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harmful to minors
Flammable, and sheds a lot of light

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May 2002 Email this to a friend
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Burn First
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By Jim D'Entremont

In an unusual step aimed at placating right-wing activists who claim the University of Minnesota has begun promoting child molestation, the state university is assembling a watchdog committee to keeps tabs on its auxiliary publisher. Their immediate goal is to lower the decibel level of protests triggered by the publication of Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, a product of the University of Minnesota Press.

The university's announcement stressed its "deep commitment to academic freedom and open discourse," but described the oversight panel as an effort "to ensure that... publishing criteria and processes meet industry standards." In other words, as the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and other member organizations of the Free Expression Network (FEN) observed in a letter to U of M president Mark Yudok, "The clear message to university presses is that they will face harsh scrutiny every time they dare publish material that explores a controversial issue."

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The "panel of experts from other academic and university presses" will be headed by Christine Maziar, dean of the U of M Graduate School. Its duties will include an examination of "how external experts are chosen to review manuscripts for publication"­ perhaps to insure that only experts who toe the correct political line will be selected. In reality, the University of Minnesota Press appears to have approached Harmful to Minors with caution. Most university-press publications receive two peer reviews; Harmful to Minors received five. The number of evaluations reflects the scope of the book, but suggests a certain squeamishness about material one trade publisher had rejected as "radioactive."

Sharks smell blood

Pre-publication fallout began on March 28, when Concerned Women for America (CWA) issued a rant by Robert Knight, director of the Christian women's group's Culture and Family Institute. In a press release headlined "Reject Academic Cover for Child Molesters," Knight called Harmful to Minors "every child molester's dream­ and every parent's nightmare," and concluded, "If the Regents of the University of Minnesota do not act quickly to fire those responsible, the people of Minnesota and their elected representatives should move quickly to replace them." On April 4, the same day U of M unveiled its oversight panel, Knight and CWA president Sandy Rios dispatched a joint letter urging Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura "to investigate the process that has turned the University of Minnesota Press into the most famous purveyor of pro-pedophile literature in America."

CWA, founded by Beverly LaHaye, wife of a former executive director of the Moral Majority, has a proud tradition of misrepresenting what it attacks. It also has a history of advocating censorship and calling it something else. (The organization is one of the archenemies of the National Endowment for the Arts.) In their letter to Ventura, Rios and Knight claimed, "This isn't censorship. Miss Levine can find a private publisher.... But Minnesota's taxpayers should not be forced to aid and abet this noxious venture."

Tim Pawlenty, Majority Leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, a U-of-M alumnus­ and a gubernatorial candidate eager to court religious conservatives­ echoed CWA's rhetoric. In his own press release, he stated, "There is a difference between freedom of speech and state-sanctioned support for... molesting children." American Values chairman Gary Bauer, "Dr. Laura" Schlesinger, anti-porn zealot Judith Reisman, and the fundamentalist American Family Association joined in a chorus of condemnation that hinted at an academic pedophile conspiracy while emphasizing the alleged misuse of tax revenues by a public institution.

The truth is that while the University of Minnesota Press has administrative ties to the University of Minnesota, the publishing operation is editorially independent and virtually self-supporting. The nonprofit publisher receives an annual $300,000, less than six percent of its budget, from the university.

Since none of the book's most vocal critics had actually read it, outrage centered on a March 25 Newhouse News Service interview in which Levine admitted to having had a relationship with an older partner while in her teens, and suggested that liaisons between teenaged boys and priests could have positive aspects (though she says she does not condone sex between minors and authority figures). Right-wing moralists also noted that the book's lead promotional blurb is by Robie Harris, whose illustrated sex-ed paperback It's Perfectly Normal was 2001's most frequently banned American book. There is also a preface by Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Bill Clinton's Surgeon General until right-wing apoplexy over her stand sex education led to her firing.

Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), points out that while notoriety increases sales, "This furor is destructive because it distorts the author's message and will color the way people approach the book." Judith Levine has been an active participant in an NCAC campaign against "abstinence-only" sex education.

That was then...

Thirty years ago, Harmful to Minors would have been discussed on its own merits. Appearing at a peak time of moral panic over pedophile priests and other purported "sex predators," the book has become a flashpoint of hysteria.

Although Levine believes that sexual relations between a teenager and an older person can be non-abusive, to characterize her book as "pro-pedophile literature" is fanciful. The respected 49-year-old journalist, who has written widely about sex and gender issues, devotes only a few pages to intergenerational sex. Her critique of "age of consent" laws ends with an endorsement of Dutch legislation­ now abolished that sets the age of consent at 12, but raises it to 16 in cases where exploitation or coercion is alleged by a child or parent.

Harmful to Minors encompasses a range of topics concerning children's sexuality. Levine is especially skilled at exposing the idiocies of sex-ed curricula that stress abstinence and little else, noting that such programs can foster the teenage pregnancy and STD infections they are said to prevent. She explodes myths about child pornography, cyberporn, Internet stalkers, "children

who molest," masturbation, girls' sexuality, and contraception. Her assessment of the Christian Right's "family values" agenda presents the canny insight that "'family values' is another way of saying 'privatization,' which means a withdrawal of public­ that is, shared­ financial responsibility to the community."

Sex makes you alive

The most courageous passages in the book uphold a child's right to sexual pleasure. "Sex is not harmful to children," Levine concludes. "It is a vehicle to self-knowledge, love, healing, creativity, adventure, and intense feelings of aliveness." She stresses the moral obligation of adults to ensure children's sexual safety.

There are minor bloopers­ gay columnist Michelangelo Signorile becomes Michelangelo "Signorelli"­ and occasional flaws. One passage begins with praise for Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman's work on father-daughter incest, then segues into a mild put-down of Ellen Bass and Laura Davis's self-help book The Courage to Heal. Levine never alludes to Herman's promotion of "repressed memory" therapies that spawned countless false accusations of sexual abuse in and out of the family, and helped make the appalling Courage to Heal an abuse-kitsch phenomenon.

While Harmful to Minors packs a great deal of information into a dense 225 pages, Levine could have used additional space. She is properly skeptical of good-touch/bad-touch training for children, but says little about how such programs work, who uses them and why, and what makes them flawed. The much-demonized North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) is mentioned glancingly. Levine, who took strong and principled First Amendment positions throughout her tenure as Political Issues Chair of the National Writers Union, might have offered a cogent analysis of Curley v. NAMBLA, an ongoing wrongful-death lawsuit with large and troubling First Amendment implications. The case is, however, relegated to a footnote.

Publicist's dream?

But the book is an important addition to a growing body of literature addressing the contemporary panic over sexuality and child protection. It merits a place on the shelf beside Philip Jenkins's Moral Panic, Anne Higonnet's Pictures of Innocence, and ACLU attorney Marjorie Heins's Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. Harmful to Minors is, on the whole, informed, informative, civilized, and wise. It's also very readable. Levine's style bridges personal and objective, scholarly and popular.

Thanks to the Christian Right, online sales of Harmful to Minors began to soar before the volume had been shipped to bookstores. The University of Minnesota Press, which resolutely supports the book, has ordered a second printing of 10,000 copies.

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