Furor Over Youth Sex Book

Controversial sex book "Harmful To Minors" by Judith Levine AP

A month before its publication, a provocative book about children's sexuality is being denounced by conservatives as evil and prompting angry calls for action against the University of Minnesota Press.

The book, "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex," argues that young Americans, though bombarded with sexual images from the mass media, are often deprived of realistic advice about sex.

"What's happening to me is a perfect example of the very hysteria that my book is about," New York-based author Judith Levine said in an interview.


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Levine has been working on the book since the mid-1990s. With the recent sex scandals involving clergy and young people, she admits it's a particularly challenging time to make her case that American youth are entitled to safe, satisfying sex lives.

Publisher after publisher rejected the book - one called its contents "radioactive" - before the University of Minnesota Press accepted the manuscript a year ago.

Writes Levine in her introduction, "In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teen-agers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too."

From the outset, officials at the Minnesota press knew the book would be controversial; they had the manuscript reviewed by five academic experts, instead of the usual two, to be sure its contentions were based on sound research.

Still, the uproar exceeded expectations after the book was condemned on conservative Internet sites.

"We've never seen anything quite this angry," said the press director, Douglas Armato. "The book isn't actually out yet. What people are reacting to is not the book itself, but the idea of the book."

In "Harmful to Minors," 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."

Levine said much of the furor over her book stems from an interview she gave last month to Newhouse News Service, amid the Roman Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. 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. However, she believes teen-agers 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.

Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute, is urging the University of Minnesota to fire the university press officials who decided to publish the book.

"The action is so grievous and so irresponsible that I felt they relinquished their right to academic freedom," said Knight, who has described the book as "very evil."

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.

"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."

Parents deserve support and respect, but so do young people, she said.

She said the weakening of comprehensive sex education programs has left sexually active teen-agers uninformed about ways to protect themselves from AIDS and other diseases, 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."
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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