THE ATTACK on Levine and her book is the same sort of well-orchestrated effort we have seen from the right in the past. What is shocking is that the University of Minnesota — under pressure from conservative politicians — is refusing to fight it. Even worse, the down-and-dirty tactics of Dr. Laura and the CWA have centered not on the book, but on Levine herself (who has mentioned in interviews that as a minor she had an affair with an older man), as well as on former surgeon general Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who wrote the book’s foreword. In his March 28 press release, Knight wrote: "Not content to advocate for adults teaching children to masturbate, [Elders] is giving cover for adults having sex with kids — so long as the kids give their consent. Everybody except for the molesters and their apologists knows that children cannot give meaningful consent to sex. Everybody knows that children are coerced into giving ‘consent,’ and that the damage can last a lifetime. The author of this book, Judith Levine, is Exhibit A. She was molested as a child and now advocates it for other children." By caving in to this right-wing assault on its press, the university is leaving both Levine and Elders flapping in the wind — with predictably chilling effects on writers and publishers everywhere.
The vehemence fueling the attack on Harmful to Minors springs in part from Levine’s head-on confrontation with the ever-increasing cultural backlash against discussing children and sex. Of course, parents have always been concerned with the moral well-being of their children — think of how old folks fretted about wild new dances such as the Black Bottom and the Charleston in the 1920s, or the perils posed by Elvis the Pelvis and rock and roll in the 1950s. But as Levine points out in an interview with the Phoenix, the meaning and intent of these worries have changed radically over the past two decades. "There has probably never been a time when adults didn’t think that the younger population was going to hell in a hand-basket, but for most of that time the politics about child protectionism were actually about children," she notes. "There has been a strategic shift in the past 20 years. Since, say, the Anita Bryant campaigns in the late 1970s, the right has used the idea of protecting children to impose their sense of decency and morality on everyone." Bryant’s campaign was called Save Our Children, but the Miami gay-rights law she campaigned against had nothing to do with children. It had to do with the right’s obsession with homosexuality and its ability use homophobic fears to spearhead a broad range of other agendas, including dismantling education programs, instituting prayer in school, attacking public funding for child care, and abolishing affirmative action.
Looking over the major child-protectionist frenzies from the late 1970s onward, a clear pattern emerges: the popular media, insatiably hungry for hot-button topics, will go for any scandal — particularly if it involves kids, sex, race, violence, or pornography — that will fan the flames of the culture war. Once the flames begin to diminish, the press veers off to a new topic ("Museum gets city funds to cover Virgin Mary with shit!"). Hardly anyone notices that the original story was based on half-truths and misconceptions.
But it is important to remember that these campaigns — no matter how benighted they may seem after the fact — often do enormous harm. Bryant’s call to repeal the Miami-Dade gay-rights law was successful, and the measure has never been reinstated. The day-care-center cases led to incredible miscarriages of the legal process and the court system. Child-porn concerns have led to the craze for Internet filters in public libraries (which the American Library Association and the ACLU are still valiantly battling). "Megan’s Laws," under which neighborhoods were to be notified if a "sex offender" moved in, gave way to the widespread emergence of sexual-predator-notification programs and sexual-offender registries — most of which have been deemed deeply flawed by law-enforcement experts and largely unconstitutional by the courts. In the end, these programs do almost no perceptible good, and indeed, Levine and others argue, are actually harmful because they promote the mistaken notion that children are most at risk from predatory strangers and not, as statistics show, from family members and friends. Levine dismantles the misconceptions surrounding most of these examples, but the myths continue to rule popular thinking and social policy nonetheless.
Along with the harm these panics have caused, it is also vital to scrutinize the motives of the people who have propagated them. Bryant is now seen as a self-promoting lackey of the then-emerging political Christian right wing. The most conservative members of the Meese Commission on pornography have all met fitting ends: Father Bruce Ritter of Covenant House was exposed as a hypocrite, a closeted but active homosexual who played fast and loose with public funds; Charles Keating, who became the key figure in the S&L scandals, laundered funds through his charitable, child-protectionist organizations; Judianne Densen-Gerber was accused of embezzling public monies from Odyssey House, her drug-rehab center. For all these people, protecting children seems to have been driven as much, if not more, by personal gain as by ostensible altruism and civic concern.
As Levine explains so convincingly in her book, many of those who have advocated for the "protection" of children over the past two-and-a-half decades have used the issue to advance political agendas that go way beyond preparing the next generation for adulthood. Such agendas have included controlling adults’ — not just children’s — access to information about such matters as contraception, safe sex, and abortion; promoting heterosexual marriage as the only legal and moral place for sexual activity; and a full-fledged attack on all forms of gay and gender-expression rights. It is no surprise that all these groups — including Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, American Family Association, National Law Center for Children and Families — constantly rail against the permissiveness of the 1960s, for the personal freedoms for women, people of color, homosexuals, and children secured during that decade are precisely what they seek to undo.
It is tempting to see in all this a vast right-wing conspiracy, à la Hillary Clinton. Levine would take exception to that charge. "This isn’t a conspiracy, but a strategy," she says. "The right is using people’s legitimate anxieties around sexuality to fuel their own larger goals. The right — which is very well organized and often effective in its methods — are exploiting these fears. The terrible thing is that this will just make the situation worse. The shutdown of knowledge about sexuality will just make us, as a society, more anxious in the long run, and the denial of information to kids, such as safer-sex information, actually puts their lives at risk. They are, really, perpetrating harm to minors."
But in the current political and social climate, the attack on Levine’s book makes complete sense. People do have real, and often not unreasonable, anxieties about how to raise their kids. The world is a scary place, and teaching children how to navigate it is not easy. As Levine and others point out, however, the situation does not get any better by making the world scarier or by lying about what really happens out there. The reality is that children are more likely to be harmed or abused by people within the family circle, not by strangers. The reality is that sexual abuse of children is overwhelmingly heterosexual, not homosexual. The reality is that very little evidence suggests that children are hurt by sexual information — indeed, most evidence points to the fact that they are hurt by a lack of knowledge. The overwhelming evidence from studies at Columbia University and in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that programs such as abstinence-only sex education and "chastity pledges" actually increase risks for pregnancy and HIV transmission.