[Note that Kenneth Whyte was stilleditor-in-chief of The Post when the Levine article and this one werepublished.]
Someyears ago, an anthropologist emerged from the jungles of
The boys didn'tappear to be emotionally scarred, the men were allheterosexual, and everyone
livedhappily -- if strangely --ever after. I thought of this story when I read abouta controversial
newbook discussing childhood sexuality, by
Minors: The Perils ofProtecting Children from Sex. Excerpted in this paper last weekend, Levine's
bookdocuments the harm we are doing to children by being so paranoid about theirsexuality. By
reactingin high alarm to their sexual behaviour, we convey to them a sense ofsinfulness that is
arguablymore damaging than anything they are actually doing to each other.
Levine offersexamples of commonplace sexual curiosity -- such as kids playing doctor or boys
goosinggirls on the bum -- which have been made over as deviant.
Likewise, she pointsto commonplace gestures of affection between teachers and students, and
parentsand children, which have been placed under hysterical surveillance, in the process
reinvestingsex with fear, guilt and shame.
Levine is right. Youcannot swing a stick these days without hitting someone with a story about
weirdinstitutional reactions to kids and sex. My neighbourhood daycare got all in aflutter last fall
whentwo four-year-olds were found to be investigating one another's penises behindthe play
kitchen.Was this abnormal? Was it too sexual? Was one of the children molesting theother? Had
oneof them been sexually abused by a parent? Everyone was whispering. It was allvery fraught.
A professional camein to "brief" parents on what might be deemed appropriate and healthyfor
four-year-olds.Parents came away confused, because the briefing was so delicately put and
taboo-riddenand jargon-prone, that nobody really understood what was said. A pall simply
lingeredover the boys.
More recently, afriend's 11-year-old son was suspended from school for pulling a girl'straining
brastrap. SNAP. I remember that happening to me back in the '70s: giddy GradeSixers kissing
thegirls on a dare from their buddies, or pulling bra straps, or flipping up ourskirts. So what?
Now it's a sexualoffence, that's what.
Levine documents theodious flourishing of juvenile sex offender treatment programs in the United
States, where kidswho "mooned" or "groped" their classmates are being made torenounce their
deviantways. This "therapeutic" response -- which is not a hell of a lotdifferent than a Calvinist
responsein the 17th century -- has been coincident with the rise in therapies for"recovered
memories"of sexual abuse, and the rise and fall of the child as a credible witness, andthe craze for
hurlingsex abuse allegations at spouses in bitter custody disputes, and a whirl ofsexual harassment
claims,and scandal after scandal in the clergy.
In other words, thechild sex offender has emerged at a time of overriding preoccupation with sex,
powerand victimization in our culture. The question that Levine raises is whether weadults have
everthought about the ramifications for children, who are swept up in this volatileconfluence of
We read headlines inthe paper, now and then, about kids arrested for "sexualmolestation," yet we
don'tconsider what happens to them next -- the punishments and treatments they arecaught in,
andthe paradoxes they struggle with, when their own sexuality is verboten but themost heavily
marketedheroine directed their way is Britney Spears, who appears to be unfamiliar withclothing.
Of course, this isthe essential paradox of
toothpasteto cars, and yet has the power to bring down a president.
Levine reported onthe impact that these mixed messages and hysterias have on children, and what
shegot, for her efforts, was hysteria. Pundits and advocates accused Levine ofbeing pro-
everything-bad.Pro-pornography, pro-pedophilia, pro-promiscuity.Judith Reisman, head of the
ultra-conservativegroup Concerned Women for
Minors with MeinKampf, which is as ridiculously misapropros as comparing Gary Condit to
Vladimir Lenin. Hergroup mounted a letter-writing campaign that provoked
Majority Leader todecry Harmful to Minors as "debased," demanding that the Universityof
Minnesota Press"punish" its director for publishing it.
The universityassembled an external review committee to second- guess the appropriateness ofits
decisionto publish the book.
That's Americanpolitics, plus ca change. They keep forgetting that they let the sex genie outof the
bottlewith the Playboy Bunnies. Criminalizing children and vilifying authors is notgoing to put it
backin. Thinking rationally about what's harmful to minors, and what's not, is aninfinitely smarter