CRIMINALIZINGSEXUAL CURIOSITY                       National Post           April 25, 2002

Patricia Pearson                                                                                                                                        [Back]  


[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 Papua New Guineawith shocking

 news about the sexualcustoms of a tribe he had been studying. To wit, preadolescent boys

 performed daily oralsex on older boys as an integral part of their adolescent rite of passage. The

 tribe, Dr. GilbertHerdt reported, believed that masculinity was contained within sperm in theguise

 of an essence orspirit. To become men, therefore, the boys in the tribe needed to swallowsperm.

 They were called the "Guardians of theFlute." That does tend to make me burst out laughing. But

 the intriguing bit isthis: Bound up as the act was in sacred ritual, it didn't seem to have occurredto

 anyone in the tribethat what they were doing was "sexually abusive."


 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 New York journalist Judith Levine, called Harmful to

 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 Americain general, that sex sells everything from

 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 America,reportedly compared Harmful to

 Minors with MeinKampf, which is as ridiculously misapropros as comparing Gary Condit to

 Vladimir Lenin. Hergroup mounted a letter-writing campaign that provoked Minnesota's House

 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