America needs more people with the guts and persistence of Judith Levine. Her book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex cuts through the jungle of beliefs about protecting children found in the modern U.S., and shows when current tactics do no good or actually harm. Censorship, child sexual abuse, sex education, abortion -- it seems like the cry of the past two decades' controversies has been "won't somebody think of the children?" (sometimes as a front for keeping adults from doing whatever is supposed to be harmful to minors).
The chapter on sexual abuse is particularly interesting to me, since my grandfather molested me. Levine points out the wide gap between the way molesters are portrayed in hysterical media accounts (which is most of them) -- scary, murderous strangers -- and the reality that family members are the most common molesters. (I do wish, though, that she'd said that real knowledge about sex allows children to know when something is abusive, instead of having to try and figure out vague references to "bad touch.") Her section on child pornography points out the ridiculous tendency to pass even more laws against things that are already illegal, with new laws that chill non-sexual activities and children's common sexual exploration ("playing doctor"). In the past, I've written letters to such publications as Reader's Digest when they printed articles that downplayed the incidence or trauma of sexual abuse, and I maintain a list of child abuse resources that are aimed at children -- I don't think anyone could say I don't consider sexual abuse a wrong that needs to be addressed. Yet I agree with Levine's point that most of what's been done on the issue is no help. The consequences of these laws and the atmosphere they create are as disturbing as the fears that led to their enactment -- incidents like the nine-year-old described by a social worker as a "budding sex offender" for poking his sister's buttocks with a pencil, or an eight-year-old girl whose elementary school noted "sexual harrassment" in her record after she wrote a note asking a classmate to be her boyfriend. Consent needs to be the issue -- there is a great difference between pre-teen boys assaulting their female peers in swimming pools and kids of the same age exploring what feels good together.
"Unfortunately, legislators and the courts have been behaving like freaked-out moms and dads discovering a thirteen-year-old in flagrante on the living room couch." That description is from the chapter on statutory rape, but it applies to nearly every other topic covered. The attempt to draw an unambiguous line between acceptable and harmful that can be used for all situations does not work, and Levine points out the greater success of countries such as Holland, whose laws allow a shifting balance between teen self-determination and the authority of their parents. The comparisons of the comprehensive sex education common in European countries and the abstinence-only programs common in the U.S. also shows the failure of the assumption that teen sex is completely preventable.
Particularly unusual in this book is the discussion of pleasure -- probably because it really bothers adults that minors might do sexual things purely because they're fun, despite the amount of material that's out there for those over 18 on making sex more fun. Despite the fact that collections of people's erotic fantasy such as Nancy Friday's, and books of true erotic reminisces such as Virgin Territory feature the erotic thoughts and actions of teens, written by the adults they became, hardly anyone dares to suggest that current teens will always have the same desires. Especially if they're talking about girls. My diaries prove that teen girls can think about sex -- however, since no one ever censored my teen reading, I was probably a lot better informed about sexual desire than most teens. (Frankly, I credit that reading with saving my ability to see sex as a positive thing, instead of the fear my grandfather forced on me.) Levine does talk about other ways that teens can get real information, from the Internet to their parents, and how difficult it is to sort out actual information from prejudices in all those places. The book definitely supplies ideas on how to handle everything from preschool "good touch" to teenage partner sex, and these ideas also have side effects like reducing sexist attitudes (and heterosexist ones) and even decreasing STD and pregnancy risks.
Yet Levine had difficulty finding a publisher. That says something about how truly messed up this country is about sex.