News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The Taboos of Touch

The controversial new book 'Harmful to Minors' has tapped into the nation's anxieties about kids and sex -- and stirred up a hornet's nest of moral conservatives.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

A new book from University of Minnesota Press has just hit the stores. But weeks before it was available to the public, "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex," had already provoked a rash of national press. The media is responding to what can only be called the usual suspects -- a posse of moral conservatives and practitioners of discredited therapy who've been wreaking havoc lately on scientific research and academic freedom.

They claim they're outraged that the book promotes "pedophilia." The critics' real goal, though, is not to protect children. The right-wingers are pushing a fundamentalist attack on mainstream American institutions such as legal abortion; acceptance of gays as normal people, and sex education in public schools.

I was on the committee the University of Minnesota Press asked to review "Harmful to Minors" suitability for publication. Written by journalist and feminist Judith Levine, the book asks the adults of America to put aside irrational fears about children's sexuality, and to help our kids grow up safe and happy by giving them the information they need to make wise decisions about their sex lives. The best research shows they'll have those sex lives anyway. Levine argues that it makes sense then, to arm them with knowledge and resources to avoid unwanted pregnancy, AIDS, sex abuse, shame, and other miseries; teach them to enjoy their bodies and their desires; and to take comfort in the fact that though sexual abuse is morally wrong, it does not necessarily destroy a child's psyche.

As someone who has written about sex abuse panics and who has spent the last few years raising a teenaged son and daughter, I was struck by how smart the book is. Particularly impressive is Levine's use of social science research to buttress her arguments. Topics such as the need for comprehensive sex ed and accessible abortion are the meat of "Harmful to Minors," and take up the bulk of the book. A discussion about sex between adolescents and adults occupies one chapter. It suggests the need to rethink America's statutory rape laws, which are inconsistent from state to state, and based on antediluvian tenets about preserving girls' virginity, instead of rational concepts like gender equality and child welfare. Again, this brief section is buttressed with solid research data.

Even so, the idea of teen-adult sex gives most American parents the willies. Right-wing fundamentalists and discredited therapists are now using this anxiety as a Trojan horse to attack science and the academy.

The American Psychological Association was the first victim. In 1998, Temple University social psychologist Bruce Rind and colleagues published in the APA's prestigious Psychological Bulletin. Analyzing some five dozen previous studies, the researchers concluded that not all minors who have sexual experiences with adults seem traumatized; in fact, many -- particularly males -- describe their experience as benign, even positive. The article was spotted by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which believes that homosexuals can and should stop being gay. NARTH spread the word about the study. Soon radio talk show hostess "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger was on the case.

Two years ago, Schlessinger provoked national outrage when she condemned gays as the "deviant" product of "biological error." Today her website collects money for crisis pregnancy centers -- hotbeds of anti-choice organizing. Shlessinger denounced the Rind study repeatedly on her show as dangerous pseudoscience generated by pedophile sympathizers. The APA was deluged with angry calls and hundreds of thousands of form letters. Politicians got them too. At the behest of ultra-conservative Republican Whip Tom DeLay, Congress passed a unanimous resolution censuring the study. This was apparently the first time in history that the federal legislature ever condemned a scientific work because it disliked the findings.

Faced with possible cuts in government funds for mental health projects, the APA went into a tailspin. The group wrote DeLay, apologizing for publishing the study without considering the "public policy" implications, and vowing something unprecented: to have it peer-reviewed again. Three years later, many APA members are still disturbed at how their organization caved under government pressure. Some have left the group for this reason. The APA's public affairs director told the Boston Globe that the flap will have "a chilling effect" on future research about children and sex.

Now, "Harmful to Minors" and the University of Minnesota Press are getting the same treatment. Besides Dr. Laura, the main rabble-rousers are Concerned Women for America and an individual named Judith Reisman. CWA, which calls for a return to Bible-based morality, was founded two decades ago to fight the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The group calls for an end to sex education in schools and describes homosexuality as "a plague." In the 1980s, CWA provided money and legal counsel for a lawsuit to remove textbooks from a public school system in Tennessee. The reason: the texts promoted "secular humanism" with material like The Wizard of Oz and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

Reisman, a former researcher for Rev. Donald Wildmon's ultra-conservative American Family Foundation, received $734,000 from the Justice Department's 1980s-era "Meese" anti-pornography commission to study cartoons of children in men's magazines. When she handed in her work, the government refused to publish it because it was so flawed. In 1990, she was the only citizen, except for several police officers, to testify for the state of Ohio in its obscenity case against a Cincinnati museum that had exhibited the work of famed gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Reisman told the jury Mapplethorpe was a "fascist" whose pictures were "not art" because they seldom depicted faces. (The jury acquitted.) Since then, Reisman has published her major work with Lousiana-based Huntington House. According to its website, the press specializes in titles such as "From Earthquakes to Global Unity: The End Times Have Begun," and books that ask "Are we under siege from ancient demonic powers?"

Reisman has gone on record comparing "Harmful to Minors" with "Mein Kampf" (though she admits she's read neither book). After she conveyed these thoughts to Concerned Women for America, that group mounted a mega-letter-writing campaign against the book. In response, the Minnesota's House Majority Leader, a Republican, has called Harmful to Minors "debased" and told the University of Minnesota Press to "punish" its director for publishing it.

This is no idle threat. Recently, the head of the political science department at the University of Missouri in Kansas City was vilified on talk radio for publishing an article pointing out that sex between men and boys is common and permissible in many cultures, and has been so during many periods in history. In retaliation, the state legislature yanked $100,000 from the university budget.

Reisman and right-wing groups such as CWA have lately been joined in their attack by a group of psychotherapists whose background is unknown to most of the press. The Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice, and the Media was organized in the late 1990s. The organization was a backlash response to national outcry over bad therapy that was creating "recovered" false memories of child sex abuse. The Leadership Council's own leaders are "dissociationists" -- they work with patients who used to be called multiple personalities, a la the legendary "Sybil."

These therapists claim the illness is virtually always caused by severe child sex abuse. But that claim has never been proven, and dissociation has become so controversial that "multiple personality disorder" was dumped a few years ago from the American Psychiatric Associatiion's official list of mental illnesses. Many psychologists now think it's "caused" by bad therapy (and by bad afternoon shock-talk shows).

Leadership Council officers, however, were this country's biggest proponents of multiple personality disorder during the 1980s. And because many of their patients told stories of satanic ritual abuse, the credulous dissociation therapists promoted a national hysteria over apocryphal devil-worshipping child molesters, including in daycare centers. They attacked the Psychological Bulletin study after it came out in 1998. Now they're after "Harmful to Minors," no doubt because it suggests that not all children are psychologically ravaged by sex abuse, or in need of lifetime therapy.   

The University of Minnesota is now trying to mollify all these attackers by ordering an "external review" of how the University of Minnesota Press chooses books for publication. The university vice president who oversees the press says she can't imagine reviewers' recommendations will undermine academic freedom. She could be right. Still, the very fact that there was a review in the first place is bound to chill academic presses all over the country when they deal in the future with controversial books. It seems incredible that decisions about what constitutes science and scholarship -- not to mention mainstream American values -- are being dictated by Bible-thumpers, talk-show martinets and proponents of questionable therapy.

Debbie Nathan is a New York-based writer and the co-author, with Michael Snedeker, of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.