Thursday, July 31, 2003

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine

Harmful to Minors is an expose of the craziness of American attitudes towards sex and children, including our hysteria about pedophilia and child pornography, our dotty notion that there’s something pathological or criminal about nine year olds playing doctor, and the official promotion of abstinence as a panacea. From a statistical point of view, children aren’t at much risk of sexual attack from strangers—family members are another matter—and notion that sex offenders are a homogenous population of incorrigible monsters is not so much a psychological generalization as a rule of genre fiction like the convention that you can’t see vampires in a mirror. Levine usefully reminds us that these received truths hurt a lot of actual people. Minor offenders are branded for life and subjected to vigilante justice, and children get stigmatized by pointless psychiatric interventions backed by the force of law. Meanwhile, the obsession with real or imagined sexual misbehavior opens up vast prospects of blackmail and political extortion to public and private sex police and other entrepreneurs.

In most respects, Harmful to Minors is an unremarkable effort. Levine, a journalist, is neither a remarkably good or remarkably inept writer, and her book features the mix of anecdote and generalization usual in general nonfiction. In any case, making a case for the obvious isn’t all that difficult. What makes the book notable is that it was published at all, even by a minor university press. Indeed, I expect that the University of Minnesota Press wishes it had stuck to learned treatises on phenomenology since the publication of Harmful to Minors was greeted with gouts of venom from the usual spitting cobras. Levine is not a pamphleteer for NAMBLA or a promoter of sexual liberation ala Reich; but she was nevertheless denounced, and not just on AM radio, as a debaucher of children and an agent of the Prince of Darkness. The dogmas of American sexual politics are far too fragile to be defended without fanaticism.

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