Burn this Book

The University of Minnesota Press, author Judith Levine, and one very hot topic

Pedophilia is all the rage. Intergenerational sex is no longer taboo, and the North American Man/Boy Love Association is ascendant. Pedophilia: a game the whole family can play.

That's what one might well have concluded based on the reaction that greeted Judith Levine's controversial new book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, published earlier this month by the University of Minnesota Press. Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute in Washington, D.C., condemned it as "very evil." Tim Pawlenty, majority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, labeled it "trash" and implored the press to halt publication. Gov. Jesse Ventura's office has received more than 19,000 e-mails opposing the book (nearly all of which are copies of a form letter available at www.conservativepetitions.com). And Harmful to Minors has been vilified on radio: Ian Punnett's morning show on KSTP-AM (1500) and Dan Barreiro's sports powwow on KFAN-AM (1130) locally, and nationally syndicated conservative talk shows including The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program and Michael Savage's Savage Nation. The editorial board of the Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania declared, "This is a sick book and the University of Minnesota is sick for publishing it."

The U of M Press itself has received a deluge of phone calls and e-mails. "You should one: burn in hell," wrote a concerned Savage Nation listener. "Two: Never receive any federal monies (i.e., my tax dollars) again. Three: burn in hell." Advised a self-described Christian minister: "PLEASE DO NOT PUBLISH THIS BOOK. I IMPLORE YOU TO BURN ANY COPIES THAT YOU HAVE ALREADY PUBLISHED." A citizen from Salem, Virginia, noted, "You in Academia are nothing but a bunch of anti-family, anti-American, pro-terrorist, socialist idiots." While the press has staunchly defended the content of the book--and numerous groups, including the Association of American Publishers, the First Amendment Project, and the PEN American Center, have weighed in to defend it--the university administration, which oversees the publishing house, responded to the criticism by ordering a review of its editorial policies.

Amid the melee, Levine's book soared as high as No. 16 on Amazon.com's rundown of top sellers, landing it on the Web site's "Movers & Shakers" list and inspiring the U of M Press to augment its initial run of 3,500 with a second printing of 10,000--uncommon territory for an academic publisher.

"Harmful to Minors launches from two negatives: Sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors; and America's drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing," Levine writes in her introduction. "Instead, often it is harming them."

But to know that, you'd have to read the book.

Of course, as Pawlenty conceded after denouncing Harmful to Minors on April 5, he hadn't actually read Levine's work in its entirety. No one had: Copies only began arriving in stores in mid-April, and up until that time only a couple of chapter excerpts had been available on the press's Web site.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, finds the lack of context, and the snowball effect of the media coverage, galling. "It's like the game of telephone that you play when you're a kid," Samuelson scoffs. "You sit in a circle and whisper in each other's ears. At the end you find out how the message has changed."

 

It took two years for Harmful to Minors to work its way through the University of Minnesota Press editorial process. When Judith Levine's agent submitted a partially completed manuscript in May 2000, it was read by an editor and given the initial green light. The book was then vetted by an eight-person staff committee that included all editors, as well as the director of the press, Douglas Armato. After examining the quality of the writing and research and considering how the work would fit with other books published by the press, the panel endorsed the manuscript.

But the book still had a long way to go. As is standard procedure at the press, the work was sent out to two experts in the field, who reviewed it for scholarly significance and assessed the author's knowledge of relevant research. Both scholars recommended that the book be published. At that point the manuscript was still incomplete: It consisted of seven finished chapters, along with a synopsis of the final four. Because of this, and owing to the controversial subject matter, the U of M Press waited for a completed draft, and then sent out Harmful to Minors once more, to be scrutinized by three additional outside experts. And finally, after Levine made further revisions, a panel of U of M faculty members inspected the five written critiques, the author's credentials, and an excerpt from the book--and unanimously endorsed its publication. (For more about the review process, see accompanying sidebar.)

"It's a very rigorous process," sums up Kathryn Grimes, marketing director for the U of M Press. "We have very high standards for the books we publish." In light of the uproar over Harmful to Minors, Grimes says, she recently took another look at the written critiques sent in by the five outside scholars. "What struck me was that the reviewers thought it was an important work, and that nobody seemed to feel that the author was particularly 'out there.'"

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