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Review of

Judith Levine: HARMFUL TO MINORS
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2002

Tom O'Carroll
(Published on the www, July 2002)

No book I know of on child sexuality or paedophilia has been so trumpeted or traduced in advance as Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors. Months ahead of publication it was being denounced as "evil" by right-wing Christian fundamentalists, and high-level political pressure was heaped onto the University of Minnesota Press to abandon the project.

Even Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality of 1905 failed to create such a stir. Far from being scandalised, as myth would later have it, by his revelations of "polymorphously perverse" infants, the intellectual world to which these ideas were initially restricted gave them a soberly sympathetic hearing.

By contrast, Kinsey's two immense volumes half a century ago were deliberately promoted with a mighty fanfare. Huge football stadiums were filled for the great man's lectures. The books included a wealth of information on both child sexuality and paedophilia, but amidst a mass of figures and tables covering the whole range of human sexual behaviour at all ages, these data did not leap out as a big issue at the time. Of more urgent concern were the Kinsey team's equally hot revelations on extra-marital sex and homosexuality, an agenda that kept the reformers and moralisers occupied for decades.

Only much later, in the 1990s, did the most sensational aspect of the Kinsey enterprise come under closely antagonistic scrutiny. One such scrutineer was a certain Robert Knight, anti-homosexual, anti-evolution, anti-abortion crusader who wrote and directed The Children of Table 34, a documentary aimed at discrediting Kinsey and his alleged use of children in "sex experiments". The allegation was false, the attack scurrilous. And who do we see leading the charge against Judith Levine? Why, the very same Knight in tarnished armour!

Those who have followed the attempt to discredit the Rind team -- and more recently Harris Mirkin and others -- will recognise a clear pattern emerging in recent years, in which well organised reactionary forces have been able to mobilise media attacks and political pressure against scholarship of which they disapprove. It is a pattern which sees ideas and evidence denounced rather than debated, a pattern in which lies and distortions are used in an attempt to get academics sacked or their funding cut off, in which pressure is used to stop academic journals and university presses from publishing properly reviewed material.

What is unique about the Levine case is that the attack was so quick off the mark. Also, it was directed not against a figure in the academic world but a journalist. It is easy to see why opponents should fear the heavy scientific artillery of a Kinsey or a Rind, with their massive statistical fire power. But why should they be so worried about the musings of a scribe? Wouldn't it have been more sensible just to ignore her, thereby depriving her book of the free publicity generated by thunderous denunciations?

A small part of the answer is to be found in the fact that Levine came to her latest book as a well-established, well-regarded author. A slightly larger part may be attributed to a Foreword by Dr Joycelyn Elders, who held the prestigious and high profile position of United States Surgeon General under the Clinton presidency. Elders and Levine are both women. That must have helped too: where children's sex and sex with children are concerned, it is much harder for male writers to have credibility and gain attention these days.

Most important of all, though, Levine has a powerful case to present - as must have been feared. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, challenges conservative America head-on, as the full title boldly proclaims. Starting with obscenity laws supposedly designed to shield children from material "harmful to minors", but actually aiming to keep them in "innocent" ignorance, she goes on to blast statutory rape laws that rely on "the oxymoronic concept of consensual rape", demonstrate that "abstinence education" is a failure, expose the lies put out by anti-abortion extremists, and stake a claim for sex education that addresses pleasurable intimacy, rather than seeing sex solely in terms of delinquency and diseases.

Bravest of all, right from the early pages Levine advances a daringly liberal view of paedophilia, arguing that society's panicky emphasis on "predators" and suspicion of strangers serves only to generate paranoia while leaving children defenceless in truly abusive homes. Declining the usual ritual condemnation of paedophiles, she points out the comparative rarity of rape and other violence. Instead she notes the prevalence of such activities as kissing and mutual masturbation - acts which reveal a willingness to engage with children at the level for which they are ready, rather than imposing adult sexuality.

Later in the book she uses the term "intergenerational relationships" when referring to clearly consensual love affairs between adults and youngsters in early adolescence. Nowhere does she openly argue for the legitimacy of such relationships where pre-pubertal children are concerned but neither does she insist that such contacts are necessarily harmful. The philosophy advanced is admirably consistent in its focus on the pleasurable and positive potential of sex at any age.

Indeed, many would describe Levine's line on paedophilia as radical rather than liberal. Ironically, the fact that I have balked at doing so owes much to her undoubted radicalism in another respect. While I like to think she may be among the most humane and delightful people on the planet, she also emerges as a hard-line Social Fundamentalist. For her, nothing in human nature is hard-wired. All our behaviour is the product of social forces and only acquires meaning through its social context and interpretation. In effect there is no such thing as human nature in her view, unless we say that it is much the same as the nature of water, taking exactly the shape of anything into which it is poured.

We speak of "moulding" human character, do we not? Liquid steel may be poured into a mould like water, yet set as hard and inflexible as, well, iron. But the image where humans are concerned suggests hands shaping clay - a malleable material before it is fired, yet not wholly without resistance. So what are we, clay, or water, or that to which no metaphor can do justice? Do we set hard, and if so, when and how and why, and is it inevitable?

I make an issue of it because Levine's fundamentalism is utterly integral to her case. It is what gives her hope. All we need to do - given the malleability of human nature - is to identify the problems, whether it's unwanted pregnancies, or aggressive male sexual behaviour, or the ignorance and social deprivation that foster sexual diseases, then find the political will and the resources to invest in the social education that will put things right. Simple! Except that those who stubbornly doubt the perfectibility of man remain sceptical and antagonistic, whether it be through a Christian's view of our sinfulness or the neo-Darwinian notion that our nature has been moulded -- and fired -- by evolutionary circumstance.

Simple, except that the sceptics may in some degree be right. Our bodies may be mostly water, but we are not water. We are not clay, but we do have feet of clay. Love, hate, jealousy, fear, ambition, desire -- they are all aspects of our inescapable nature. They may be highly malleable in their expression but not in their essential existence.

Take desire, and what Levine says about the paedophiliac variety. After referring to a "paedophile" who also appeared to have adult lovers, she says:

"In other words, there may be nothing fundamental about a person that makes him a 'paedophile'. So-called paedophiles do not have some genetic, or incurable, disease. Men who desire children can change their behaviour to conform with the norms of a society that reviles it. Paedophilia can be renounced; in the medical language we now use to describe this sexual proclivity, it can be 'cured'."

Those unfortunates in past decades who were unsuccessfully subjected to electric-shock aversion therapy or chemical castration might beg to differ. The thousands right now being "mentally cleansed" in those brainwashing gulags, the cognitive-behavioural sex offender treatment programmes, could also tell a different story. It would be one in which offenders may indeed speak of being forced to conform through sheer coercion. But how many would say they had been "cured" or ceased to feel their desires? If desire is so socially malleable, how come gay boys persist in their gayness in the teeth of relentless hostility among their peers at school and sometimes rejection at home?

Desire is not entirely inflexible. How else could "political lesbianism" ever have become fashionable? Perhaps feminine desire is in general more malleable than men's feelings, but men may also be taken by surprise with the late emergence of new forms of desire and the fading of old ones. But seldom does a man's core sexual orientation deviate by more than a few degrees from its earliest conscious starting point, which may go back to the age of five or six and may have been determined much earlier. Nor can genetic factors be ruled out, as Levine asserts. Unlike most of the points she makes, this one is offered utterly without evidential support.

But it would be wrong to dwell solely on the weak spots in Levine's fundamentalism. Its strengths enable her to write persuasively on things that can and should be changed. Her perspective enables her to see the potential of a "desire education" aimed not at changing gays into straights or paedophiles into either but rather at enriching the lives of growing boys and girls by such means as querying unhelpful gender-role expectations, so that boys need be less worried about performance anxiety and girls less enslaved by false and damaging romantic ideals.

Best of all, in the context of the danger of AIDS, her approach leads us away from "morals" and towards ethics. In what is clearly a deeply-felt appeal to our sense of community, she demonstrates the value of public-spirited altruism as against the narrow privatisation of love implied in the "family values" ethic.

To my mind Levine's most heartrendingly effective chapter, however, is one in which she exposes the nightmare to which "children who molest" are being subjected in America today.

It's a world in which the lunatics are in charge of the asylum. Take psychologist Toni Cavanagh Johnson, partner in crime of Kee MacFarlane, the social worker behind the notorious McMartin Preschool investigation. We are treated to a quote from Johnson straight out of the satirical classic Brass Eye. Remember the spoof anti-abuse ad where a British radio star claims paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than with humans?

"There's no real evidence for it," he confidently proclaims, "but it's a scientific fact."

Compare that with this, from Johnson: "While norms do not presently exist for what is normal sexual behaviour in children, the behaviours exhibited led us to label the behaviours as being outside the normal range of sexual activity for their age group."

And what are the lunatics doing to the kids? The details are horrific. Suffice it to say that one programme for adults with similar elements to the infamous STEPS regime for youngsters was condemned and halted by a judge as a cruel and unusual punishment. But the kids must keep on suffering. After all, children must be protected!

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