Underage and Under Siege

Kids' Sexuality Finds a Champion—and Conservatives Attack

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.

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