Harmful To Minors (book review)

Parents worry about their children's sexual experiences, and for good reason-disease, pregnancy and abuse are just a few legitimate concerns. But author Judith Levine argues that when American adults shield their young from sex, it's even more dangerous than sex itself. Edited By Paul Chance, Ph.D.

By Deborah Roffman, published August 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

H armful To Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex

(University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

Judith Levine

Editor's Note:Harmful to Minors has sparked a firestorm of controversy. One of author Judith Levine's more incendiary assertions is that sexual relationships between adults and adolescents are sometimes benign. To some that sounds like an endorsement of pedophilia. Robert Knight, executive director of the conservative Culture and Family Institute, calls the book "every child molester's dream-and every parent's nightmare." Yet Jocelyn Elders, M.D., former United States surgeon general, says it's "a vitally important book." Lost in the uproar is the fact that Levine's central claim is that our efforts to protect children from sex does them more harm than good. Our reviewer, Deborah Roffman, M.S., a leader in sexuality education, takes a look at this larger question.

Americans are wrong about sex-or at least the sexual education of our children. According to journalist Judith Levine, we take the view that the less said the better, and what we do say is mostly in the form of thou shalt nots. Adults are, Levine argues, afraid of the wrong things-information, openness, healthy experimentation, sex itself-and this "sexual politics of fear" harms our children. It blinds us to the critical needs of youth, leaves children defenseless against the real dangers they face (pregnancy, disease, exploitation, abuse) and sabotages their right to healthy, pleasurable sexual expression. As Elders writes in the book's introduction, "Treating sex as dangerous is dangerous in itself."

Levine successfully challenges many assumptions that target sex as the enemy and that have helped spawn the ever-expanding "abstinence-only" movement in American schools. She describes the historical evolution of attitudes toward child and adolescent sexuality throughout the millennia, and the confluence of forces leading to the ascension of the religious right as the major power broker in determining sexual education policy in our schools. In doing so, she reveals that it is clearly ignorance and ideology, not the developmental needs of young people, that underlie our current approach. With our children's lives, health and happiness at stake, Levine asserts, we need a bold new vision for addressing their needs, one that recognizes that sex (defined as a range of sexual acts, not merely intercourse) is a great gift to be celebrated and enjoyed, not a menace to be contained and blamed.

It is in putting this vision into practice where Levine falters. She proposes that children and adolescents have an innate right to information, a right to experience sexual pleasure and a right to engage in sexual activities with others. But she forgets that knowing, feeling and doing are not one and the same: The right to one's feelings is absolute, but the right to know and to act are relative to one's age and circumstance.

Moreover, proclaiming (as Levine does) that sex is inherently good is as dogmatic as proclaiming that sex is inherently bad. It sidesteps the fact that sex is inherently powerful, with tremendous capacity for good and pleasure, but also for pain and suffering. Helping young people learn how to enjoy the gifts of sex is an adult responsibility, but so is helping them to understand and manage its power.

Levine articulately addresses the moral issues intrinsic in sexual decision-making. Yet nowhere does she offer strategies for helping children and adolescents develop skills for moral thinking. And while she includes poignant anecdotes that clearly demonstrate the importance of parent-child communication in shaping healthy attitudes and behavior, she summarily dismisses parents as successful sex educators. Most parents, she insists, are simply too uncomfortable to "walk the walk"; besides, kids would really rather talk to someone else, anyway. Where are kids to find moral guidance on sex if not from their parents? The best Levine can do is suggest a number of sex-education Web sites.

In a popular culture that glorifies sex at every turn, promotes the sexualization of children at earlier and earlier ages and continues to model unhealthy gender-role stereotyping and relationships, Levine's call for a new approach to sex education is important-but inadequate. Our children's best hope is not, as Levine suggests, that we simply give them permission to enjoy sex and then step out of their way. Rather, we must stay close enough to help them learn how to deal with sex in the most positive and healthy ways. For us to do anything less is truly "harmful to minors."

Deborah Roffman, M.S., is a sexuality educator and author of Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex(Perseus, 2001).