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.