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May 9, 2002
Save the Children

In 1993, Diane Diamond’s 8-year-old daughter Jessica reported to her teachers that her 9-year-old brother Tony “touched her front and back.” Following guidelines established by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the school notified the state, and a social worker was soon knocking on Diane’s door. Diane optimistically “poured out her family’s history” (abusive ex-husband, past problems with drugs and alcohol) with the hope that social services would help her find therapy for her depressed son.

Instead, Diane was deemed “incapable of protecting her daughter,” while Tony was declared a “budding sex offender,” a molester with a “sexual misconduct/abuser disorder,” and both children were removed from Diane’s custody. When Diane attempted to get her children back, when she protested the state’s intrusive examinations and wild speculations, she only generated more fodder for their clinicians. Diane was accused of “having some sort of breakdown,” of being “defensive and histrionic.” Routine motherly affection became a sinister sign of deeper pathology: Diane, it was pointedly observed, “touched her children’s knees and neck” and once “put her arm around Jessica’s waist.”

What Diane didn’t know when she started telling her story was, as Judith Levine puts it in Harmful to Minors, “that once the narrative was inscribed—crazy mother makes boy a molester, victimizes girl—no alternative story could be told.” The Diamonds, like many other ordinary families, got caught up in the “perpetual meaning machine ... of sexual abuse.” Now Levine, a respected journalist and founding member of the National Writers Union, finds herself a target of the same machine. It’s an irony I’m sure she does not appreciate.

Harmful to Minors is a sage, intelligent, industriously reported and eminently sane book. Its major arguments—that like other categories of life (art, education, politics or commerce), sex is not “ipso facto harmful to minors” and that “America’s drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing ... instead it’s often harming them”—ought to pass for common sense. But what Levine could not have anticipated was that her book would be released just as the decades-old, uniquely American sex panic would crest again—this time over pedophiles in the Catholic priesthood. Harmful to Minors was, for better or worse, caught in its wake.

Although it has generated an enormous buzz, this twist of timing is in many ways regrettable. For one thing, Levine spends relatively few pages on the topic of sex between minors and adults. Most of the book is dedicated to recounting how the right wing, through sham social science, media sensationalism and self-righteous congressional inquiries, convinced the mainstream that sex is by nature dangerous to children. When Levine does venture into the sex lives of children, she discusses an array of erotic acts, ranging from penetrative sex and masturbation to “outercourse” and electronic flirting.

Nonetheless, Levine has been branded an “apologist for pedophilia.” Concerned Women for America’s Robert Knight condemned the book as an “evil tome” and “every child molester’s dream.” Levine has said in interviews that as a teen-ager she had a consensual sexual relationship with an older man, for which Knight diagnosed her with a version of Patty Hearst syndrome. Levine was “molested as a child and now advocates it for other children.”

Minnesota state representative and Republican candidate for governor Tim Pawlenty said the book’s release by the University of Minnesota Press amounted to “state-sanctioned support for molesting children” and demanded that the press cancel publication. He also confessed, as have most of Levine’s critics (including psychotherapist turned radio shock-jock Dr. Laura), never to have read the book. Thankfully, the publisher rejected such expert opinions and stood by Levine. But it did institute, in a disturbing move against academic freedom, an extraordinary “external review” for future titles, which goes above and beyond the rigorous peer-review system.

The furor over Harmful to Minors perfectly illustrates its major point—that contemporary discussions over children and sex take place in an “empirical vacuum,” in a fantasy landscape populated by innocent, unspoiled children and violent, incurable pedophile-pornographers. As Levine demonstrates, these sentimental whimsies and nightmarish creatures are no longer confined to the pages of 19th-century Romantic literature and Victorian tabloids from which they sprang. They’ve become organizing principles of law, psychology, popular culture, reproductive policy and sex education. As proliferating, self-fulfilling “meaning machines,” these modern discourses may have fleshed out their imaginative prototypes, but they are still not discourses “of the flesh.”

Indeed, when one looks at contemporary public policy on children and sex, it’s difficult to find anything like real children or anything like real sex. Consider the Child Pornography Prevention Act, recently struck down by the Supreme Court, which sought to ban not actual child pornography but “virtual child pornography”—any visual depiction, computer-generated or otherwise, that “appears to be” or “conveys the impression of” a “minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” Or take Levine herself, who has been inventively dubbed by Judith Reisman an “academic pedophile”—a category that has, as of yet, still to make its way into the penal code.

Harmful to Minors works best as a tempered discourse analysis— la Michel Foucault but without his keen cynicism. Levine begins with a central contradiction: Although “law and ideology” consider childhood an entirely separate, antithetical category from adulthood, children in fact participate in every aspect of the adult material and cultural world. We protect the “idealized child” from sin and knowledge, but real children have credit cards, enroll in college courses, surf the Internet with greater proficiency than their parents, and have disturbingly adult capacities for pleasure. So when it comes to sex, Levine argues that the modern family confronts the paradoxical, “self-canceling task of inducting the child into the social world of sexuality and at the same time protecting her from it.”

From here on, 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.

Harmful to Minors falters, however, when it “aspires to the positive.” Levine is savvy enough to refuse a programmatic approach toward sex. She knows that fulfilling desire is a restless, lifelong process and that “comfort with the unknown may be the most important ally in the interrogation of desire.” Still, there is something a bit facile about her cures, which veer from the macro-political to the micro-personal. Levine understands that what makes children most vulnerable to sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection are the same injustices—poverty, racism, patriarchy and homophobia—that make people generally vulnerable to exploitation. So she argues that if we really want to protect kids from sexual abuse, we would first see to it that they are well-fed, well-educated and well-clothed, that they have access to decent health care, supportive community structures and political institutions.

Levine also advocates what she calls “sensuality education.” She argues that “sex education can surely be integrated into the whole curriculum,” not just biology and health classes, but language and literature courses as well. She proposes a reading list of “truthful fictions” comprised of, among others, Sappho, Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Adrienne Rich and Sonia Sanchez, so that kids can explore varieties of erotic expression. Pleasure is the pedagogy here, and reminiscent of Foucault’s oft-forgotten The Uses of Pleasure and Care of the Self (volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality), Levine invokes terms like “skill,” “technique” and “expertise.”

It’s hard to quibble with either children’s welfare or progressive sex education. But Levine seems to think that with a combination of the two, we can instill in children something like an ethics of sex: “The same things that make you a solid member of your third-grade class—cooperation, respect, integrity—also make you a considerate lover, a consistent safe-sex practitioner, a person able to say yes or no to sex and honor the consent of a partner.”

Here I would have to disagree. It’s not in the third grade or in boho high schools where one learns sexual ethics; ethics arise in moments of crisis. In easier times, we’re content to hum along without much reflection. If we’re looking for sexual ethics, it’s not toward safety and pleasure to which we should turn, but rather toward danger and struggle, to the experiences of people with AIDS who confront sexual risk daily, to the ethics of sex workers who negotiate sexual danger as part of the job. Kids could learn a lot from these people; they can also learn a lot from their own mistakes, from pregnancy scares and STDs, from sexual experiences that end badly. It’s in turning away from these experiences that Harmful to Minors comes up short. It’s in skirting the ever-present potential for disaster implicit in every quest for pleasure that Levine, though she rails against the “perils of protecting children from sex,” remains something of a protectionist.

Harmful to Minors stumbles at precisely the same place that has confounded queer, liberationist and feminist sex radicals for years. We’re cautious of specifying what good sex is, so instead we talk about sexual pleasure in some rather vague terms, as if it were a self-evident quality. Because we want sexual pleasure to square with progressive ideals, we often talk about the quest for pleasure as if it, in and of itself, constituted a democratic, egalitarian and liberatory enterprise all at once. Levine holds, for example, that kids seek sex for the same reasons that adults do: “They like or love the person they are having it with. It gives them a sense of beauty, worthiness, happiness, or power. And it feels good.”

This is often true, of course. But we, adults and minors alike, also have sex with people we dislike, with people we profess to hate. We do it in spite of, or indeed because of, its ugliness and worthlessness, because, as the kids say these days, it’s nasty and freaky, because it makes us feel bad. We fuck because we are compelled by some inner itch that’s not always reducible to sexual pleasure, because it’s easier than leaving, easier than finding a ride home, easier than talking. Sexual pleasure is indissoluble from displeasure, and the difference between the two can turn on a dime. It’s just when we think we have sex figured out, when we think we know how to please and protect ourselves and our lovers, that we find ourselves on the brink of being painfully surprised.

And despite our incessant obsession with the sex lives of other people, despite Dr. Ruth, the Kama Sutra, Sex in the City and Cosmo’s latest tips on mind-blowing, multiple orgasms, despite all the ways in which sex and how to have it are thrown up for public consumption, most of us still prefer to have sex with the lights out. Sex in the dark can be comforting, familiar. It can also be alien, dangerous—and in some knotty space in between, we find pleasure. We cry out for mercy as we cry out for more.


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