Friday, August 30, 2002

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.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I've been to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S. It would have been the summer of 1982, right before I started 4th grade and ballet lessons -- I remember because it was cold enough at that altitude that I put on my leotard and tights under my shorts and shirt for some extra warmth. But even an easily bored child like me enjoyed the view that nature provided.

So the one chapter "On Top of Mount Mitchell" in Charles E. Little's The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America's Forests hit me especially hard. Little says that by the late 1980s, a view of the mountain showed only "a line of bare dead trunks tipped this way and that like a blasted stockade fence at an abandoned garrison." The die-off of the majority of the trees there came within less than a decade, due to extreme concentration of pollution straight from the tallest smokestacks; in other places the book covers, it came more slowly. It's not just one thing -- forests are harmed by air pollution, logging, prevention of natural fires, global warming, imported insects, and other causes. This makes it easy for people to say, "Well, it's not all because of pollution," or whatever behavior they don't want to change. But a book like this paints a very depressing total portrait of how many different things humans have done combined to cause dead trees, forest fires that bake the soil into clay, and global warming climate changes that even the skeptical scientists say have a 60% chance of getting worse. (The non-skeptics say 90%.)

If you're the sort of person who sees human economic activity as more important than environmental concerns ('the livelhood of loggers is more important than preserving the spotted owl' viewpoint), then the section on the maple syrup industry and the decline of the trees it relies on may convince you that forest problems do hurt human economy too. (As well as the dying trees leading to decreased tourism in the Blue Ridge Mountains and other National Forests; the saguaro cacti of the Southwest, the sabal palms of Florida, or the giant redwoods of California draw visitors or contribute to the atmosphere that tourists want, and all are suffering in places.)

"Three trees shading a house can cut air conditioning bills by 50 percent" -- now there's something for Sun Belt residents like me to think about! But the apparently healthy trees around homes aren't really the problem; people do something when gypsy moths or drought appear to be affecting the plants of urban/suburban areas. It's the larger forests that can die off unnoticed.

It's not a happy book, but it's an important wake-up call -- one that I wish every politician could have been assigned as reading material (as well as executives of logging companies and polluting industries). The book is seven years old now; I hope that it and other pleas for the forests are listened to before they take on the same historical value as eyewitness descriptions of the dodo and the passenger pigeon hold.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Most people have heard the story of Helen Keller: blind and deaf from disease as a young toddler, unable to communicate with other human beings for years until teacher Anne Sullivan devoted the time and effort to finger-spelling words into her hand while exposing her to the object they represented. The incident of her first understanding that these motions could mean something that existed in the real world, the water flowing from a pump while Sullivan spelled "w-a-t-e-r," is well-known. But we think that in this day and age, children all have a chance to learn a language as soon as they are mentally able to, even if it is signed rather than spoken.

Susan Schaller's A Man Without Words proves that this modern world isn't so helpful to everyone. Schaller went as a sign-language interpreter to adult-education classes for the Deaf and encountered three people who were physically and mentally grown yet unable to express themselves in language or understand it, whether signed or spoken. One of them, Ildefenso, became her special student; the book tells his story, how a grown man who had supported himself as a farm worker and traveled from Mexico to the United States and followed the U.S. harvests learned his first language (American Sign Language). Later she meets some of his friends, who still have to use pantomime and the signs they create on their own to communicate with others instead of a pre-existing method. The idea that this is possible in modern North America (and indeed, Schaller says the people in the Deaf communities she has asked often say they know of people born and raised in the U.S. without learning any language until their teens or adult years) is mind-boggling, but their ability to learn their first language at those ages is something entirely new for developmental psychologists to consider. Most examples of first-language learning are based on either hearing children's normal development or extremely odd cases ("The Wild Man of Aveyron" and others deprived of human contact throughout most of childhood) without considering people who grew up among humans without a shared language. This book and the work it represents need to be heard about by psychologists, teachers, and anyone with an interest in language.