That new book about children and sex is only half as shocking as you've heard.

That new book about children and sex is only half as shocking as you've heard.

That new book about children and sex is only half as shocking as you've heard.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 3 2002 10:56 AM

Lust Busters

The perils of protecting adults from protecting children from sex.

Book cover

Several years ago I got a taste of what Judith Levine's life is about to become now that she's written a book that has both the words "children" and "sex" in its title. Ignoring warnings from older and wiser friends, I wrote an essay for the New Republic about Chickenhawk, a documentary on the infamous North American Man-Boy Love Association. In it I argued, rather timidly, that the documentary was at least "worth seeing," as it portrayed this pedophile support group as a bunch of delusional, perverted, but basically harmless men. For weeks afterward I received bags of identical postcards saying something like, "Dear Miss Rosin, You are a danger to America's children"—part of a write-in campaign organized by Christian conservatives. The Weekly Standard ran two separate cover stories, "Pedophilia Chic" and "Pedophile Chic, Reconsidered," both featuring my piece as a prime example of a toxic new trend.

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the co-host of NPR’s Invisibilia and a founder of DoubleX. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

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In retrospect my tone was a bit too glib for the topic, and certain of my smug little asides make me cringe, especially now that I have a child. But the essay was not nearly bad enough to warrant a whole crusade plus two cover stories. Explaining this overblown reaction is the one thing Levine does well in her book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex.

Levine is the latest in a string of critics who have debunked the child abuse hysteria of the late '80s and '90s, both from the right and, in Levine's case, the left. America, she argues in her book, has convinced itself that its children are prey to grave sexual dangers, from which they must be protected at all cost. Maintaining this delusion, she argues, has required exaggerating dangers that are in reality quite rare and also re-establishing an almost pre-Freudian definition of childhood innocence, one that excludes any hint of sexual curiosity.

You need only witness the reaction to Levine's book to know she is on to something. Conservatives accused her of providing academic cover for child molesters and picketed the University of Minnesota Press for publishing the book. "This book encourages children to have sex, and that is very, very dangerous," Bill O'Reilly said on his show. He also provided a sampling of the complaints against the book, calling it "vile," "disgusting," "insane," "perverted," "sick stuff," "outrageous," and "evil." (He also admitted on air that he hasn't read it.) As the adjectives pile on, you get the feeling the disgust has less to do with the children than the adults and their need to believe in the perfect victim, a cherub who justifies their belief in the possibility of pure innocence as well as their resignation that it is always about to be violated.

At its extremes, this is the kind of hysteria that launched the McMartin Preschool trials and the Satanic ritual abuse sham of the last couple of decades. Thankfully those episodes have largely been debunked. But their legacy lives on through a generation of well-meaning child-abuse professionals who imagine nefarious motives behind the smallest of gestures, whether a kiss, a pat on the head, or a piggyback ride. Echoing the right-wing critique, Levine documents how much has been sacrificed to the therapists' hyper-vigilance about "good touch" and "bad touch": Preschool teachers are now taught to avoid hugging children or putting them in their lap. In many day-care centers, a caretaker is not allowed to change a diaper without another staff member present. Workers at photo-developing shops are advised to call the police when they see pictures of mothers taking baths with their infant sons, and many have. Society no longer trusts any adults, even parents, to indulge in the sensual pleasure of raising a child without exploiting it.

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As a journalist for Mother Jones and other magazines, Levine was part of the backlash against this collective panic, along with Dorothy Rabinowitz, who unraveled the McMartin trials for the Wall Street Journal, and historian James Kincaid, among others. Levine did groundbreaking work about the new juvenile sex-therapy programs, where children as young as 9 were essentially jailed on very little evidence and made to endlessly document their deviant fantasies. But like the leaders of most backlashes, Levine is far too invested in being contrarian to stay completely reasonable. The O'Reilly crowd has focused mostly on her pedophile chapter, and in many ways Levine is asking for it. Part of what's wrong with the chapter is just lazy grammar: "Sex with children does not a pedophile make," Levine writes, a sentence endlessly repeated in the right-wing press. By this she means there is no typical profile of a pedophile, that some have no history of previous sexual attraction to children and can be, say, married fathers who one day erupt.

Grammar aside, Levine seems far too invested in vindicating pedophiles. She makes the usual arguments that pedophiles are rare, that most are not strangers lurking in the dark but family members, that most of the child-porn images on the Web are planted there by the FBI, that there are far greater dangers facing children than molestation: abuse, neglect, car accidents. But then she takes it one step too far: Levine cites studies saying pedophilia can be "cured," that re-offense rates are only 13 percent compared to 74 percent for other crimes. But the medical consensus is that pedophilia can never be cured, only controlled through constant vigilance, like alcoholism. Plus this is an unfortunate time to be making the argument that child molesters are extremely rare, given that one seems to be popping up in nearly every diocese in America.

Levine also shrugs about kiddie porn, calling it just a matter of "a small number of people who might do nothing more harmful to minors than sit around and masturbate to pictures of ten year olds in bathing suits." I suppose if you define "harmful" as necessitating a live victim, that's technically true. But there's something disturbing about letting go of our natural revulsion to such an image, as Levine seems to have done. The anti-kiddie porn laws may have a whiff of "thought crime," but they, along with a heap of societal scorn, have succeeded so far in keeping the cache of kiddie porn minuscule. Levine also defends ephebophiles, people who are attracted not to children but to teen-agers. Statutory-rape laws encode the outdated and sexist idea that a woman's virginity must be protected for her father's sake and that she herself can never desire on her own, Levine argues. But these days teen-age girls seek out sex with adults for their own reasons, like a wish to feel protected or adventurous. Levine cites the example of 21-year-old Dylan and 13-year-old Heather, whose parents cruelly reported Dylan to the police and got a restraining order against him. Heather kept writing him lovey-dovey notes, and eventually Dylan whisked her away in his Jeep Wrangler on a cross-country ride, where they stayed in motels, watched movies, and ate Indian food. The FBI pronounced him armed and dangerous and launched a manhunt that made all the front pages.

Levine is incensed with the FBI and the media for portraying Dylan as "dark and evil" and with Heather's parents for turning him in. But I imagine that most parents would also have called 911. Dylan reportedly had a restraining order filed against him by one of the two mothers of his children, and he had once offered to pay two teen-age girls for sex. Perhaps it's misleading to call his relationship with Heather rape; maybe the legal term should be fine-tuned to predator, or just lech. But as parent of a daughter, I'm happy to have the law on my side.

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Most of the book is devoted to Levine's proposed solution, and here she enters the realm of comedy. The right, she argues, has won the sex-education war, so most of what children learn in school these days is some form of abstinence. Sex is shown to be either clinical, all uterus and wiggling zygotes, or dangerous. "Aids, guilt, herpes, disappointment, syphilis, loneliness, cervical cancer" are the words she plucks from a Christian sex-ed pamphlet. What we need, she argues, is pleasure education, sex-ed classes devoted to the erotic. Here Levine is backed up by dozens of sexologists with "helpful" suggestions. Children in school should learn about orgasms, masturbation, and the "sophisticated aspects of lovemaking"; otherwise they will "stumble through mediocre sex until they stumble on some other source of erotic enlightenment."

For me, that's a risk I'm willing to take if it means my child won't have to sit in a class watching Mrs. Herschenbaum demonstrate on a cucumber. Clearly Levine missed that Monty Python episode when the teacher is doing a live demonstration of the missionary position while his bored students throw paper airplanes out the window.

Levine quotes approvingly the experience of a woman who fondly recalls the day her mother and her 6-year-old self took off their underpants and explored their clitorises together. And another case of two moms who took their daughters out to dinner to tell them how to make sex fun.

Call me a prude, but that's one dinner I hope to avoid. Children have no shortage of places to absorb the notion that sex is not all pencil drawings and herpes. My primary sources, if I remember correctly, included the racy chapter from Lady Chatterly's Lover, scenes from The Godfather and Flashdance, and one particular batty sex-ed teacher who loved to tell us what she was up to last night. I'm sure that for awhile I had many of the details wrong, but in the end I would wish the same bungling education for my children. Partly to spare myself, but also partly to avoid making the same mistake as both Levine and the hysterical right; that is, robbing my children of their own chance for discovery, and dulling the mystery around the whole thing.