Review of Harmful to Minors
[Copyright 2002 Carol Tavris. First printed in the London Times Literary Supplement (TLS), June 21, 2002. Posted here with explicit permission from Carol Tavris. Direct reposting requests to firstname.lastname@example.org]
Harmful to Minors: The perils of protecting children from sex
By Judith Levine
Introduction by Dr. Joycelyn M. Elders
296 pp. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
Reviewed by Carol Tavris
In the early 1990s, when “recovered-memory therapy” and the daycare sex-abuse scandals were at their peak in America and were already being exported to the U.K., I wrote an article critically examining this latest epidemic of sexual hysteria. I received sacks of mud from angry readers, but also a few gems. One was a letter from Jessica Mitford, who told me a story about her daughter, Dink:
“In about 1948, when she was 7, we lived near the Municipal Rose Garden,” she wrote. “Dink and the other little girls used to meet and play there. The children reported that they’d often seen a man who would be lurking in the bushes and came out exposing himself to them. Our neighbors reacted predictably; the men were going to catch him, castrate him and Lord knows what. Useless to point out that chaps who do that are unfortunate specimens but they very seldom go on to rape or other violent behaviour. In the course of this episode I found out that the police term for these deviants is ‘lily-waver’, which I thought rather appealing.
“A mother of one of the other kids came round to complain that Dink had been seen talking to the fellow. All the other children had been ordered not to talk to him, and had obeyed. So I called Dink in and asked, ‘Did you speak to the lily-waver?’ ‘Yes’, she answered stoutly. ‘He said, “Little girl, have you ever seen one of these before?” And I answered, “Yes, of course, loads of times.”‘
“Upon which,” Mitford concluded, “I imagine the lily must have wilted.”
Alas, poor America, you can’t tell this story here nowadays and expect many smiles. People will assure you solemnly that Dink was sexually abused, even if she doesn’t know it, and the traumatic effects on her young psyche of being exposed to the lily-waver will last forever. If you demur, you will be accused of defending child molesters, perhaps of being one yourself.
Harmful to Minors is a sane, provocative, well-researched effort to make readers think critically about what acts are, exactly, “harmful to minors”; what we should, and should not, be trying to protect our children from; and how we can separate legitimate worries from irrational panics, real dangers from false alarms. For example, Levine argues, many acts can be morally and legally wrong, such as exhibitionism and fondling, without inevitably being harmful or traumatic, as Dink’s story shows. As surveys from Kinsey to the present have documented, many men have been solicited, as a boy or teenager, by an older male—a priest, Boy Scout leader, teacher, fellow camper. They describe these experiences variously as annoying, shocking, disgusting, amusing, or exciting, but rarely as traumatizing for life. Parents can protect their children as Jessica Mitford protected Dink: by being candid about sexuality, by explaining, and by not overreacting. On the other hand, as anyone knows who has suffered a broken heart when a love affair ends, other experiences may be emotionally devastating without being morally or legally wrong. We can’t protect children from heartbreak.
Levine understands that it is natural for parents to worry about their children’s sexuality in these hypersexualized times. Sex today seems to entail so many risks, so many dangers around every corner, so many versions and perversions available live and in colour on the Internet. Parental concern is thus constantly smoldering, erupting into flame with every horrific news account of a child victimized by an adult.
It is crucial, Levine agrees, to try to protect minors from sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, coerced sexual experiences, predatory adults, and the individuals who commit monstrous crimes against children. But in America, she argues, most efforts to solve these very real problems are misguided, doomed to failure because they are based on ideology and panic rather than evidence of effectiveness. Simultaneously, public fears about paedophilia and pornography are being exploited and inflamed until they are way out of proportion to reality.
Harmful to Minors shows that what passes for the protection of children in America is part of the larger agenda of the ultra-conservative Christian right to get sex education out of the schools (they did), ban abortion again (they are nearly there), block efforts to promote gay rights (they have been successful in many states), deny and suppress children’s normal sex play and curiosity, censor any materials that oppose these goals, and impose punitive restrictions on the public’s rights and freedoms. The only things these zealots have not been able to eradicate are sex, pregnancy, abortion, and homosexuality, all of which occur with as great a frequency among conservatives, fundamentalist Christians, and Catholics as among the godless heathen of New York and Hollywood.
It is difficult for many Europeans to appreciate the tenacity and fever that fundamentalist Christians bring to their cause in the US, especially now that they have one of their own in the White House. Not content to impose their minority views on the rest of America, they play international hardball. In early May, the Bush administration, in spite of opposition from its closest allies, sought to remove all references to “reproductive health services” from a document being drafted for a United Nations Special Session on Children and instead include language promoting sexual abstinence for teenagers. The United States also objected to the document’s references to the legal rights of children, because conservatives in Congress think this undermines “parental authority.” So much for efforts to protect children in ways that might really do so.
Levine exposes the hypocrisy and futility of efforts to protect children by lying to them, denying them information, or scaring them. For example, what Levine calls “no-sex education,” the preaching of abstinence, is now the dominant lesson in American schools: telling children and teenagers that if they have sex before marriage they will lose their health, fertility, friends, reputations, self-esteem, morals, and possibly their lives. (Abstinence appeals to liberal parents, too, Levine observes, who feel a pang of loss when they realize their teenagers have become sexually active.) But abstinence education is a dismal failure; at most, teenagers exposed to these programs delay intercourse by about seven months, while engaging in plenty of other sex acts that can transmit disease.
Similarly, Levine reviews the massive research literature on efforts to censor pornography and sexual information. She quite agrees that there are plenty of ugly, hateful sexual images in the media, as well as banal, crass, and commercial ones, but there is no convincing evidence that they warp children’s minds or turn them into deviants or rapists. (Most sex offenders, including child molesters, come from sexually repressive households and have actually seen less pornography than other adults.)
As for the Internet, efforts to suppress or censor its vast content are as hopeless as taming the unruly ocean, although this has not stopped many politicians from trying. Yes, there is junk, stupidity, and risk on the Internet, as there is in that most dangerous medium—the book. But the Internet is also awash with helpful sex information, which schools and many parents are currently denying young people (Levine recommends some good sites). The great majority of young people themselves, when it occurs to anyone to ask them, know full well that there are bad things and bad people online. But on balance, they say, there are far more good things, and the bad ones are manageable.
In two particularly compelling chapters, Levine shows what happens when the uniquely American streak of Puritanism meets the uniquely American devotion to psychotherapy: the normal sexual curiosity of children and the normal sexual awakening of teenagers are transformed into acts of deviance and pathology–acts in need of adult protection. Thus, children caught in perfectly typical sex play with other children have been arrested and treated as child molesters; children caught masturbating are sent to therapists to determine whether they have been sexually abused; teenage girls caught having a consensual affair with an “older man” of 18 or 21 are treated as victims of statutory rape. As Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues wrote in their 1948 volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, “On a specific calculation of our data, it may be stated that at least 85 per cent of the younger male population could be convicted as sex offenders if law enforcement officials were as efficient as most people expect them to be.” In America today, law enforcement officials seem determined to increase their efficiency.
In a chapter titled “The Expurgation of Pleasure,” Levine argues that public conversations about youthful sexuality are almost entirely dominated by talk of coercion and abuse. “At best,” she writes, “youthful sex is a regrettable mistake; at worst it is a pathology, a tragedy, or a crime.” Some adults speak this way with the best of intentions, hoping to protect adolescents from having sex too soon or from having unpleasant or risky sexual experiences. But the consequence, intentional or inadvertent, is also to “protect” young people from pleasure, and from information that will enhance not only their safety but their satisfaction. Levine dares to say that teenagers might have sex because they enjoy it, a thought as alarming to many parents as parental sex is to many adolescents.
But what of the real dangers? One of Levine’s most interesting chapters is devoted to a close examination of the “modern monster,” the paedophile. It is regrettable that she does not draw on the seminal research of Philip Jenkins, whose books Intimate Enemies: Moral panics in contemporary Great Britain (1992) and Moral Panic: Changing concepts of the child molester in modern America (1998), brilliantly debunk the media myth of this new bogeyman, who is supposedly lurking on the Internet and on every corner to seduce the innocent. But Levine does a good job of showing how the image of this “insatiable and incurable” creature differs from the actual behavior of most child molesters and from the statistics of the frequency and nature of this offense.
For example, paedophiles are rarely violent or use force against a child. Their sexual acts with children tend to consist of “child-like” behaviors–kissing, touching, masturbation, or exhibitionism–rather than genital acts. In one study, more than 80 per cent of the paedophiles interviewed were uninterested in genital sex with children. (Children are far more traumatized by repeated parental incest than by a single experience with an unrelated adult.) Paedophilia is not incurable; most molesters, when arrested, are embarrassed and ashamed and do not reoffend, especially if they receive good treatment. The recidivism rates of child sex offenders who undergo treatment (about 11 percent in the US) are among the lowest in the criminal population. (Heterosexual rapists are the most intransigent.)
Finally, most of the men who are arrested for having child pornography haven’t actually done anything but look at pictures, and most of the men arrested for statutory rape aren’t interested in children at all, but in teenagers. For example, of the alleged epidemic of seductions of children through the Internet, Levine reports, in the US only 23 minors “were enticed to malls and hotel rooms by their adult suitors between 1994 and 1996, none of these ‘children’ was under thirteen, and most were at least a couple of years older than that.” Again, none of this information is meant to excuse or minimize serious child abuse; it is meant to put it in perspective.
Appearing as it has in the midst of the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Harmful to Minors could not have been published at a better time for the relevance of its argument, or at a worse time for people’s ability to hear its calming message. Reactions to the book in the United States illustrate the hysteria and sheer brainlessness that often occur when people are asked to consider children’s sexuality–just the point that Levine makes. Indeed, the same constituencies that have inflamed and perpetuated America’s ongoing sex panic in the first place are those leading the attack against Levine’s book now: right-wing groups such as The American Family Foundation and Concerned Women of America (whose idea of protecting children is to get works of “secular humanism” such as The Wizard of Oz banned from schools) and a now familiar amalgam of psychiatrists and psychotherapists who believe that all forms of child sexual experience inevitably cause lifelong harm. One former researcher for the American Family Foundation compared Harmful to Minors with Mein Kampf, while admitting she hadn’t read either.
The battle was enjoined. Levine has received volumes of hate mail, and a few death threats. She has been accused of being a child molester. A talk-show interviewer asked her, “At what age would you start touching your niece and nephew to initiate them into sex?” The University of Minnesota Press, which published the book, has been the target of attack by Republican state legislators.
If anything is harmful to minors, it is surely mindless reactions like these. And so, in the second part of the book, “Sense and Sexuality,” Levine turns reflective and personal. “How can we be both realistic and idealistic about sex?”, she asks. “… how can we be protective but not intrusive, instructive but not preachy, serious but not grim, playful but not frivolous?” Readers may disagree with her suggestions, but they will also be spurred to think about children’s sexuality without trivializing risks and also without exaggerating them. And, more important, without endorsing worthless programs or granting unlimited powers to the authorities—solutions that cause more harm to children, to adults, and to society than the ills they seek to redress.