Burn this Book

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


The media scrum that has engulfed Harmful to Minors has made any rational discussion of the arguments put forth in Levine's book nearly impossible. Levine, who emphasizes that she does not condone pedophilia, believes her critics' fixation is a deliberate attempt to skew the discussion away from the larger point she's making. "What my book says is that sexuality is a fact of life and it can be a great part of growing up as long as adults fulfill their obligation to kids to educate them well, make sure they have access to good healthcare, and also try to create an atmosphere of openness, rationality, and sexual equality," she says.

One issue with particular relevance to the Twin Cities is Levine's discussion of how sex education in schools has fallen prey to abstinence-only curricula. Abstinence programs have not reduced the number of kids who are having sex, she argues. And these kids, because of their ignorance, are even more vulnerable to disease and unplanned pregnancy.

The issue has been a perennial source of controversy in Minnesota. In 1999 the Osseo School Board voted to offer parents a choice for their children: either an abstinence-only curriculum, or a more comprehensive sex-education course. That same year a group of conservative legislators attempted to restrict sex education statewide to programs aimed at convincing kids not to have sex until they're married. Though the effort was derailed, a compromise amended the existing curriculum to include a greater emphasis on abstinence.

Bob Tracy, director of community affairs at the Minnesota AIDS Project, helped broker the 1999 agreement, but in retrospect he regrets the decision. "It's really used as a way to undermine comprehensive sexual-health education options," Tracy asserts. "Minnesota's not different from any other part of the country, in that the sex-health education that we provide to young people really has been significantly undermined by the abstinence-only push."

Also lost in the controversy over Harmful to Minors is the fact that the Twin Cities play a significant role in Levine's book. In the final chapter, the author, who spent several weeks in the Twin Cities in 1998, points to various local sex-education and disease-prevention efforts as potential models for dealing openly with kids' sexuality.

The Minnesota American Indian Task Force (now known as the Indigenous Peoples Task Force) is one organization Levine singles out, praising the group's work as "some of the smartest and most moving culturally specific HIV/AIDS youth work in the Twin Cities." In particular Levine cites the organization's use of a youth theater troupe that travels to schools and reservations to present plays dealing with AIDS. She also highlights programs such as District 202, which works primarily with gay and lesbian kids, and Project Offstreets, which works with homeless kids.

Levine says she found these sex-education programs "exemplary of this balance between really having respect for youth as people who can make decisions about their own lives and also being passionately concerned for their welfare--for making sure they're not getting exploited by anybody, making sure they're not getting sick. That's the combination we really need."

Levine believes that the misrepresentation of her work proves her point. "This hysteria around this book is just what my book is about," she says. "There's a sort of ground-level sexual anxiety in American history. I think that it's acute at the moment because there has been real social and sexual change over the last couple decades that make people nervous. But at the same time, there are certain people with a pro-family, radical right-wing Christian agenda who are exploiting and exaggerating and fomenting people's fears in order to shut down all conversation about anything that would contradict their view of the right way that we all should live."

Levine is now working on a memoir about her father and Alzheimer's disease. She says it's a relief to be writing something that (presumably) won't inspire ideological attacks. "I have to deal with my own family, but they're easy compared to Robert Knight," she quips, invoking her nemesis at the Culture and Family Institute.

At the same time, she says the controversy won't keep her from writing about children and sexuality in the future. "It is intimidating. It does give one pause to ever do it again. But if I, and other people like me, stop writing about these things, stop talking about them, then this particular little cell of thought-terrorists will have won."


Readers' Digest

Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, published earlier this month by the University of Minnesota Press, spent two years grinding through the institutional bureaucracy. After the manuscript was reviewed by staff members at the publishing house, five outside experts weighed in with written critiques. Then a panel of U of M faculty members waded through the critiques, along with a chapter of the proposed book.

Everyone who laid eyeballs on Harmful to Minors agreed that it should be published.


Listed below are the scholars who reviewed the book prior to its publication, as well as the members of the U of M's faculty committee.



Janice Haaken,

professor of psychology, Portland State University; author of Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory, and the Perils of Looking Back

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