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Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

Q and A with Judith Levine, the author of
Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

How can protection be harmful to minors?

Protecting children is one of our chief duties as adults, whether we are parents, professionals, or friends. But we also have to ask: What are we protecting them from? My book says that sexuality is a fact of life, and a potentially wonderful part of growing up for children at all stages of their lives. It's not sex itself that is harmful to children, but the conditions under which they might express themselves sexually that can leave them vulnerable to harms like HIV, unwanted pregnancy, or sexual violence.

In our country, there are people pushing a conservative religious agenda that would deny minors all sexual information and sexual expression. They're the people behind abstinence-only education, the child-pornography laws that get people arrested for taking pictures of their babies in the bathtub, or laws that make abortion risky and traumatic for young women. These so-called protections are more harmful to minors than sex itself.

But most people don't have an agenda. They're just nervous thinking about children as sexual beings and they're worried that something bad might happen to a kid they love. I'm not saying we should stop caring. But let's care realistically. Do we really want to strip sexuality out of young people's lives?

Are you saying there are no real sexual dangers to children? What about pedophiles on the Internet? What about AIDS?

One of the main points of Harmful to Minors is to separate the real risks from those that are exaggerated or even invented. So let's look at these two examples.

Pedophiles on the Internet: In spite of sensationalist press coverage, there is little evidence that the Net is crawling with child molesters. Yes, kids do from time to time encounter unwanted sexual chat online (though you never know if the sender is 15 or 55). The question is, is this dangerous? A recent study published in the New York Times showed that kids can deal with these messages.

Most just don't respond, and the vast majority say they don't find them troubling or scary. It's like the flasher you might have encountered in the park when you were a kid. Those guys were usually pitiful. But when they were scary, you got out of there fast. In other words, you figured out the risk and dealt with it. Chances are, you didn't get put in therapy, or on the witness stand -- if you even told anyone about it.

Should men flash little girls in the park or send dirty messages to kids' chat rooms? No, of course they shouldn't. Should people be punished for molesting children? Absolutely. Anyone who forces sex on any person of any age should be punished. But we have moved beyond appropriate responses to serious offenses to hyperbolic responses to offenses with unproven harms, such as the assumed harm to a child of involuntarily glimpsing a penis, or reading sexy language online.

How do we know what's harmful to kids? I think a good start would be to ask them what their experiences feel like, instead of always assuming we know. There's almost no research that asks kids what they do, what they feel, or what they think. We must help kids when they're hurt sexually. But it does a child no good to be told she's been terribly victimized when she may have undergone a merely unpleasant experience.

What about AIDS?

AIDS is a grave danger to youth. New HIV infections are rising among teens, and AIDS is the leading cause of death in people from 25 to 44. These infections and deaths are highest among poor people of color, especially women and gay men. Almost a third of gay black men in their 20s are HIV-positive.

But sex does not cause AIDS. Certain behaviors, such as unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse with an infected person, do. I heard Deb Roffman, the sex educator, say that the expression "sexually transmitted disease" is like calling TB a "breathing-transmitted disease." We don't blame breathing for "causing" tuberculosis.

Our current policies aren't helping young people protect themselves from AIDS. Just the opposite. For instance, the federal government is now funding -- to the tune of nearly a billion dollars -- abstinence-only education in public schools, which specifically denies students all information about contraception or condoms, except to say they can break. Teachers in abstinence-only classes must tell students that the only safe, acceptable form of sexual expression is between married heterosexuals. Where does this leave sexually active teens, especially gay or lesbian teens? Certainly not safer.

Your book says that kids need more sexual information, not less. Won't that encourage them to have sex?

All the research shows that sexuality education does not encourage kids to have sex earlier. Nor does knowing about sexual feelings or behavior. In fact, kids who learn about contraception use it when they do start having intercourse, whereas kids who get the classes without that information also have intercourse -- but they don't protect themselves when they do. And kids who understand more about themselves sexually are better at making the right decisions for themselves.

The fact is, most kids will say yes to sexuality at some point during their childhood or teenage years. Our choice as adults is whether or not we will help make those experiences safe, consensual, and happy.

I'm a parent. How should I teach my kids about sex?

It is common to hear from professionals that parents are the primary sex educators. In a general way this is true: children learn a lot about sexual relations at home, even if their parents never talk about sex. They see if their parents are respectful and affectionate to each other, whether they're relaxed or uptight about sexy language, jokes, or TV shows. Children are touched lovingly (or not) by their parents. And kids may be the victims or witnesses of sexual violence at home. That's education, to be sure.

Concrete information about sexuality is a different story. Most parents say they'd like to be their kids' main source of such knowledge, but only a few manage to provide it. In poll after poll, moms and dads admit to being tongue-tied when it comes to actually talking the talk. As for kids, they tell pollsters they wish their parents would talk with them more about sex. But when their parents do it, the kids admit to turning off because they feel their parents are prying or preaching, or just don't get it.

Maybe we should stop blaming ourselves for doing it wrong and accept that moms and dads aren't necessarily the optimal sex educators of their own children. I think this has to do with the incest taboo. You don't tell your kids about your sex life -- that would be kind of icky. And once they've got anything like a sex life, your kids probably don't want to tell you about it either.

This built-in reticence is the reason school-based sex ed was invented in the first place! Parents shouldn't give up on trying to talk plainly about sex. But they can also support their children's sex education by standing up for comprehensive programs at school, uncensored public libraries and computers, and by encouraging them to form close relationships with trustworthy adults other than their mothers and fathers.

Speaking of parenting, you have no children. What got you interested in this subject -- and what right do you have to talk about it?

I've been reading and writing and doing political activism around sexuality for 25 years. I saw how bigoted attitudes about women's sexuality had hurt women and girls --for centuries. Remember, women were once considered "innocent," which meant we were supposed to not want or enjoy sex. Finally, women stood up and said, "We're sexual! And thank you very much, we'll look after ourselves." Children were the last "innocents" to protect.

As I said, we do have to protect children from real dangers. But that doesn't mean protecting some fantasy of their sexual "innocence."
I have a niece and nephew and many friends who are children and teens. I've taught freshmen in college. Maybe because I'm not a parent, kids sometimes feel more comfortable talking to me. Besides, as a famous (and childless) children's-book editor once said, "I was a child myself. And I haven't forgotten a thing."

Parents are doing the toughest job in the world. It's understandable that they are scared, and that they feel that no amount of protection is too much. These feelings must be respected -- they're at the heart of some of our best instincts about children. But we also should respect children and teens, which means giving them some privacy and some room. If we let them, I think kids can be emotionally smarter and more responsible than we usually give them credit for.

You say we should give kids a chance to be responsible. What about being moral?

That's a crucial question. Humans are not like other animals. We don't just have bodies, we have minds and feelings and cultures and laws. For us, sex always has a moral component.

That said, I think the teaching of "sexual morality" is a redundancy. We may want kids to protect themselves yet accommodate others, feel pride in their individuality yet tolerate difference, we may hope they can balance spontaneity and caution, freedom and responsibility. These skills require learning respect, cooperation, and caring -- moral values that apply to all realms of their private and public lives, not just sexuality. Sexual morality doesn't boil down to "Just Say No" or "Just Do It." It means learning how to make decisions in complex and sometimes ambiguous situations -- like life.

But let's be honest about the moral value of pleasure, too. Sure, Americans can be prim about pleasure. But the Puritans weren't our only ancestors. Happiness is such an all-American value, it's in the Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And though I don't believe Thomas Jefferson mentioned this, part of happiness is sexual happiness.

Are you saying to kids, "Just Say Yes?"

Simply standing up and cheering for pleasure isn't enough. For adults to be moral about children means creating the conditions, in families and as a nation, that allow every child to thrive. The same conditions that prevent thriving in other ways also contribute to a failure to thrive sexually.

For instance, poverty. Eighty percent of teen moms come from poor families. Poverty is even a major correlate of sexual abuse. Not that middle-class kids never get abused, or that poor people are sexually craven. But poor families suffer more stress, they're less educated, and have less stable living situations. All that leaves children vulnerable, sexually and otherwise.

Sexism is another social condition that affects what sex is like for girls and boys. Deborah Tolman at Wellesley has found that girls who are most concerned about acting feminine are least likely to use contraception or withstand unwanted sexual pressure, while those who own their sexual desires and who don't care about being "girly" seize more control over their sexual lives.

Boys, meanwhile, are taught that masculinity means always being ready for sex and never getting too emotionally involved. That might give boys more chance to express their sexuality, but it also deprives them of experiencing it more deeply. Sexual equality would let girls and boys say no -- or yes -- when they really want to and are ready to, and discover what sexuality means to them.


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