ITíS 3 A.M. ó do you know where your children are?, runs the joke mocking a TV public-service announcement popular a few years back. Yet those words invariably send chills down most parentsí spines. And it hasnít helped that media-hyped debates about everything from Columbine-style school massacres and violent video games to Internet predators has heightened the sense that American kids live in an all-out war zone of physical, emotional, psychological, and moral danger. In the past, parents could seek solace and direction from religion, from their faith traditions and clerical leaders. But now, even that source of comfort has been thrown into question. The ongoing, deepening, and seemingly endless scandal of alleged abuse by Catholic priests has raised the specter of endangered children to nearly unimaginable heights. How could this stuff get any worse? Whatís a mother to do?
Now, just as the predatory-priest scandal is capping years of heightened anxiety about our childrenís well-being, here comes Judith Levineís Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press). Not surprisingly, with a title like that, the book is already in the middle of a political firestorm ó and it hasnít even been released yet. The culture-war battle sparked by the publication of Levineís book has serious ramifications for both civil liberties and freedom of expression. Thatís because the choked agitation triggered by Levineís book is both a reaction to our excessive cultural obsession with kids and sexuality and a symptom of how unable we are, as a culture, even to begin discussing such issues.
JUDITH LEVINE is one of a rare species ó she's an independent scholar and journalist who publishes in mainstream venues such as the Village Voice, Nerve.com, and Ms, and who, unlike many in the academy, writes clearly and with great force. Already noted for her 1992 book My Enemy, My Love: Man-Hating and Ambivalence in Womenís Lives (Doubleday), Levine is a social activist and public intellectual who believes passionately that ideas matter.
Harmful to Minors, which is being released by the University of Minnesota Press on May 1, is a carefully researched examination of the myriad ways American culture attempts to control, monitor, suppress, and even eradicate childrenís access to information about sexuality, sexual health, and reproduction ó all in the name of protection ó and how it pathologizes and criminalizes childrenís and teensí sexual expression. The book addresses such varied topics as federally funded abstinence-only programs (which ban even mentioning contraception or condoms) in public schools; the myth that predators and child rapists are lurking all over the Internet; the appalling lack of access teens ó especially young women ó have to sexual-health and reproductive information; and how it is nearly verboten to discuss masturbation in sexual-education classes. Levine argues strongly, thoughtfully, and persuasively that children are far more harmed by these misguided attempts at "protection" than they would be by having full access to honest information about sexuality, as well as (in some cases) the ability to discover and explore their own sexual desires and feelings.
Basically, then, Levine argues that children should have accurate sex-and-health information and the chance to grow up with safe, fulfilling sexual attitudes. Who could complain? Well. First it was Robert Knight of Concerned Women For America (CWA) who, on March 28, issued a press release that called Harmful to Minors "evil," "hideous," and "every child molesterís dream." Within days his message was trumpeted by that doyenne of the air waves, the redoubtable Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who also issued a stirring condemnation of the book. After this, events began moving fast and furiously. Republican Tim Pawlenty, the majority leader of Minnesotaís House of Representatives and a potential gubernatorial candidate, publicly condemned the book (which he admittedly had not read) as "state-sanctioned support for illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting children." Along with Schlessinger and CWA, he issued calls for the University of Minnesota Press not to distribute the book. Within days, the press and university received more then 800 phone calls and e-mails to complain about the book. (It is safe to say, since Harmful to Minors had not yet been shipped to bookstores, that none of these complainers had actually read the book either.) This cheap, right-wing political grandstanding proved effective when Christine Miziar, who supervises the press as the University of Minnesotaís vice-president for research, announced on April 5 the establishment of an outside advisory committee to survey the pressís peer-review and acquisitions policy. By all accounts, it is an unprecedented step.
Although it appears that the university is bowing to political pressure, and since external review of a university pressís acquisitions and peer-review process is unheard of, everyone seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Douglas Armato, the pressís director, is confident that the still-to-be-named review committee will certify that the pressís policies are appropriate and were complied with in this case. In fact, he says, because of the scope and interdisciplinary approach of Levineís book, the press had her book vetted not just by the usual two reviewers, but by five, including a child psychologist, a sociologist, and a journalist. And Armato has forthrightly defended the decision to publish Levineís book, systematically debunking the disinformation campaign being waged by its right-wing critics: "Harmful to Minors is being presented as a book about pedophilia, and it doesnít advocate pedophilia, and it isnít about that," he says. "There are four pages in the book that talk about intergenerational sex ... [but the book] focuses on many different issues concerning sexuality."
Armato is clearly in a difficult position, for while the university has certainly not pulled Levineís book, it has cast a shadow over it, as well as over Armatoís directorship. The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union has condemned the universityís actions, stating in an April 5 press release: "It is ... unfortunate that the University of Minnesota, a research university, should appear to bow to the displeasure of powerful political forces. The Universityís decision has the appearance, at least, of a capitulation on the premise of academic freedom by creating the threat of prior censorship of academic titles." But Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, responded with a diplomatic, slickly evasive statement: "All great universities promote freedom of inquiry, but that freedom is empty without the will to publish its results, no matter how unpopular or controversial. Association of American University Presses stands behind the University of Minnesota Press decision to bring out Harmful to Minors, and we applaud the University of Minnesota for its courage and determination in upholding its press."