Sep 1 2002

Scuttling a Debate With Scandal

Harmful to Minors controversy a missed opportunity

Judith Levine is a Brooklyn-based journalist with a long history of writing about sexu­ality and gender. When her most recent book came out this year, she hoped, as all authors hope, that her work might provoke some useful debate.

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex (Minnesota University Press) is a scholarly text, full of footnoted research into the history and con­temporary effect of U.S. laws and attitudes relating to sexuality. Age of consent laws, Levine notes, originat­ed to protect patriarchal property–a daughter’s virginity; ghastly things keep happening to kids whose sexu­al curiosity is cast as pathological; the rates of unwanted teen pregnan­cy, abortion and AIDS in every Western European country are a fraction of our own. With all this in mind, she argues that American soci­ety is overdue for a sexual retooling.

Unfortunately for society, the publication of Harmful to Minors afforded almost no opportunity to delve into any serious discussion these topics. The dominant media were far too busy casting Levine as a child molester and apologist for pedophiles.

Fury started raining down on the book even before it hit the shelves. Christian right groups like Concerned Women for America and the Culture and Family Institute unleashed the storm with an April forum in Washington to discuss whether the as­-yet-unpublished book “encouraged pedophilia.” It did, declared CFI’s Robert Knight. It did, agreed Sandy Rios, president of the CWA, which sent out a press release claiming that Levine “advocates” molesting children, and called on the University of Minnesota’s regents to fire “those responsible” for the publication of the “evil tome.”

The religious right weren’t the only ones who had complaints about Levine’s work; in the feminist Women’s Review of Books (6/02), for example, Louise Armstrong, author of many works on child abuse and incest, had qualms about the book. “Levine seems more enthused about the sex in sex ed than the safety,” she wrote.

But no feminist critic has a media machine like the one the right has to hand. Sympathetic to the “she’s a pedophile” crowd, the Washington Times lent its bully pulpit to Knight to publish a commentary on “Sexualizing Children” (4/24/02). Laura Schles­singer started railing against Levine on radio. Minneapolis Star Tribune colum­nist Kristin Tillotson did her best to defend Levine’s work on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor (4/18/02), but it was nothing but a slugfest, she concluded later, with her standing in for the punching bag (Star Tribune, 4/28/02).

Shaped by misinformation

Levine—who went through a gruel­ing publication process—might have been well advised to say upfront: “I HATE PEDOPHILIA AND CHILD ABUSE.” Perhaps unfortunately for the author, she presumes that her readers share her horror at the crimes she reports— including the 1997 rape/sodomy and murder of a 10-year-old boy out­side his grandmother’s house, an incident she says the Boston Herald was correct to call “monstrous.”

Her point, however, is that pedophilia and abuse don’t happen in the ways, or with the frequency, that society’s response suggests, and that misinformation is shaping poli­cy that hurts as much—or more—than it helps.

The popular, media-induced impression of the pedophile, for example, is all wrong. Pedophiles aren’t usually insatiable and incurable, nor are they well-organized and ubiquitous, planning to kidnap and murder children by the score. Indeed, the police files she studies reveal that 95 percent of allegedly abducted children turn out to be “run­aways and throwaways” from home, or kids snatched by one of their own par­ents in divorce or custody disputes.

The odds of a child being abducted and murdered by a non–family mem­ber are fewer than one in one million. (“A child’s risk of dying in a car acci­dent is 25 to 75 times greater,” she points out.) Yet a study of anxieties reported to pediatricians revealed that three-quarters of parents were afraid that their children would be abducted; a third said it was a “frequent worry”—more frequent than fretting over sports injuries, car accidents or drugs.

On the other hand, “even if sex crimes against strangers are rare, incest is not,” she writes. Yet “rather than indict the family…we circle the wagons and project the danger outward.”

Caught in the critics’ frame

Some media folks, notably print reporters, did actually read Levine’s work. On closer examination, the critics’ hysterical charges quickly fell away. “Utterly reasonable stuff,” concluded Sharon Lerner in the Village Voice (7/3/02). In the Los Angeles Times (6/3/02), Stephanie Simon sensibly discussed Levine’s work in the context of children’s sexuality. Joann Wypijewski gave the book its most thoughtful review in The Nation (5/20/02).

But even sympathetic writers found themselves caught up in a debate that had been framed by Levine’s opponents: the “pedophilia–for or against” question. Few even considered what is at the heart of her work, namely a discussion of how we as a society can improve our sexual relations: have more pleasure, avoid more diseases, do less harm.

Historically, she argues, societies in extremis have chosen to “privatize” the problems that crop up in human relations. Rather than address the external conditions of imperiling children, for example–shifting work patterns, urbanization, poverty, lack of healthcare and education–they push blame and responsibility back down onto individuals or their parents. Solutions “on the order of character-building” are chosen over what Levine calls “situation-bettering.” (Hence the emphasis on “family values,” “morality” and the welfare-repealers’ battle-cry “personal responsibility.”)

Harmful to Minors says that sex is not itself harmful to minors,” Levine writes in her introduction. “Rather, the real potential for harm lies in the circumstances that predispose them to what the public-health people call ‘unwanted sex.'” Economic security, she concludes, can’t guarantee sexual safety, but it sure can help, yet public debate about sex is all about “when” and “with whom” and never about socio-economic/cultural context.

In the immediate wake of publication, Liz Highleyman was virtually the only writer to bring this central them of Levine’s book to the attention of a general audience. Her “What Judith Levine Is Really Saying” was syndicated to local independent publications on the AlterNet newswire (4/26/02). More recently, Michelle Goldberg of Salon (8/7/02) authored an excellent critique of kidnapping hysteria in the media: “Random child kidnappings are actually declining. The real epidemic is one of saturation TV coverage,” she wrote, citing Levine in such a way as to suggest that Harmful to Minors may after all influence journalists to good effect.

Imagining a movement

In the public mind, however, Levine’s book was permanently associated with pedophilia and child abuse. Appearing just as the nation was finally grappling with the long-ignored scandal of child-sex abuse by Catholic priests, her work was cast as “stupid,” “disgusting” and (on Van Susteren’s On the Record, 3/28/02) “absurd.” Almost two months after the CWA event in Washington, (6/3/02) ran a feature on Harmful to Minors beneath the banner, “What a New Pedophilia Book Gets Right and Wrong.”

Some of the right-wingers who spearheaded the crusade against Levine didn’t stop with just her book.” Knight, in his Washington Times commentary (4/24/02), seized on the publication of Harmful to Minors as evidence of a pro-pedophilia movement whose goal is nothing less than the legalization of all sex with kids.

Boston Herald columnist Don Feder (5/6/02) amped up the volume with a furious assault on an unnamed cabal of academics and “advocates” who he said were out to forever destroy the family. First “out-of-wedlock” sex was made less unacceptable, then gay sex–next will be adult-child sex, Feder threatened: “Lest you think I’m making a mountain out of an academic/literary molehill, consider this: All of the storms that have shaken our culture in the past four decades have started as puffy clouds on the advocacy horizon.”

For Levine, the critique was personally nasty, but not bad for sales; Harmful to Minors made it up to No. 25 on the bestseller list. But who knows what fate the author or others like her will meet with next time around. In a critical climate that was already chilled on college campuses by the jingoistic fervor that followed the attacks of September 11, critics made it a point not only to attack the book, but to impugn its publisher, Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 4/18/02) told a Minnesota state representative that the book’s release “hurts the state of Minnesota”: “It’s an abomination published by a major university in this country, funded by tax dollars.”

To its credit, the University of Minnesota Press not only refused to stop printing Harmful to Minors, but put the book into a quick 20,000-copy second edition. UMP did agree, however, to review its editorial policies. The fracas can only have made it harder for the next potentially controversial author, which of course is the longer-term point of such attacks.

By the time Levine appeared on Working Assets Radio (5/20/02), the veteran feminist investigator was weary. “In the current media climate it’s incumbent on me to point out that I’m against pedophilia and child abuse,” she sighed. She went on to elaborate: People mature at different ages, she said; some 16-year-olds are ready to handle sex, some aren’t. Some people aren’t ready even years after that. “If 10-year-olds are having sex, there’s a real problem. Pre-puberty, sex should be off limits.” In a soundbite-driven media, by the time she’d said all that, the interview would be almost over.

As has happened so often before with sexuality-related topics–think pornography, homosexuality, sex education–an influential media megaphone broadcast hysteria whipped up by a few, and denied the mass of Americans any chance to hear the substance of Levine’s critique.

Laura Flanders, a former FAIR staffer, is the host of Working Assets Radio on San Francisco’s KALW (