Burn this Book

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

Levine says the quotation was taken out of context--that the point she was attempting to make was that a person who had a sexual relationship with a priest as a youth might later report that it was a positive experience. "It certainly doesn't mean that I advocate priests having sex with child or teen parishioners," Levine says, adding that any time an adult authority figure becomes sexually involved with a child, the situation is ripe for exploitation. "This guy represents God himself. You have a culture in which homosexuality and sexuality are secret and forbidden, and children especially are expected to obey authority, absolutely. So it would be impossible for a kid to protect her- or himself or make any decision inside a relationship like that."

It probably didn't help that the Newhouse article also contained Levine's revelation, "When I was a minor, I had sex with an adult....He was one of my first lovers. My heart was broken, but my heart was broken by a lot of boys, too. I'd say on balance that it was a perfectly good experience."

Levine points out that regardless of what she told the Newhouse reporter, her book came out in an environment in which any mention of children and sexuality is explosive. "It's pretty obvious that the priest scandal is out there, and so probably Dr. Laura and all the other talk-radio people are typing 'pedophilia' into their search engines every morning and leaping on whatever," she says.

If the outcry against Harmful to Minors from conservative circles was predictable, the University of Minnesota's seeming acquiescence to its critics caught some people by surprise. "Among academics, the University of Minnesota Press has had this wonderful reputation for doing work that other presses might find too controversial or not mainline enough to be marketable," says James Kincaid, a professor of English at the University of Southern California who reviewed Levine's book prior to publication. Kincaid says he fears the university's backpedaling will deter the publisher from taking on provocative manuscripts in the future--and that it could have a ripple effect on university presses nationwide. "To react by ordering a review certainly sends out signals that they are suspicious, or they at least doubt the care of the press," Kincaid argues. "It's a knuckling-under. It's really disgraceful."

Nathan seconds those concerns: "It's disturbing to me that the university would have its actions and policies dictated by Dr. Laura, just as the APA had its actions and policies dictated by Dr. Laura. I'm sure it's going to have a chilling effect on the press, and it's going to have a chilling effect on writers."

The U of M's attempt at damage control may be futile, in any case. The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union's Chuck Samuelson, for one, doesn't believe a review of the press's editorial policies will assuage Rep. Tim Pawlenty and the book's other critics. "The trouble is that it's not going to accomplish anything," he argues. "The people who are opposed to Judith Levine--those people aren't going to be ameliorated by any kind of internal investigation."

Pawlenty agrees. Having read the book in its entirety, he is not backing down: "I feel even more strongly that the book is offensive. It's not well written and it's not something the university should have lent its credibility and prestige and resources to," he says. Deeming the decision to conduct a review "pretty milquetoast," Pawlenty further asserts that by printing 10,000 more copies of the book, the press is "thumbing its nose" at its critics. Pawlenty, who is running for governor, says he's considering whether to hold legislative hearings to scrutinize the publishing house's policies and finances. "We have laws against sex between children and adults because children don't have the maturity and the judgment and the decision-making ability to make appropriate consensual decisions," he emphasizes. "For the University of Minnesota to lend its credibility and publishing capabilities to idiotic and moronic positions like this is really disappointing."

Christine Maziar, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at the U of M, ordered the review of the press's editorial policies. She will appoint a three-member panel of people from other university presses and expects the assessment to be completed by the end of June. "There's always room for improvement, and I certainly hope we will have some suggestions made that will help us improve operations in the press," says Maziar. "But I don't believe going into this that there are serious defects in the process."

Nor does Maziar feel the review will discourage the press from taking on controversial manuscripts in the future. "I don't think the external review will create a chilling effect," she says. "We all get reviewed all the time. It's not at all unusual to bring in an external review team to review academic programs."

Although Maziar was not involved in the decision to order a second printing of Levine's book, she says it was the only responsible option: "For the press not to print the book when this controversy has been created would have been an egregious repression. It would have been denying people the opportunity to make judgments for themselves."

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