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Harmful to Minors

The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

2002
Author:

Judith Levine
Foreword by Dr. Joycelyn M. Elders

Harmful to Minors

A radical, refreshing, and long overdue reassessment of how we think and act about children’s and teens’s sexuality

Sex is a wonderful, crucial part of growing up, and children and teens can enjoy the pleasures of the body and be safe, too. In this important and controversial book, Judith Levine makes this argument and goes further, asserting that America’s attempts to protect children from sex are worse than ineffectual. It is the assumption of danger and the exclusive focus on protection—what Levine terms "the sexual politics of fear"—that are themselves harmful to minors.

Judith Levine's careful and well-documented book says something very important: that children are sexual beings and denying that puts them at greater risk than accepting that fact of life; that we must look at the issue of consent from a psychological perspective, not just a legal one; and that not everyone who has been abused ends up traumatized for life. Levine's strong stance against abuse, bullying, coercion, and manipulation has one goal: to help people accept children and teens as sexual creatures so we can help them resist coercion and make healthy sexual decisions throughout life.

Sharon Lamb, author of The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt

Sex is a wonderful, crucial part of growing up, and children and teens can enjoy the pleasures of the body and be safe, too. In this important and controversial book, Judith Levine makes this argument and goes further, asserting that America’s attempts to protect children from sex are worse than ineffectual. It is the assumption of danger and the exclusive focus on protection—what Levine terms "the sexual politics of fear"—that are themselves harmful to minors.

Through interviews with young people and their parents, stories drawn from today’s headlines, visits to classrooms and clinics, and a look back at the ways sex among children and teenagers has been viewed throughout history, Judith Levine debunks some of the dominant myths of our society. She examines and challenges widespread anxieties (pedophilia, stranger kidnapping, Internet pornography) and sacred cows (abstinence-based sex education, statutory rape laws). Levine investigates the policies and practices that affect kids’s sex lives—censorship, psychology, sex and AIDS education, family, criminal, and reproductive law, and the journalism that begs for "solutions" while inciting more fear.

Harmful to Minors offers fresh alternatives to fear and silence, describing sex-positive approaches that are ethically based and focus on common sense. Levine provides optimistic, though realistic, prescriptions for how we might do better in guiding children toward loving well—that is, safely, pleasurably, and with respect for others and themselves.

Harmful to Minors

Judith Levine is a journalist, essayist, and author who has written about sex, gender, and families for two decades. Her articles appear regularly in national publications, most recently Ms., nerve.com, and My Generation. An activist for free speech and sex education, Levine is a founder of the feminist group No More Nice Girls and the National Writers Union. She is the author of My Enemy, My Love: Women, Men, and the Dilemmas of Gender (1992), and lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Hardwick, Vermont.

Harmful to Minors

Judith Levine's careful and well-documented book says something very important: that children are sexual beings and denying that puts them at greater risk than accepting that fact of life; that we must look at the issue of consent from a psychological perspective, not just a legal one; and that not everyone who has been abused ends up traumatized for life. Levine's strong stance against abuse, bullying, coercion, and manipulation has one goal: to help people accept children and teens as sexual creatures so we can help them resist coercion and make healthy sexual decisions throughout life.

Sharon Lamb, author of The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt

Sharp, extraordinarily informed, and wittily incisive . . . This is a major book, far and away the most wide-ranging, well-informed, and judicious we have on the subject. Levine's wisdom is compelling, and she offers the best kind of sophisticated and skeptical analysis. Each chapter is full of surprises, yet offers sensitive and gentle pointers to all of us, kids and adults, who are looking for ways out of these crushing dilemmas. It's a crusading book that is also kind, a very rare phenomenon, and it comes down always on the side of trusting not only our kids and their pleasures but our own.

James Kincaid, author of Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting

A much needed contribution to the discussion about children's sexuality, adult fears and irrationality about it, and the moral, political, and public health risks of failing to confront anxiety and ignorance about children's erotic desires and needs. Levine makes a compelling case that respecting and celebrating such desires and needs is essential to this country's historic project of promoting 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' for everyone who lives here—including those under 18. . . . An exceptionally smart and readable book.

Debbie Nathan, coauthor (with Michael Snedeker) of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt

Harmful to Minors brilliantly analyzes this movement in all its incarnations: Attacks on sex education of all kinds, efforts to censor child pornography by criminalizing art that has sexual overtones, witch hunts of teachers who touch their children.

Tikkun

Harmful to Minors is a potent challenge to conventional wisdom about sex, sexuality, and sex education. Written with verve, humor, and wit, it is a trenchant look at America's failure to extol the erotic, and an insightful observation of our preoccupation with pedophilia, deviance, illness, and misconduct.

The Progressive

Harmful to Minors is ‘controversial,’ but it probably shouldn’t be. Levine argues—and backs up with extensive research, interviews and thoughtful analysis—that the American pretense that children and teenagers don’t, or shouldn’t, be sexual or have sexual feelings does more harm to kids than good. This is a professional, accessible, responsible examination of a legitimate social question. A courageous book. Anyone who prefers truth to hysterical anti-sex propaganda should find it illuminating.

Boulder Daily Camera

Levine challenges many of society’s oldest, most widely held, and most cherished stereotypes about young people, their sexuality, and their knowledge about their bodies. She provides a great deal of cogent evidence supporting these challenges.

Choice

Levine argues effectively that a lot of what teenagers are taught about sex these days makes it seem like a dangerous, dirty business—a message quite different from that of not only, say the free-spirited 1970s but of the straight-laced 1950s as well.

Margaret Talbot, New York Times

An astute analysis of what's gone wrong between adults and children in the U.S. Drawing on social science and history, Levine makes a strong case that the denial of sexuality is the true cause of harm to minors.

Village Voice

Harmful to Minors is a sane, provocative, and well-researched effort to make readers think critically about what acts are, exactly, harmful to minors; what we should, and should not, be trying to protect our children from; and how we can separate legitimate worries from irrational panics, and real dangers from false alarms.

Times Literary Supplement

Operating from two decades of research, author Judith Levine explores society's reaction to the effects of masturbation, unmarried sex, molestation, censorship, pornography, sex education, abortion, birth control, etc. on minors. Levine shows us that in situations where recalcitrant gay and straight kids are forced into therapy to keep them away from sex, the coercion often leaves these kids confused and traumatized, even suicidal.

Patricia Nell Warren, Out Magazine

Levine spends a large portion of Harmful to Minors advocating for candid, comprehensive sex education in schools. But the spirit that animates the book is a less programmatic, polymorphous appreciation of the sights and smells, the sounds and language and tactile delights that make a person—adult or child—feel alive in her skin. Levine's central preoccupation, running like a golden thread throughout the book, is the pursuit of happiness, the idea that kids have a right not just to safety and knowledge but to pleasure too.

The Nation

A sage, intelligent, industriously reported and eminently sane book. Levine draws upon media analysis, cultural history, social science, queer theory and interviews with parents, children and sex educators to construct genealogical accounts of how this modern crisis is managed and maintained. She recounts how the Christian fringe concept of ‘chastity education’ became the abstinence-only sex education curriculum taught in most schools; how the image of the violent, monstrous stranger-pedophile came to dominate parent’s fears, even though the majority of sexual abuse occurs within the home; how normal childhood affection, hostility, mimicry (playing doctor) and sex play (I’ll show you mine if you show me yours) became the pathology of ‘sexual abuser disorder’; how the catch phrase ‘harmful to minors’ became appended to movies, music and video games marketed toward minors. There’s a lot to skewer in this mass of confusion, and Levine does it with determination.

In These Times

Finally, in what is likely to be one of the most significant books of the season, journalist Judith Levine exposes the contradictions embedded within our attitude toward ‘underage’ intercourse, convincingly arguing that socially conservative beliefs and policies are largely to blame for the problems they purport to address.

San Francisco Examiner

Harmful to Minors is a fresh taste of truth, a surely needed wake-up call to common misconceptions of sexuality and youth.

Philadelphia Daily News

A rational, well-argued and brave contribution to a complex topic which so often eludes calm and critical consideration.

New Zealand Herald

Thoughtful, well-researched, and persuasive. Judith Levine identifies and challenges a rising hysteria that defines children's sexuality only as a problem, and denies children and teenagers the most basic information about their bodies. For its sane, refreshing approach to a difficult subject, Levine’s book will be of special interest to parents and teachers.

Virginia Quarterly Review

This groundbreaking book gives information that most people do not even want to think about but should want to learn about. Levine presents a realistic, well-researched gem that is highly recommended and should be read by public and school librarians, health care workers, parents, and older teens.

Voice of Youth Advocates

Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors—already the subject of a fierce outcry from the Christian Right—contains some solid basic theory. Levine does not (as her accusers claim) consider the sexual abuse of children nonexistent or not serious, or relationships between adults and teenagers unproblematic. Levine is a journalist with a command of statistics and rational argument.

Cross Currents

Harmful to Minors needs to be read and debated by mental health professionals, politicians, teachers, and the general public. Particular attention needs to be given to her proposal for sex education programs in this country for this is the core idea of the book.

Sexuality and Culture

Levine’s discussion of sex and the ‘child’ is unavoidably controversial, cheerfully compelling, and anything but conservative.

Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books

It is a book that is much needed. Levine advocates a positive approach towards young people’s sexuality. Her suggestions are careful, considered and valuable, and ought to be widely read. This book is both timely and a sane contribution to a debate that needs to happen, but at the moment hardly does. It is to be thoroughly commended.

Psychotherapy and Politics International

In the end, what makes Levine’s book so alluring is not only that it challenges current notions about teen sexuality, but also that it questions the extent to which parents and educators control young people at all.

Teacher Magazine

Levine’s primary contribution to the field of child sexuality is her advocacy of a holistic, broad-based sexual education. Levine’s book has been described as provocative. However, it is hard to understand how someone could take offense at the notion that children be given all the information they need in order to maximize the likelihood that they will live happy, fulfilled lives.

Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy

Harmful to Minors is a classic example of how disorder in the intellectual world leaks into the popular culture.

U.S. News & World Report

Levine successfully challenges many assumptions that target sex as the enemy and that have helped spawn the ever-expanding ‘abstinence-only’ movement in American schools. She describes the historical evolution of attitudes toward child and adolescent sexuality throughout the millennia, and the confluence of forces leading to the ascension of the religious right as the major power broker in determining sexual education policy in our schools.

Psychology Today

Her well-documented horror stories of zealotry and incompetence are chilling; Levine is particularly good at showing that abstinence-based sex education leaves many teens without the information they need to make intelligent choices.

Library Journal

An in-depth and factual discussion on the topic of sexuality and how it is perceived and addressed in the United States. Levine does an excellent job of stating her assertion that in failing to provide children with open, honest, clear, and comprehensive information about human sexuality we fail to provide them with a set of essential tools necessary for their survival.

Sex Roles

Levine wants readers to trust that when young people are taught the possibilities of sex—pleasure and pain, mystery and mess—they will engage at their own speed and with respect for others.

GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies

Harmful to Minors

Contents

Foreword
Dr. Joycelyn M. Elders
Author's Note
Acknowledgments

Introduction

Peril and Pleasure, Parenting and Childhood

I. Harmful Protection

1. Censorship The Sexual Media and the Ambivalence of Knowing
2. Manhunt The Pedophile Panic
3. Therapy "Children Who Molest" and the Tyranny of the Normal
4. Crimes of Passion Statutory Rape and the Denial of Female Desire
5. No-Sex Education From "Chastity" to "Abstinence"
6. Compulsory Motherhood The End of Abortion
7. The Expurgation of Pleasure

II. Sense and Sexuality

8. The Facts . . . and Truthful Fictions
9. What Is Wanting? Gender, Equality, and Desire
10. Good Touch A Sensual Education
11. Community Risk, Identity, and Love in the Age of AIDS

Epilogue

Morality

Notes

Index