Dr. Joycelyn M. Elders
In Amerlca we are in the midst of a sexual crisis. We lead the Western world in virtually every sexual problem: teenage pregnancy, abortion, rape, incest, child abuse, sexually transmitted disease, HIV/AIDS, and many more. [*1] Yet when the Surgeon General issues a call to action on sexual health urging comprehensive sex education, abstinence, and other measures to promote responsible sexual behavior, and advocates that we break our "conspiracy of silence about sexuality," we want to fire the Surgeon General.
diseases, ranging from the serious to the fatal, are a fact of life in high
schools and neighborhoods across the country. Misinformation and scare tactics
about common sexual practices like masturbation are rampant. Despite these
facts, and despite parents' overwhelming desire for their children to
receive detailed sex education at school as well as at home, [*2]
remains unwilling to make sexuality part of a comprehensive health education
program in the schools and anxious to the point of hysteria about young people
and sex. Our public health policy concerning sexuality education appears to
be ideologically motivated rather than empirically driven. Yet no matter how
widespread, politically viable, or popular a program may be, efficacy in
preventing and modifying behavior associated with this sexual crisis must
remain the primary criterion by which programs are changed. [*3]
Ironically, for someone who
has come to be closely associated with forthrightness about sexuality, I was
raised in an environment in which sex was never discussed. During my life I
from complete, community-imposed silence about sex to dealing professionally almost every day with some of the toughest issues about sexuality. I know firsthand what it was like to be ignorant, and I also know how vital it is to be informed. I have talked with parents who have just learned that their newborn baby was born with sexually ambiguous genitals and with parents whose child isn't advancing toward puberty.
have spent large parts of my professional life trying to educate people and
develop social policies to address problems that are eating away at the very
fabric of our society -- teenage pregnancy and its frequent result, inescapable
poverty, ignorance and enslavement, HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted
diseases. The day-in, day-out nature of this work leads me to be impatient with
people who object to Surgeons General, teachers, parents, and others advocating
the use of condoms, for instance. As Ira Reiss states so eloquently in his book Solving
America's Sexual Crisis, "the vows of abstinence break far more easily
than do latex condoms." [*4]
Hysteria about sex has hindered attempts to address these pressing concerns, and
the people hurt most are those who most need the information -- our young
people, the poor, and the uninformed. Ignorance is not bliss.
All of this makes Harmful to Minors such a vitally important book, one that brings an essential new perspective to this crucial set of issues. Drawing together stories in the media (as well as those that are less known), interviews with young people and their parents, and astute analysis, Judith Levine passionately argues for honesty and forthrightness in talking to children about sex.
She lays bare the conservative political agenda that underlies many supposed "child protection" efforts. Perhaps what is most valuable about this book is the way it outlines the dominant, and often hidden, fact of discussions about sexuality in this country: the influence of the religious right (or what I have been known to call the "very religious non-Christian right").
have spoken and written many times about my disgust with people who have a love
affair with the fetus but won't take care of children once they are born. Harmful
to Minors not only makes explicit the crucial importance of frank and
accurate information about sexuality being widely available to people of all
ages, it lays out a sensible, positive, and possible program to do so.
sex as dangerous is dangerous in itself. We need to be matter-of-fact about what
is, after all, a fact of life. Judith Levine
argues convincingly that
there is an intimate connection between the values we display in our sexual
lives and the values we display as a society. She is right -- sex is a
moral issue, but not in the way the Christian right claims. Children must be
taught sexual ethics and responsibility, inside and outside the home, just as
they are taught how to behave in any number of public and private arenas.
Teaching children to have self-respect, to feel good about themselves, to
make good decisions: to me, that is sexuality education.
Most of the research for
this book, including interviews, was conducted between 1996 and early 2000,
and pertinent statistics were updated in 2001. The names of all
nonprofessionals have been fictionalized, along with some identifying
Among the most
pleasurable tasks of writing a book is thanking the
people who helped you. Of course, that includes everyone who has fed you a
meal, suggested an idea, or cheered you up when the going got rough, during
all the years you worked on the project. Because this book's going was
frequently rough and the years were many, I was the recipient of many meals
and many ideas-and an inordinate amount of much-needed cheering. So I begin by
asking forgiveness from those I have not named; and to those I have, I extend the usual disclaimer: you are held harmless in any breach,
violation, or stupidity herein committed.
Thanks to my writers' group
-- AlIan Berube, Jeffrey Escoffier, Amber Hollibaugh,Jonathan Ned Katz, and Carole Vance --
for their monthly infusions of loyalty, wisdom, and pasta. Members of the group, as well as
Bill Finnegan, James Kincaid, Harry Maurer, Vanalyne Green, Peggy Brick, Leonore Tiefer, and Sharon Lamb
read all or part of the manuscript (sometimes more than once!) and commented with acuity and generosity.
At Mother Jones, Sarah
Pollock provided excellent and endlessly patient editorial guidance to what is now chapter 3,
and Jeanne Brokaw saved my skin with her meticulous fact-checking. Steve
Fraser first acquired this book when others shied away and gave it learned and
encouraging editorial guidance before he left commercial publishing. The
industry is much diminished by the loss of his erudition, seriousness, and
courage. I feel fortunate to have ended up with Carrie Mullen at the
University of Minnesota Press, who has proven her commitment to unpopular
and her enthusiasm for scholarship without disciplinary borders. Great thanks
too to the press's outside readers, who put their fingers directly on the book's
weaknesses. Where I've cooperated, they greatly improved my arguments.
For much of its writing this book has felt like a battle. As time passed, both the political and commercial climate seemed to grow more hostile to its ideas -- and, more important, to children's sexual happiness -- and that has often rendered me lonely and discouraged. Those who stand by the ideals to which the book is committed, therefore, have risen even higher in my esteem.
my closest circle, Debbie Nathan, Bob Chatelle, and Jim D'Entremont earn my
admiration for continuing to labor on behalf of those unjustly accused during
the child abuse panics, when almost everyone else has forgotten them. Leanne
Katz, the late executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship,
was prescient in recognizing the cultural calamity inherent in censoring sex and
was never afraid to put herself on the line for all varieties of human
expression. Her successor, Joan Bertin, is doing an impressive job filling her
shoes. Among sex therapists, Leonore Tiefer doesn't always win friends, but she
always influences the people in her profession and elsewhere with her tough,
sane, pro-sex, anti-sexist thinking and activism.
In these pages, I hoist some javelins in the direction of the comprehensive sex-education community. But without organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), the Network for Family Life Education, and Advocates for Youth and without progressive educators like
Peggy Brick, Susie Wilson, Pamela Wilson, Deborah Roffman, Konnie McCaffree, Elizabeth Casparian, and Leslie Kantor,
would be no decent sex education in this country at all. Even when my criticism
is sharp, it is meant humbly.
libraries and their librarians were invaluable: SIECUS, Political Research
Associates, the University of Vermont, and the New York Public Library. The
Goldensohn Fund provided needed funds for much of the research in chapter 2.
One of the ongoing themes of my intellectual life is the insufficiency of most commonly accepted categories -- Man, Woman, Child, Normal, Deviant -- to capture the meanings of what they purport to describe. Most of what interests me falls into the wide-open non-category of Other. So, under the honorable heading of Other Contributors, in alphabetical order only, I thank:
My deepest gratitude
goes to every one of the hundreds of sources with whom I talked, and sometimes
badgered relentlessly, but in particular to the many parents and kids who
taught me much of what I needed to learn but whose names I promised to hold in
Joy Harris is the best agent a
person could ask for and a lot more than that. Her talented associate Stephanie
Abou stepped into the breach and found this book a home when I'd pretty much
I met Janice Irvine not long after
I started Harmful to Minors, and more than any other single person she
has been its midwife. Opening her mind, heart, home, and vast knowledge of the
subject to me, although she was working on a competing project, Janice became
my chief intellectual sounding board and, just as important, a dear friend.
Finally, I dedicate these pages to
my partner Paul, whose constancy to all the right things inspires me, and
whose love and humor in the face of all the wrong things are among the best reasons I have for getting up in the morning.
These statistics appear in The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Promote
Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior, a publication of the U.S.
Public Health Service and the Department of Health and Human Services
(Rockville, Md.: DHEW Publications, 2001).
Recent reports by the Kaiser Family Foundation state that in interviews 98
percent of parents thought sex education should include information about
sexually transmitted diseases; 97 percent thought it should talk about
abstinence; 90 percent said birth control should be discussed; and 85 percent
said it should teach kids how to use condoms.
The following two reports of the Kaiser Family Foundation provide this information: "The AIDS Epidemic at 20 Years: The View from America," A National Survey of Americans and HIV/AIDS (June 2001), and "Sex Education in America: A Series of National Surveys of Students, Parents, Teachers, and Principals" (September 2000).
Ralph J. Di Clemente, "Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections among
Adolescents: A Clash of Ideology and Science (Editorial)," Journal of
the American Medical Association 279, no.19 (20 May 1998): 1574-75.
Ira L. Reiss and Harriet M. Reiss, Solving America's Sexual Crisis (Amherst:
Prometheus Books, 1997). My two immediate predecessors as Surgeon General,
Antonia Novello and C. Everett Koop, had called for sex education and advocated
the use of condoms. The call to action of our present Surgeon General, Dr. David
Satcher, would also appear to be supportive.