Harmful to Whom? Panelists Consider the Conservative Backlash Against Judith Levine’s New Book

Judith Levine jokingly says that at least she’s in good company: Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, and
Jocelyn Elders all were vilified for allegedly promoting sex between adults and children (though of
course none of them did any such thing).
Levine, a journalist and founder of the National Writers Union, has been vilified and worse because of
her new book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press).
In it, she argues that sex is not inherently harmful to teenagers, but can be healthy and empowering.
Furthermore, she claims that society’s responses to fears of young people’s sexuality—such as abstinence
campaigns and prosecutions of statutory rape—are not only pointless, but can be detrimental to the very
children they claim to protect.
Conservative outrage over the book was the subject of CLAGS’s April 26 panel discussion, “Sexual
Censorship: Why Can’t We Talk Honestly about Young People and Sex?” Levine told the 100 audience
members that it is “nearly impossible” to publish a book arguing that teenage sex may be both
pleasurable and healthy. “Anybody who writes anything about child and teen sexuality is smeared with
the same word: molester,” she said.
Released in April, Harmful to Minors faced widespread attack by social conservatives even before it
appeared in stores—indeed, even before almost anyone had read it. House majority whip Tom DeLay
claimed the book “excuses child molestation;” Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty
threatened the University of Minnesota Press with budget cuts if it did not halt publication; and Dr. Laura
condemned Levine, the book, and its publisher. News organizations such as the New York Times and
National Public Radio played up the controversy, contextualizing it within the recent spate of allegations
about “pedophile priests.”
The April panel’s clarity and cohesion were remarkable considering that CLAGS had only a few weeks
to plan and publicize the event after the controversy unfolded. In addition to Levine, the panelists
included Muriel Dimen, professor of clinical psychology at NYU and author of the forthcoming Sexuality,
Intimacy and Power (Analytic Press); Michele Grethel, director of the Young Adult and Adolescent Medical
and Mental Health Program at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center; and Carmen Vazquez, director
of public policy at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. Michael
Bronski, the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, moderated.
Bronski set the tone of the discussion by suggesting that in recent decades child sexuality has
become an increasingly taboo topic, even for activists and intellectuals. In the 1970s, he noted,
publications such as Gay Community News regularly published articles on children’s sexuality, articles that
would be unthinkable in today’s cultural climate.
Levine agreed that acceptance of young people’s sexuality is historically and culturally contingent.
Within the United States, notions and tolerance of sexual difference have changed drastically since the
1970s. While some lesbians and gay men have achieved limited and localized tolerance, and premarital
sex has lost some of its stigma, children are increasingly viewed as inherently innocent and asexual.
Today, she argued, no representation of the child’s body can be neutral: It is either “innocent” or
“pornographic.”
This dichotomy elides important issues of power—such as poverty—that can be genuinely harmful to
children. “Poverty is the biggest correlate to sexual abuse,” Levine said, because poor children are most
likely to live in crowded homes with itinerant residents or to have parents who spend many hours at
work. “It’s a disservice for feminists to say sexual abuse is equal opportunity. It’s not.”
In many other countries and cultures, the belief that children are naturally non-sexual is less
prevalent, Levine said. Sometimes this understanding can
be exploitative, such as in countries where young girls
are forced into marriages. However, it can also be
empowering. Levine cited the Netherlands, which allows
children as young as 12 to engage in sex with adults.
However, if the child or her or his parents believe the sex
was forced or exploitative, the adult partner could face
charges.
By necessity, this approach acknowledges that
children are citizens and therefore have rights. However,
the issue of children’s rights is contentious in the United
States, which has never ratified the 1989 United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child. Instead of
understanding sexual desire as natural to children as well
as adults, mass culture in the United States continues to
treat it as shameful, with the disciplinary aspects of
shame most obvious in cultural fears of child sexuality,
Levine said. “I’m a Foucauldean about it: We talk about
sex all the time, but we talk about children and their
sexuality only as a problem,” she said.
Dimen agreed, arguing that shame often originates
from parents’ embarrassment about the messy
ambiguities of sexual activity, which can be both
physically painful and physically pleasurable, personally
humiliating and personally empowering. Ultimately,
many parents have not come to terms with their own
feelings about sexuality, Dimen said, and so they do not
believe that their children could either. “Parental
empathy stops at sex,” she said.
While therapists may have their own mixed or
unresolved feelings about sexuality, they are also often
constrained by the policies of their particular institutions
and sometimes even by the laws of their state, Grethel
added. In general, clinicians find it easier to talk with
adolescents about “sexual abuse” and not “positive
sexual health,” she said. Speaking from the audience,
author and activist Amber Hollibaugh said such official
prohibitions also hamper sex education programs
nationally. “‘Sex negative’ education is always okay—
when you tell the kid only about what can go wrong,”
she said.
Vazquez argued that the controversy over Levine’s
book stemmed less from its message than from the
narrowness of social and political discourse in the United
States. Without political power, queers will have little
ability to argue that some stigmatized forms of sexuality
can be healthy and transformative.
Levine agreed that restricted public discourse is
certainly a crucial detriment to writing about children
and sex. “I don’t know how to be a radical and still be
heard and still be effective,” she said.

A graduate student in NYU’s American Studies Program,
Patrick McCreery is co-editor (with Kitty Krupat), of Out at
Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance.