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What Judith Levine is Really Saying

Judith Levine's book, "Harmful to Minors" has stirred up enormous controversy. But with the conservative right setting the discourse, Levine's true insights are getting lost.
 
 
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"Parents today have forgotten what it was like to be teenagers themselves," I conjectured recently. A friend and I were discussing why so many people find the issue of teen sexuality so terrifying. "No," he replied, "they're afraid because they remember exactly what it was like!"

Few issues cause as much consternation as the sexual lives of young people, a fact made abundantly clear to author Judith Levine and the University of Minnesota Press upon publication of "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex."

In the furor over the book, most commentators have missed Levine's main point: "Sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors." In fact, "America's drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing. Instead, often it is harming them."

Despite what critics contend, "Harmful to Minors" is not about pedophilia. It tackles a wide range of issues including censorship, statutory rape laws, abstinence-only sex education, abortion, gender, AIDS, and child welfare. The latter issue, which raises questions beyond sexuality about how our society provides for its neediest children, is "the most important one in the book," Levine told AlterNet, and "the real reason the right is against me." But the inflammatory issue of child-adult sex continues to draw the headlines.

Why does the proposition that youth deserves sexual autonomy, pleasure, and privacy seem so radical? In the 1970s, the sexual revolution was in full swing and the idea that children and teens were sexual beings was accepted, at least among progressives. Books such as Heidi Handman and Peter Brennan's "Sex Handbook: Information and Help for Minors" and Sol Gordon's "You!" showed respect for young people and their ability to make their own sexual decisions.

For the past two decades, though, the religious right has been winning the war against comprehensive sex education, access to abortion and contraception, and the sexual autonomy of young people. By the late 1980s, Gordon had shifted his advice toward parents with "Raising a Child Conservatively in a Sexually Permissive World," and child pornography laws made it illegal to even possess a copy of "Show Me!," an award-winning sex education book for children.

What happened? Levine does not place all the blame on the right, acknowledging the role cultural feminists played in imposing a regime of overwhelming sexual protectionism.

"The right won, but the mainstream let it," she says. "Comprehensive sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the 1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory, until the right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural consensus."

Add to this the fact that the sexual liberationists of yesterday are parents today, facing all the typical parental fears. As the joke goes, a conservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter. Many people feel a pervasive sense of dread about children and sex, but as Levine notes, things are not appreciably worse now than they were in the past. Children's exposure to sexual images is hardly new, and research indicates that rates of teen sexual activity are not "galloping upward."

Between Exaggeration and Evidence

As Levine documents throughout the book with copious studies and reviews of news sources, fears of rampant pedophilia, child abduction, ritual abuse, and Internet sexual predators are at best exaggerated, at worst completely unsupported by evidence.

For example, studies commissioned by Congress show that between 50 and 150 children are kidnapped and murdered by strangers each year, yet in a Mayo Clinic survey three-quarters of parents said they are afraid their children will be abducted. And a 1994 U.S. government report analyzing over 12,000 accusations of Satanic ritual abuse found "not a single case where there was clear corroborating evidence."

Nevertheless, parents are nervous -- even squeamish -- about their children's and teens' sexuality, often seeking to deny their offspring the sexual freedoms they themselves demanded at the same age. (Physician Victor Strasburger has even penned a paean to hypocrisy entitled "Getting Your Kids to Say 'No' in the '90s When You Said 'Yes' in the '60s."

In the past two decades youthful sexual desire has become widely pathologized. As Levine notes, "It's as if (parents) cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do: They like or love the person they are having it with. It gives them a sense of beauty, worthiness, happiness, or power. And it feels good."

The War on Youth

The panic surrounding youthful sexuality can perhaps best be compared to the war on drugs: Both are based on ideology rather than science, and no amount of evidence can change the minds of true believers. Both mask underlying social agendas in which concern for children is used to control the behavior of adults. And both engender problems of credibility as young people reject exhortations to "do as I say, not as I did."

Many adults recognize that they made mistakes in their youth and understandably wish to spare children similar missteps, especially in the age of AIDS. Yet too often, Levine contends, censorship and abstinence-only sex education are really an effort to hold back children's coming of age, offering parents an illusory "freedom from watching their kids grow up."

But denying young people knowledge about sex will not help them become responsible sexual citizens. As Levine notes, children today know about IPOs and the hole in the ozone layer, just as they know about abortion and sadomasochism. Parents cannot block out all uncomfortable knowledge.

In order "to give children a fighting chance in navigating the sexual world," Levine says, "adults need to saturate it with accurate, realistic information and abundant, varied images and narratives of love and sex."

If a person truly has the good of young people in mind, one would hope he or she would be interested in what research has to reveal. "Harmful to Minors" offers a plethora of findings, from studies showing that exposure to sexually explicit images does not harm children, to evidence that teens' sexual relationships with adults are not uniformly devastating, to research on the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education in delaying sexual activity.

But more crucial than research is listening to what children and teens have to say about their own experiences, honestly acknowledging our own experiences at those ages, and applying a healthy dose of common sense. While we are constantly reminded of the importance of believing young people's allegations of coercion and abuse, too often we give considerably less credence to their avowals of consent and pleasure.

Most of us came across sexual images in our youth, and most of us did not turn out to be sexual monsters. Further, there is no evidence that cultures in which explicit sexual imagery is prevalent (such as Denmark or the Netherlands) produce more sexual pathology than those in which such material is forbidden; in fact, there are indications that quite the opposite is the case.

Sexual Relationships with Older People

In the explosive realm of adult-youth sex, many teens say that such relationships can be consensual and positive. And more than a few of us remember having such positive sexual relationships with adults when we ourselves were teens.

"Teens often seek out sex with older people, and they do so for understandable reasons: an older person makes them feel sexy and grown up, protected and special," writes Levine. "Often the sex is better than it would be with a peer who has as little skill as they do. For some teens, a romance with an older person can feel more like salvation than victimization."

Romantic heartbreak -- and plain old bad sex -– are just as likely with same-age peers as with older partners.

Within the gay community, especially, one often hears fond reminiscences of youthful sexual relationships with adults. For many gay men, a teenage relationship with an older man was their release from a homophobic family and peers and their introduction to a supportive community.

As lesbian syndicated columnist Paula Martinac recently wrote, the differences of opinion between gay men and lesbians regarding adult-youth sexuality represent an ongoing rift within the gay community. Mainstream gay and lesbian groups understandably wish to disassociate themselves from sordid accusations of pedophilia -- and correctly point out that the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by heterosexual men -- but they cannot so easily distance the community from its long history of gay icons who have spoken and written positively about adult-teen relationships.

As for abstinence-only education, young people in Western European countries where children receive comprehensive sex education and where sex is treated as a normal and healthy part of life do not experience more sex-related pathology. Quite the contrary, according to The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior published last year by the Department of Health and Human Services, other Western countries have lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, AIDS, rape, incest and child abuse than the U.S.

Levine has taken considerable heat for holding up as a "good model" the Netherlands' age of consent law, under which young people ages 12-16 can legally consent to sex with older people who are not parents or authority figures, but under which charges can be brought if teens or their parents (with the Approval of the Council for the Protection of Children) believe the young person is being exploited. But her support for the Dutch law cannot be taken out of the context of that country's social welfare system and relaxed cultural attitudes about sex.

"In the Netherlands, children are respected as citizens with rights like everyone else, to housing, health care, good day care, school, and college," Levine told AlterNet. "They get sexuality education from the get-go, condoms are available in vending machines everywhere, abortion is free from the national health service, their parents receive generous parental leave and, if they choose to stay home longer with the kids, social welfare benefits to subsidize that important work. While protecting children, the Dutch (and other Europeans) do not infantilize them."

Looking at Child Welfare

The child welfare issue has been all but neglected in the controversy surrounding "Harmful to Minors." Today in the U.S. the poverty rate stands at over 10 percent, with children making up an increasing proportion of the poor. In the only developed nation that does not provide universal health care, some 11 million children under age 18 are uninsured.

A fifth of American women get no prenatal care, and the U.S. infant mortality rate lags behind that of twenty other industrialized countries. And virtually every sex-related problem, from AIDS to incest, is correlated with poverty. It is these conditions, argues Levine -- not pedophiles or pornography -- that are truly harming young people.

"Poor people aren't less moral than rich people," Levine writes. "But poverty, like sex, is a phenomenon rooted in moral priorities, a result of deliberate fiscal and social policies that obstruct the fair distribution of health, education, and wealth in a wealthy country. The result, often, is an unfair distribution of sexual health and happiness, too."

Nevertheless, according to a 1997 Public Agenda survey, Americans persist in defining sex-related problems as moral rather than material, and thus focusing on solutions that are "character building, not situation bettering."

Levine's conclusion that "economic security is necessary for sexual safety" aims at the heart of the religious right's agenda of privatization, parental rights, and consolidation of the authority of the nuclear family over the interests of society and the needs of the younger generation. But such misplaced priorities are nothing new: In the late 19th century, as industrialization drove children into the factories, moralistic adults worried about saving them from sex.

From Levine's point of view, children are not the property of their parents and must be treated as citizens in their own right.

"Legally designating a class of people categorically unable to consent to sexual relations is not the best way to protect children, particularly when 'children' include everyone from birth to eighteen," she writes.

Indeed, Levine finds such an idea reminiscent of the now discredited dogma -- held by both social conservatives and some feminists -- that women, too, were paragons of innocence who did not experience desire, required protection, and were not truly capable of consent. And how, she wonders, has it come to pass that "it is only in the area of violent criminal activity that children (some as young as 11) are considered fully mature"?

How can we expect children and teens to learn about healthy sex and relationships if they cannot experiment and explore, with access to increasing information, freedom, and responsibility as they get older?

How can we hope that young people who have received abstinence-only sex education, been shielded from sexually explicit material in the media and on the Internet, been deprived of non-sexual touch from adults, and had no opportunity for sexual play with their peers will magically transform into worldly, responsible, sexually healthy adults upon attaining the age of majority (whatever that happens to be wherever they live)?

Experts agree that most young people engage in sex by the end of their teens. Clearly, attempts to prevent sex by withholding knowledge have been ineffectual in achieving that goal, but they have impeded efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancy, AIDS and other problems associated with sexual ignorance.

The idea that young people must never have -- or even hear much about -- sex makes it difficult to teach them about the differences between consensual and nonconsensual sex, between healthy and exploitative sex, between safe and unsafe sex.

"If sexual expertise is expected of adults, the rudiments must be taught to children," insists Levine. "If educators want to be credible about sexual responsibility, they have to be forthright about sexual joy. If parents want their kids to be happy now and later, it is their duty, and should be their delight, to help them learn to love well, which is to say respectfully of others and themselves, skillfully in body and heart, morally as lovers, friends, and citizens."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer in San Francisco.