Burn this Book

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

Levine is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has written for publications ranging from the Columbia Journalism Review to Ms. and already has one book, My Enemy, My Love: Women, Men, and the Dilemmas of Gender, under her belt. She has been writing about sexuality for more than two decades and began working on Harmful to Minors in the mid-1990s. She's a founder of the National Writers Union and also of No More Nice Girls, a group that promotes abortion rights through street theater.

The main thrust of Harmful to Minors is the notion that children are sexual beings, whether parents like it or not. And while youth are routinely bombarded with sexual imagery through movies, music, and television, they are provided almost no accurate information about sex. This information blackout, Levine contends, exposes minors to increased risks of disease, abusive relationships, and unsatisfying sex. In making her case, the veteran journalist explores, among other subjects, censorship of pornographic materials, the purging of effective sex education from schools, hysteria over kids who act out sexually, and myths about pedophilia.

Joycelyn Elders, who served in 1993 and 1994 as U.S. Surgeon General under President Clinton, was enlisted to write an introduction to the book. The choice seems prescient in retrospect; Elders was drummed out of the Clinton administration for her frank discussion of masturbation and condoms. Levine would soon join her as a symbol of sexual decadence in conservative circles.

The book's detractors seized upon a section in which the author questions current laws pertaining to statutory rape. Levine recounts the tale of 13-year-old Heather Kowalski and 21-year-old Dylan Healy, two Rhode Island lovers who ran off together for several weeks in 1997 after meeting in an online chat room; their disappearance resulted in a barrage of media coverage and hand-wringing about Internet predators. After the couple turned themselves in, Healy was sentenced to 12 to 24 years in prison for 12 counts of felonious sex with a minor and two counts of crossing state lines to have sex with a minor. The author points out that Healy's cellmate, who had shot a man, got less time for his crime.

"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."

Levine then goes on to describe the way adult-minor sexual relations are handled in Holland, endorsing the approach as a "model of reasonable legislation." Since 1990, under Dutch law, sexual intercourse between adults and minors between the ages of 12 and 16 is legal. If a child or parent believes the child was coerced or exploited, however, criminal charges may be filed against the adult. "The Dutch law, in its flexibility, reflects that late-modern script-scrambling, the hodge-podge of age and experience at the dawn of the twenty-first century," Levine writes.


Judith Levine is not the first author to pay a price for daring to discuss sexuality and youth. In perhaps the most notorious example, in 1998 the house journal of the American Psychological Association, a publication called Psychological Bulletin, published a report by three scholars who examined the psychological impact on children of sexual relationships with adults. Researchers Bruce Rind (an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University at the time), Robert Bauserman (a lecturer at the University of Michigan), and Philip Tromovitch (who was pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania) scrutinized 59 previous studies involving college students who had been sexually abused before the age of 18. The authors concluded that the psychological effects of child sexual abuse were not as severe as had been previously believed. In particular, they found that boys who had had sexual relationships with adults often suffered little long-term harm.

Immediately, the study became a lightning rod among right-wing ideologues--radio show host Laura Schlessinger in particular--who claimed that it promoted pedophilia. The chorus of condemnation was quickly joined by politicians of all stripes. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed a resolution condemning the study. In response, the APA issued a statement disassociating itself with the analysis and ordered an external review of the report. Ultimately, the study was never shown to be scientifically deficient in any way. The authors' only sin, it seemed, was subject matter.

Debbie Nathan, co-author of the book Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt and one of the experts the U of M Press called upon to review Levine's manuscript prior to publication, says that people who write about minors and sex are routinely condemned. While working on her own book, Nathan recalls, she was reported to the police for child neglect and accused of molesting kids. At a reading she gave at a Barnes & Noble, a group of people who believed Nathan was a CIA operative stole books and harassed her. "Everyone who's written about this has been terrorized," Nathan says. "This is just the last frontier of American fear. We don't have Communists anymore."

The uproar over Harmful to Minors was ratcheted up by circumstances only tangentially related to the book itself. In late March a Newhouse News Service article about age-of-consent laws in the United States mentioned Levine's new book and, with respect to the ongoing sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, quoted her as saying that "yes, conceivably, absolutely," a boy's sexual experience with a priest could be positive.

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