The kids are alright (continued)
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI
It is easy to ridicule right-wing sex panics because, despite their immediate political effectiveness, they almost always turn out to be based on lies, falsehoods, and disinformation. But they also play to real fears and anxieties about children. No one wants to see kids hurt, no one wants kids to be harmed, no one wants kids to go through that whole range of terrible things that all adults have gone through to be, well, "grown-up." Almost all people have an urge to "protect" kids from things that are bad for them.
But the question is, who gets to decide what is "bad"? For sincere, conservative, religious parents, "bad" might be any sexual contact outside of marriage, including masturbation and sexual fantasy. For liberal parents, "bad" might be children lacking information about safe sex and contraception. Hell (so to speak) for atheist parents might be to see their kids fall prey to the irrationality of religious belief.
Part of the problem here is that many, many people honestly disagree about what is "bad" for children. And the other part of the problem is that social and religious conservatives often have a deeply driven desire to enshrine in law and social policy their convictions about the immorality and danger of sexuality outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. From this perspective, there is no room for doubt (after all, it’s in the Bible), no room for disagreement (after all, the Bible is divine revelation), and no room for discussion (who can argue with God?). This winner-take-all view of sexual morality — which makes almost no allowances for moral frailty, emotional fragility, confusion, complicated desire, or just plain old dissent — is what brings us to the messy battles we are in today.
For Levine, as for many feminists and sexual liberationists, the right’s obsession with sex and its desire to legislate a strict, traditional sexual morality is, at heart, an attempt to reconstruct and reinforce a patriarchal worldview that has been crumbling over the past 50 years. Men are no longer on top, queers are no longer invisible, children have sexual needs and desires, and — in the words of the inimitable Old Testament prophet Isaiah — the world has been turned upside down. And so much the better.
But in truth there are plenty of liberals and middle-of-the-roaders who share conservatives’ reservations. How many liberals had qualms about their nine-year-old daughters looking to Madonna (in her pre-motherhood days) as a role model? How many liberals want their teens to have access to information about contraception, but don’t really want them to have sex? How many heterosexual parents, even when they support gay rights, are delighted when a daughter or son comes out?
Indeed, for two decades, some feminists concerned about violence against women and the abuse of children have espoused policies dovetailing with conservatives’. Sex and desire are confusing — they are confusing to everybody a great deal of the time. And we live in a culture that does not foster open and honest talk about sex. As a result, many people do one of two things: they either talk about the subject in shallow and unserious ways or, as with the religious right, they seek to impose on the world a simplistic moral schema.
In Harmful to Children, Levine tries to chart a third course: she actually talks to people about their experiences, examines scientific studies and analyzes statistics, looks into the history to see how we got here, and tries to figure out how to create a society that fulfills people’s sexual needs while being nurturing, loving, and supportive. No wonder she’s getting so much shit.
When asked why she and her book have been targeted by the right, Levine is quick and clear: "The germ of what is correct about the attacks on Harmful to Minors is that the right takes ideas seriously," she says. "They are frustrated by what they see as academics throwing around ideas as if they had no consequence. The right understands that culture and images matter. That they can influence how people think and act. That is why I wrote the book: to show how bad ideas become practices — in psychology, education, the law, and parenting — and these bad ideas can have grave consequences in the real lives of children, families, and communities."
The right's appreciation of the power of ideas also explains how conservatives so effectively use issues concerning children and sex to push everybody’s buttons. While only a short chapter in the book actually deals in part with intergenerational sex, it is that material that has been targeted as the most dangerous, and indeed, it may make even liberal readers pause.
"Legally designating a class of people categorically unable to consent to sexual relations is not the best way to protect children, particularly when ‘children’ includes everyone from birth to 18," writes Levine. She sees as a model a 1990 Dutch law that "made sexual intercourse for people between 12 and 16 legal, but let them employ a statutory-consent age of 16 if they felt they were being coerced or exploited." Parents can overrule the wishes of the child, but they have to make a good case to the Council for the Protection of Children. "What this law does is balance respect for minors as autonomous sexual beings with the recognition that minors can be exploited by adults. It respects kids, but it also protects them." How’s that for an attempt to try to mediate desire, age, experience, influence, and the social good?
You might agree with this law, or react vehemently against it. But the reality is that in the United States, even its proposal would be, as with so many sexual issues, undiscussable.
THE CONTROVERSY swirling around Levine’s book — and let’s remember that the attacks against it are still in the early stages — give us as a society an opportunity to confront some of the fears and myths she has exposed. Rather than panic about sex, what would happen if we actually began talking about it, honestly and openly? The irony is that at a quick glance we are a culture obsessed with sex. From Britney Spears’s proclaiming she's a virgin while affecting a teen-slut look and the huge billboards promoting well-filled Calvin Klein briefs to Viagra ads in women’s magazines, we’re inundated with it. But for all the sexual show-and-tell, the endless parading of sexual fantasies in advertising and on television, the reality is that we don’t talk about sex very much.
What would happen if we began to ask children and teens their thoughts about sex? What would happen if adults began to discuss honestly their sexual desires and experiences as children and adolescents? What would happen if some adults said that their experiences with teen sex were okay? What would happen if some adults said that their teen experiences with older partners were okay?
Can we actually get to the point where we can discuss the reality of lived lives? At one point in her book, Levine says that one out of every five women who undergo abortion is an evangelical or born-again Christian. It is an amazing statistic because it brings to light the complexity of people’s real lives. These women can’t be tossed aside or dismissed as cynical, self-serving hypocrites like Father Ritter and Judianne Densen-Gerber. Not having that child was as important to them as being "saved" by Jesus. Not only do they — and their community — have to deal with the complexity of this contradiction, but so do liberals, progressives, and feminists. Political jargon on either side is useless and unenlightening here. Even harmful.
Levine’s book is an invitation to public discussion — and that is the real reason why it is being attacked by the right. It will be interesting to see if liberals and progressives can take up the challenge and genuinely discuss the issues she raises, or if they too are simply incapable of delving into the most terrifying sexual experience of all: actually talking — openly and honestly — about our sexuality.
Michael Bronski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org