Saturday, February 15, 2020

Levine's "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex"

Judith Levine begins her introduction to Harmful to Minors by writing: 

In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe too. 

And she writes that only 25 years ago it would have been easy to get a book published that deals with the sexuality of nymphets:

This book, at bottom, is about fear, America's fears about child sexuality are both peculiarly contemporary (I am certain I would not have had the same troubles twenty-five years ago) [...] Harmful to Minors recounts how that fear got its claws into America in the late twentieth century and how [...] it now dominates the ways we think and act about children's sexuality. 

Levine writes that the fear about child sexuality stems from two sources: feminists and the christian religious Right:

The political articulation of these fears in the late twentieth century came from two disparate sources. 

1. One one side were feminists, whose movement exposed widespread rape and domestic sexual violence against women and children and initiated a new body of law (e.g., age of consent) that would punish the perpetrator and cease to blame the victim. 

2. From the other side, the religious Right brought to sexual politics the belief that women and children need special protection because they are "naturally" averse to sex of any kind. 

Levine writes that approximately 50% of nymphets between fifteen and nineteen are sexually active. And that: "In the 1950s, plenty of teens had sex, but it wasn't considered troublesome because it wasn't premarital: in that decade, America had the highest rate of teen marriage in the Western world." Currently, approximately 90% of heterosexual Americans have sexual intercourse before marriage. 

Levine writes that experts give a variety of reasons for teen sex but fail to mention that teens have sex because, simply, sex feels good:

In almost every article or broadcast, experts are called in to catalogue the reasons that teens have sex, all of them bad: Their peers pressure them or pedophiles manipulate them; they drink or drug too much, listen to rap, or download porn; they are under too much pressure or aren't challenged enough; they are abused or abusive or feel immortal or suicidal; they're rich and spoiled or poor and demoralized, raised too strictly or too permissively; they are ignorant or oversophisticated. 

Squeamish or ignorant about facts, parents appear to accept the pundits' worst conjectures about their children's sexual motives. It's as if they cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do: They like or love the person they are having it with. It gives them a sense of beauty, worthiness, happiness, or power. And it feels good. 

Levine goes on to reiterate that the notion that teen sex is perilous is relatively new:

Indeed, the concept that sex poses an almost existential peril to children, that it robs them of their very childhood, was born only about 150 years ago. 

According to the influential French historian Philippe Ariès, European societies before the eighteenth century did not recognize what we now call childhood, defined as a long period of dependency and protection lasting into physical and social maturity. 

Levine even opines that protecting minors from sex is harmful:

Harmful to Minors launches from two negatives: sex is not ipso facto harmful to minors; and America's drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing. Instead, often it is harming them. [...] adults owe children not only protection and a schooling in safety but also the entitlement to pleasure. 

At almost 300 pages, Harmful to Minors' is full of interesting facts and anecdotes. And we're going to write a separate post on Chapter 4. Crimes of Passion, which is about age-gap relationships. But we'll end this post with some examples of nymphet sexuality:

1. Sherry Turkle of MIT shared: "A 13-year-old informs me that she prefers to do her sexual experimentation online. Her partners are usually the boys in her class at school. In person, she says, it is 'mostly grope-y.' Online, 'they need to talk more.'" 

2. A major longitudinal study at UCLA found that 75% of kids had masturbated and/or had sex with another child before the age of six. 

3. "Psychologists Sharon Lamb and Mary Coakley surveyed three hundred psychologically healthy Bryn Mawr students about their childhood sexual experiences. The young women wrote about thrilling games of porn star, prostitute, rape, and slave girl, all at ages in the single digits [...]"

4. Joan Rappaport led "Adolescent Issues", a series of discussions at a Manhattan private school where she gave her sixth-grade students the homework assignment: "Go home and find your clitorises."

5. "Flora masturbated at six or seven and had orgasms starting at ten or eleven. When she was that age, a thirteen-year-old friend joined her. 'We would lay around and take off our clothes,' Flora recalled [...] We even made dildos out of toilet paper and Vaseline.' She recounted the story without shame or regret: in fact, she spoke with glee."

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex is the winner of the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 

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