12; we may not say 16 is the age of consent. But the really important principles underlying that law are the two most important principles, in my opinion, that one must consider in dealing with childhood sexuality: On the one hand, it respects that teenagers and young people have sexual desires, and that they can make autonomous decisions about their own sexual expression; on the other hand, it recognizes that children and teens are weaker than adults and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation by adults, so the law also protects them from that exploitation. And of course, that balance will shift depending upon the age of the child.
A lot of the examples you raised in your book of consensual sexual relationships between teens under the age of consent and persons who were considered to be adults, dealt with couples who were not that far apart in age. In one couple, the girl was 13 and her boyfriend was 21; another example you raised was of a 16-year-old girl and her 18-year-old boyfriend. Is there any case in which you would feel that the age difference alone would be indicative of a coercive relationship? Perhaps if the couple is, say, a 13-year-old and a 35-year-old? Or a 16-year-old and a 45-year-old?
There is a social worker named Allie Kilpatrick at the University of Georgia who did very nuanced and in-depth interviews with several hundred adult women about their childhood and teenage sexual experiences. When I asked her this exact question -- "Does age have any effect on their actual experience?" -- she said, "No." Having said that, I would reiterate that if a 13-year-old is having a relationship with a 35-year-old, I would say that that sexual relationship is probably symptomatic of other things going on in that person's life, which is the thing that would be most important to me.
So at that point, would you say that, rather than criminalizing the relationship, you intervene in other ways to break off the relationship, such as by talking to the child, or sending them to counseling?
If I were that 13-year-old's mother, I would intervene, yes. I would be worried about it. Would I be able to stop her if she were intent on doing it? Other than locking her in her room, I wouldn't be able to. But I would hope that I would be able to offer her something of what she is looking for from that 35-year-old. And if not me, perhaps it would come from some other adult in her life.
I think it's obvious that if a young teenager is having an affair with a much older adult, he or she is looking for some sort of a parental relationship more than a sexual relationship. You see this a lot with homeless kids, who have what they call "survival sex," where they trade sex for a shower, or a night in a bed instead of sleeping under a bridge. What they need is that bed, that adult companionship, and that shower.
One of the things I noticed in looking at the comments put out by your detractors is how "dirty" they made your book out to be. Do you see that as symptomatic of how any honest talk about sex is trivialized as being simply prurient?
A good example of that is the cover of my book, which shows the bare torso of a child. People have reacted to this book by saying that it is either prurient or pornographic on the one hand, or, on the other, that it is completely innocent. That to me shows that there is no image of a child, or any way of talking about childhood sexuality that doesn't fall into either one camp or the other. The idea that childhood sexuality could be anything but a problem, unless it is altogether expurgated, is something that I frequently come up against.
Another example would be the judges who look at images of a baby in a bathtub and see pornography. My judgment of that guy is that he has a dirty mind!
One of the arguments that we hear quite frequently is that childhood has been "sexualized" by the mass media -- Calvin Klein ads, TV, etc. -- in a different way than it ever was before. Do you think there is any truth to that?
I don't like the word "sexualize" so much. It implies that children wouldn't otherwise be sexual if we didn't subject them to propaganda. We might be comforted by the fact that there has never been a generation that hasn't looked to the media as corrupting its youth. Before there was pornography, there was MTV, and before MTV, there was rock 'n' roll, before rock 'n' roll, there was comic books, before comic books, there was dime novels, before dime novels, there was burlesque. And yet each generation of youth somehow managed to grow up and be morally upstanding enough to decry whatever they felt was happening to the next generation.
As you pointed out in your book, many childhood development experts, such as Dr. Spock, and to some extent, Penelope Leach, were very adamant in labeling sex play as a normal part of childhood. I've noticed lately that people have become more and more fraught over the issue of what constitutes childhood sex play. Some experts even say that sex play itself is a sign that a child has been sexually abused.
There doesn't seem to be any evidence that this generation of children is engaging in any more "sexual rehearsal play" than previous generations. And, as I point out in the book, sexual rehearsal play is so normative throughout the world that anthropologists call it "sexual rehearsal play." They see it as a part of children's sexual development at every age, in every culture, as far back as they've ever studied.
This generation of kids seems to have absorbed a lot of sexual conservatism, even down to their pop heroes, like Britney Spears. Teen pregnancy and teen sex rates both dropped slightly during the '90s, at the same time we're seeing the rise of so-called virginity pledges. Do you think this generation is rebelling by being less sexual than their parents' generation?
The girls who idolize Britney Spears are in the age group the marketers call "tweens." Once they actually become old enough to have sexual desire, I don't think that their idolizing Britney Spears is going to stop them from acting on those desires. In fact, it apparently doesn't even stop Britney.
The drop in teen pregnancy, I would attribute to the use of condoms, and that seems to be what the Alan Guttmacher Institute and everyone else says.
I think that if kids are abstaining, it's mostly out of fear. And it's not simply fear of AIDS and pregnancy. What a lot of kids tell me is that they have this sense, like we did in the early '60s, that any misstep could really mess them up for a long time. It's a sense of huge consequence to anything you might do sexually -- it may do damage to your reputation, or you may have an abortion that you will regret for your entire life. I do think that kids have absorbed, if not so much conservative values, the overall message of conservative teachings, which is fear about sexuality.
Most of the daughters of feminist mothers that I know are not signing abstinence pledges. The people who are signing abstinence pledges are Christian kids. The conservative message is definitely working with young people on the issue of abortion. And I think that pro-choice people have unwittingly aided that by saying that abortion is always a tragedy, that it is really terrible, and difficult to go through.
But it's all just a guess. We really need some data on what kids are doing and feeling and thinking. That would help them, in perhaps educating them better, would help us in perhaps helping to prevent the spread of HIV. But the right has succeeded in shutting down all state funding of such research.
Before the decade in which birth control and abortion on demand were widely available, sex was dangerous; you could irrevocably change your life, or even die from sex, whether from a botched abortion, or an untreated STD, or even in childbirth. And then immediately, within a generation after sexual liberation, in the '80s, with the advent of AIDS, we were returned to a situation in which sex could be lethal.
What would you say to the argument that perhaps the attitudes boomers were raised with, that sex is healthy, that sex can be purely for pleasure, that sex shouldn't be feared, is itself a historical aberration?
I think there is some truth to that, but certain of the changes that happened in the '60s and the '70s through various sexual liberation movements mostly benefited women and gays. What people like Gloria Jacobs, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English said about the sexual revolution was that it was a revolution for women. Men had always done what they wanted to do, and they continued to do what they wanted to do, and I think that is still true for boys.
We're still looking at women and girls. Some of what I consider to be advances of that time -- such as women being recognized as having desire -- have stuck. The right is doing a rear-guard effort to turn that back, but I think it's very hard.
When we look, for instance, at the rate of sexual intercourse for teenage girls, it's now about at the level where it was in 1984, which is right around half -- 54 percent or so. But also history is a little more complicated. For example, in the 1950s, America had the highest rate of teen marriages in the industrialized world.
I love the joke in your book that defines a "conservative" as a "liberal with a teenage daughter." But a lot of boomer parents that I know, while they may realize that they are perpetuating a double standard by expecting their children to practice more conservative sexual behaviors than they themselves did, justify that expectation because they still feel very strongly that sex has changed because of AIDS.
Well, sex has changed because of AIDS. But the question is: What are we going to do about that? A good example is to look at the gay, middle-class urban communities during the height of the AIDS epidemic during the '80s. Their strategy was to use a sexually open culture, a culture of enormous sexual creativity, and lots of public discussion about sex (and even public sex!) [to combat AIDS].
A sexually open community was able, through that very openness, to stem the tide of the infection. Now when we see who is getting HIV, it's people who live in communities that are often repressive about sex, certainly repressive about homosexuality, where people are outside of the institutions where they might be able to get good sexual information.
You point out in your book that a lot of the kind of sexuality education that you advocate -- emphasis on pleasure, open knowledge -- was fairly prevalent throughout the '80s. I found it strange to notice that sex ed seemed to be more informative and open during the Reagan years than it was during the '90s.
There is always a lag between political activism and results. In 1981, the American Family Life Act [which advocated abstinence -- called chastity at the time -- as the basis of sex education in public schools] was put on the docket in the House of Representatives. It was from then on that the religious right began -- in Washington and in local communities -- its very successful campaign against sexuality education. The Reagan administration gave these people a platform that they had never had before, and all of these agencies -- health, education, welfare -- were headed by people who were against sex education.
You had more influence from the religious right in Washington, and a very sophisticated and smart grassroots movement, which often consisted of a tiny minority of people in a community. But many people were complacent, in the same way that I think many people in the pro-choice movement were complacent about abortion rights, and they didn't stand up for sexuality education.
It's a hard thing for anyone in the legislature to, say, stand up for talking about masturbation in school. So you had no defense, and a very strong offense against sex ed. We began to see the results of that later in the '80s, and certainly in the '90s.
Should we even try to continue to keep open sexual education in the public schools, given the near-impossibility of reconciling everyone's politics? Why not send children to outside programs in their community, like Planned Parenthood, who aren't censored by the politics of the community and the school board?
Among mainstream sexuality educators, there has been the suggestion that maybe we should give up on the public schools. I think that's very ill-conceived. Most people will go to public school. It's hard enough for community organizations to fund anything. At least, if there is good education in the schools, every kid will get a little bit of information. But it's also very important to have other sources of information for kids that they can access by themselves -- in the library, on the Internet, etc. And you also have to take care of the vast number of kids who are not in school -- who have dropped out, or are not living at home, or whatever.
There's a big difference between the sexuality education that goes on in mainstream public schools and the education that one would get at a community organization like Planned Parenthood. It's not only because people outside of school have more freedom; it's also because the kind of people who enter those jobs tend to come from an activist, rather than a professional background. Many of them are gay or lesbian, or youth activists. They have a different attitude right from the get-go about sexuality education.
Sex education has a conservative history. It's main goal has always been to stop kids from having sex. Even progressive sex education has often had that as a goal.
In your book, it seems to come out that sex education directed at gay kids might be even better than that which is directed at straight kids, in that gay kids who look to community organizations have adults who are extremely concerned that they have the best resources available.
Yes, well, if only the gay kids weren't getting beaten up in school.
But it is true. One of the things I say in my book is that at least a gay kid comes out as having a sexuality, and thus you have to deal with them as a sexual person. I think the best sexuality education, and the best attention to the whole child and the teen, has often come from the gay and lesbian community.
You can say to straight kids, "Don't have sex until you get married," but if you tell gay kids that they can't get married, there is not much they can do. Actually, I suppose the right is still saying to them, "Don't ever have gay sex until you die." But for those mainstream educators in the middle, to deny the existence of those who might be gay in your classroom is certainly not serving every student's need.
What do you make of the great oral sex scandals of the late '90s? Suddenly every newspaper seemed to have a headline story about oral sex, or sex parties, or how kids today look at oral sex differently than their parents' generation did. I'm sure a lot of this had to do with Clinton, given that they all came out around the same time.
Do you see evidence that children's sexual behavior is shifting toward having more oral -- and some reports even say anal -- sex than previous generations? And if so, is this a response to a fear of sexual intercourse?
The little research that we have shows that kids are doing oral sex, and sometimes anal sex, more. It's still a tiny statistical minority of kids who have claimed to have anal sex, but in the case of oral sex, not only do they do it more than intercourse, and maybe more than previous generations, but to me the interesting part is that they assign a different meaning to it than their parents' generation did.
In my generation, oral sex was something you did with someone you were intimate with. For them, it's less intimate, and vaginal intercourse means more. I remember even in the '70s, in cultures that valued vaginal intercourse very highly, you would hear anecdotes about young women who had anal intercourse and believed that they were still virgins. I think those rumors were highly exaggerated. They didn't come from any real data.
As for the idea that younger and younger teens are engaging in oral sex, there doesn't seem to be any research that shows it's actually happening. It's usually presented in the context of this "one private school" where one 13-year-old girl said that this other girl had oral sex.
Sexual behaviors do change throughout history, and AIDS has had an impact on sexual behavior. It makes sense. If teens are engaging in oral sex mutually, that is, boys doing it to girls, as well as girls doing it to boys, and they were using a latex condom, then it's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. My concern is more whether people are doing things that they really want to do, and are not doing it because somebody else said they should. If teens want to have pleasure in sex, it's crucial that they have a repetoire of safe sex behavior.
Of course, girls have a much higher risk of AIDS transmission through oral sex than boys do.
Yes. At the very least, they should use a condom.
Recently, I ran across a story on the wires about a group of 9-year-old boys who were performing oral sex on one another in a public school classroom. Does that test the limits of what you would consider to be normative sex play?
Well, I don't think kids should be having sex in class. Yes, I would say that I am definitely against oral sex in the classroom.
Fair enough. I suppose the more nuanced question, which you deal with in your book, is how do you deal with that? Do you criminalize it? Do you treat them as deviant?
The word "deviant" just means different from the norm. I would say that, in general, criminalizing sexual behavior that is consensual is a bad idea. The thing that I say in my book is that it makes perfect sense to me that if a person is going to act violently in our culture, that sex might be the means with which they do it. We live in a culture in which sex is the lingua franca of just about everything -- of the market, of love, of hate, of everything.
Furthermore, it's very important for kids to learn not to push anyone to do anything they don't want to do. To me, sex is not a separate category of that: You don't hit people, you don't take their toys, you don't force them to give you a dollar, and you don't force them to touch your penis.
If we are trying to teach kids to respect each other, to get along in their community, those are values that we need to inculcate in them in every realm of their lives. I would hope that the sexual would just naturally flow from those values of how you live with, and how you treat, other people.
Some critics have called your book "not parent-friendly." How do you respond to that?
Parents understand that their job is to be able to send their kids out into the world. While they want to protect their children, they are also thrilled with their children's independence. There's no more exciting moment than when your child toddles off on his tricycle for the first time and doesn't look back. It's sad, but it's also exciting. If they feel that they can't do that in the realm of sexuality, I think that's a sad and difficult thing.
I would hope that I'm being helpful to parents, not only in sorting out the real perils from the exaggerated ones, but also in giving them some ideas of the ways in which they, and other people in their community, can help to guide their kids into a happy and safe sexuality.
I did notice that most of the parents quoted in your book sounded like pretty progressive types. There were several gay parents, feminists, academic families. Do you feel a sense of preaching to the choir in that regard?
I don't actually talk only to progressive parents. One mother I talked to, a working-class woman, was the one who was quoted as being appalled when her daughter came home from school [after a "good touch/bad touch" workshop] and said, "Don't touch my vagina, Daddy." But I think you're right that a lot of the parents I talked to were mostly progressive parents. I was using them as examples of parents who had been relaxed about sex, and their kids were OK.
But even those parents had their fears. One very progressive woman I quoted towards the beginning of the book said that she was turning into an "ironclad conservative" about her son and sex, and not about anything else. I also had a conversation with about 12 other parents from her synagogue, which was pretty conservative.
I don't want to minimize the very real dangers that young people face from sex, but I also would like to try to move the discussion of child and teen sexuality out of the realm of "problem." That, to me, is really the crux of it. Progressives do the same thing. They get a grant, for example, to deal with teen prostitutes. And they can't get a grant just to deal with teens.
You seem to advocate a position of open discussion on demand, balanced with a tolerance for children's privacy, even closed doors.
I talk a lot about respecting the sexual privacy of even very young kids. I'm not sure that barging into their room and seeing them masturbate, then sitting down and saying, "Oh honey, let's talk about masturbation," is necessarily the best thing for that kid.
One early childhood educator that I talked to said, "Children need room for sexual transgression outside of adult eyes and outside of adult commentary." I thought that was a smart thing to say. Sexuality is something that is often private. As long as kids know that if something is hurting them, they can talk to you, or to some other adult, I think we need to respect their privacy.
My mother worked at a birth control clinic, and she would leave out books. And I always felt that was intrusive too; there was nothing she could do that was right.
Does that right to privacy extend into the teen years? Should parents still respect the privacy of their children behind closed doors, even with their lovers or potential lovers?
My parents did. During the sexual revolution, I did a story talking to parents about how they felt about their kids' sexuality. A woman told me a story about her 15-year-old daughter, who said, "Mom, I want my boyfriend to sleep over at home." The mother said that she felt that if the daughter was asking for her permission, she was also in a way asking for her participation. She said it almost made her feel as if her daughter was not ready to have sex, if she needed her mom there. That sounded wise to me. Sexuality is a way of moving away from your family, it's about forming intimacies outside the family; it really is not about the family, it's about the not-family.
This woman said to me, "Would I rather she were out under a bridge having sex than on the Upper West Side in my apartment? No, I wouldn't." But by the same token, in France it's very common for a teen's boyfriend or girlfriend to sleep over. I do think that teens are much more likely not to want to do it in the house when their parents are home, just as parents don't like to do it when their kids are listening. These are issues in which a hard and fast rule is not adequate. The aim of the right is to try to simplify what are very complicated issues.
When I gave my book to my mother, I inscribed it: "Thanks for teaching me the difference between right and wrong." And I feel my mother did that. But she also left me room to explore my sexuality. And as a result, I made some mistakes, and I recovered from them. But I do think what she and my father gave me were the tools to make good decisions and to be a moral person in the world, and that stood me well.
About the writer
Amy Benfer is a writer living in San Francisco.
Viewed on July 8, 2002
"Parents today have forgotten what it was like to be teenagers themselves," I conjectured recently. A friend and I were discussing why so many people find the issue of teen sexuality so terrifying. "No," he replied, "they're afraid because they remember exactly what it was like!"
Few issues cause as much consternation as the sexual lives of young people, a fact made abundantly clear to author Judith Levine and the University of Minnesota Press upon publication of "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex."
In the furor over the book, most commentators have missed Levine's main point: "Sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors." In fact, "America's drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing. Instead, often it is harming them."
Despite what critics contend, "Harmful to Minors" is not about pedophilia. It tackles a wide range of issues including censorship, statutory rape laws, abstinence-only sex education, abortion, gender, AIDS, and child welfare. The latter issue, which raises questions beyond sexuality about how our society provides for its neediest children, is "the most important one in the book," Levine told AlterNet, and "the real reason the right is against me." But the inflammatory issue of child-adult sex continues to draw the headlines.
Why does the proposition that youth deserves sexual autonomy, pleasure, and privacy seem so radical? In the 1970s, the sexual revolution was in full swing and the idea that children and teens were sexual beings was accepted, at least among progressives. Books such as Heidi Handman and Peter Brennan's "Sex Handbook: Information and Help for Minors" and Sol Gordon's "You!" showed respect for young people and their ability to make their own sexual decisions.
For the past two decades, though, the religious right has been winning the war against comprehensive sex education, access to abortion and contraception, and the sexual autonomy of young people. By the late 1980s, Gordon had shifted his advice toward parents with "Raising a Child Conservatively in a Sexually Permissive World," and child pornography laws made it illegal to even possess a copy of "Show Me!," an award-winning sex education book for children.
What happened? Levine does not place all the blame on the right, acknowledging the role cultural feminists played in imposing a regime of overwhelming sexual protectionism.
"The right won, but the mainstream let it," she says. "Comprehensive sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the 1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory, until the right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural consensus."
Add to this the fact that the sexual liberationists of yesterday are parents today, facing all the typical parental fears. As the joke goes, a conservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter. Many people feel a pervasive sense of dread about children and sex, but as Levine notes, things are not appreciably worse now than they were in the past. Children's exposure to sexual images is hardly new, and research indicates that rates of teen sexual activity are not "galloping upward."
Between Exaggeration and Evidence
As Levine documents throughout the book with copious studies and reviews of news sources, fears of rampant pedophilia, child abduction, ritual abuse, and Internet sexual predators are at best exaggerated, at worst completely unsupported by evidence.
For example, studies commissioned by Congress show that between 50 and 150 children are kidnapped and murdered by strangers each year, yet in a Mayo Clinic survey three-quarters of parents said they are afraid their children will be abducted. And a 1994 U.S. government report analyzing over 12,000 accusations of Satanic ritual abuse found "not a single case where there was clear corroborating evidence."
Nevertheless, parents are nervous -- even squeamish -- about their children's and teens' sexuality, often seeking to deny their offspring the sexual freedoms they themselves demanded at the same age. (Physician Victor Strasburger has even penned a paean to hypocrisy entitled "Getting Your Kids to Say 'No' in the '90s When You Said 'Yes' in the '60s."
In the past two decades youthful sexual desire has become widely pathologized. As Levine notes, "It's as if (parents) cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do: They like or love the person they are having it with. It gives them a sense of beauty, worthiness, happiness, or power. And it feels good."
The War on Youth
The panic surrounding youthful sexuality can perhaps best be compared to the war on drugs: Both are based on ideology rather than science, and no amount of evidence can change the minds of true believers. Both mask underlying social agendas in which concern for children is used to control the behavior of adults. And both engender problems of credibility as young people reject exhortations to "do as I say, not as I did."
Many adults recognize that they made mistakes in their youth and understandably wish to spare children similar missteps, especially in the age of AIDS. Yet too often, Levine contends, censorship and abstinence-only sex education are really an effort to hold back children's coming of age, offering parents an illusory "freedom from watching their kids grow up."
But denying young people knowledge about sex will not help them become responsible sexual citizens. As Levine notes, children today know about IPOs and the hole in the ozone layer, just as they know about abortion and sadomasochism. Parents cannot block out all uncomfortable knowledge.
In order "to give children a fighting chance in navigating the sexual world," Levine says, "adults need to saturate it with accurate, realistic information and abundant, varied images and narratives of love and sex."
If a person truly has the good of young people in mind, one would hope he or she would be interested in what research has to reveal. "Harmful to Minors" offers a plethora of findings, from studies showing that exposure to sexually explicit images does not harm children, to evidence that teens' sexual relationships with adults are not uniformly devastating, to research on the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education in delaying sexual activity.
But more crucial than research is listening to what children and teens have to say about their own experiences, honestly acknowledging our own experiences at those ages, and applying a healthy dose of common sense. While we are constantly reminded of the importance of believing young people's allegations of coercion and abuse, too often we give considerably less credence to their avowals of consent and pleasure.
Most of us came across sexual images in our youth, and most of us did not turn out to be sexual monsters. Further, there is no evidence that cultures in which explicit sexual imagery is prevalent (such as Denmark or the Netherlands) produce more sexual pathology than those in which such material is forbidden; in fact, there are indications that quite the opposite is the case.
Sexual Relationships with Older People
In the explosive realm of adult-youth sex, many teens say that such relationships can be consensual and positive. And more than a few of us remember having such positive sexual relationships with adults when we ourselves were teens.
"Teens often seek out sex with older people, and they do so for understandable reasons: an older person makes them feel sexy and grown up, protected and special," writes Levine. "Often the sex is better than it would be with a peer who has as little skill as they do. For some teens, a romance with an older person can feel more like salvation than victimization."
Romantic heartbreak -- and plain old bad sex -– are just as likely with same-age peers as with older partners.
Within the gay community, especially, one often hears fond reminiscences of youthful sexual relationships with adults. For many gay men, a teenage relationship with an older man was their release from a homophobic family and peers and their introduction to a supportive community.
As lesbian syndicated columnist Paula Martinac recently wrote, the differences of opinion between gay men and lesbians regarding adult-youth sexuality represent an ongoing rift within the gay community. Mainstream gay and lesbian groups understandably wish to disassociate themselves from sordid accusations of pedophilia -- and correctly point out that the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by heterosexual men -- but they cannot so easily distance the community from its long history of gay icons who have spoken and written positively about adult-teen relationships.
As for abstinence-only education, young people in Western European countries where children receive comprehensive sex education and where sex is treated as a normal and healthy part of life do not experience more sex-related pathology. Quite the contrary, according to The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior published last year by the Department of Health and Human Services, other Western countries have lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, AIDS, rape, incest and child abuse than the U.S.
Levine has taken considerable heat for holding up as a "good model" the Netherlands' age of consent law, under which young people ages 12-16 can legally consent to sex with older people who are not parents or authority figures, but under which charges can be brought if teens or their parents (with the Approval of the Council for the Protection of Children) believe the young person is being exploited. But her support for the Dutch law cannot be taken out of the context of that country's social welfare system and relaxed cultural attitudes about sex.
"In the Netherlands, children are respected as citizens with rights like everyone else, to housing, health care, good day care, school, and college," Levine told AlterNet. "They get sexuality education from the get-go, condoms are available in vending machines everywhere, abortion is free from the national health service, their parents receive generous parental leave and, if they choose to stay home longer with the kids, social welfare benefits to subsidize that important work. While protecting children, the Dutch (and other Europeans) do not infantilize them."
Looking at Child Welfare
The child welfare issue has been all but neglected in the controversy surrounding "Harmful to Minors." Today in the U.S. the poverty rate stands at over 10 percent, with children making up an increasing proportion of the poor. In the only developed nation that does not provide universal health care, some 11 million children under age 18 are uninsured.
A fifth of American women get no prenatal care, and the U.S. infant mortality rate lags behind that of twenty other industrialized countries. And virtually every sex-related problem, from AIDS to incest, is correlated with poverty. It is these conditions, argues Levine -- not pedophiles or pornography -- that are truly harming young people.
"Poor people aren't less moral than rich people," Levine writes. "But poverty, like sex, is a phenomenon rooted in moral priorities, a result of deliberate fiscal and social policies that obstruct the fair distribution of health, education, and wealth in a wealthy country. The result, often, is an unfair distribution of sexual health and happiness, too."
Nevertheless, according to a 1997 Public Agenda survey, Americans persist in defining sex-related problems as moral rather than material, and thus focusing on solutions that are "character building, not situation bettering."
Levine's conclusion that "economic security is necessary for sexual safety" aims at the heart of the religious right's agenda of privatization, parental rights, and consolidation of the authority of the nuclear family over the interests of society and the needs of the younger generation. But such misplaced priorities are nothing new: In the late 19th century, as industrialization drove children into the factories, moralistic adults worried about saving them from sex.
From Levine's point of view, children are not the property of their parents and must be treated as citizens in their own right.
"Legally designating a class of people categorically unable to consent to sexual relations is not the best way to protect children, particularly when 'children' include everyone from birth to eighteen," she writes.
Indeed, Levine finds such an idea reminiscent of the now discredited dogma -- held by both social conservatives and some feminists -- that women, too, were paragons of innocence who did not experience desire, required protection, and were not truly capable of consent. And how, she wonders, has it come to pass that "it is only in the area of violent criminal activity that children (some as young as 11) are considered fully mature"?
How can we expect children and teens to learn about healthy sex and relationships if they cannot experiment and explore, with access to increasing information, freedom, and responsibility as they get older?
How can we hope that young people who have received abstinence-only sex education, been shielded from sexually explicit material in the media and on the Internet, been deprived of non-sexual touch from adults, and had no opportunity for sexual play with their peers will magically transform into worldly, responsible, sexually healthy adults upon attaining the age of majority (whatever that happens to be wherever they live)?
Experts agree that most young people engage in sex by the end of their teens. Clearly, attempts to prevent sex by withholding knowledge have been ineffectual in achieving that goal, but they have impeded efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancy, AIDS and other problems associated with sexual ignorance.
The idea that young people must never have -- or even hear much about -- sex makes it difficult to teach them about the differences between consensual and nonconsensual sex, between healthy and exploitative sex, between safe and unsafe sex.
"If sexual expertise is expected of adults, the rudiments must be taught to children," insists Levine. "If educators want to be credible about sexual responsibility, they have to be forthright about sexual joy. If parents want their kids to be happy now and later, it is their duty, and should be their delight, to help them learn to love well, which is to say respectfully of others and themselves, skillfully in body and heart, morally as lovers, friends, and citizens."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
A Harmful Message?
New Book on Child Sex Sparks Uproar
By Bryan Robinson
— Judith Levine expected her book on child sexuality to stir some controversy, but she never dreamed she would be called an evil accomplice to child molesters.
Though not yet released, Levine's book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, has already attracted angry letters, phone calls and e-mails directed at her and her publisher, University of Minnesota Press.
The book argues that efforts to protect children from sex can do more harm than good, especially when parents and educators are afraid to recognize children as sexual beings.
Sex is a part of growing up for children and teenagers, Levine argues, and not all sexual encounters with adults are necessarily traumatic for minors. This has prompted critics to accuse Levine of endorsing child molestation and sexual abuse.
"My book is not about intergenerational sex," Levine said. "I am not endorsing sex abuse of children. Quite the contrary. It was my hope that the book would allow parents and other adults to talk realistically about issues of kids and sexuality. Instead, there is an effort to suppress the book and stop that conversation."
A ‘Cover’ for Molesters?
The uproar over Levine's book arises amid the ongoing sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Last week, a reporter for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune quoted the Brooklyn-based author as saying that a sexual relationship between a boy and a priest could "conceivably, absolutely" be positive.
Levine says her quote was misconstrued and that she does not approve sex between authority figures such as parents, priests and teachers and the minors in their charge. However, she argues that teenagers should be given more credit for the choices they make when they become involved in relationships with adults.
Not all minors should be considered "victims" of coercion, especially since an older teenager would have a different take on the relationship than a younger child, Levine says. Citing previous studies, she contends that some teens could have a positive experience and not be traumatized by a sexual relationship with an older person.
"Teens often seek out sex with older people, and they do so for understandable reasons: an older person makes them feel sexy and grown up, protected and special," Levine writes. "Often the sex is better than it would be with a peer who has as little skill as they do. For some teens, a romance with an older person can feel more like salvation than victimization."
Critics of Levine have called Harmful to Minors evil and say that she is endorsing a defense child molesters have used in criminal cases.
"It's the latest academic cover for child molesters," said Robert Knight, executive director of The Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America. "Her book endorses child sexuality and says sex is good for children. This could easily be exploited by adults who have sex with children and who claim that it was done in the child's best interests, that they wanted it, and that they enjoyed it."
A Model of Consent
Levine endorses the Netherlands' approach to age-of-consent laws. In 1990, the Dutch parliament made sex between adults and children ages 12 to 16 legal as long as there was mutual consent. The child or the child's parents can bring charges if they believe the minor was coerced into sex.
Levine believes the Dutch law is a "good model" for the United States because it recognizes children as sexual beings who can determine their future while not ignoring the fact that they are weaker than adults and still need legal protection. U.S. consent laws, she says, mistakenly put all minors under one category without recognizing their ability to pursue relationships.
"Legally designating a class of people categorically unable to consent to sexual relations is not the best way to protect children, particularly when 'children' include everyone from birth to eighteen," Levine writes. "Criminal law, which must draw unambiguous lines, is not the proper place to adjudicate family conflicts over youngsters' sexuality. If such laws are to exist, however, they must do what [social psychologist Lynn M.] Phillips suggests about sexual and romantic education: balance the subjective experience and the rights of young people against the responsibility and prerogative of adults to look after their best interests, to 'know better.'"
Knight and other critics of Levine's arguments say that minors cannot make consensual decisions in sexual relationships with adults because they are never in positions of power. The adult is the authority figure because he or she is older and more experienced.
"All child sex is coerced, no matter what the child's state of mind," said Knight. "Adults are always in a state of power and authority. No child can give meaningful consent."
In her book, Levine cites a 1998 study by Bruce Rind, then an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University, where he reviewed 59 studies of college students who had sexual encounters with adults when they were children or were coerced into sexual activities with someone their own age.
The Rind study concluded that the negative effects of these encounters were "neither pervasive nor typically intense" and that men had less negative reactions than women. It suggested that positive sexual encounters be called "adult-child sex" instead of "abuse."
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution denouncing the study. Experts say the Rind study and offshoots such as Levine's book are flawed.
"Many of these studies look at a restricted population but ignore the fact that many adults abused as children never make it to college," said David Spiegel, associate chairman of psychology and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. "The claim that any sexual relationship between a child and an adult can be consensual is just not possible. Children cannot make a contract."
Spiegel also said that many cases of alleged abuse go unreported because adults may suppress the memories of the encounter or minimize its effects. In some cases, the alleged victims may not realize the damage the encounter caused.
"Rather than feel helpless, they'd rather assume some blame when it's really something they really had no control over," said Spiegel.
Hysteria Overshadows Other Messages
Levine says she regrets that the controversy over her book has overshadowed one of its other points — that abstinence-only sex education and a reluctance by parents to recognize their children's sexuality leave youths vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS and to sexual abuse.
"The hysteria surrounding my book is precisely what my book is about," Levine said. "There are some real dangers [facing children] in the world, of course. But we need to look at them realistically and separate the real ones from the exaggerated ones."
Critics agree that children should be informed, but say that parents should be allowed to do it on their own terms.
"I think parents should inform children according to age appropriateness and the emotional maturity of the child," said Knight. "Children should be shielded from sexual details until they are old enough. Let them grow up and find out what are appropriate concepts before they find out about abhorrent concepts. … We should be cleaning up our culture and not destroying the innocence of our children."
Officials at University of Minnesota Press expected to come under fire for publishing Levine's book but say they are surprised by the level of uproar. Some critics called for the firing of those at the publishing firm who decided to print Harmful to Children.
State Rep. Tim Pawlenty, majority leader of Minnesota's House of Representatives, has urged University of Minnesota Press officials to stop the release of the book. However, the officials are standing by Levine and hope people remain open to at least hearing the book's arguments.
"We've received a lot of phone calls, e-mail and mail from people expressing concern about book," said Kathryn Grimes, marketing director of University of Minnesota Press. "We just hope that if people keep an open mind and don't turn away from the idea of the book that they'll see it is a breadth of carefully researched documents and scholarly evaluation."
Savaged for Ideas
Levine is not the first to receive severe criticism because of her contrarian views on child sex abuse. Harris Mirkin, political science professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has said he received hate mail and at least one death threat for his writings on pedophilia and child pornography, in which he questioned whether sexual abuse ruins every child victim's life. Members of Missouri's House of Representatives have called for his firing.
Levine has received support from gay activist and lawyer William Dobbs, who has started a campaign to encourage people to read the book and evaluate her arguments for themselves.
"The attack on the book is such an attempt to push us back to the Middle Ages," said Dobbs. "It seems that anyone who just brings up the idea of this subject has their character savaged."
Hysteria concerning child sex issues, Levine says, sometimes has led to overreaction and false charges filed against alleged abusers. It has also suppressed the discussion of issues that can inform minors and enable them to make informed choices and protect themselves, she says. And the furor surrounding Harmful to Minors, she says, shows that this hysteria — and its potential harm to children — is very real.
"It's too bad people like to suppress the expression of ideas they don't like," she said. "I love the Constitution. I have spent many years defending it. … Telling people to de-fund a college university, to burn the book … that doesn't seem very democratic."
Others say the danger of Levine's book's message is even more real.
"It is not hysteria to assert that this book will aid and abet child molesters because it gives a pseudo-scientific rationale that can be used by a defense attorney," said Knight. "The Rind study has been cited by defense attorneys in the past. I'm sure this book will be used as well."
The perils of protecting adults from protecting children from sex.
Posted Monday, June 3, 2002, at 7:56 AM PT
Several years ago I got a taste of what Judith Levine's life is about to become now that she's written a book that has both the words "children" and "sex" in its title. Ignoring warnings from older and wiser friends, I wrote an essay for the New Republic about Chickenhawk, a documentary on the infamous North American Man-Boy Love Association. In it I argued, rather timidly, that the documentary was at least "worth seeing," as it portrayed this pedophile support group as a bunch of delusional, perverted, but basically harmless men. For weeks afterward I received bags of identical postcards saying something like, "Dear Miss Rosin, You are a danger to America's children"—part of a write-in campaign organized by Christian conservatives. The Weekly Standard ran two separate cover stories, "Pedophilia Chic" and "Pedophile Chic, Reconsidered," both featuring my piece as a prime example of a toxic new trend.
In retrospect my tone was a bit too glib for the topic, and certain of my smug little asides make me cringe, especially now that I have a child. But the essay was not nearly bad enough to warrant a whole crusade plus two cover stories. Explaining this overblown reaction is the one thing Levine does well in her book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex.
Levine is the latest in a string of critics who have debunked the child abuse hysteria of the late '80s and '90s, both from the right and, in Levine's case, the left. America, she argues in her book, has convinced itself that its children are prey to grave sexual dangers, from which they must be protected at all cost. Maintaining this delusion, she argues, has required exaggerating dangers that are in reality quite rare and also re-establishing an almost pre-Freudian definition of childhood innocence, one that excludes any hint of sexual curiosity.
You need only witness the reaction to Levine's book to know she is on to something. Conservatives accused her of providing academic cover for child molesters and picketed the University of Minnesota Press for publishing the book. "This book encourages children to have sex, and that is very, very dangerous," Bill O'Reilly said on his show. He also provided a sampling of the complaints against the book, calling it "vile," "disgusting," "insane," "perverted," "sick stuff," "outrageous," and "evil." (He also admitted on air that he hasn't read it.) As the adjectives pile on, you get the feeling the disgust has less to do with the children than the adults and their need to believe in the perfect victim, a cherub who justifies their belief in the possibility of pure innocence as well as their resignation that it is always about to be violated.
At its extremes, this is the kind of hysteria that launched the McMartin Preschool trials and the Satanic ritual abuse sham of the last couple of decades. Thankfully those episodes have largely been debunked. But their legacy lives on through a generation of well-meaning child-abuse professionals who imagine nefarious motives behind the smallest of gestures, whether a kiss, a pat on the head, or a piggyback ride. Echoing the right-wing critique, Levine documents how much has been sacrificed to the therapists' hyper-vigilance about "good touch" and "bad touch": Preschool teachers are now taught to avoid hugging children or putting them in their lap. In many day-care centers, a caretaker is not allowed to change a diaper without another staff member present. Workers at photo-developing shops are advised to call the police when they see pictures of mothers taking baths with their infant sons, and many have. Society no longer trusts any adults, even parents, to indulge in the sensual pleasure of raising a child without exploiting it.
As a journalist for Mother Jones and other magazines, Levine was part of the backlash against this collective panic, along with Dorothy Rabinowitz, who unraveled the McMartin trials for the Wall Street Journal, and historian James Kincaid, among others. Levine did groundbreaking work about the new juvenile sex-therapy programs, where children as young as 9 were essentially jailed on very little evidence and made to endlessly document their deviant fantasies. But like the leaders of most backlashes, Levine is far too invested in being contrarian to stay completely reasonable. The O'Reilly crowd has focused mostly on her pedophile chapter, and in many ways Levine is asking for it. Part of what's wrong with the chapter is just lazy grammar: "Sex with children does not a pedophile make," Levine writes, a sentence endlessly repeated in the right-wing press. By this she means there is no typical profile of a pedophile, that some have no history of previous sexual attraction to children and can be, say, married fathers who one day erupt.
Grammar aside, Levine seems far too invested in vindicating pedophiles. She makes the usual arguments that pedophiles are rare, that most are not strangers lurking in the dark but family members, that most of the child-porn images on the Web are planted there by the FBI, that there are far greater dangers facing children than molestation: abuse, neglect, car accidents. But then she takes it one step too far: Levine cites studies saying pedophilia can be "cured," that re-offense rates are only 13 percent compared to 74 percent for other crimes. But the medical consensus is that pedophilia can never be cured, only controlled through constant vigilance, like alcoholism. Plus this is an unfortunate time to be making the argument that child molesters are extremely rare, given that one seems to be popping up in nearly every diocese in America.
Levine also shrugs about kiddie porn, calling it just a matter of "a small number of people who might do nothing more harmful to minors than sit around and masturbate to pictures of ten year olds in bathing suits." I suppose if you define "harmful" as necessitating a live victim, that's technically true. But there's something disturbing about letting go of our natural revulsion to such an image, as Levine seems to have done. The anti-kiddie porn laws may have a whiff of "thought crime," but they, along with a heap of societal scorn, have succeeded so far in keeping the cache of kiddie porn minuscule. Levine also defends ephebophiles, people who are attracted not to children but to teen-agers. Statutory-rape laws encode the outdated and sexist idea that a woman's virginity must be protected for her father's sake and that she herself can never desire on her own, Levine argues. But these days teen-age girls seek out sex with adults for their own reasons, like a wish to feel protected or adventurous. Levine cites the example of 21-year-old Dylan and 13-year-old Heather, whose parents cruelly reported Dylan to the police and got a restraining order against him. Heather kept writing him lovey-dovey notes, and eventually Dylan whisked her away in his Jeep Wrangler on a cross-country ride, where they stayed in motels, watched movies, and ate Indian food. The FBI pronounced him armed and dangerous and launched a manhunt that made all the front pages.
Levine is incensed with the FBI and the media for portraying Dylan as "dark and evil" and with Heather's parents for turning him in. But I imagine that most parents would also have called 911. Dylan reportedly had a restraining order filed against him by one of the two mothers of his children, and he had once offered to pay two teen-age girls for sex. Perhaps it's misleading to call his relationship with Heather rape; maybe the legal term should be fine-tuned to predator, or just lech. But as parent of a daughter, I'm happy to have the law on my side.
Most of the book is devoted to Levine's proposed solution, and here she enters the realm of comedy. The right, she argues, has won the sex-education war, so most of what children learn in school these days is some form of abstinence. Sex is shown to be either clinical, all uterus and wiggling zygotes, or dangerous. "Aids, guilt, herpes, disappointment, syphilis, loneliness, cervical cancer" are the words she plucks from a Christian sex-ed pamphlet. What we need, she argues, is pleasure education, sex-ed classes devoted to the erotic. Here Levine is backed up by dozens of sexologists with "helpful" suggestions. Children in school should learn about orgasms, masturbation, and the "sophisticated aspects of lovemaking"; otherwise they will "stumble through mediocre sex until they stumble on some other source of erotic enlightenment."
For me, that's a risk I'm willing to take if it means my child won't have to sit in a class watching Mrs. Herschenbaum demonstrate on a cucumber. Clearly Levine missed that Monty Python episode when the teacher is doing a live demonstration of the missionary position while his bored students throw paper airplanes out the window.
Levine quotes approvingly the experience of a woman who fondly recalls the day her mother and her 6-year-old self took off their underpants and explored their clitorises together. And another case of two moms who took their daughters out to dinner to tell them how to make sex fun.
Call me a prude, but that's one dinner I hope to avoid. Children have no shortage of places to absorb the notion that sex is not all pencil drawings and herpes. My primary sources, if I remember correctly, included the racy chapter from Lady Chatterly's Lover, scenes from The Godfather and Flashdance, and one particular batty sex-ed teacher who loved to tell us what she was up to last night. I'm sure that for awhile I had many of the details wrong, but in the end I would wish the same bungling education for my children. Partly to spare myself, but also partly to avoid making the same mistake as both Levine and the hysterical right; that is, robbing my children of their own chance for discovery, and dulling the mystery around the whole thing.
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Hanna Rosin is a reporter for the Washington Post.
Are children inherently sexual beings?
Three of the four words in this question (all except "are") could inspire --
indeed, have inspired -- ten libraries-full of debate.
What's a "child"? Somebody who's two, eleven, seventeen? A seven-year-old miner in Liverpool in 1860? A 10-year-old prostitute in Bangkok in 1998? Your brother-in-law in Cleveland, who's thirty-six?
"Sex"? Is that what the fetal fingers do when they diddle the fetal penis? (Or is it, as some biologists argue, just a form of self-soothing, like thumb-sucking?) Is sex Johnny and Janey pulling down their Osh Kosh B'goshes and poking each others' anuses? (Or is that, as the child-raising columnists always put it, "curiosity"?) Is sex kissing? (Not to the Burmese.) Fellatio? (Not to the President.) Intercourse? (Not, perhaps, to a rape victim.)
Okay, "inherently": Was a girl in the eighteenth century, who was married, bedded and nursing a baby by thirteen, living out some biological -- that is, natural, genetically inherited -- instinct of desiring, copulating and reproducing when puberty struck? What about the flat-chested 1998 nine-year-old dolled up like a Spice Girl and sucking face with the boy (or girl) next door like they do on "Dawson's Creek," but who will wait until she's twenty-six and married to lose her virginity because first she was busy with basketball, then with business school, and then she converted to fundamentalist Christianity? Both girls are creatures of culture, and there's little if anything inherent in how they behave.
The answer to the question, then: yes and no, but mostly no. Yes, humans have bodies, which from birth appear to seek pleasurable touch as surely as slugs seek moisture; and yes, that pleasure-generating touch eventually finds the genitals and other culturally designated erogenous zones. But beyond that, as the sexologist Leonore Tiefer says, the only thing natural (or inherent) about humans is culture. That goes for both childhood and sex, which are historical and cultural artifacts, with myriad variations around the globe, in flux through time, and under almost continual contest.
Most of you seem to agree that child sexuality is natural and normal on its own, but becomes problematic in the context of our culture. Do late-twentieth-century images (e.g. Calvin Klein ads, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Barbie, etc.), books (most famously, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Forever and other books by Judy Blume), and films (Kids, the new Lolita, PG-rated movies with sex and nudity) involving child/adolescent sexuality promote or encourage kids to become sexually active before their time? Do they influence the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs, and the age at which kids lose their virginity today? Or, could it be argued that they promote positive sexual identities, comfort with one's own changing body, better gender/sexual relations and a freedom to ask questions?
the risk of schoolmarmishness, I repeat that I disagree that child sexuality is
"natural or normal" and "becomes problematic in the context of our culture."
Sexuality exists only in the context of culture. And part of any culture is its
representations of sex.
History gives the lie to the idea that we live in a world of unprecedented sexual speech. In 1700, a pamphlet called "Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All Its Frightful Consequences, in Both Sexes" warned, "It is impossible to prevent every thing that is capable of sullying the imagination." It read, "Dogs in the Streets and Bulls in the Fields may do mischief to Debauch's Fancy's, and it is possible that either Sex may be put in mind of Lascivious Thoughts, by their own Poultry." In the 1890s the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children fretted about the Museums of the City, whose advertisements were "like magnets to curious children" and whose entertainments featured "depravity, stabbing, shooting, and blood-shedding." And in 1934, a writer on adolescent sexuality deplored the "world of . . . lurid movies, automobiles, speed, jazz . . . literature tinged with pornography, the theatre presenting problems of perversion . . ."
Neil Postman dates the "disappearance of childhood" to the invention of the telegraph, which spurred a mass media that availed all people at all ages of all sexual secrets.
But the secret's been out longer than that.
Why are we so worried about sexual representations now? Because pictures and words have attained unprecedented cultural centrality. Our marketplace produces no products but digitized ideas. The boundary between the symbolic and the real is disappearing. Kids play baseball on Apples, not sandlots; they have cybersex before they have their first real kiss.
The media do not make kids sexual. But they offer kids ideas about sexuality. Judy Blume's romance Forever does not send the same message as Calvin Klein, nor Klein as Lolita. The problem is not sex per se, but the predominance of a narrow range of sexist, ageist, violent images of what's sexy. Yes, the media reflect reality, sadly, but only part of reality.
The answer is not less speech but more -- more varied images of feelings and bodies, more information on sexual health, more permission for kids to talk about it all.
Celine for bringing our highfalutin theory back to earth. She says
eloquently what I've heard from many other young people: We're sexual, we're
having sex, and it's not because adults are manipulating, exploiting or bad
role-modeling us into it. So get real, get used to it, and be a little helpful.
As for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mom, Dad, please -- lighten up.
Speaking of role models, while I still insist that representation matters, a lot, in how we feel about sex and self, just as it influences what we think about prisons or Toyotas, I credit Stephen for reminding us that the task of art is not to provide positive role models (ugh!) but to challenge, move, even enrage us.
So on to challenging and enraging: Naomi Wolf. My response is not quite rage -- more like irritation, since her challenge is such predictably puddle-brained liberal laziness. "I'm a free-speech feminist, but . . ." Mainly, though, Huh? We're "crossing" into some, uh, "zone of [children's] privacy and dignity"? Get specific, Naomi. Give us suspects, indictable crimes. Even Joe McCarthy (of whose tactics hers are uncannily reminiscent) required the accusers to name names.
Do you think work like that of photographers Sally Mann, Jock Sturges and/or David Hamilton is positive, innocuous or pernicious in its effect on the viewer? Do you think the photos were intended to be sexual or is this perception something our oversexed culture brings to them? (Please feel free to incorporate your reaction to Noelle Oxenhandler's essay, "Nole Me Tangere," in your answer.)
of my favorite Sally Mann photos is called The Alligator's Approach. In
it, a naked three- or four-year-old, draped loosely in a blanket, dozes on a
deck above a muddy river. Her face is lax, her mouth ajar, her pale body
languid. Onto the bank below, a small alligator crawls.
Looking more closely, one sees that the alligator is not real. It is a plastic float, its teeth and claws printed on. The mist off the river obscures its cartoonish shape, makes it look mobile, and fierce.
What is the alligator? A pedophile with the child's fragrant scent in his nostrils? A Hollywood mogul concocting the commercial sex that will invade her fantasies? Adolescence? AIDS? Sexuality itself? All, or none, of the above?
It is precisely this ambiguity, this mystery, that makes Mann's pictures so emotionally lush, and -- to me -- so sexy. For, as Jim suggests, she leaves space for viewers to fill with their own fears and desires. (I find Jock Sturges' pictures, by contrast, sanitized and null, perhaps because he selects those tall, blond, thin Californians, who, even naked, read more as advertisements for clean, dutiful American consumerism -- Ralph Lauren bed linens, Sears washing machines, the Pritikin Diet -- than as anything remotely transgressive.)
There is peril inevitable in childhood, and adults' greatest pain may be the impotence to prevent all of it. Mann's pictures evoke this feeling powerfully, as Noelle Oxenhandler's piece attests. Mann insists her pictures are not intended to be sexual. Yet she disquiets viewers by representing the shapes of their sexual (and other) anxieties, by declining to provide "correct" interpretations (if that were even possible) of the child's body and the pains and pleasures it encounters in the indifferent world, and by refusing us comforting disclaimers that the alligator is only a mass-produced bag of air masquerading as danger. We are still left with our own fantasies.
In the course of this discussion many of you have pointed out the rhetorical inadequacy of vague notions like artistic intention, media influence and child sexuality. At the same time some of you have identified general problems that presumably can be solved -- Naomi, in her valediction, noted the need to protect children's privacy; Judith Levine decried the predominance of sexist, ageist, violent images in the media; Michael Medved suggested that our popular culture seems perversely determined to rob its young of all shreds of innocence. Let's put semantics aside for this final question and enumerate the more specific modifications you would make to the way sex is presented in the public and private sectors, if you could change things as you wished, to make this country a better child-rearing environment ( . . . realizing, of course, that child-rearing is not the only purpose of our culture).
would not change the ways sex is presented so much as expand them. For instance,
ask the girls' magazines to photograph some middle-sized and heavy models,
instead of only skinny ones; get rid of abstinence-only "sex education" and
address the issues of kids' real lives, including their sexuality and their
But salient as representation is -- and easy as it is to blame for every problem -- it's not what endangers kids most in this country, or even what endangers them sexually. What harms children is not sex per se, but the lousy circumstances under which they may have sex. And the kids most vulnerable to sexual troubles are also most likely to be suffering the other miseries of modern life.
Teen motherhood does not cause poverty; many studies have shown that it's the other way around. Poverty, poor education, and a perception of an optionless future are the biggest predictors of teen pregnancy and motherhood. Children in families with annual incomes of less than $15,000 are eighteen times more likely to be sexually abused than those with incomes over $30,000; they are twenty times more likely to be killed by their parents than the children of the middle class. If we want to prevent sexual horribles, the best prophylactic might be decent jobs for kids' parents.
Class and race intersect in all ways, so it is not surprising that of the 20,000 new HIV infections a year among people under twenty-five (largely a result of negligent safe-sex education for the first ten years of the epidemic), an astonishing 63% are black. And let's not forget sexism and the homophobia that keeps gay kids in the closet, where sex is by definition furtive, which usually means unsafe too. While HIV infection rates have fallen dramatically among adult men who have sex with men, it is estimated that 20% to 30% of gay youth will be infected by their thirtieth birthday.
The lopsided economic expansion, which has lifted some ships and sunk many others, along with two decades of government decimation of tax-funded communal supports for parents and children (from welfare to housing to the public schools), makes the world a dangerous place indeed for American children at the turn of the second millennium. But the solution is not to withdraw back into the privacy of family life -- for kids don't only live in their families. Adults' child-protective responsibility lies not only in good parenting, but in supporting public institutions, such as affordable daycare and health care, widespread comprehensive sex education, and access for young people to contraception, condoms and safe abortions. As well, we need to promote values of egalitarianism, tolerance, negotiation and, yes, pleasure. Then kids can say yes to sex, and be safe too.
Again, there is danger, the mother of morality-great danger-but this time
displaced onto the individual, onto the nearest and dearest, onto the street,
onto one's own child, one's own heart, one's own innermost secret recesses of
wish and will.
-Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too.
Perhaps I should have gotten the hint five years ago, when my agent started sending around the proposal to commercial publishers. House after house declined. "Levine is an engaging writer, and her argument is strong and provocative," said one typical rejection. "But we don't see how this point of view will find the broad readership that would justify our commitment." They all closed with some version of the comradely editorial perennial "Good luck." I now hear that phrase as a snort of sarcasm.
When one of the most serious editors in commercial publishing did acquire the book, and I wrote a first draft, his comments were encouraging but sober. "It's a courageous book," he wrote me, "for which, as these chapters make abundantly and depressingly clear, the timing probably couldn't be worse." As it turned out, the timing could not have been worse, for him or for me. He was fired (not because of my book) and moved on to other enterprises, and my manuscript was passed to another senior editor. When she demurred (as the mother of a thirteen-year-old girl, she told me diplomatically, "I'm just not able to address some of the issues with enough objectivity to serve as your guide"), a new recruit at the house took the orphan in. That woman inaugurated a yearlong process by which the book would be rendered, as she put it, "more palatable to parents," who were now presumed to be the only interested readers. She asked for "comforting messages," mottled the manuscript with advisories, which begged for deletions: "This sentence will offend parents." "Many parents will find this hard to swallow." She suggested, in deference to parental anxiety, that I remove the word pleasure from the introduction.
In the end, the manuscript was not parent-friendly enough. It left that house and went to others, where it was also found commercially unviable. One editorial board called it "radioactive." The week I got that Geiger count, a full-page ad for John Gray's Children Are from Heaven ran in the New York Times. Its text seemed to promise parents that if they just read the book, their kids would become healthy, happy, obedient, and successful. The chubby cherubs floating around the margins implied that they might sprout wings, too.
To predict which books will sell, publishers try to keep their fingers on the collective pulse; they like to think their lists constitute a kind of EKG of the mainstream culture. The sensors through which this intelligence is derived are of two kinds: sales figures of similar books or the author's other books, and something less concrete-the acquiring editors' feelings, known in the trade as instinct.
Now, it is easy for writers to make excuses for rejection, and if I am doing so, well, kindly excuse me. But also allow me to offer this as explanation for what happened to Harmful to Minors: history happened. The "instinct" that moved those editors, who felt both as parents and as proxies for their imagined parent-readers, was shaped by particular cultural, economic, and political forces and events in the past and the present. The forces and feelings that almost ate Harmful to Minors are precisely what Harmful to Minors is about.
This book, at bottom, is about fear. America's fears about child sexuality are both peculiarly contemporary (I am certain I would not have had the same troubles twenty-five years ago) and forged deep in history. Harmful to Minors recounts how that fear got its claws into America in the late twentieth century and how, abetted by a sentimental, sometimes cynical, politics of child protectionism, it now dominates the ways we think and act about children's sexuality. The book investigates the policies and practices that affect children's and teens' quotidian sexual lives-censorship, psychology, sex education, family, criminal, and reproductive law, and the journalism and parenting advice that begs for "solutions" while exciting more terror, like those trick birthday candles that reignite each time you blow them out.
The architects and practitioners of all the above use the term child protection for what they do. But, as the stories of real children and families in this book show, they often accomplish the opposite. Indeed, the sexual politics of fear is harmful to minors.
If parents at the turn of the twenty-first century are fearful, there are many reasons they should be. As the economy globalizes, its newly created wealth provides only a provisional and selective security. Census Bureau data released in early 2000 revealed that the U.S. poverty rate has stuck stubbornly around 12 percent for a quarter of a century, and the income and assets of the lowest fifth of wage earners have actually fallen. Even for the boom's beneficiaries, the sense of giddy potential can turn fast to the vertigo of instability1-exactly what many began to feel when the Nasdaq index of technology stocks started sliding in the spring of 2000, and layoffs began to come down the chute shortly thereafter. The latter was a nauseating reminder of the 1980s, when not even top executives were spared as their companies merged and shuttered, and the new broom of economic "flexibility" swept out job security as an anachronistic impediment to profit making.
The ticker-tape hieroglyphs of Wall Street, once of interest only to the rich and their brokers, have come to spell out everybody's fortunes, not only because more people own stock than ever before, but also because, increasingly, the private sector is all people have to count on. While cutting the taxes of the wealthiest Americans, politicians of both parties have whittled public support for the institutions that help and unite all citizens, such as schools and universities, libraries, mass transit, day care, and hospitals; the government has even gotten out of the "business" of running its own prisons. The resulting "surpluses," President George W. Bush declared as he signed a historically huge tax cut into law, should be returned in the form of more tax cuts to "the people," or at least the richest percentile thereof.
The social correlate of economic privatization is "family values"-the idea, as cultural theorist Lauren Berlant put it, that citizenship is a matter of intimate life, reserved "only for members of families."2 Aside from disenfranchising everyone who is not a card-carrying family member (singles, gays and lesbians, runaway youths, the neglected elderly) this new declaration of the United Families of America, coupled with the demand for economic self-sufficiency, has a paradoxical effect. It leaves the vaunted Family to tread water on its own.
Beleaguered parents have only the media and the marketplace as sources of advice and help. The parenting magazines indict a hazard of the month, providing fretful mothers and fathers with a ready list of names for their vaguest fears: television radiation, chlorine, medicine droppers, iron pills, automatic garage door openers, latex balloons, trampolines, drawstring sweatshirts. The newsweeklies chime in with perils of a less concrete, more moral nature. "How Can We Keep Our Children Safe?" asked the cover of Life magazine in the mid-1990s, ringing the vulnerable face of a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl with a boldfaced wreath of horribles: "sexual abuse, abduction, television, accidents, neglect, violence, drugs, vulgarity, alienation." The article, like the pieces on chlorine and sweatshirts, offered few solutions that were not purchasable, and private.
Parenting has become an escalating trial of tougher standards for success and surer penalties for failure, personal failure. In the late 1990s, a nineteen-year-old single mother, rebuffed and delayed in her efforts to get infant care from Medicaid, diligently kept up breast feeding, unaware her milk was insufficient. The baby wasted away, and the mother was convicted of starving him to death. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, middle-class parents are scrambling to meet the requirements of molding hardier, healthier, more computer-literate, "emotionally intelligent," and, since the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, nonhomicidal children. "As Chelsea gets ready to leave for college, Bill and I can't help reviewing the last 17 years," wrote the former First Mom in Newsweek when her nest was about to empty. "We wonder if we've made the most of every minute to prepare her for the challenges of adulthood."3 That's every minute, mind you.
As the sense of social and economic precariousness has escalated in the last two decades, a panic about children's sexuality has mounted with it. The currency of anxiety in America is frequently the sexual; sex is viewed as both the sine qua non of personal fulfillment and the experience with the potential for wreaking the greatest personal and societal devastation. And popular sexual fears cluster around the most vulnerable: women and children.
The political articulation of these fears in the late twentieth century came from two disparate sources. On one side were feminists, whose movement exposed widespread rape and domestic sexual violence against women and children and initiated a new body of law that would punish the perpetrator and cease to blame the victim. From the other side, the religious Right brought to sexual politics the belief that women and children need special protection because they are "naturally" averse to sex of any kind.
As we will see in these pages, the two streams came together in uneasy, though not historically unprecedented, alliances. Feminist sexual conservatives redefined explicit erotica as violence against women; the Right, gathered in a sort of summit with those feminists at the Meese commission on pornography in 1986, seized on their theory to legitimate a wholesale crackdown on adult porn and, eventually, on an alleged proliferation of "child pornography." The satanic-abuse witch-hunts (which dovetailed the pornography scare and later became a more general panic over child abuse) also alchemized feminist and right-wing fears. Feminist worries about children's vulnerability to adult sexual desire gradually reified in a therapy industry that taught itself to uncover abuse in every female patient's past. Religious conservatives, mostly middle-class women who felt their "traditional" families threatened by the social-sexual upheavals of the time, translated that concern into the language of their own apprehension. They saw profanity-in the form of abortion, divorce, homosexuality, premarital teen sex, and sex education-everywhere encroaching on sanctity. To them, it made sense that adults, with Satan as chief gangbanger, were conspiring in "rings" to rape innocent children.
Throughout the quarter century, in a complex social chemistry of deliberate political strategy, professional opportunism, and popular suspension of disbelief, sexual discomfort heated to alarm, which boiled to widespread panic; hysteria edged out rational discourse, even in the pressrooms of established news organizations and the chambers of the highest courts. The media reported that children faced sexual dangers more terrible than anything their parents had ever known. Along with lust-crazed Satanists, there were Internet tricksters, scout-leader pornographers, predatory priests-an army of sexual malefactors peopling the news, allegedly more wily and numerous than ever before. "'Don't talk to strangers' isn't good enough anymore," read the back cover of Carol Soret Cope's 1997 advice book, Stranger Danger. "What worked when we were children just isn't sufficient in today's world." Cops were brought in to instruct kindergartners in "good touch and bad touch," teachers catechized elementary school kids on sexual harassment, colleges rushed freshmen through date-rape seminars the first week they arrived on campus. And from the first sex-ed class on, children were drilled in the rigors of abstinence, the "refusal skills" to defend themselves against their peers' pressing desires, and their own.
The story behind these stories-one that was more plausible and therefore perhaps more frightening to baby boomer parents than tales of baby-rapists in black robes-was that of more teen sex, starting earlier and becoming more sophisticated sooner, with more dire consequences. In one sense, this is true. Earlier physical maturation coupled with later marriage meant that fifteen to twenty years elapse between physical sexual readiness and official sexual legitimacy.4 It is hardly surprising that 90 percent of heterosexual Americans have intercourse before they wed, if they wed at all, and most do so before they exit the teen years. One in four of these adolescents contracts a sexually transmitted disease each year, with genital herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia leading the list.
On the other hand, the fear that children are having intercourse in middle school is largely unfounded: only two in ten girls and three in ten boys do so by the age of fifteen, with African American teens more likely to do so than Hispanics, and Hispanics more likely than European Americans.5
But looking at teens' sex lives in the 1990s and comparing them with their parents' in the 1970s and their grandparents' in the 1950s, we can see that rates of youthful activity are not galloping upward. At midcentury, 40 percent of teenagers reported having premarital sex, 25 percent of girls. During the 1970s those numbers increased substantially. But as Barbara Ehrenreich, Gloria Jacobs, and Deirdre English have pointed out, the "sexual revolution" was really a revolution for women only, who began to feel the license to behave more like men had always behaved; male sexual behavior didn't change much. By 1984, the proportion of sexually active unmarried fifteen- to nineteen-year-old women was just under half.6 Since then, increases in teen sex have been smaller, with a bit of a drop-off in the last few years. In 1990, 55 percent of girls fifteen to nineteen years old were sexually active. And by 1995, the percentage was back to 50 percent. Today it remains at 50 percent-right where it was in 1984.7 As for young teens, in the mid-1950s only three in one hundred girls had had sex before the age of fifteen; by the mid-1970s, one in ten had; today, that number is two in ten.8 Another factor: In the 1950s, plenty of teens had sex, but it wasn't considered troublesome because it wasn't premarital: in that decade, America had the highest rate of teen marriage in the Western world.9
Furthermore, no matter how many teens are counted as "sexually active," meaning they've had intercourse at least once, that activity is various and, for a substantial number of kids, scant. In one typical study of sexually active boys ages fifteen to nineteen in the 1990s, more than half admitted they'd done it fewer than ten times in the previous year, and 10 percent had not had "sex," however they defined it, at all.10 As one public-health researcher told me, "Most sexually active teens are not very sexually active."
Despite the less-than-electrifying facts, almost every major report on teen sexuality is pitched with the staples of sensationalism-the shock of what the story will reveal and the reproachful dismay that the readers don't know it already. "Everything your kids already know about sex* (*bet you're afraid to ask)," shuddered a Time magazine cover in the mid-1990s. "Dozens of interviews with middle-school kids reveal a shocking world parents would prefer not to confront," promised a Talk blurb of an account by Lucinda Frank about sex and drugs among a handful of privileged New York youngsters. The article, which managed within two paragraphs both to brood that the kids were too young to deal with the emotional complications of sex and to object to their having sex without enough emotional investment, was hyperbolically and typically headlined "The Sex Lives of Your Children."11
In almost every article or broadcast, experts are called in to catalogue the reasons that teens have sex, all of them bad: Their peers pressure them or pedophiles manipulate them; they drink or drug too much, listen to rap, or download porn; they are under too much pressure or aren't challenged enough; they are abused or abusive or feel immortal or suicidal; they're rich and spoiled or poor and demoralized, raised too strictly or too permissively; they are ignorant or oversophisticated.
Actually, these pundits are, for the most part, guessing. Demographers have run scores of sociological and biological developmental factors through their computers, thousands of times: race and ethnicity, urban or rural residency, family structure and closeness to mothers, drug taking, school performance, and immigration status, along with "outcomes" such as age and frequency of intercourse, type and frequency of contraception, abortions and live births, age difference between partners, number of partners, and, recently but still rarely, incidence of anal and oral sex. Still, the things these social scientists study cover a small corner of the territory of sexual experience. Conservative legislators have effectively shut down government-funded research on adults' sexual behavior, motives, or feelings. As for surveying minors about the same subjects, this is practically illegal.12 How do children and teens feel about sex? What do they actually do? Only a handful of researchers are asking, and few are likely to soon.13
Squeamish or ignorant about the facts, parents appear willing to accept the pundits' worst conjectures about their children's sexual motives. It's as if they cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do: They like or love the person they are having it with. It gives them a sense of beauty, worthiness, happiness, or power. And it feels good.
AIDS shadows these fears and exaggerations, and it feeds the fear mongers. It has become the symbol of all that is hidden and unknowable about sex-a fact exacerbated by public-health officials' and educators' reluctance to disseminate terror-quelling data and proven methods of containment to teens. Preventable, the disease has come to stand for the uncontrollable, which is the soul of terror. And if sex is the carrier of calamity, discussion of pleasure is unseemly, even rash.
Today, there's evidence that teens are learning to handle the dangers while enjoying the pleasures of sex (by the 1990s they were more consistent condom users than their elders),14 yet teen sex is still viewed as the most uncontrollable, the most calamitous. Commonly in the professional literature, sex among young people is referred to as a "risk factor," along with binge drinking and gun play, and the loss of virginity as the "onset" of intercourse, as if it were a disease. One of the journals that frequently reports on teen sexual behavior is called Morbidity and Mortality.
The Birth of the Child
The wish to protect a child, while not natural or inevitable,15 is almost poignantly understandable to anyone who has ever known one. "It comes down to this," said Janet Jake, a forty-six-year-old San Francisco mother, as we watched her twelve-year-old son careen down the steep sidewalk on his skateboard and fly over a jury-rigged obstacle course of crates and planks. "You don't want your babies hurt." Mostly, Janet has given her kids a lot of room (she cringed, but did not prohibit, the skateboard daredevilry). But about sex, she's found herself "turning into an ironclad conservative." Like many parents, Janet regards her sexual protectiveness as the way of all flesh.
But the idea that sex is the thing that can hurt your babies most of all is hardly the way of all flesh, not now and not in the past. Indeed, the concept that sex poses an almost existential peril to children, that it robs them of their very childhood, was born only about 150 years ago.
According to the influential French historian Philippe Ariès, European societies before the eighteenth century did not recognize what we now call childhood, defined as a long period of dependency and protection lasting into physical and social maturity. Until the mid-1700s, he wrote, not long after weaning, people "went straight into the great community of men, sharing in the work and play of their companies, old and young alike."16 At seven, a person might be sent off to become a scullery maid or a shoemaker's apprentice; by fourteen, he could be a soldier or a king, a spouse and a parent; by forty, more than likely, he'd be dead.17
Ariès's invention-of-childhood theory has undergone furious debate and significant revision since he advanced it in 1960 (he can be thanked in large part for inaugurating the rich and active discipline of childhood history). While many historians accept his basic notion that the young moved more fluidly among their elders in centuries past, that they did not enjoy the special protections now extended them, and because of high early mortality adults did not become emotionally attached to them as quickly as they do today, there is general agreement that adults and children in the past did recognize a category of person, the Child. L. A. Pollack, for instance, studied 415 primary sources from 1500 to 1600 and concluded that Ariès's argument is "indefensible. . . . Even if children were regarded differently in the past, this does not mean that they were not regarded as children."18
Concerning sexuality and its role in worldly corruption, however, children were regarded quite differently before the eighteenth century from how they are today: they were not necessarily "good," nor adults "bad," merely by virtue of the length of their tenure on earth. In Puritan America, in fact, the opposite was true. Infants were conceived and born in sin, but they were considered perfectible through religious guidance and socialization, which happened as they got older. Early colonial toys and children's furniture, wrote Karin Calvert in her marvelous history of the material culture of childhood in America, "pushed the child forward into contact with adults and the adult world. The sharing of beds with grown-ups, the use of leading strings and go-carts to place children in the midst of adult activities, and other practices all derived from a world view that saw development from the imperfect infant to the civilized adult as a natural and desirable progression."19
In the mid-eighteenth century, first in Europe, ideologies about this "progression" reversed. As the cultural critic James Kincaid has shown, the English and French philosophers of the Romantic Era conjured the Child as a radically distinct creature, endowed with purity and "innocence"-Rousseau's unspoiled nature boy, Locke's clean slate. This being, born outside history,20 was spoiled by entering it: the child's innocence was threatened by the very act of growing up in the world, which entailed partaking in adult rationality and politics. In the late nineteenth century, that innocence came to be figured as we see it today: the child was clean not just of adult political or social corruption, but ignorant specifically of sexual knowledge and desire.21 Ironically, as children's plight as workers worsened, adults sought to save them from sex.
European American ideas about the transition from prepubescence to adulthood have also undergone momentous transfiguration in recent decades. For most of recorded European history, there existed a vague period called youth, roughly consistent with what we call adolescence, but defined socially more than biologically. In colonial America as in its European home countries, young men (not women) gained economic independence gradually, in the form of inherited property, familial financial responsibility, and political rights. When their elders deemed them prepared to support a household, youth married and officially became adults.22
Sexual knowledge came gradually too, and neither the sacredness of female virginity nor the prohibition on premarital sex was universal. On the American continent during the colonial period, among slaves from West Africa "marriage sanctioned motherhood, not sexual intercourse," and a woman usually married the father of her first child, after the fact.23 In the Chesapeake Bay Colony, because women and girls were scarce, they enjoyed a certain sexual liberty, as well as suffering considerable sexual exploitation. In Maryland, women wed as young as twelve, and extramarital sex, both wanted and unwanted, was common: before 1750 one in five maidservants gave birth to a bastard child, often the issue of rape by the master. As for the Puritans, their real lives did not always evince the stiff-backed moralism with which their name has become synonymous. Premarital intercourse, though interdicted, could be redeemed by marriage, and as many as a third of New England's brides were pregnant at the altar.24
Back in Europe, as the curtains opened on the twentieth century and Queen Victoria lay on her deathbed, the idealized child met a radical challenger: Freud. His Interpretation of Dreams posited a sexual "instinct" born in the child, incubated in the oedipal passions of family life, and eventually transformed into adult desire, ambition, and creativity, or, if inadequately worked through, into neurotic suffering. A few years later, the man who brought Freud to U.S. shores for the first time defined, and added an enduringly hellish reputation to, a chapter of Freudian sexual development whose biggest hurdle had been feminine: the transfer of clitoral eroticism to the vagina. In a huge eponymous tome, child psychologist G. Stanley Hall coined the term adolescence-the state of becoming adult-and it tested all comers. Adolescence was a "long viatacum of ascent," resembling nothing more than one of the hairy scenes from an Indiana Jones movie. "Because his environment is to be far more complex, there is more danger that the youth in his upward progress . . . will backslide," he wrote. "New dangers threaten all sides. It is the most critical stage of life, because failure to mount almost always means retrogression, degeneracy, or fall."25 Greatest among those dangers was sexual desire.
Freud's theory of the sexually roiling unconscious was a critique of Enlightenment rationality, but he also endorsed a certain rationality as the road to maturity and social order. In their embrace of sexuality as part of human relations at all stages of life, Freud and Hall were renegade Victorians. But they were still Victorians. The father of psychoanalysis normalized youthful sexuality, but he tucked it out of sight during most of the troubling neither-here-nor-there years of prepubescence, in "latency."26 And Hall, even more than Freud, painted "awakened" adolescent desire as inevitably a source of trouble and pain.
All this history lives on in us: zeitgeists do not displace each other like weather systems on a computerized map. We still invest the child with Romantic innocence: witness John Gray's cherub-bedecked Children Are from Heaven. The Victorian fear of the poisonous knowledge of worldly sexuality is still with us; lately it's reemerged in the demonic power we invest in the Internet. Hall's image of teen sexuality as a normal pathology informs child psychology, pedagogy, and parenting: think of "risk behaviors" and "raging hormones."
Since Freud, the sexuality of children and adolescents is officially "natural" and "normal," yet the meanings of these terms are ever in dispute, and the expert advice dispensed in self-help books and parenting columns serves only to lubricate anxiety: Is the child engaging in sex too soon, too much? Is it sex of the wrong kind, with the wrong person, the wrong meaning? Children and teens continue to live out their diverse heritages-African slave, Chesapeake Bay colonist, errant-but-forgiven Puritan. And the modern family is vexed by its Victorian-Freudian inheritance: the self-canceling task of inducting the child into the social world of sexuality and at the same time protecting her from it.
And just as the grimy, glittery realities of young people's lives in the industrialized cities of the nineteenth century clashed with the ideology of cloistered, innocent childhood and its enforcement, events in the twentieth century have tended to pull children and their sexuality in two directions at once. Beginning with the child-protectionist reforms of the Progressive Era, law and ideology have laid stone upon stone in the official wall between childhood and adulthood. At the same time, the century's cultural, political, and economic developments have been bashing away at that wall, most violently at its weakest point, the in-between stage of adolescence. The Depression and World War II pushed teens into the workforce, out on the road, to the battlefront, and into freer sexual arrangements. In the postwar years, the automobile gave them mobility; their newly flush parents and a booming economy gave them spending money. And the mass media gave them knowledge.
By the end of the twentieth century, the traditional landmarks of adult enfranchisement had been scattered into disorder. Marriage can now follow the establishment of a household, a career, and a credit history; the birth of a child can predate all of these. Preteens enroll in college; adults return to school at midlife; young surrogate mothers gestate babies for women who want to start families after their reproductive years are past. Many grown-ups live single and childless all their lives.
As the plots of late-modern life read more like postmodernist "texts" than like nineteenth-century novels, the characters of Child and Adult become harder to distinguish from one another. While remaining utterly dependent in many ways, children worldwide share in every aspect of the work and play of the great communities of adults-labor and commerce, entertainment, crime, warfare, marriage, and sex.
Though we locate them in a separate political category, a medical and psychological speciality, a social subculture, and a market niche, children in the twenty-first century may be more like adults than they have been since the seventeenth century.
Is Sex Harmful?
The child is father to the man; the man, to the child. Our ambivalence about children and about our role in their lives is old and deep. "Christianity worships its god as a baby in a manger, but the Christian moral tradition also held, simultaneously, the inherent sinfulness of children," writes Marina Warner in her eloquent "Little Angels, Little Monsters."27
Modern efforts to protect the idealized child while squashing the sinner, all to produce a decent adult, resemble in their solicitude and their cruelty the footbinder's techniques of enhancing the beauty of the woman by stunting the graceful foot of the girl. Current youth policy and parenting advice teeter between high-anxiety child protection and high-anger child punishment. It would appear that children are fragilely innocent until the moment they step over some line, at which point they become instantly, irredeemably wicked. One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are "in the best interests" of the child and society.
What are the best interests of the child? Politician and public-health doctor, pastor and pundit disagree on the practical strategies and tactics of ensuring those interests, because Americans disagree vastly at the question's heart: what is good, in its broadest definition, not only for children but for everyone? Childhood, as we've seen, is historical and cultural, which makes it ideological too: it is, in addition to being a physical phenomenon, an idea constructed on the spine of moral beliefs. Childhood is historical, cultural, and moral, just like sex. And so the questions of child sexuality are moral questions.
What questions regarding child and teen sex have preoccupied Americans over the past two centuries? Mainly, whether and when. And what are the answers? No and later, when they are married or at least "mature." The manifest popular support for abstinence masks discord below the pollsters' radars, though: even when the answers are similar, the moral underpinnings may not be. Most adults want to save young people the pain and possible harms of sex. But some feel that the risks outstrip almost all young people's abilities to contend with them; and others just think sex is wrong unless the person is of legal majority, heterosexual, and married.
In any case, whether and when are not the questions that this book engages, except insofar as it explores the meaning of Americans' obsession with these questions and the ways in which they delimit our understanding of sexuality and children's relationship to it. Lest you consider my approach peculiar or irresponsible, I remind you that in Western Europe whether and when aren't the burning questions either. Sex education in those countries begins with the assumption that young people will carry on a number of sexual relationships during their teen years and initiate sex play short of intercourse long before that (which they do) and that sexual expression is a healthy and happy part of growing up. The goal of sex ed, which grows out of a generally more relaxed attitude toward sexuality, is to make sure that this sexual expression is healthy and happy, by teaching children and teens the values of responsibility and the techniques of safety and even of pleasure. Abstinence is not emphasized in European classrooms, if it's discussed at all.28
I don't mean to imply that if adults would just quit trying to suppress youthful sex, everything would be hunky-dory in American teens' bedrooms and automobile backseats. Homophobia and misogyny are as robust in the suburban middle-school hallway as in Jesse Helms's office or a gangsta' rap studio; dating violence is rampant.29 In part because of this youthful bigotry, anecdotal evidence indicates that many kids, especially girls, are having sex they don't want or do not enjoy. Four million teenagers are infected with sexually transmitted diseases each year,30 and half of the forty thousand new HIV infections a year are in people under twenty-five.31 And while AIDS deaths are dropping in general in the United States,32 since 1993 the disease has been the leading cause of death among people twenty-five to forty-four.33 Sex among America's youths, like sex among its adults, is too often neither gender-egalitarian, nor pleasurable, nor safe. This book will argue that current psychological, legal, and educational practices exacerbate rather than mitigate this depressing state of affairs.
Harmful to Minors says sex is not in itself harmful to minors. Rather, the real potential for harm lies in the circumstances under which some children and teens have sex, circumstances that predispose them to what the public-health people call "unwanted outcomes," such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention what I'd also consider an unwanted outcome: plain old bad sex.
Not surprisingly, these are the same conditions that set children up to suffer many other miseries. Some, such as the denial or degradation of female and gay desire, may express themselves differently in different economic classes and social locations, but they strike everywhere. Others are unequal-opportunity afflictors. More than 80 percent of teen mothers come from poor homes.34 A hugely disproportionate number of youngsters with AIDS are African Americans and Hispanics: Although these two groups make up only about a quarter of the general U.S. population, they account for 56 percent of adolescent males with the disease and 82 percent of females.35 And nearly a third of black, gay urban men in their twenties are HIV-positive.36 Even incest is correlated with poverty and the family chaos that is woven closely with it: a child whose parents bring in less than fifteen thousand dollars a year is eighteen times more likely to be sexually abused at home than one from a family with an income above thirty thousand dollars.
It is these unhappy conditions, and not the desire for physical intimacy, not child pornographers or abortions, not even the monstrous human immunodeficiency virus, that leave a young person with her defenses down, loitering in harm's way. Poor people aren't less moral than rich people. But poverty, like sex, is a phenomenon rooted in moral priorities, a result of deliberate fiscal and social policies that obstruct the fair distribution of health, education, and wealth in a wealthy country. The result, often, is an unfair distribution of sexual health and happiness, too.
Sex is a moral issue. But it is neither a different nor a greater moral issue than many other aspects of human interaction. Sex is not a separate category of life; it should not be regarded as a separate category of art, education, politics, or commerce, or of emotional harm or benefit. Child or teen sex can be moral or immoral. And so can our treatment of the children and teens who desire it and act on that desire.
Harmful to Minors launches from two negatives: sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors; and America's drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing. Instead, often it is harming them.
But the book aspires to the positive too. It is based on the premise that sex, meaning touching and talking and fantasizing for bodily pleasure, is a valuable and crucial part of growing up, from earliest childhood on. I'd even submit that the goodness of pleasure is an all-American value. Let's face it, a country that produced rock 'n' roll music and the double-fudge brownie is a pleasure-loving place. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: the founding fathers considered happiness so important, they made it a principle of Americanism. Part of that happiness is sexual happiness. Even Christian fundamentalists, who often seem intent on pooping everybody else's party, have produced a large, lively literature of sexual-or, as they call it, marital-advice.
For better or worse, American culture places a lot of value on sex-a lot. But if sexual expertise is expected of adults, the rudiments must be taught to children. If educators want to be credible about sexual responsibility, they have to be forthright about sexual joy. If parents want their kids to be happy now and later, it is their duty, and should be their delight, to help them learn to love well, which is to say respectfully of others and themselves, skillfully in body and heart, morally as lovers, friends, and citizens.
For our part, adults owe children not only protection and a schooling in safety but also the entitlement to pleasure.
I love that
Touch is good for children and other living things, and deprivation of touch is not. Baby mice who snuggle with their mothers grow fatter; lambs who are not licked fail to stand up and may soon die.1 And what Psych 101 student can forget biologist Harry Harlow's doleful infant rhesus monkey, clutching a clown-faced, towel-chested, lightbulb-hearted surrogate mother, and when forced to choose, preferring to cuddle rather than eat?2
Human infants who are not held "fail to thrive," and if they survive, they may become social misfits. In 1915, visiting children's hospitals and orphanages, the pediatrician Henry Chapin discovered that the infants under age two, though fed and bathed adequately, were perishing from marasmus, or "wasting away." It took several decades to identify the other minimum daily requirement: touch. Because this was a presumed distaff function, women were dispatched to the institutions to perform the task of "mothering" (holding the infants) and death rates plummeted.3 Since then, lack of touch in childhood has been implicated in pathologies from ecsema to anorexia.4
Loving touch seems to promote not only individual health but social harmony as well. Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at Miami University's medical school, compared children on the playgrounds in Florida with those in Paris and found that adult touch from parents, teachers, and babysitters was correlated with peaceful and cooperative play among the children.5 The neuropsychologist James W. Prescott made even grander claims. Analyzing information on four hundred preindustrial societies, he concluded that a peaceful society starts with touch. "Those societies which give their infants the greatest amount of physical affection were characterized by low theft, low infant physical pain . . . and negligible or absent killing, mutilation, or torturing of the enemy," whereas those with the lowest amounts of physical affection were characterized by high incidences of the above. Prescott claimed, rather sweepingly, that his findings "directly confirm that the deprivation of body pleasure during infancy is significantly linked to a high rate of crime and violence." This link is biological, he implied: low touch programs the body to a short fuse and a quick punch.6
Anthropologists concur that America is an exceedingly "low-touch," high-violence culture.7 But America's diversity, mobility, and high immigration probably belie any biological relationship between the first characteristic and the second. A more likely interpretation of these facts and Prescott's other findings is social. A culture that lavishes gentle attention on its young also may encourage tolerance of the vulnerable and discourage physical power-mongering. People brought up to be aggressive and suspicious of intrusions against their own body's "boundaries," on the other hand, will be more self-protective and territorial and thus more belligerent, both socially and sexually.
Sociobiology, in particular the kind that compares humans with other beasts, is of even more limited utility when explaining children's sexual development. Harlow's monkeys might have been like us when it came to clinging to Mama, but they also masturbated in public and would have as soon copulated with a partner half their age as with a peer. Behave that way in America and you could get sent to your room without supper, or to jail.
In other words, human touch acquires meaning in a culture, and primary among those meanings is whether or not a given touch, response, or even body part is sexual. Before a Western child has been "civilized," the penis, clitoris, vagina, or anus may be sources of pleasant feelings, like the knees or back, or interesting orifices into which to poke things, like the mouth or ears-not secret or thrilling "sexual" parts. Even claimed evidence of the biological "naturalness" of child sexuality is surreptitiously meaning-laden. Psychologists and sex educators are fond of pulling out ultrasound photos of erect fetal penises to demonstrate that children are sexual before birth. But what they call a prenatal "erection," thus lending it sexual connotation, may be nothing more than a nervous response to the warm amniotic waves inside the uterus. Alfred Kinsey named a certain combination of infantile bucking, straining, and relaxation "orgasm,"8 but he could just as easily have observed a baby's face scrunching in consternation and its body tensing in exertion, then resolving into beatific calm while he discerned a distinct odor emanating from the diaper.
Recent fierce contests over sexuality can be read as disputes over the meanings of touch-more precisely, over whether certain touches between certain people are sexual and, if they are sexual, whether they are "inappropriate" and therefore "harmful." Will intergenerational bathing or nude swimming, or sleeping in a "family bed" when a child is small, harmfully stimulate a child sexually? The scant available data on these practices generally say no: in fact, such relaxed family touch and sight are usually found to be benign or even propitious to later sexual adjustment.9 Yet, in these conservative times, many popular advice columnists counsel parents against them, just in case.
The twin concepts
of innocence and ignorance are vehicles for adult double standards.
A child is ignorant if she doesn't know what adults want her to know,
but innocent if she doesn't know what adults don't want her to know.
--Jenny Kitzinger, "Children, Power, and the Struggle against Sexual Abuse"
At the turn of the twenty-first century, America is being inundated by censorship in the name of protecting "children" from "sex," both terms capaciously defined. In the 1990s among the most frequent targets were Judy Blume's young-adult novel Deenie, in which a teenage girl likes to touch her "special place," and Maurice Sendak's classic In the Night Kitchen, because its main character, a boy of about five named Max, tumbles through his dream with his genitals bare. The student editor of the University of Southern Louisiana yearbook was dismissed because she published a picture of a young woman feeding spaghetti to a young man. Both were shirtless. The New York State Liquor Authority denied a license to Bad Frog Beer. According to the authority, the label--a cartoon frog with his middle finger raised and the legend "An Amphibian with Attitude"--was "harmful to minors." Paul Zaloom, the star of the children's television science program Dr. Beekman's Universe, was forbidden by his producers to answer his viewers' most-asked question: What is a fart? Even sex educators are not allowed to speak about sex. In 1996, when author Robie Harris went on the radio in Oklahoma to promote her children's book It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, the host requested that she not mention the S-word. Harris was obliged to refer to sex as "the birds and the bees."
The cultural historian Michel Foucault said that sex is policed not by silence but by endless speech, by the "deployment" of more and more "discourses" of social regulation--psychology, medicine, pedagogy. But our era, while producing plenty of regulatory chatter from on high, has also seen an explosion of unofficial, anarchic, and much more exciting discourses down below. When the sexual revolution collided with the boom in media technologies, media sex mushroomed. We started collecting statistics to prove it: 6.6 sexual incidents per hour on top-rated soap operas (half that number ten years before); fourteen thousand sexual references and innuendos on television annually (compared with almost none when Ozzie and Harriet slept in twin beds); movies most popular with teenagers "contain[ing] as many as fifteen instances of sexual intercourse in less than two hours" (Gone with the Wind had one, off-screen).
Sexual imagery proliferated like dirty laundry: the minute you washed it and put it away, there was more. In Times Square, whose streets were transformed into a Disney-Warner "family-friendly" mall, the neon signs from shut-down peep shows were put on exhibit in a sort of museum of the smutty past at the back of the tourist information office. Meanwhile, looming over the heads of camera-toting tour groups from Iowa, half-block-long billboards advertised Calvin Klein underwear, inside of whose painted shadows lurked penises as large as redwood logs.
As the ability to segregate audiences by age, sex, class, or geography shrinks, we have arrived at a global capitalist economy that, despite all our tsk-tsking, finds sex exceedingly marketable and in which children and teens serve as both sexual commodities (JonBenét Ramsey, Thai child prostitutes) and consumers of sexual commodities (Barbie dolls, Britney Spears). All this inspires a campaign with wide political support to return to reticence, especially when the kids are around.
History refutes the notion that we live today in a world of sexual speech but did not, say, three centuries ago. A child could witness plenty of dirty song-singing and breast-and buttock-grabbing in any sixteenth-century public house. Yet there is reason for concern about the world of unfiltered, unfettered sexual knowledge that is particular to the past several decades: pictures and words have attained unprecedented cultural influence in our time. Our marketplace produces few actual widgets; we make almost nothing but digitized ideas and the media to distribute them. As the economy moves from the Steel Belt to Silicon Valley, the boundary between the symbolic and the real is disappearing. Representation is no longer just a facsimile of a thing: it is the thing itself.
Nobody lives more in the "hypermediated" environment than the young. The critic Ronald Jones, writing about two young artists in the 1990s, distinguished them from the now-middle-aged postmodernists of the 1980s, who stressed that "the way the media represented the world was a constructed fabrication." Younger artists, the critic said, work from an assumption of "inauthenticity as a normal course of life." At the end of the twentieth century, a quarter of kids had their own televisions by the time they were five years old. It was no use telling them to go outside and get a "real" life. Why play sandlot baseball when you can pitch to Sammy Sosa from a virtual mound? Even technologized sexual speech no longer just stands for sex; it is sex. Sherry Turkle, a social analyst of computer communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the on-screen erotic exchanges that Netizens call "tinysex": "A 13-year-old informs me that she prefers to do her sexual experimentation online. Her partners are usually the boys in her class at school. In person, she says, it is 'mostly grope-y.' Online, 'they need to talk more.'"
Where do you learn about sex? a television interviewer asked a fifteen-year-old from a small rural town. "We have 882 channels," the girl replied.
How can protection be harmful to minors?
Protecting children is one of our chief duties as adults, whether we are
parents, professionals, or friends. But we also have to ask: What are we
protecting them from? My book says that sexuality is a fact of life, and a
potentially wonderful part of growing up for children at all stages of their
lives. It's not sex itself that is harmful to children, but the conditions under
which they might express themselves sexually that can leave them vulnerable to
harms like HIV, unwanted pregnancy, or sexual violence.
In our country, there are people pushing a conservative religious agenda that would deny minors all sexual information and sexual expression. They're the people behind abstinence-only education, the child-pornography laws that get people arrested for taking pictures of their babies in the bathtub, or laws that make abortion risky and traumatic for young women. These so-called protections are more harmful to minors than sex itself.
But most people don't have an agenda. They're just nervous thinking about children as sexual beings and they're worried that something bad might happen to a kid they love. I'm not saying we should stop caring. But let's care realistically. Do we really want to strip sexuality out of young people's lives?
Are you saying there are no real sexual dangers to children? What about pedophiles on the Internet? What about AIDS?
One of the main points of Harmful to Minors is to separate the real
risks from those that are exaggerated or even invented. So let's look at these
Pedophiles on the Internet: In spite of sensationalist press coverage, there is little evidence that the Net is crawling with child molesters. Yes, kids do from time to time encounter unwanted sexual chat online (though you never know if the sender is 15 or 55). The question is, is this dangerous? A recent study published in the New York Times showed that kids can deal with these messages. Most just don't respond, and the vast majority say they don't find them troubling or scary. It's like the flasher you might have encountered in the park when you were a kid. Those guys were usually pitiful. But when they were scary, you got out of there fast. In other words, you figured out the risk and dealt with it. Chances are, you didn't get put in therapy, or on the witness stand -- if you even told anyone about it.
Should men flash little girls in the park or send dirty messages to kids' chat rooms? No, of course they shouldn't. Should people be punished for molesting children? Absolutely. Anyone who forces sex on any person of any age should be punished. But we have moved beyond appropriate responses to serious offenses to hyperbolic responses to offenses with unproven harms, such as the assumed harm to a child of involuntarily glimpsing a penis, or reading sexy language online.
How do we know what's harmful to kids? I think a good start would be to ask them what their experiences feel like, instead of always assuming we know. There's almost no research that asks kids what they do, what they feel, or what they think. We must help kids when they're hurt sexually. But it does a child no good to be told she's been terribly victimized when she may have undergone a merely unpleasant experience.
What about AIDS?
AIDS is a grave danger to youth. New HIV infections are rising among
teens, and AIDS is the leading cause of death in people from 25 to 44. These
infections and deaths are highest among poor people of color, especially women
and gay men. Almost a third of gay black men in their 20s are HIV-positive.
But sex does not cause AIDS. Certain behaviors, such as unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse with an infected person, do. I heard Deb Roffman, the sex educator, say that the expression "sexually transmitted disease" is like calling TB a "breathing-transmitted disease." We don't blame breathing for "causing" tuberculosis.
Our current policies aren't helping young people protect themselves from AIDS. Just the opposite. For instance, the federal government is now funding -- to the tune of nearly a billion dollars -- abstinence-only education in public schools, which specifically denies students all information about contraception or condoms, except to say they can break. Teachers in abstinence-only classes must tell students that the only safe, acceptable form of sexual expression is between married heterosexuals. Where does this leave sexually active teens, especially gay or lesbian teens? Certainly not safer.
Your book says that kids need more sexual information, not less. Won't that encourage them to have sex?
All the research shows that sexuality education does not encourage kids to
have sex earlier. Nor does knowing about sexual feelings or behavior. In fact,
kids who learn about contraception use it when they do start having intercourse,
whereas kids who get the classes without that information also have intercourse
-- but they don't protect themselves when they do. And kids who understand more
about themselves sexually are better at making the right decisions for
The fact is, most kids will say yes to sexuality at some point during their childhood or teenage years. Our choice as adults is whether or not we will help make those experiences safe, consensual, and happy.
I'm a parent. How should I teach my kids about sex?
It is common to hear from professionals that parents are the primary sex
educators. In a general way this is true: children learn a lot about sexual
relations at home, even if their parents never talk about sex. They see if their
parents are respectful and affectionate to each other, whether they're relaxed
or uptight about sexy language, jokes, or TV shows. Children are touched
lovingly (or not) by their parents. And kids may be the victims or witnesses of
sexual violence at home. That's education, to be sure.
Concrete information about sexuality is a different story. Most parents say they'd like to be their kids' main source of such knowledge, but only a few manage to provide it. In poll after poll, moms and dads admit to being tongue-tied when it comes to actually talking the talk. As for kids, they tell pollsters they wish their parents would talk with them more about sex. But when their parents do it, the kids admit to turning off because they feel their parents are prying or preaching, or just don't get it.
Maybe we should stop blaming ourselves for doing it wrong and accept that moms and dads aren't necessarily the optimal sex educators of their own children. I think this has to do with the incest taboo. You don't tell your kids about your sex life -- that would be kind of icky. And once they've got anything like a sex life, your kids probably don't want to tell you about it either. This built-in reticence is the reason school-based sex ed was invented in the first place! Parents shouldn't give up on trying to talk plainly about sex. But they can also support their children's sex education by standing up for comprehensive programs at school, uncensored public libraries and computers, and by encouraging them to form close relationships with trustworthy adults other than their mothers and fathers.
Speaking of parenting, you have no children. What got you interested in this subject -- and what right do you have to talk about it?
I've been reading and writing and doing political activism around sexuality
for 25 years. I saw how bigoted attitudes about women's sexuality had hurt women
and girls --for centuries. Remember, women were once considered "innocent,"
which meant we were supposed to not want or enjoy sex. Finally, women stood up
and said, "We're sexual! And thank you very much, we'll look after ourselves."
Children were the last "innocents" to protect.
As I said, we do have to protect children from real dangers. But that doesn't mean protecting some fantasy of their sexual "innocence."
I have a niece and nephew and many friends who are children and teens. I've taught freshmen in college. Maybe because I'm not a parent, kids sometimes feel more comfortable talking to me. Besides, as a famous (and childless) children's-book editor once said, "I was a child myself. And I haven't forgotten a thing."
Parents are doing the toughest job in the world. It's understandable that they are scared, and that they feel that no amount of protection is too much. These feelings must be respected -- they're at the heart of some of our best instincts about children. But we also should respect children and teens, which means giving them some privacy and some room. If we let them, I think kids can be emotionally smarter and more responsible than we usually give them credit for.
You say we should give kids a chance to be responsible. What about being moral?
That's a crucial question. Humans are not like other animals. We don't just
have bodies, we have minds and feelings and cultures and laws. For us, sex
always has a moral component.
That said, I think the teaching of "sexual morality" is a redundancy. We may want kids to protect themselves yet accommodate others, feel pride in their individuality yet tolerate difference, we may hope they can balance spontaneity and caution, freedom and responsibility. These skills require learning respect, cooperation, and caring -- moral values that apply to all realms of their private and public lives, not just sexuality. Sexual morality doesn't boil down to "Just Say No" or "Just Do It." It means learning how to make decisions in complex and sometimes ambiguous situations -- like life.
But let's be honest about the moral value of pleasure, too. Sure, Americans can be prim about pleasure. But the Puritans weren't our only ancestors. Happiness is such an all-American value, it's in the Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And though I don't believe Thomas Jefferson mentioned this, part of happiness is sexual happiness.
Are you saying to kids, "Just Say Yes?"
Simply standing up and cheering for pleasure isn't enough. For adults to be moral about children means creating the conditions, in families and as a nation, that allow every child to thrive. The same conditions that prevent thriving in other ways also contribute to a failure to thrive sexually.
For instance, poverty. Eighty percent of teen moms come from poor families. Poverty is even a major correlate of sexual abuse. Not that middle-class kids never get abused, or that poor people are sexually craven. But poor families suffer more stress, they're less educated, and have less stable living situations. All that leaves children vulnerable, sexually and otherwise.
Sexism is another social condition that affects what sex is like for girls and boys. Deborah Tolman at Wellesley has found that girls who are most concerned about acting feminine are least likely to use contraception or withstand unwanted sexual pressure, while those who own their sexual desires and who don't care about being "girly" seize more control over their sexual lives. Boys, meanwhile, are taught that masculinity means always being ready for sex and never getting too emotionally involved. That might give boys more chance to express their sexuality, but it also deprives them of experiencing it more deeply. Sexual equality would let girls and boys say no -- or yes -- when they really want to and are ready to, and discover what sexuality means to them.
Harmful to Minors will make a much needed and significant intervention into discussions of children's sexuality, adult fears and irrationality about the same, and about the moral, political, and public health risks of failing to come to grips with this culture's anxiety and ignorance about children's erotic desires and needs. This work is extraordinarily informed and wittily incisive—in addition to academics and professionals, our hope is that this book will engage adult and perhaps teen readers, and be reassuring to parents.
Part I: Harmful Protection. The first half of Harmful to Minors casts contemporary dramas over child sexuality within a richly textured history and cultural landscape. Levine addresses head-on the various confused, heartfelt, hysterical stories our culture generates about kids, sex, and danger. She balances these representations with straightforward and widely-accepted research and scientific findings from public health, criminology, and child psychology.
Chapter 1: Censorship: The Sexual Media and the Ambivalence of Knowing
Levine begins this chapter with a history of censorship in the US of material with sexual content-censorship that is rooted in a belief that "seeing" is "doing" when you are talking about children and sex. Levine argues that censorship is not protection. Giving children a chance to navigate the sexual world is important and it is therefore crucial that adults provide children with accurate and realistic information about sex (in its many forms), their sexuality, and love.
Chapter 2: Manhunt: The Pedophile Panic
Without denying that children are abused and victimized in this country, Chapter 2 of Harmful to Minors explores the fact and fiction of pedophilia and "sexual predators." Despite masses of information to the contrary, why do Americans insist on believing that pedophiles are a major peril? Data from law enforcement and social services show that the majority of missing children are runaways or "throwaways," or are abducted and harmed by their own family members. The danger, so to speak, is us and only rarely a roaming, violent child snatcher. But crime legislation is a function of politics and focuses public discourse on such demons. Levine argues that this emphasis on "predators" and suspicion of strangers fractures the community of adults and children; it can leave children defenseless in abusive homes. Projecting sexual menace onto a monster and pouring money and energy into vanquishing him distracts adults from teaching children the subtle skills of loving with both trust and discrimination.
Chapter 3: Therapy: "Children who Molest" and the Tyranny of the Normal
In recent years, Levine argues, children themselves have been constructed as the sexual predator and threat. The child-protective system has come to believe that "sex-offense-specific" therapy is necessary for minors with a "children with sexual behavior problem." These developments demonstrate how children's natural and normal sexual behavior and curiosity have been pathologized. "Normal" has drifted in a conservative direction over the past 25 years; it is a fickle and disputed virtue. Adults, educators, and legislators preach about "normal" in a vacuum of data about what children actually do sexually. To criminalize touching and curiosity pushes children into further believing that sex is bad and talking about or being interested in innate sexual and erotic feelings is wrong.
Chapter 4: Crimes of Passion: Statutory Rape and the Denial of Female Desire
Levine begins this chapter by recounting the case of Jessica Woehl and Kier Fiore who in 1997 met over the Internet and ran off together. This case demonstrates the complexity of consensual relationships among young people and the need to attend to sexuality differently. What is a "child?" Anyone from age 6 to 18 can be defined as such and within this age group individuals mature at different rates and in different ways. The Woehl/Fiore case is tragic in many ways and should lead us to consider "adulthood," "childhood," and sexual maturity in various and nuanced modes.
Chapter 5: No-sex Education: From "Chastity" to "Abstinence"
The idea that sex is a normal and positive part of child and adolescent life is unutterable in the American public forum. Chastity and abstinence education is evidence of this-it's also impractical, useless, negative, and ideological. Sex education in this country abandons children (teens in particular) to learn about their sexuality on their own by trial and error. Rather than treat intimate sexual relationships as a positive component of healthy maturation, "just say no" leaves children without important information and at risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and unsafe and illegal abortion procedures.
Chapter 6: Compulsory Motherhood: The End of Abortion
Levine continues to discuss themes of sex education and family planning from the previous chapter by focusing on abortion. The anti-choice movement has achieved a monumental triumph in the decades since Roe v. Wade; it has wrought a near-total public silence on the subject of abortion in the discourse of teen sex. Levine argues that without abortion, the narrative of teenage desire is strangely and artificially unmoored from modern social reality. Instead of sound policy, the anti-abortion movement has written sex as the ruination of mother, child, and society. Gone is the premeditation in sex, gone too the role of technology, of safe contraception or planned parenthood-and girls are caught in the middle.
Chapter 7: The Expurgation of Pleasure
Pleasure, sexual satisfaction, and gratification are all concepts central to human sexuality. But all of these concepts are missing from most adult thinking about adolescent sex, particularly female desire. Of course, sex ed is not and should not be erotic training. But sex is much more than sexual intercourse. Current sex ed, focusing as it does on intercourse as "the sex act," does not provide young adults with a sense of the full range of human sexual expression.
Part II: Sense and Sexuality. The second part of Harmful to Minors moves on to ask how we can be both realistic and idealistic about sex. In these final chapters, Levine suggests some ways of rethinking our approach to kids' sexuality and offers examples of sensible practice by educators, parents, friends of youth that is based on a simple belief that erotic pleasure is a gift, and can be a positive joy to people at every age.
Chapter 8: The Facts...and Truthful Fictions
In this chapter, Levine gives examples of positive sex education resources for children and adolescents. Internet sites such as Go Ask Alice (sponsored by Columbia University), the Coalition for Positive Sexuality, SAFETeen, and gURL provide children and adolescents with positive, straightforward and confidential information and answers to their questions. Levine also cites positive examples of books, magazines and television shows.
Chapter 9: What is Wanting: Gender, Equality, and Desire
In this chapter, Levine focuses on gender stereotypes and the need for independent education for girls and boys. This chapter is divided into two sections: What girls can Learn? and What boys can Learn? Each part discusses particular types of education and information that are most effective and important for each gender. For instance, Levine suggests girls need to know that desire is normal for them-it is not just boys who lust. And a girl can be both a sexual "object" and a subject. And, love and lust are not the same thing. Boys can be focused on similar lessons: boys are more than just hormone-pumping bodies; not-knowing isn't unmanly; and boys can be both objects and subjects of sex as well.
Chapter 10: Good Touch: A Sensual Education
Levine discusses here the hysteria of the 1980's and 90's over touching. Touch is good for children and other living things. Loving touch seems to promote not only individual health, but social harmony as well. Research shows that America is a an exceedingly "low-touch," high-violence culture. Children and adults are taught that sexual touching such as masturbation and play between children, is wrong. However, "outercourse," or the collection of sensual and sexual acts that don't involve sexual intercourse, are important, safe, and healthy in sexual maturation. Levine discusses the various ways that touch can and should be encouraged.
Chapter 11: Community: Risk, Identity, and Love in the Age of AIDS
"Equating 'no sex' and safe sex suggests that no sex is safe." Just when mass public education about transmission, condoms, and nonpenetrative forms of sex was crucial, AIDS became the rationale for not talking about sex. Successful prevention must be based on two principles: it must recognize the urgency of the problem of HIV and the exigencies of the people it is targeting; and it must respect their social norms-their identities, values, and desires. Levine draws lessons from groups in the Twin Cities regarding AIDS education, sex and safe sex education.
Levine paints with broader strokes in her epilogue to Harmful to Minors. She writes that the US is not a child-friendly place, despite rhetoric to the contrary. The US lags far behind other industrialized nations in many indicators of child well-being: over 11 million children under the age of 18 have no health insurance, a fifth of American mothers get no prenatal care, the US ranks 18th in infant mortality among industrialized nations, and the percentage of children who die before the age of five is the same as it is in Cuba. Poverty is the single greatest risk factor for most every destructive condition a child might be at risk for: unwanted pregnancy, AIDS, sexual abuse, too-early motherhood. Levine does not argue that we should worry about inadequate nutrition and substandard housing instead of worrying about how to teach children about healthy sex. Rather she argues that these things are connected: the way we conduct our sexual lives and teach our children to conduct theirs are connected in profound ways-they have to do with the same basic values. Sex is a moral issue, but it is no more moral or different a moral issue than any other aspect of human interaction. The teaching of "sexual values" is a redundancy. If we want children to protect themselves yet accommodate others, feel pride in their individuality yet tolerate difference, if we want them to balance spontaneity and caution, freedom and responsibility, these are the capacities and values that apply to all realms of their private and public lives, with sexuality no greater or lesser a realm.