Sex Book Stirs Up Controversy
NEW YORK (AP) -- A month before its publication, a provocative book about children's sexuality is being denounced by conservatives as evil and prompting angry calls for action against the University of Minnesota Press.
The book, "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex," argues that young Americans, though bombarded with sexual images from the mass media, are often deprived of realistic advice about sex.
"What's happening to me is a perfect example of the very hysteria that my book is about," New York- based author Judith Levine said in an interview.
Levine has been working on the book since the mid-1990s. With the recent sex scandals involving clergy and young people, she admits it's a particularly challenging time to make her case that American youth are entitled to safe, satisfying sex lives.
Publisher after publisher rejected the book -- one called its contents "radioactive" -- before the University of Minnesota Press accepted the manuscript a year ago.
Writes Levine in her introduction, "In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teen-agers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too."
From the outset, officials at the Minnesota press knew the book would be controversial; they had the manuscript reviewed by five academic experts, instead of the usual two, to be sure its contentions were based on sound research.
Still, the uproar exceeded expectations after the book was condemned on conservative Internet sites.
"We've never seen anything quite this angry," said the press director, Douglas Armato. "The book isn't actually out yet. What people are reacting to is not the book itself, but the idea of the book."
In "Harmful to Minors," Levine argues that abstinence-only sex education is misguided. She also suggests the threat of pedophilia and molestation by strangers is exaggerated by adults who want to deny young people the opportunity for positive sexual experiences.
"Squeamish or ignorant about the facts, parents appear willing to accept the pundits' worst conjectures about their children's sexual motives," Levine writes. "It's as if they cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do."
Levine said much of the furor over her book stems from an interview she gave last month to Newhouse News Service, amid the Roman Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. Newhouse quoted her as saying a sexual relationship between a priest and a youth "conceivably" could be positive.
Levine said this week that she disapproves of any sexual relationship between a youth and an authority figure, whether a parent, teacher or priest. However, she believes teen-agers deserve more respect for the choices they make in consensual affairs, and suggests that America's age-of-consent laws can sometimes lead to excessive punishment.
She cites the Dutch age-of-consent law as a "good model" -- it permits sex between an adult and a young person between 12 and 16 if the young person consents. Prosecutions for coercive sex may be sought by the young person or the youth's parents.
"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, who had an affair with an adult when she was a minor.
Several conservative media commentators and activists have accused Levine of condoning child abuse.
Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute, is urging the University of Minnesota to fire the university press officials who decided to publish the book.
"The action is so grievous and so irresponsible that I felt they relinquished their right to academic freedom," said Knight, who has described the book as "very evil."
Armato said he has informed university officials about the irate reaction to the book and explained to them how the decision to publish was made. He stressed that the book was accepted not out of hopes for a profit but because the University of Minnesota Press thought its arguments were worth public debate.
"What we've encouraged them to do is let the book speak for itself," Armato said. "The book is very nuanced and very complex."
Levine, a journalist and author who writes often about sex and gender, has no children of her own. She writes in her introduction that some publishers felt her book was insufficiently "parent- friendly."
Parents deserve support and respect, but so do young people, she said.
She said the weakening of comprehensive sex education programs has left sexually active teen-agers uninformed about ways to protect themselves from AIDS and other diseases, and ignorant about contraception.
"Operating in an atmosphere of complete ignorance, it's very easy to exaggerate threats and foment fear," she said. "America's drive to protect kids from sex protects them from nothing. Instead, it is often harming them."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
(the website has a picture of the cover)
A Harmful Message?
New Book on Child Sex Sparks Uproar
By Bryan Robinson
Though not yet released, Levine's book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, has already attracted angry letters, phone calls and e-mails directed at her and her publisher, University of Minnesota Press.
The book argues that efforts to protect children from sex can do more harm than good, especially when parents and educators are afraid to recognize children as sexual beings.
Sex is a part of growing up for children and teenagers, Levine argues, and not all sexual encounters with adults are necessarily traumatic for minors. This has prompted critics to accuse Levine of endorsing child molestation and sexual abuse.
"My book is not about intergenerational sex," Levine said. "I am not endorsing sex abuse of children. Quite the contrary. It was my hope that the book would allow parents and other adults to talk realistically about issues of kids and sexuality. Instead, there is an effort to suppress the book and stop that conversation."
A ‘Cover’ for Molesters?
The uproar over Levine's book arises amid the ongoing sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Last week, a reporter for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune quoted the Brooklyn-based author as saying that a sexual relationship between a boy and a priest could "conceivably, absolutely" be positive.
Levine says her quote was misconstrued and that she does not approve sex between authority figures such as parents, priests and teachers and the minors in their charge. However, she argues that teenagers should be given more credit for the choices they make when they become involved in relationships with adults.
Not all minors should be considered "victims" of coercion, especially since an older teenager would have a different take on the relationship than a younger child, Levine says. Citing previous studies, she contends that some teens could have a positive experience and not be traumatized by a sexual relationship with an older person.
"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," Levine writes. "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."
Critics of Levine have called Harmful to Minors evil and say that she is endorsing a defense child molesters have used in criminal cases.
"It's the latest academic cover for child molesters," said Robert Knight, executive director of The Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America. "Her book endorses child sexuality and says sex is good for children. This could easily be exploited by adults who have sex with children and who claim that it was done in the child's best interests, that they wanted it, and that they enjoyed it."
A Model of Consent
Levine endorses the Netherlands' approach to age-of-consent laws. In 1990, the Dutch parliament made sex between adults and children ages 12 to 16 legal as long as there was mutual consent. The child or the child's parents can bring charges if they believe the minor was coerced into sex.
Levine believes the Dutch law is a "good model" for the United States because it recognizes children as sexual beings who can determine their future while not ignoring the fact that they are weaker than adults and still need legal protection. U.S. consent laws, she says, mistakenly put all minors under one category without recognizing their ability to pursue relationships.
"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," Levine writes. "Criminal law, which must draw unambiguous lines, is not the proper place to adjudicate family conflicts over youngsters' sexuality. If such laws are to exist, however, they must do what [social psychologist Lynn M.] Phillips suggests about sexual and romantic education: balance the subjective experience and the rights of young people against the responsibility and prerogative of adults to look after their best interests, to 'know better.'"
Knight and other critics of Levine's arguments say that minors cannot make consensual decisions in sexual relationships with adults because they are never in positions of power. The adult is the authority figure because he or she is older and more experienced.
"All child sex is coerced, no matter what the child's state of mind," said Knight. "Adults are always in a state of power and authority. No child can give meaningful consent."
In her book, Levine cites a 1998 study by Bruce Rind, then an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University, where he reviewed 59 studies of college students who had sexual encounters with adults when they were children or were coerced into sexual activities with someone their own age.
The Rind study concluded that the negative effects of these encounters were "neither pervasive nor typically intense" and that men had less negative reactions than women. It suggested that positive sexual encounters be called "adult-child sex" instead of "abuse."
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution denouncing the study. Experts say the Rind study and offshoots such as Levine's book are flawed.
"Many of these studies look at a restricted population but ignore the fact that many adults abused as children never make it to college," said David Spiegel, associate chairman of psychology and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. "The claim that any sexual relationship between a child and an adult can be consensual is just not possible. Children cannot make a contract."
Spiegel also said that many cases of alleged abuse go unreported because adults may suppress the memories of the encounter or minimize its effects. In some cases, the alleged victims may not realize the damage the encounter caused.
"Rather than feel helpless, they'd rather assume some blame when it's really something they really had no control over," said Spiegel.
Hysteria Overshadows Other Messages
Levine says she regrets that the controversy over her book has overshadowed one of its other points — that abstinence-only sex education and a reluctance by parents to recognize their children's sexuality leave youths vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS and to sexual abuse.
"The hysteria surrounding my book is precisely what my book is about," Levine said. "There are some real dangers [facing children] in the world, of course. But we need to look at them realistically and separate the real ones from the exaggerated ones."
Critics agree that children should be informed, but say that parents should be allowed to do it on their own terms.
"I think parents should inform children according to age appropriateness and the emotional maturity of the child," said Knight. "Children should be shielded from sexual details until they are old enough. Let them grow up and find out what are appropriate concepts before they find out about abhorrent concepts. … We should be cleaning up our culture and not destroying the innocence of our children."
Officials at University of Minnesota Press expected to come under fire for publishing Levine's book but say they are surprised by the level of uproar. Some critics called for the firing of those at the publishing firm who decided to print Harmful to Children.
State Rep. Tim Pawlenty, majority leader of Minnesota's House of Representatives, has urged University of Minnesota Press officials to stop the release of the book. However, the officials are standing by Levine and hope people remain open to at least hearing the book's arguments.
"We've received a lot of phone calls, e-mail and mail from people expressing concern about book," said Kathryn Grimes, marketing director of University of Minnesota Press. "We just hope that if people keep an open mind and don't turn away from the idea of the book that they'll see it is a breadth of carefully researched documents and scholarly evaluation."
Savaged for Ideas
Levine is not the first to receive severe criticism because of her contrarian views on child sex abuse. Harris Mirkin, political science professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has said he received hate mail and at least one death threat for his writings on pedophilia and child pornography, in which he questioned whether sexual abuse ruins every child victim's life. Members of Missouri's House of Representatives have called for his firing.
Levine has received support from gay activist and lawyer William Dobbs, who has started a campaign to encourage people to read the book and evaluate her arguments for themselves.
"The attack on the book is such an attempt to push us back to the Middle Ages," said Dobbs. "It seems that anyone who just brings up the idea of this subject has their character savaged."
Hysteria concerning child sex issues, Levine says, sometimes has led to overreaction and false charges filed against alleged abusers. It has also suppressed the discussion of issues that can inform minors and enable them to make informed choices and protect themselves, she says. And the furor surrounding Harmful to Minors, she says, shows that this hysteria — and its potential harm to children — is very real.
"It's too bad people like to suppress the expression of ideas they don't like," she said. "I love the Constitution. I have spent many years defending it. … Telling people to de-fund a college university, to burn the book … that doesn't seem very democratic."
Others say the danger of Levine's book's message is even more real.
"It is not hysteria to assert that this book will aid and abet child molesters because it gives a pseudo-scientific rationale that can be used by a defense attorney," said Knight. "The Rind study has been cited by defense attorneys in the past. I'm sure this book will be used as well."
Harmful to Minors is expected to reach bookstores nationwide by May.