At a (physical) age I dare not relate in an adult-materials-oriented publication, for fear of - well, so much, really - the fantasy was that I was strapped face down on a cold metal or stone slab, in a terrible underground facility, with many others of my (physical) age and thereabouts (not a Lolita age, mind you, oh no; more a Reading Rainbow age, an age before the development of secondary sex characteristics, but not before I would have, naturally, unbidden and not suggested, a fantasy such as this), with various horrible technological steel-and-tubing type things stuck in me and on my genitals and nipples and buttocks, etc., forced to masturbate by cruelly attentive but surprisingly unaroused adult-dungeon-master-galley-soldier types, as an energy source for an above-ground city. Humiliated but hot, I'd so wiggle about in my twin bed and hump my hands, my just-older sister tolerant and silent a nighttable away. And I would come.
Was I an abused child, to conjure such things? "We're all abused," my research psychologist PhD Dad likes to say, his tone heavy with rye. Er, wry. Ness. Had I gotten my hands on deviant (the definition of this stigmatizing word, by the way, is simply "to stray from a standard") materials, or been influenced by some sick fuck grown-up? Unless you're counting my third grade teacher, Mrs. DeLaVey... but everything she did was well within the limits of the sanctioned, though I still suffer it. That sadistic monster. My response, to the best of my memory, has to be "no."
Ah, human experience. So unsubstantiatable. Yet it's all we have upon which to base what we like to call facts: facts about physics, science, often using these things we've made up called numbers; facts about consequences, behaviors, often used to determine what is socially acceptable for everyone, everywhere; "facts" about "sex."
Harmful to Minors author Judith Levine says in her introduction, "In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too."
Amy Benfer went on to note in an April 2002 Salon.com interview with Levine, "Once you publish such a book in America today, [Levine] can now add, it is nearly impossible to escape the wrath of those who believe that such a statement is nothing less than dangerous."
Harmful to Minors was rejected by one publisher after another, and when the University of Minnesota Press (www.upress.umn.edu) finally took it on, the conservative right began campaigning against its ever seeing light of day. "Dr." Laura Schlessinger condemned the book on the air; her ilk, Judith Reisman, claimed Levine was one in a trend of "academic pedophiles," prompting Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute at Concerned Women for America, to label the book "very evil," to dedicate the CWFA Website to denouncing it, and to ask Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to halt the UM Press publication.
The tempest was enough to convince the Minnesota state legislature to scrutinize the UM Press, which submitted to disclosing its procedures for acquiring and publishing materials. The UM Press was moved to subject Levine's book to five peer reviews, rather than its usual two. All the civil rights/anti-censorship groups one might imagine (and some one might never imagine) involved themselves on the book's behalf, and the resultant notoriety had the expected effect on book sales.
Pat Holt of HoltUncensored.com, a twice-weekly e-mail column and Website about books and the book industry, marked a conservative first printing of 3,500 copies, shortly followed by a second printing of 10,000, thanks, no doubt, to the brou-ha-ha.
He reprints in full the "statement of support" for the book and the UM Press.
"The undersigned organizations strongly support the University of Minnesota Press, which has been attacked.... Ideas become controversial when they challenge conventional wisdom. Many are unwise. However, some are beneficial, challenging us to examine our basic assumptions and consider changing the way we have always done things. The First Amendment exists to allow us to debate the wisdom of those ideas and make up our own minds. Censorship only supports a status quo that cannot otherwise be defended.
"We applaud the University of Minnesota Press's decision to face that challenge and enrich the public debate about this essential issue. Its decision is one of which a great university can, and should, be proud. We trust the University of Minnesota appreciates the value of a courageous press to its educational mission and reputation."
Eighteen or so organizations signed the statement. Still, according to Benfer, Levine said "she's glad she didn't include an author photo on her book jacket," and in the subsequent interview she talked "about why American parents are afraid of their teenagers' sexuality, [said] kids know the difference between coercion and consent, and blasted critics who say she advocates pedophilia." It seems Harmful to Minors has mostly served to polarize people on the very thing it strives to educate and comfort us about.
Levine's book, in my opinion, is about nothing so much as that good ol' American standard, fear of sex, period. She is not unaware of this (as "Peril and Pleasure," "Denial of Female Desire," and other subject headings prove), but doesn't do much to allay it, either. Therefore, when minority of age is added to the equation, the aggressiveness of the book increases exponentially. From the Benfer interview:
"... the cover of my book... shows the bare torso of a child. People have reacted to this by saying that it is either prurient or pornographic on the one hand, or, on the other, that it is completely innocent. That to me shows that there is no image of a child, or any way of talking about childhood sexuality, that doesn't fall into either one camp or the other. The idea that childhood sexuality could be anything but a problem, unless it is altogether expurgated, is something that I frequently come up against."
Well, yeah. Us too. And here I don't mean "us in the adult Internet industry," I mean us parents. Us children. Us humans.
Levine often makes the unfortunate blanket condemnation of things she doesn't agree with, that perverse knee-jerk on the part of notable intellectual/liberals who are usually in the process of asking for themselves more consideration than such censure could allow.
Editor of BreakPoint Online (www.breakpoint.org, associated with "Prison Fellowship Ministries") Gina Dalfonzo hurls a few good ones back at Levine et. al. in No Harm Done? The Advocates of Child Sexual Abuse, a criticism of Harmful to Minors.
"... she tries to demonstrate that an argument is worthy by throwing mud at anyone who disagrees with it [hysterically enough, Dalfonzo does exactly this throughout her article]. Typical is her designation of everyone who agrees with her as an expert and everyone who disagrees with her as an 'expert'.... adults try to regulate whom a teenage girl can love because they're all card-carrying members of the patriarchy.... suffering from an advanced case of convenient memory, Levine again neglects to mention.... Harmful to Minors may be - and is - poorly argued, laughably simplistic, and morally indefensible."
It is definitely hard to swallow Levine's contention that "there may be no such thing as a 'typical' pedophile, if there is such a thing as a pedophile at all," in the breezy and notorious second chapter. Web research is more likely to stack up on the side of Publisher's Weekly criticism of this: "[Levine] observes that most so-called pedophiles are attracted to teenagers rather than kids - an important subtlety.... her call for common sense on pedophilia is marred by an inadequate acknowledgment of the extent of online child porn, as documented in Philip Jenkins' recent Beyond Tolerance." Such handling is probably what led to an ambivalent "open forum" readers' review posted on Amazon.com:
"Some points cross the line, but overall worth reading.... "; and this more dramatic one-starrer: "Harmful is correct in the title because, as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Educator, it is my complete conviction that if the advice on teaching and empowering children about sex as taught in this book is followed, minors and others will certainly be harmed.... "
For the most part, however, the reviews and the learned are on Levine's side. Holt says, "Harmful to Minors is one of the most respectful and compassionate books I've read in the long time. It's thoroughly documented and brilliantly argued, often angry for good reason and often painful, because Levine holds up a stunning, eye-opening, shake-your-head-and-clear-the-cobwebs-away mirror to what she rightly calls a continuing national panic."
Publishers Weekly: "[Levine] notes the disturbing trend toward pathologizing young children's eroticized play and criticizes mainstream America for letting the Christian right steer sex education toward an emphasis on abstinence. Compounding that, she says, the right wing has expunged abortion discussions.... At one point, Levine cogently contends that the term 'normal' is 'subjective and protean'; she prefers 'normative,' which means 'what most people do.' It's a good start to confronting some vital questions."
"Levine here argues," Library Journal says, "that trying to protect young people from sex can actually exacerbate or even create the much-feared sexual danger. Her well-documented horror stories of zealotry and incompetence are chilling; Levine is particularly good at showing that abstinence-based sex education leaves many teens without the information they need to make intelligent choices.... These factors, she holds, predispose young people to have bad sex with unwanted outcomes. Instead of overreaction and overprotection, adults need to saturate their children's world with accurate, realistic information and images of love and sex, including sexual pleasure."
And these glowing Amazon outtakes: "Everyone should read this book!... A must-read for the whole family."
"Indispensable book for parents.... You owe it to your child to read this book!"
A few days before I finished this column, Roger Dobson reported on www.independent.co.uk the scientific finding that "the earlier a woman has sex, the less stressed she is as an adult.
"In the research, carried out at the University of Tuebingen in Germany.... Stress levels were up to 60 percent lower in women who lost their virginity before their 18th birthday."
Levine says in Harmful to Minors, "In representing intercourse as the ultimate - and, by implication, uniquely 'normal' - sexual experience, educators.... communicate the assumptions that sex is primarily heterosexual and reproductive, and, above all, that it is always perilous."
Sure, the norm is contemptible, at least when it's held as the rigid standard to be met by all who are right and good, abandoning Others to sorry consequences. But it's the norm. "Assumptions that sex is primarily heterosexual and reproductive" are status quo all over the world, whether or not there are those of us who "know better." This is the world our children have to navigate. While Levine is to be applauded for what is ultimately a ground-breaking book, it's my wish she'd chosen a gentler approach.