Comes Naturally #123 (May 31, 2002):
But the Emperor Has No Clothes

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Spectator Magazine -- May 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 David Steinberg


It seems there are only two positions you can have about pedophiles these days: Either you're for them or you're against them. Either you think they're the most widespread and imminent threat to our children, to basic decency, and to a stable and sane society, or you are an apologist who wants to help adults have sex with children as much as possible. It's as simple as that. Black or white.

At least that's what the instigators of the virulent controversy about Judith Levine's new book, ""Harmful to Minors": The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex," would have us all believe.

At a time when we are bombarded by daily press reports of priests abusing young parishioners -- on top of ongoing concerns about child pornography, teen sexuality, and increased exposure of young people to sexual images through the Internet -- it's not hard to fall into a state of total panic about protecting children from potentially harmful, unwanted sexual experiences. Not surprisingly, in these times of impending panic, there are also those who stand ready to seize on our most pregnant fears and manipulate them for political, theological, and even financial purposes.

It's not news that we are a deeply divided nation when it comes to sex. Unquestionably, there is a fundamental, passionate cultural war going on between the people who see sex primarily as a marvelous, expansive, vitally pervasive, diverse opportunity for relationship, self-expression, and personal growth, and the people who see sex primarily as a dark and dangerous force, largely responsible for the ongoing decline in traditional family patterns, gender roles, and moral absolutes -- a dangerous force that will envelop us all in moral and social chaos unless it is firmly and strictly constrained and controlled by church and state alike.

Rhetorical heat is standard fare in the debate between the sex advocates and the erotophobes, but the "Harmful to Minors" controversy has taken panic and provocation to a level of ferocity that is unusual, even for the sex wars. Led by conservative radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America, and Minnesota Representative and gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty, a campaign was launched in early April not to refute what "Harmful to Minors" has to say, but to prevent the book from ever being published in the first place. This because the publisher of "Harmful to Minors" is the University of Minnesota Press which, as a branch of the publicly-funded University of Minnesota, is very much subject to governmental review and control.

"This is a sick book and the University of Minnesota is sick for publishing it," said the editorial board of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, newspaper. "You in Academia are nothing but a bunch of anti-family, anti-American, pro-terrorist, socialist idiots," wrote a listener to the conservative talk show, Savage Nation. Writing in U.S. News and World Report, John Leo dismisses Judith Levine as an "apologist for pedophilia," claiming that her goal is to make pedophilia intellectually respectable.

By late April, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's office had received over 19,000 mostly identical email messages urging that "Harmful to Minors" be squashed and that the people who chose to publish it be fired. This before the book had even made its way to bookstores where people could see for themselves what it was actually about.

University of Minnesota Press responded to the controversy by immediately ordering a second printing of the book -- a healthy 10,000 copies in sharp contrast to the modest initial printing of 3500. (The book had risen to No. 14 on Amazon's list of best-sellers on pre-publication orders alone.) The University of Minnesota administration, however -- much to the consternation of groups like the National Writers Union, the Association of American Publishers, the Association of American University Presses, and the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association -- responded by ordering an extraordinary outside review of UMP's editorial policies. This despite the fact that "Harmful to Minors" had been subjected to an unusually stringent two-year process of pre-publication review (where it was enthusiastically endorsed by panel after panel of editors and outside experts).

Although the Press dismisses the University-ordered review as little more than a formality that will only affirm its existing policies, the chilling effect of a university responding so defensively to political pressure is sure to be felt by other presses, both academic and mainstream, as they consider other sexually controversial manuscripts in the future. As the National Coalition Against Censorship notes, subjecting a press to special scrutiny in response to pre-publication backlash undermines academic freedom and "sends a clear message to university presses... that they will face harsh scrutiny every time they dare publish material that explores a controversial issue."

Despite the inflammatory claims of its critics, "Harmful to Minors" is not a book about pedophilia. It is a book about taking the sexuality of minors seriously. Its radical premise is that sex is not, in itself harmful to minors, but is rather -- for minors as well as for adults -- "a vehicle to self-knowledge, love, healing, creativity, adventure, and intense feelings of aliveness." "Harmful to Minors" encourages adults to take a positive, helpful attitude to the developing sexuality of children and adolescents, to regard the sexuality of young people as a blessing rather than a curse. What is indeed harmful to the sexual development of minors, says Levine, are the increasingly fervid yet futile efforts to isolate them from accurate sexual information and from meaningful sexual experience.

While not the primary focus of the book, "Harmful to Minors" does impose a deliberate reality check on the exaggerated upsets about pedophilia, stranger kidnapping, and Internet pornography that have come to be accepted unquestioningly in mainstream media reporting. Levine reviews data from a broad range of scientific studies, data that challenge many popularly-held beliefs about pedophiles and about sex between minors and adults in general. As with many other media-inflated sex panics, what people accept as fact often has little to do with what is going on in the real world, a fantasy-reality gap that Levine repeatedly punctures with hard information.

Do you know, for example, that the people we call pedophiles -- adults whose primary sexual attraction is to minors -- are relatively rare, making up something less than 1% (some report one-tenth of 1%) of the population? Do you know that the vast majority of pedophiles never do anything that harms actual children? That the vast majority of people who actually molest children are not pedophiles at all, but angry, abusive parents, step-parents, and other relatives who have no sexual interest in children other than their own? That convicted child molesters have one of the lowest rates of repeat offenses of any criminals -- 13% (7% after psychological treatment) compared to 74% for criminals overall? Do you know that studies of adults who, as minors, had sex with adults show that, for many, these sexual connections did not have devastating psychological consequences? That a surprising percentage of adults speak positively of their early intergenerational sexual experiences?

None of which should distract us from paying careful attention to the important issue of sexual abuse of children, or from the fact that sex between minors and adults often does result in significant psychological harm. Levine emphasizes, both in her book and in interviews, that she does not endorse pedophilia or the sexual abuse of children. ("No sane person would advocate pedophilia, she says in an interview with Salon magazine. "It seems ridiculous to me that I have to say that.") What she does endorse enthusiastically is the sexual nature and energy of young people, and their right to choose for themselves how they want to explore their emerging sexuality, and have those choices be respected by adults.

The furor around "Harmful to Minors" shows just how strongly the popularized image of the pedophile predator has taken root in mass consciousness. I have written previously, about how our culture has always designated one class of sexual outsiders as its primary perverts -- people whose sexual transgressions appear so horrible that the very thought of them frightens us into keeping our own forbidden sexual desires under strict control. These designated perverts cannot be people whose sexuality is merely disapproved by the mainstream culture. Nor is it sufficient for designated perverts to be simply misguided souls in need of understanding or therapeutic help. Designated perverts must be so thoroughly loathsome to the general population that the social outrage they generate serves as a warning to all who would deviate from sexual normalcy about what will happen to them if they do.

While our society has always had its designated perverts, the particular group playing that role has changed over time. In the late 19th century, all that was required to be branded a "Satanic Free Loveist," for example, was believing that women had sexual appetites of their own and should therefore have the right to choose who their sexual partners would be. People, like feminist activist Victoria Woodhull, who acknowledged women as sexual beings entitled to make their own sexual choices were subjected to the very sort of outraged condemnation that Judith Levine is now experiencing for saying the same thing about children.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as more and more women affirmed and demanded respect for their sexual desires, it became impossible to maintain the notion that any woman who acknowledged, celebrated, or acted on her sexual desire was so perverted as to be subhumanly loathsome. A new class of designated perverts was needed as a projection screen for the horrors of sexual deviance, and a new class was indeed found.

The new class of publicized loathsome perverts was homosexuals. Homosexuality came to symbolize the same evil-minded threat to decency and social order that had previously been the province of sinfully lustful women. As such, homosexuals became the new primary targets for the uniquely virulent condemnation and punishment that our culture reserves for its most despised sexual deviants. Exaggerated and fabricated notions of homosexuals preying on children, engaging in extreme (often physically impossible) sexual acts, engaging in cultic sexual behavior, and so on, became mainstays of popular homophobic culture.

But by the 1980s, so many gays and lesbians had come out of the closet that it had once again become impossible to maintain the notion that the current group of designated perverts was comprised of nothing less despicable than subhuman parasites. This is not to say that gays and lesbians had then (or have now) attained anything close to full acceptance in American society. Lists of daily gay bashings and anti-gay hate crimes make this painfully clear.

But, these days, almost everyone knows someone who is gay or lesbian, or has seen enough sympathetic portrayals of gays and lesbians in film or on television that the vicious edge of anti-gay hatred has become dulled. Once again, mainstream culture needs to find a new, yet more loathsome, designated pervert to strike fear into the hearts of those whose sexual desires might tempt them to stray outside the sexual mainstream.

For a while it appeared that the new designated perverts would be people into S/M. But in 1992, Madonna published her photographic book, "Sex," which went a long way toward popularizing S/M. Almost instantaneously, S/M, while still considered edgy, became familiar (even chic) to mainstream sexual consciousness and imagery.

Who, then, was left for unabashed vilification? Ah yes, the pedophiles. And so, for several years now, media profiles of pedophiles and the social danger they represent, has grown increasingly florid, and increasingly divorced from reality. First there was the whole business of ritual Satanic abuse of children, particularly in day care centers. Although no substantiation has ever been found of even one case of such ritual Satanic cults, the belief in their danger is still pervasive in the general population. And, of course, now there is the whole business of abuse of children by Catholic priests. For most people, pedophiles have come to be equated with child molesters, and subjected to increasingly virulent condemnation and punishment. Anyone who dares to acknowledge or affirm the natural sexuality of young people, or the possibility of healthy sexual connection between minors and adults is subject to only slightly less muted social outrage.

This is exactly what Judith Levine has done with "Harmful to Minors," and the intensity of the reaction to her book is precisely the sort of vituperation that has always befallen the designated pervert class.

Response to "Harmful to Minors" has not been one-sidedly negative, however. According to people at University of Minnesota Press, after an initial wave of condemnation, the tide of public response began to turn in mid-April, with free-speech and sane-sexuality advocates beginning to express their support of the press and of its decision to publish Levine's book. Strong, well-written articles in support of "Harmful to Minors" have appeared in such progressive publications Salon, The Nation, Boston Phoenix, AlterNet, Holt Uncensored -- articles made decidedly more effective by their access to Levine's potent research and data. News reports in middle-of-the-road outlets such as Time, USA Today, The New York Times, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and CBS News, have also been sympathetic to both "Harmful to Minors" and to UMP, reporting the objections of far-right critics with a distinctly disdainful eye.

Perhaps this time the right wing has gone one step too far. Perhaps the well-documented studies cited in a book like "Harmful to Minors" can withstand the rage of people who respond to scientific evidence by quoting from the Bible, people who feel that science itself is suspect when brought to bear on public policy. Perhaps University of Minnesota Press will emerge from this hubbub all the more respected for having the courage to publish a thoughtful, reasoned, and complex -- albeit controversial -- book about sex and children.

Or perhaps, in this time of heightened fear and uncertainty, we have simply moved one step closer to the unrestrained vilification of anyone who dares to speak facts that no one wants to hear.

In Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, it took the innocence of a child to say aloud the obvious truth that everyone else was afraid to acknowledge -- that, despite the word being put out by conniving officials, the emperor was obviously wearing no clothes. In that tale, once the public silence about the obvious had been broken, everyone including the emperor became free to see the folly of what had really been going on.

Hopefully the same will become true for us.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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