We live in a society where fear and ideology are the basis for many of the decisions made regarding children and sexuality, from the ever present panic about sexual abuse to the prevalence of abstinence only education despite the predominance of evidence that it does not work. This is underlying message Judith Levine describes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, a thought-provoking and intense work chronicling how we got to the place we are today and how these attitudes are dangerous and can damage our children. She discusses how both left-wing feminism and right-wing religious ideology created this environment and have helped it flourish. Thoroughly researched with extensive documentation, this is a work well worth reading attentively and carefully.
Appropriately, given the origins of her title, Levine begins by addressing censorship. She says, “Sex education, like obscenity law was founded on the notion that you can separate clean sex from dirty sex.” The assumption is that exposure to certain things before an arbitrary, legally defined age is dangerous. Young people must be protected from having sex or even sexual knowledge and are taught that these things are wrong or dirty, then are expected to have healthy sex lives once they grasp the brass ring of marriage. Forbidding sexual knowledge and exploration to young people can lead to the idea that these things are dirty; a hard concept to shake off once they become allowed. Despite evidence from various studies disproving the existence of a link between viewing pornography and behaving badly, the opposite is deeply ingrained in our collective conscious.
The next subject tackled is the unrelenting message that there are pedophiles lurking around every corner just waiting to jump out and molest our children, ruining their lives forever. In fact, according to multiple studies, children are at a 25-75% greater risk of dying in a car accident than being abducted and murdered. At no point does Levine suggest that these crimes are anything other than horrific. She merely tries to instill an amount of rationality into the discussion by providing data regarding the issue. We live in a society which requires and publicly displays sex offender registries for people who have already served sentences, despite the fact that there are extremely low recidivism rates where these crimes are concerned. While many statistics on sexual abuse are muddy and rely on unsubstantiated and sometimes retracted or altered reports and those we do have show that more than half of the child sexual abuse that occurs does so within the family, the refrain that strangers are out to harm our children is near-constant in the media. One especially prominent example is the constant refrain that there are vast child pornography rings, particularly on the internet. In fact, law enforcement agencies are the largest reproducers and distributors of child pornography due to their practice of setting up aggressive sting operations.
Children as young as eleven have been tried for murder as adults. A seventeen year old who has consensual sex with a nineteen year old is considered to be a victim. When placed side by side these ideas seem clearly contradictory, but they exist and have been codified into law. They seem to be deeply rooted in the same ideas that led to the term “children who molest” and draconian programs designed to “reform” children who may have engaged in behavior as innocent as mooning someone. In some places these children are forced to register permanently as sex offenders. Despite a dearth of solid data on child sexual behaviors, many behaviors are called problems and the idea that any sexual play, including the age-old “playing doctor,” is viewed as leading to promiscuity and risky sexual behavior in adulthood. In fact, those have been shown to be unconnected. As Levine wisely states, both abuse and consent have multiple meanings for both adults and children and “harm is on a continuum.” In the period since Harmful to Minors was released, this problem has been made worse by the advent of “sexting” and ensuing prosecution of teenagers for consensual acts under statutes as harsh as those governing child pornography. This is a step even further than the statutory rape laws which can result in the older partner in a consensual relationship as close as two years in age being jailed. “Close to two-thirds of reports of illicit sex with minors come to the police from parents,” can be added to the list of disturbing statistics Levine includes.
Included in a National Institutes of Health statement regarding AIDS prevention are the statements, regarding teaching only abstinence to teenagers in sexual education classes, “Approach places policy in direct conflict with science and ignores overwhelming evidence that other programs would be effective” and “abstinence-only programs cannot be justified in the face of effective programs and given the fact that we face an international emergency in the AIDS epidemic.” Despite consistent evidence that abstinence only programs do not prevent teenagers from having sex and can actually contribute to higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections, these programs have become dominant in the United States. Sexual educators are increasingly forced to embrace and teach the concept that abstinence is better, even in the “abstinence-plus” programs that now pass for comprehensive sex ed. Many of those who promote these programs are unapologetic about the fact that they want to wipe out teen sexual activity, regardless of the views held by the majority of people and scientific evidence absolving it from harm. These campaigns are permeated by the idea that abstinence provides freedom. Despite evidence that most parents cannot or will not educate their children about sex there is a push to force this education back into the home. The idea that teenagers should not be entitled to privacy or autonomy where their sex lives are concerned has become ubiquitous. Often they are also being denied information that could help them develop positive and healthy attitudes towards sex.
Much of the last half of Harmful to Minors focuses on the ways young people are denied the right to pleasure. Often this can happen through omission. We do live in a culture where a Surgeon General was forced out of her job because she dared to suggest that masturbation be discussed in the classroom. In an era where sex education classes focus primarily on the biology of reproduction teens frequently complete these courses without a single mention of the clitoris. There is a narrative of boys experiencing sexual desire and pushing girls to engage in intercourse. While hopefully a trend that is shifting, there is a strong emphasis on “sex” consisting of heterosexual, vaginal penetrative sex, with other activities being either ignored or implied to be deviations from the norm. When the book was published, 30% of young people who committed suicide were gay, lesbian, or questioning. In a culture where sexual exploration is largely suppressed for anyone under that magic age of 18, this should not be surprising. In a culture where girls in particular are rarely encouraged, and frequently discouraged from learning how to give themselves pleasure, it should not be surprising that many of them report finding sex painful and seem to have great difficulty finding it pleasurable. The idea of fully exploring the body with a partner and the concept of finding pleasure in ways other than penetrative sex can lead young people to delay intercourse, which could in turn lead to a reduction of pregnancy and STI rates. As Levine puts it, “Young people who are used to thinking and talking about sex and who learn to be aware of themselves and their partners are far more likely to approach intercourse consciously, with advance planning, and with the express and considered desire of both partners.”
Levine closes the book with an epilogue entitled Morality. In it, she states that the US is not a child-friendly place. We have very high rates of infant mortality for an industrialized nation, and very low rates of child well-being. We focus on child sexual abuse and ignore the epidemic of child poverty, something we neglect to label as abusive. Yet, despite all of these things, we claim as a society to be child and family focused. Perhaps that idea should be reassessed.