On the shelf in my fourth grade classroom-north wall, near the front-there sat the obligatory set of junior encyclopedias. Now and again during lulls in afternoon study time, either Brenda S. or I would go and retrieve the R volume. Then, sitting cross the aisle from each other near the back of the room, we proceeded to inspect together the cross-sectioned diagrams of the human reproductive system.
The details of interior plumbing were of no particular interest to us, but we always lingered over the sketched male and female forms that surrounded them like sausage casings-the ample, pendulous breasts on one side, the dejected-looking penis on the other-while exchanging the occasional meaningful look.
I remember it as well as Proust recalled his madeleines; it was one of the more worthwhile experiences of my elementary school years. Nowadays, alas, it would be grounds for throwing one or both of us in the kiddie calaboose and tattooing Sex Offender on our foreheads.
Do I exaggerate? Not by much.
Judith Levine’s endlessly reviled Harmful to Minors: the Perils of Protecting Children from Sex contains numerous stories of youngsters branded sexual predators and forced into humiliating regimens of “counseling” for behavior no less benign. Surely by now you have heard of Levine’s book, published a couple of months ago by the University of Minnesota Press after being declined by a string of commercial publishers; before the ink was dry, pols and shrinks were rising as one to condemn it.
The charge? Soft on child sex abuse, which in the present climate is as good as being soft on communism (and lord, how we miss communism) or brown-skinned terrorists.
Levine’s book is actually a fine and brave effort at putting into perspective various matters regarding children, adolescents, sex, sex abuse, and sex education.
It’s true that Levine seeks to debunk much of the child sex-abuse hysteria that has been causing convulsions all round the U.S. since the spate of day care sex abuse scandals in Jordan, Minnesota, and across the country in the 1980s.
Despite the fact those cases proved to be fictions promulgated by zealous interrogators and small children anxious to please them, the stranger with candy-the adult predator seeking children to sodomize, or worse-has become one of our more durable icons and useful political props.
Levine commits two principal heresies against right-thinking. First, she asserts that the stranger with candy is not really the problem we make him out to be. (On the special matter of priests with candy-who can scarcely be called strangers-more in a second.) She notes that a great many reports of extra-familial “sex abuse” involve consensual liaisons between adolescents a little below the age of consent and boyfriends or girlfriends a little above it.
As regards the great bogeyman in all this, the pedophile moving with stealth through Internet chat rooms, she makes two interesting points: first, that the manufacture and distribution of kiddie porn through the Internet is controlled almost exclusively by police agencies running sting operations (an LAPD detective is quoted boasting as much); and second, that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children places the total number of reported adult/adolescent assignations arranged through the Internet from 1994-96 at a whopping 23. The Internet was young then; if you assume the number has tripled or quadrupled with the growth of online households since then, you come to 50 or so cases a year across the entire country.
Hardly the epidemic we’re led to believe, particularly when you bear in mind that a high proportion of these involve nerdy guys not much over the age of consent and lonely girls not much under. (And no, I am not saying I’d like to see my own child in one of those relationships-but then again it’s hardly the portrait of the Internet Stalker we are routinely presented, is it?)
The grand and terrible irony is that child sexual abuse remains as real a problem as ever. But it’s not the stranger with candy putting kids at risk; the vast majority of such abuse occurs in or near the home at the hands of male adults in positions of authority and trust-the father, the uncle, and to a far greater extent than even the most cynical supposed, the parish priest. (Interesting factoid from the May 10 Minneapolis Star Tribune: In 1989, at the time of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, there were no fewer than 11 priests cooling their heels after sex abuse allegations at St. John’s in nearby Collegeville, news that surely would have astounded all those Church officials now pleading ignorance to the scope and duration of the problem.)
Levine’s second heresy is her belief that post-pubescent teens are bound to explore sex, entitled to do so, and perfectly capable of having constructive sexual experiences. In these abstinence-only days, parents do not like the idea that their kids are sexual beings for many reasons, some practical and worthy and some selfish and narrow. The abstinence movement, notes Levine, is partly about “reversing, or at least holding back, the coming of age, which for parents is a story of loss, as their children establish passionate connections with people and values outside the family.”
This being America, we should also ask how many parents do not feel a pin-prick of resentment over their kids’ newfound power to explore pleasures unsanctioned by the parent. So it’s hardly surprising they’d rather tell their kids not to think of it.
But in the age of AIDS and of dwindling abortion rights, “child protection” of this sort comes at a terrific cost.
Steve Perry is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch and a columnist for The Rake.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org