Published April 02, 2002
A book arguing that sex between a child and an adult can be a good thing is bringing an extraordinary amount of attention — little of it positive — upon the author and publisher a month before it has even been published.
The fact that the author, Judith Levine, was quoted in an interview last month — in the middle of the Roman Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal — as saying that a sexual relationship between a priest and a youth "conceivably" could be positive didn't help matters.
In her book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, Levine argues that public misunderstanding denies the sexuality of people under 18, depriving kids of realistic advice about sex even while the mass media bombards them with sexual images.
Critics have not minced words. Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute, called it evil.
"The action is so grievous and so irresponsible that I felt they relinquished their right to academic freedom," Knight said.
The University of Minnesota Press agreed to publish the book last year after several publishers rejected it, Levine said. One even called it "radioactive."
When word of its pending publication made its way onto several conservative Web sites, the reaction was even more than that, said Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press.
"We've never seen anything quite this angry," Armato said. "The book isn't actually out yet. What people are reacting to is not the book itself, but the idea of the book."
In the book, Levine argues that abstinence-only sex education is misguided. She also suggests the threat of pedophilia and molestation by strangers is exaggerated by adults who want to deny young people the opportunity for positive sexual experiences.
"Squeamish or ignorant about the facts, parents appear willing to accept the pundits' worst conjectures about their children's sexual motives," Levine writes. "It's as if they cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do."
She said the gutting of comprehensive sex education programs has left sexually active teenagers uninformed about safe sex and ignorant about contraception.
"Operating in an atmosphere of complete ignorance, it's very easy to exaggerate threats and foment fear," she said. "America's drive to protect kids from sex protects them from nothing. Instead, it is often harming them."
Levine believes much of the furor stems from an interview she gave last month to Newhouse News Service. Newhouse quoted her as saying a sexual relationship between a priest and a youth "conceivably" could be positive.
Levine said this week that she disapproves of any sexual relationship between a youth and an authority figure, whether a parent, teacher or priest. But she believes teenagers deserve more respect for the choices they make in consensual affairs, and suggests that America's age-of-consent laws can sometimes lead to excessive punishment.
She cites the Dutch age-of-consent law as a "good model" — it permits sex between an adult and a young person between 12 and 16 if the young person consents. Prosecutions for coercive sex may be sought by the young person or the youth's parents.
"Teens often seek out sex with older people, and they do so for understandable reasons: an older person makes them feel sexy and grown-up, protected and special," writes Levine, who had an affair with an adult when she was a minor.
Several conservative media commentators and activists have accused Levine of condoning child abuse. Knight is urging the University of Minnesota to fire the university press officials who decided to publish the book.
Armato said he has informed university officials about the irate reaction to the book and explained to them how the decision to publish was made. He stressed that the book was accepted not out of hopes for a profit but because the University of Minnesota Press thought its arguments were worth public debate.
Officials at the Minnesota press knew the book would be controversial, so they had the manuscript reviewed by five academic experts, instead of the usual two, to be sure its contentions were based on sound research.
"What we've encouraged them to do is let the book speak for itself," Armato said. "The book is very nuanced and very complex."
Levine, a journalist and author who writes often about sex and gender, has no children of her own. She writes in her introduction that some publishers felt her book was insufficiently "parent-friendly."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.