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Dr. Joycelyn M. Elders  

[Page IX]

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. 

Sexually transmitted 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] our society 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 have moved  

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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. 

I 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"). 

I 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.

Treating 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

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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.  

Author's Note  

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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 characteristics.  


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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, infringement, 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

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ideas 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. 

In 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, 

there would be no decent sex education in this country at all. Even when my criticism is sharp, it is meant humbly.

Several 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: 

[Page XVII]

Ann Agee,

Bill Andriette, 

Lynn Mikel Brown, 

Julius Levine Cillo, 

Diane Cleaver, 

the staff and youth at District 202 in Minneapolis, 

Ernily Feinstein, 

Roger Fox, 

Debra Haffner, 

Marjorie Heins, 

Jenni Hoffrnan, 

Carol Hopkins, 

Janet Jacobs and family,

Philip Kaushall, 

Marty Klein, 

Steve Knox, 

the Levines, 

Russell Miller, 

the National Writers Union, 

Paul Okami, 

Ursula Owen, 

the Passover group, 

Flavio Pompetti, 

Linda and Kevin Reed, 

Susan Richman, 

Joan and Steve Rappaport, 

Martha and Marty Roth, 


Ciro Scotti and the Business Week copy desk, 

the Sex and Censorship committee of the National Coalition Against Censorship, 

Jonathan Silin, 

Ann Snitow, 

Lisa Springer, 

Carolyn Stack, 

Larry Stanley, 

Sharon Thornpson, 

Denise Trudeau, 

George and Betsy Whitehead, 

Elizabeth Wilson, and 

David Wolowitz. 


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 confidence.

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 lost hope.

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.  

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1. 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).

2. 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).

3. 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.

4. 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.

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