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The Risks of 'Protection': Panic Over Youthful Sexuality Endangers Kids

Flanders, Laura

Review of Judith Levine's book "Harmful for Minors"

Just what is it about pleasure and danger that the power media don't understand? The answer is just about everything, as the brouhaha about Judith Levine's book on children and sexuality reveals. Instead of discussing the very real perils Levine begs us to address in our culture, the Religious Right have succeeded in casting hers a "dangerous book." That will help us not one jot and we're very much in need.

Fury rained down on Levine's Harmful to Minors: the Perils of Protecting Children From Sex (Minnesota University Press, 2002) even before the book itself hit the shelves.

Concerned Women for America and the Christian Right "Culture and Family Institute" went so far as to hold a forum in Washington to discuss whether the as-yet-unpublished book "encouraged pedophilia." It did, declared CFI's Robert Knight. It did, said Sandy Rios, president of the CWA. The Concerned Women sent out a press release claiming that Levine, a New York journalist with a long history of researching and writing about sexuality and gender, "advocates" molesting children. CWA's release called on the University of Minnesota's Regents to fire "those responsible" for the publication of this "evil tome."

The Right's attack guaranteed the book attention, but mostly of the wrong sort. Dr. Laura railed on radio, Bill O'Reilly railed on TV. Too busy foaming at the mouth to pick up a copy of Harmful to Minors, O'Reilly said actual reading wasn't necessary, that you don't have to read all of Mein Kampf to get its gist. (O'Reilly didn't even make up his own hate-filled rhetoric. The quip comparing Levine to Hitler came from Dr. Laura crony Judith Reisner, explains Star-Tribune columnist Kristin Tillotson, who did her best to defend Levine's work on O'Reilly's Fox News slug-fest.)

So it continues. Thanks to a handful of radical Religious Right outfits and their media cronies, Levine's good book is now associated in the public mind with pedophilia and child abuse. Almost two months after the CWA event in Washington, ran a feature this week on Harmful to Minors beneath the banner, "What a new pedophilia book gets right and wrong."

The trouble with all this isn't just that the "promoting abuse" allegations are false. (Since the initial bout of bashing, some reporters have taken a deeper look, and the charges quickly collapse.) The bigger problem is that ideological hysteria has helped the mass media miss yet another opportunity to discuss something serious and urgent. So much attention has gone to what Judith Levine didn't say that there's been precious little scrutiny of what she did.

Levine's book is not dangerous, but there are dangers out there -- dangers that ravage at least as many lives as the pedophiles the cultish Concerned Women want everyone to worry about.

Take the dread "pedophilia" chapter in Harmful to Minors. It's short, Levine looks at lots of data, among which is a Mayo Clinic study revealing that three-quarters of parents are afraid their children will be abducted by pedophiles. It's a more frequent worry than fretting over car accidents. This, despite the fact that a child's risk of dying in a car accident is 25 to 75 times greater than his or her chances of being abducted and murdered by non-family members. Ninety-five percent of allegedly abducted children turn out to be "runaways or throwaways" from home, she reports, or kids snatched by one of their own parents in divorce or custody disputes.

In other words, we're worrying about the wrong things and quite possibly the wrong people:

  • "Rather than indict our Monday night football buddies, rather than indict the family... we circle the wagons and project danger outward," writes Levine. "Screen out anyone who might be damaging to your child," the FBI's Kenneth Lanning is quoted as having advised the readers of Life Magazine in 1995.

We've got some pretty vague ideas of what "damages" children, too. When she appeared on Working Assets Radio last month, Levine was clear: abuse exists, such as when one party does not consent to sex or when an adult in a position of authority uses his or her status to abuse a victim's trust. Children can explore their sexuality from babyhood on, she said, but pre-pubescent children shouldn't be out there having intercourse.

But beyond that, says Levine, we as a society are way too quick to see aggression, molestation and outright deviance in healthy expressions of youthful sexuality -- and way too quick to shame, criminalize and patholologize healthy children for making all sorts of sexual explorations that are just part of their natural development.

Panicked by the dangers of "premature" or "perverse" or "unnatural" sex, our society almost entirely ignores the true risks of all that fear and shame. Think it doesn't hurt to be "too careful?" When it comes to "protecting" your kids from sex, it hurts. "Protection" enforced in the way CWA would have it done denies young people information about AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. (CWA's all for government-funded "abstinence" programs which penalize educators and social workers if they so much as mention ways to have sex and also to be safe.)

What makes sex dangerous is having it when you don't want it, or having it when you're too scared to ask questions, too afraid to demand condoms or too ignorant to demand touch that feels good. What makes sex dangerous is being too ashamed or too sad to know that you deserve a right to say no, or not that way, -- or even, whole-heartedly, yes.

The CWA has an axe to grind against Levine and all those who believe young people should get the information they need to make informed and safe choices when it comes to sex. Sadly, it's an axe that is grinding into our children and our society. Levine just wants it to stop.