Their theories are explosive,
even subversive. They are also a very hard sell, especially now, when the
horror of predatory priests rumbles ever louder.
Nonetheless, a handful of maverick writers and academics are calling for a cultural revolution when it comes to children and sex. They argue that we protect our children too much. They insist that much of what we fear as "abuse" is actually healthy sexual expression.
They are kicking up quite a debate.
"There's a visceral reaction when you bring this topic up," said Harris Mirkin, a professor at the University of Missouri who has written on the subject.
Added Judith Levine, author of a controversial new book on child sexuality: "The minute you even suggest it's OK for kids to have sexual pleasure in their lives, you're treading dangerous waters."
Levine, Mirkin and other provocateurs start with the premise that children of all ages are sexual beings with legitimate desires. They argue, then, that kids should be free to seek out pleasure with consenting peers. Some insist that adolescents should be free even to experiment with adult partners.
They acknowledge, of course, that abuse does exist, such as when one party does not consent to the sexual relationship or when an adult in a position of authority, such as a priest or teacher, uses his or her status to gain the victim's trust. And they draw some age distinctions, noting that though children can explore their sexuality from babyhood on, pre-pubescent children should stop short of intercourse.
But overall, they insist we are too quick to see aggression, molestation and outright deviance in healthy expressions of childhood sexuality.
Why, they ask, do we assume it's exploitation when a 14-year-old girl is intimate with a 23-year-old man? Why do we refer an 8-year-old boy to therapy if he's caught exploring a friend's genitals? Why do we dismiss children's own explanations of such acts -- that they were mutual, that they were fun -- as implausible, even dangerous?
"These kids are telling me they know the difference between coercion and consent," Levine said. "I believe them."
This is a tough time to be pushing such arguments.
On top of the daily revelations about abusive priests, several stories about student-teacher romances hit the headlines last month. The Seattle student who, at age 12, got involved with teacher Mary Kay Letourneau -- fathering two children with her -- lost a lawsuit he brought against his former school district for failing to stop the affair. A San Bernardino teacher who ran off to Las Vegas with a 15-year-old student she called her soul mate has been charged with several counts of statutory sexual seduction.
Yet even as they unsettle, these cases have served to bring child sexuality up for discussion. And while many experts find the calls for revolution alarming, some therapists and academics concede the issues are worthy of debate.
"What we've been talking about in academic circles for a decade has been brought to public attention in a dramatic way," said Jorja Prover, an adjunct professor at UCLA who specializes in child sexuality.
"The priest scandal has changed the way people look at things. They're realizing there's a difference between a priest abusing a child and a 19-year-old having sex with a 14-year-old," Prover added. "We can't have these absolutist views any more about what constitutes abuse. We've got to look at [each case in] context."
Yet that call for "context" strikes many as absurd. Adolescents might want -- or think they want -- certain sexual experiences, critics point out, but that doesn't mean they should be given free rein. It's up to adults, they say, to define what's safe and appropriate -- to set limits, then enforce them.
"As a society, we already do a notoriously bad job of observing boundaries [in sexual behavior], whether it's professional therapists getting involved with clients, employers getting involved with employees, or priests abusing altar boys," said David Finkelhor, a national authority on child abuse.
"Those boundaries are important because they provide people with protection, with guidance, with a sense of security," Finkelhor argued. So it's important, he said, "to reinforce the norms" instead of pushing to erode them.
The lightning rod for this emerging discourse has been Levine's book "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex." A freelance journalist, Levine has spent the last 20 years writing about gender and family issues. Much of her book, especially the section on sex education, has drawn praise from experts.
But her central thesis -- that children need more sexual freedom -- has proved radioactive. Critics have called the book "evil," "intolerable," and an "academic cover for molestation." Mirkin has experienced similar backlash: This spring, Missouri lawmakers voted to strip $100,000 from the state university's budget to urge that he be fired for what one politician called his "illegal and morally reprehensible views."
Paradoxically, perhaps, the fury directed at these renegade theorists has only pushed their ideas more forcefully into circulation.
Mirkin spent hours defending his views on talk radio last month. And the first 3,500 copies of Levine's "Harmful to Minors" sold out well before the official publication date of May 1. A second run of 10,000 has been ordered.
That strikes some scholars as a victory in itself. "The fact that [childhood sexuality] is being discussed in a sane and sober fashion is a good first step," said Marjorie Heins, a 1st Amendment lawyer who has studied the issue.
In her book "Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth," Heins argues that America has a contradictory view of kids, making it tough to discuss their sex lives rationally.
"They're either the tender innocents who have to be protected or the untamed libidos that need to be controlled," she said.
Heins traces our jumbled attitudes about child sexuality to the relatively recent development of the whole concept of adolescence.
Until the early 20th century, Americans routinely went to work or got married by age 13 or 14, often before the onset of puberty. (Kansas and New Hampshire still have laws on the books permitting girls as young as 12 or 13 to marry.)
In this era, children were effectively on their own by the time their bodies were mature enough for intercourse. That started to change 70 or 80 years ago, as first the rich and later the working class began to send their kids to secondary school, deferring their independence. Now parents found themselves in charge of adolescents with all-out libidos. For the first time, children's sexuality came to be seen as a societal issue -- to be both protected and controlled.
Attitudes toward kids' sexual expression have shifted back and forth ever since. And as views of child sexuality have evolved, so too have definitions of sexual abuse.
Scholars trace the modern concept of sexual abuse to the 1970s, when children's advocates began focusing on issues such as family violence and parental neglect -- and began turning up cases of incest and molestation as well.
The McMartin Preschool case in the mid-1980s threw the issue onto the national radar, with frightening tales of satanic sex abuse at a Manhattan Beach day care center. Charges against all but one teacher were eventually dropped; that lone defendant, Ray Buckey, was acquitted of 40 counts of abuse, and a jury deadlocked on the remaining eight.
Though the worst allegations were never proved, the case sparked a child abuse panic as stories of sex-crazed adults began popping up all over the country.
At the same time, Levine writes, some therapists began raising an alarm about children's sexual behavior with other children.
Acts that once might have been passed off as normal curiosity -- such as toddlers "playing doctor" or siblings poking at each other's "private parts" -- came to be viewed as potentially dangerous, even abusive, Levine argues. Therapy programs for juvenile molesters were developed. Some kids who engaged in aggressive sexual behavior with their classmates were prosecuted
The drive to protect kids quickly swept beyond pre-pubescent children.
The U.S. Justice Department describes a "modern trend" of states toughening statutory rape laws. A 16-year-old may testify that she initiated intercourse with her 19-year-old boyfriend, but in much of the country he can be prosecuted for statutory rape nonetheless.
Mirkin argues that such laws reflect a "cultural construct" in which children are framed as innocents, much as homosexuals were framed as mentally ill in the 1950s. The dogma of the day, he writes, becomes "an unquestioned moral principle," and anyone who dares to dissent is dismissed as a dangerous quack.
"There's a group that says, 'We know what the truth is, and we'll call any discussion of the issue evil,'" Mirkin said.
There are indeed some who worry that even discussing children's sexual autonomy will erode our moral values. Others are perfectly willing to have a discussion -- but warn that the new social critics are pushing way too far.
For instance, Levine writes approvingly of a Dutch law that considers children as young as 12 capable of entering into sexual relationships, even with adults. (Echoing language of many pro-pedophile sites, she calls adult-child intimacy "intergenerational sex" rather than statutory rape.)
Many therapists do concede that adolescents can initiate and enjoy sexual intimacy with adults. Some may even emerge unscathed.
Still, most mainstream researchers question whether minors can give meaningful consent to sex, especially with grown-ups -- who are, by definition, authority figures.
"People who want adolescents to be sexual with them often say there's informed consent," said sex therapist Dr. Gene Abel, who treats pedophiles at his Behavioral Medicine Institute of Atlanta.
"But do they tell [the child], 'I would like to point out, if we get found out, I may be charged with a sex crime and you may have to testify in court about what we do sexually, and by the way, you may also run the risk of sexually transmitted diseases'?" Abel said.
And given the perpetually alarming statistics about teen pregnancy, high school dropout rates, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, the debate about what constitutes true "sexual abuse" strikes many as irrelevant.
A 13-year-old girl may well see her relationship with a 22-year-old man as freedom, not exploitation -- as salvation, not victimization. But if she gets pregnant, if her boyfriend splits, if she winds up an eighth-grade dropout on welfare, semantics is beside the point.
"Whether we call it sexual abuse or not, this is still part of a serious societal problem," says Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Levine's response is to call for all children to get a "sensuality education."
She wants schools to teach reproduction, contraception and the dangers of unprotected sex. She also wants students to learn that their desires are natural, to understand there are many ways to find pleasure in sexual expression.
"We can't just say, 'Go out there, kids, and have sex with whoever you want.' We have to prepare kids to know their bodies, to understand what their responsibilities and limitations are," Levine said.
"We have to walk a fine line," she added, "between our obligation as adults to protect our kids from harm and our obligation to respect them as autonomous people with their own sexual desires and their own sexual lives."