Burn this Book

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 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 Advised a self-described Christian minister: "PLEASE DO NOT PUBLISH THIS BOOK.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'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.'"

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.

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."


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


James Kincaid,

professor of English at the University of Southern California; author of numerous books, including Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting


Debbie Nathan,

journalist and co-author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt


Carol Tavris, psychologist and author of numerous books, including Psychobabble and Biobunk: Using Psychology to Think Critically About Issues in the News(One additional scholar reviewed the book anonymously)



Daniel Brewer,
associate professor of French


Lisa Disch,
associate professor of political science


Raymond Duvall,
professor of political science


Michal Kobialka,
professor of theater arts and dance


Mary Jo Maynes,
professor of history


John Mowitt,
professor of cultural studies


Jennifer Pierce,
associate professor of American studies


Katherine Solomonson,
professor of architecture

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