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Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

Harmful to Minors will make a much needed and significant intervention into discussions of children's sexuality, adult fears and irrationality about the same, and about the moral, political, and public health risks of failing to come to grips with this culture's anxiety and ignorance about children's erotic desires and needs. This work is extraordinarily informed and wittily incisive—in addition to academics and professionals, our hope is that this book will engage adult and perhaps teen readers, and be reassuring to parents.

Part I: Harmful Protection

 The first half of Harmful to Minors casts contemporary dramas over child sexuality within a richly textured history and cultural landscape. Levine addresses head-on the various confused, heartfelt, hysterical stories our culture generates about kids, sex, and danger. She balances these representations with straightforward and widely-accepted research and scientific findings from public health, criminology, and child psychology.

Chapter 1: Censorship: The Sexual Media and the Ambivalence of Knowing

Levine begins this chapter with a history of censorship in the US of material with sexual content-censorship that is rooted in a belief that "seeing" is "doing" when you are talking about children and sex. Levine argues that censorship is not protection. Giving children a chance to navigate the sexual world is important and it is therefore crucial that adults provide children with accurate and realistic information about sex (in its many forms), their sexuality, and love.

Chapter 2: Manhunt: The Pedophile Panic

Without denying that children are abused and victimized in this country, Chapter 2 of Harmful to Minors explores the fact and fiction of pedophilia and "sexual predators." Despite masses of information to the contrary, why do Americans insist on believing that pedophiles are a major peril? Data from law enforcement and social services show that the majority of missing children are runaways or "throwaways," or are abducted and harmed by their own family members.

The danger, so to speak, is us and only rarely a roaming, violent child snatcher. But crime legislation is a function of politics and focuses public discourse on such demons. Levine argues that this emphasis on "predators" and suspicion of strangers fractures the community of adults and children; it can leave children defenseless in abusive homes. Projecting sexual menace onto a monster and pouring money and energy into vanquishing him distracts adults from teaching children the subtle skills of loving with both trust and discrimination.

Chapter 3: Therapy: "Children who Molest" and the Tyranny of the Normal

In recent years, Levine argues, children themselves have been constructed as the sexual predator and threat. The child-protective system has come to believe that "sex-offense-specific" therapy is necessary for minors with a "children with sexual behavior problem." These developments demonstrate how children's natural and normal sexual behavior and curiosity have been pathologized.

"Normal" has drifted in a conservative direction over the past 25 years; it is a fickle and disputed virtue. Adults, educators, and legislators preach about "normal" in a vacuum of data about what children actually do sexually. To criminalize touching and curiosity pushes children into further believing that sex is bad and talking about or being interested in innate sexual and erotic feelings is wrong.

Chapter 4: Crimes of Passion: Statutory Rape and the Denial of Female Desire

Levine begins this chapter by recounting the case of Jessica Woehl and Kier Fiore who in 1997 met over the Internet and ran off together. This case demonstrates the complexity of consensual relationships among young people and the need to attend to sexuality differently. What is a "child?" Anyone from age 6 to 18 can be defined as such and within this age group individuals mature at different rates and in different ways. The Woehl/Fiore case is tragic in many ways and should lead us to consider "adulthood," "childhood," and sexual maturity in various and nuanced modes.

Chapter 5: No-sex Education: From "Chastity" to "Abstinence"

The idea that sex is a normal and positive part of child and adolescent life is unutterable in the American public forum. Chastity and abstinence education is evidence of this-it's also impractical, useless, negative, and ideological. Sex education in this country abandons children (teens in particular) to learn about their sexuality on their own by trial and error. Rather than treat intimate sexual relationships as a positive component of healthy maturation, "just say no" leaves children without important information and at risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and unsafe and illegal abortion procedures.

Chapter 6: Compulsory Motherhood: The End of Abortion

Levine continues to discuss themes of sex education and family planning from the previous chapter by focusing on abortion. The anti-choice movement has achieved a monumental triumph in the decades since Roe v. Wade; it has wrought a near-total public silence on the subject of abortion in the discourse of teen sex. Levine argues that without abortion, the narrative of teenage desire is strangely and artificially unmoored from modern social reality. Instead of sound policy, the anti-abortion movement has written sex as the ruination of mother, child, and society. Gone is the premeditation in sex, gone too the role of technology, of safe contraception or planned parenthood-and girls are caught in the middle.

Chapter 7: The Expurgation of Pleasure

Pleasure, sexual satisfaction, and gratification are all concepts central to human sexuality. But all of these concepts are missing from most adult thinking about adolescent sex, particularly female desire. Of course, sex ed is not and should not be erotic training. But sex is much more than sexual intercourse. Current sex ed, focusing as it does on intercourse as "the sex act," does not provide young adults with a sense of the full range of human sexual expression.

Part II: Sense and Sexuality

The second part of Harmful to Minors moves on to ask how we can be both realistic and idealistic about sex. In these final chapters, Levine suggests some ways of rethinking our approach to kids' sexuality and offers examples of sensible practice by educators, parents, friends of youth that is based on a simple belief that erotic pleasure is a gift, and can be a positive joy to people at every age.

Chapter 8: The Facts...and Truthful Fictions

In this chapter, Levine gives examples of positive sex education resources for children and adolescents. Internet sites such as Go Ask Alice (sponsored by Columbia University), the Coalition for Positive Sexuality, SAFETeen, and gURL provide children and adolescents with positive, straightforward and confidential information and answers to their questions. Levine also cites positive examples of books, magazines and television shows.

Chapter 9: What is Wanting: Gender, Equality, and Desire

In this chapter, Levine focuses on gender stereotypes and the need for independent education for girls and boys. This chapter is divided into two sections: What girls can Learn? and What boys can Learn? Each part discusses particular types of education and information that are most effective and important for each gender.

For instance, Levine suggests girls need to know that desire is normal for them-it is not just boys who lust. And a girl can be both a sexual "object" and a subject. And, love and lust are not the same thing. Boys can be focused on similar lessons: boys are more than just hormone-pumping bodies; not-knowing isn't unmanly; and boys can be both objects and subjects of sex as well.

Chapter 10: Good Touch: A Sensual Education

Levine discusses here the hysteria of the 1980's and 90's over touching. Touch is good for children and other living things. Loving touch seems to promote not only individual health, but social harmony as well. Research shows that America is a an exceedingly "low-touch," high-violence culture. Children and adults are taught that sexual touching such as masturbation and play between children, is wrong. However, "outercourse," or the collection of sensual and sexual acts that don't involve sexual intercourse, are important, safe, and healthy in sexual maturation. Levine discusses the various ways that touch can and should be encouraged.

Chapter 11: Community: Risk, Identity, and Love in the Age of AIDS

"Equating 'no sex' and safe sex suggests that no sex is safe." Just when mass public education about transmission, condoms, and non-penetrative forms of sex was crucial, AIDS became the rationale for not talking about sex. Successful prevention must be based on two principles: it must recognize the urgency of the problem of HIV and the exigencies of the people it is targeting; and it must respect their social norms-their identities, values, and desires. Levine draws lessons from groups in the Twin Cities regarding AIDS education, sex and safe sex education.

Epilogue: Morality

Levine paints with broader strokes in her epilogue to Harmful to Minors. She writes that the US is not a child-friendly place, despite rhetoric to the contrary. The US lags far behind other industrialized nations in many indicators of child well-being: over 11 million children under the age of 18 have no health insurance, a fifth of American mothers get no prenatal care, the US ranks 18th in infant mortality among industrialized nations, and the percentage of children who die before the age of five is the same as it is in Cuba.

Poverty is the single greatest risk factor for most every destructive condition a child might be at risk for: unwanted pregnancy, AIDS, sexual abuse, too-early motherhood. Levine does not argue that we should worry about inadequate nutrition and substandard housing instead of worrying about how to teach children about healthy sex. Rather she argues that these things are connected: the way we conduct our sexual lives and teach our children to conduct theirs are connected in profound ways-they have to do with the same basic values.

Sex is a moral issue, but it is no more moral or different a moral issue than any other aspect of human interaction. The teaching of "sexual values" is a redundancy. If we want children to protect themselves yet accommodate others, feel pride in their individuality yet tolerate difference, if we want them to balance spontaneity and caution, freedom and responsibility, these are the capacities and values that apply to all realms of their private and public lives, with sexuality no greater or lesser a realm.


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