DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors


Author (or Editor): Levine, Judith

Title: Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Date: 2002

ISBN:  0-8166-4006-8

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound 299 p + Foreword by Dr. Joceylyn M. Elders + Introduction

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This book was considered very controversial when the University of Minnesota Press published it, and there were numerous outcries against the University for publishing it. Likewise, there have been counter efforts supporting the author. In her introduction, Levine frankly discusses the squeamishness of many publishers in considering her argument and materials, essentially out of fear of heckling from the public.

The title, of course, uses the same phrase, “Harmful to Minors,” that COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) uses, and Levine provides an effective high-level summary of COPA along with other Internet censorship efforts. In particular, she summarizes the three prongs in the 1973 Miller v. California obscenity case that became so important in the oral arguments about COPA before the Supreme Court in November 2001.

But let’s get to the substance of her book. The book is bifurcated into two Parts. (1) Harmful Protection, and (2) Sense and Sexuality. Probably most of the uproar concerns Part 2, where she discusses and to some extent promotes proposals to increase the exposure of young people to sex education (“touch is good for children”), even at young ages.  Her discussions, however, are objective and balanced. At one point she ventures close to the polarity substance (of Rosenfels, discussed elsewhere at this point) when, in discussing “what boys can learn” she maintains, “Sex causes vulnerability. And vulnerability has its benefits in sex.” She does address education for gay and lesbian youth with some brevity, but she does hit on the schollyard bullying and stereotyping that seems to be getting worse. (Most gay teens don’t have the charisma of  Queer as Folk’s” headstrong Justin Taylor.)

In Part 1, she does a good job of outlining the façade behind a lot of our anti-sex rhetoric in several areas: Censorship, pedophilia, therapy, crime, sex education, abortion, and pleasure.  The double talk seems to stem more from shallow ideas about political correctness and about “protecting children” than from any well organized ideology. However, I think that a more principled explanation can be found. In the view of some people, individualism and freedom can only be balanced with the welfare of society as a whole when families are strong and when adults sense a strong personal investment in the next generation. This balance means that the family, rather than government, becomes the “equalizer” and moreover that sexuality needs to be tied to marriage and emotional commitment to parenting in such a way that not too many people who depend upon “family” will come to question the institution. A “laissez-faire” treatment of sex as essentially a contractural matter between consenting individuals undermines the confidence of the public in the commit to family as a whole and undermines the faith that children need in it. Therefore, even the frank kind of speech that Levine offers (and it really is not much out of the mainstream in most place) becomes threatening to many people, who just don’t want to “know.”  For some people, reading Levine’s book is like going to a fashion show and seeing female models who don’t shave their legs.




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