Customer Reviews: Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex
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on May 26, 2002
I appreciate a book that challenges my personal biases and makes me aware of research and information I didn't even know existed. As I read this book over three days, unable to put it down, I felt like it was giving me a serious education in American culture and human sexuality. I rather wish I'd taken a college course with this sort of information in it. Or better yet, a high school class. I found reading this that the author drove me to the desire to find out more. I want to read the other books she references, and look up the works listed in her notes. I wanted to be educated about things like sexual development in human beings, perceptions and repressions in the culture I live in, and all the points of view human beings have about sexuality. Even though I had a similar perspective to her on some things, I found she still challenged some old beliefs I was hanging on to, that I hadn't bothered to ever question or examine.
I'm female. I grew up in a conservative family and practiced abstinence in my teen years. I believed only in sex after marriage. I had never seen a condom, and I thought AIDS was something that promiscuous gays got. My parents kept me out of sex ed in high school, but never gave me "the talk." I got some basic information from books in the library, and that's all I had. I never masturbated and did not know how to have an orgasm until I was 18. When I finally did have sex, I used no protection, no birth control, and I didn't ask my partner if he had any STDs. It didn't even cross my mind. I hadn't been taught to think about these things. I was sure I was in love, and love made the sex right and "safe." When you think sex is love, you think nothing can possibly go wrong -- God will protect you.
Talk about naivete.
In the end, I changed everything I believed about sex and relationships. I changed because my life experiences contradicted what I'd been taught growing up. I found out that sex wasn't evil or even negative just because it was outside of marriage. Neither was it love just because it felt good. I discovered that AIDS kills everyone, and that there are easy ways to protect against it and still have sex. I discovered that I prefer safe sex to abstinence because safe sex protects me, whereas abstinence flees the moment it is faced with passion. I also discovered that abstinence leaves me with hunger, and hunger can lead to a sense of starvation. Which isn't to say I'd die without sex; it's to say that as long as I felt like having sex was forbidden, I was desperate for it...I'd see sex everywhere I went. I'm not talking about in the media -- I'm talking about in the boys in my classes, in the glances between students, in the conversations at lunch, in the seemingly brilliant older male drama teacher. I had hormones, only I didn't even know enough to call them hormones. And my hormones were driven mad by the thunderous command not to exist, and not to feel. Now that I have sex any time I want to (whether it's intercourse, masturbation, or otherwise), it isn't such a big deal and I don't feel desperate when I go without it. For me, "abstinence only" led to an unhappy obsession with the sex I couldn't have. If only I'd known about masturbation. If only I'd heard of different ways to look at sex. If only I'd had an education!
Because of my roots, and my change of perspective, reading this book has been an amazing experience for me. It was a chance for me to see my childhood from the outside-in, which is something I've never done. It opened my eyes to just how rigid my upbringing was, and how it made me feel. It got me in contact with very old, buried feelings. Some of those feeling hurt, but I don't regret having found them.
As I read the book, there were several moments where I felt myself being reminded of something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then on page 27, I found my answer in the first paragraph. The author wrote:
"Our culture fears the pedophile, say some social critics, not because he is deviant, but because he is ordinary. And I don't mean because he is the ice-cream man or Father Patrick. No, we fear him because he is us. In his elegant study of 'the culture of child-molesting,' the literary critic James Kincaid traced this terror back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, he said, Anglo-American culture conjured childhood innocence, defining it as a desireless subjectivity," at the same time as it constructed a new ideal of the sexually desireable object. The two had identical attributes--softness, cuteness, docility, passivity--and this simultaneous cultural invention has presented us with a wicked psychosocial problem ever since. We relish our erotic attraction to children, says Kincaid (witness the child beauty pageants in which JonBenet Ramsey was entered). But we also find that attraction abhorrent (witness the public shock and disgust at JonBenet's 'sexualization' in those pageants). So we project that eroticized desire outward, creating a monster to hate, hunt down, and punish."
When I read that excerpt, I realized that the author's comments on how the conservative part of our American culture views sexuality made me think of an old sci-fi movie called, "Forbidden Planet." I began to wonder, is it possible that fear of sexuality can lead to sex that hurts, rather than just the other way around? Likewise, can fear that our children have sexual natures lead us to hurt those sexual natures?
I don't feel like I have all the answers after reading this book. I don't feel like the author does. But I feel like the questions she brings up, no matter how disturbing or scary, NEED TO BE ASKED.
Please ask them.
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on June 10, 2003
It is readily apparent that most people who vote on these reviews vote according to the reviewer's perceived position on the subject discussed rather than on the quality of the book review and its helpfulness in a decision to purchase. With this in mind I expect to get very few positive votes and perhaps many scathing comments because of my position.

First, let me establish my credentials. I am a retired psychotherapist with many licensed years of private practice as a marriage, family, and child counselor in Texas, California, and Washington. I took graduate courses in the same classrooms with LCSW's, MFCC's, Clinical Psychologists, and in some cases M.D.'s with a specialty in psychiatry. Four semesters of grad school were in Switzerland. I did my internship in an outpatient clinic of a large psychiatric state hospital. I have worked with patients across the spectrum from students who were depressed because of grades to patients who had been lobotomized many years before, and many who were overmedicated with everything from Haldol to lithium carbonate.

In short, I consider myself well qualified to comment on Judith Levine's landmark book "Harmful to Minors."

A number of years ago a colleague and I were discussing the infamous McMartin Preschool case in Bakersfield, California. It involved an overzealous D.A., false charges filed against innocent teachers, an unqualified child behavior "expert" with no formal training, and a crazy mother who ultimately even charged the defense attorneys and the trial judge of child molestation. The woman had a history of mental problems and later killed herself. But with the help of a publicity hungry D.A. the system was successful in destroying several professional teaching careers closing down a well functioning preschool, and probably bringing about an early death of its elderly founder. The public ate up the titillating case details during the months-long farcical trial.

With McMartin and similar cases in mind my colleague and I agreed that a book like Levine's needed to be written but neither of us were willing to risk our careers by being the first to write it. Levine had the courage to say what many experienced therapists have thought and said privately for years. Sexual experiences of children, either with peers or in some instances with adults, tend to be harmful to the child more because of the hysterical displays of adult care givers on discovery of the event than from the event itself. When an adolescent sees an adult having a panic attack on discovery of what is usually an exploratory exercise to satisfy curiosity, the child may suddenly feel he/she has participated in an act comparable to an axe murder. Then some misguided child counselor or Child Protective Service (CPS) self-proclaimed expert validates to the child the seriousness of the event in therapy, even though there is rarely any physical or mental harm. The pseudo-therapy establishes in the mind of the child that they have been damaged for life. This belief often persists for life.

Levine points out the plethora of new laws that, though well intended, are founded on terribly flawed evidence and pushed into enactment by highly neurotic people who understand nothing of what constitutes real harm in the real world. The present set of laws can cause more harm to families than the so-called abuses they are addressing.

One can make a compelling case that pedophiles are created by society's prohibition against children satisfying their natural adolescent curiosity during adolescence, the pedophile being a product of arrested sexual curiosity. That could be why virtually all pedophiles cannot change, even with therapy. About the best they can hope for is to learn not act on their urges.

A far greater threat is a nationwide, out-of-control, runaway Child Protective Services (CPS) network that frequently uproots children and destroys functional families for no valid reason. Anyone unfamiliar with CPS should read the case histories cited in Chapter 3 of Levine's book. I witnessed many similar abuses of power when I was in a position to know the details. CPS is a law unto themselves, defying municipal judges and Supreme Court decisions with impunity. Levine points out that toddlers as young as two years old have been charged with felony molestation after innocently touching a sibling to satisfy curiosity. What is wrong with this picture? Clearly, the entire educational approach for Social Science education must be challenged. CPS can be legally challenged but the victim families often haven't the financial resources to hire lawyers and do battle in court. "Harmful to Minors" is a step back toward social sanity.

Consider this:---- Humans, in one form or another, have been on this earth for several million years. As a species we have been imminently successful and are threatening to overwhelm all other life forms. During these millions of years children have been satisfying their sexual curiosities and urges unfettered by overprotective adults, do-good agencies, and well meaning but sometimes misguided laws, with unintended consequences. Pedophiles may actually be a product of modern well-meaning restrictions on satisfaction during childhood of the natural curiosity all children have. CPS may have been founded with good intentions but CPS policies may actually be producing the very pedophiles they are trying to identify, punish, and/or control.

"Harmful to Minors" is well researched, well written in language anyone can understand, and tells it like is, no matter whose toes get stepped on. The only way things can change for the better is for more books like "Harmful to Minors" to be written and used in undergraduate and graduate classrooms to displace the largely unrealistic and sometimes idiotic PC texts currently used. I don't expect to see it in my lifetime.

Those critical of Levine's well-researched book probably haven't actually read it. I suspect that those who are reacting negatively to Levines book scanned a few paragraphs in a book store, then considered themselves qualified to review it.

Now I will await the inevitable neurotic attacks on my honest opinion of Levine's excellent work. (By the way, I am a Christian, far right Conservative, like the ones Levine takes aim at.)
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on June 5, 2002
Harmful to Minors by Judith Levine is an important title for educators on both sides of the sex ed issue. As a promoter of abstinence education, I was prepared to hate this book as a minor Pop-culture work that promotes sexual license and rooted in less-than scientific source materials. While my conclusion is that much of the books premise is flawed, I cannot fault her on her scientific sources or delivery of her ideas. In truth, she has done a grand job.
A WARNING: Sex ed advocates are like most others, they tend toward tunnel-vision. Levine is no exception. She labels those who promote abstaining as "right-wing" or "religious right" much too often, thereby hurting her case. Her style fluctuates somewhat from offering a scholarly approach and then slipping into "them-against-us" arguments that, quite frankly are tiresome. You can almost envision her get hopping mad as she types.
For those of us who care deeply that sex ed shouldn't promote sexual misconduct, Levine offers her argument- and those of her chums - very clearly. This is worth reading for yourself, even if you disagree with her conclusions.
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on October 25, 2005
Levine's book, "Harmful to Minors", is obviously controversial. That's not surprising considering she is attempting to take down one of the biggest sacred cows in current society. Levine is positing something shocking- that children aren't aliens or angels or devils, that they are humans with all of the needs and desires and curiosities that entails. Her stats are well-researched, and have a tendency to knock your legs out from under you (she tells the truth about stats that are still in use, even by the so-called experts). Her understanding of our cultural biases is thorough. Sadly, her political views shine through here and there, and this is not helping the aim of the book any. This is the only reason I gave it 4 stars, rather than 5.

Let me be frank, Levine is trying to change the way people relate to children, even their own children, especially their own children. This will earn her a great deal of ire. Parents view their children as their most private possessions. Levine is trying to take away our favorite bogeymen. This is not easy either. The reason that Levine has so many detractors is because the work she does is so utterly noble and neccesary. I should add that I resent the implication by some of her readers that if she were a parent she would have written this book differently. I suppose if being a parent means that you are incapable of reason and logic, that may be the case. I prefer to think better of parents.

I think that every english-speaking person should read this book, parent or non. I think teenagers, teachers, psychologists, police officers, guidance counsellors, CPS employees, daycare workers, judges, doctors and politicians should read this book. I think that we could all stand to learn something, not just from this book, but from the conversations that come of rethinking our assumptions.
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on July 2, 2003
In the 1960s and 1970s educators and parents gradually expanded a comprehensive sex education program in the schools, with acquiescence in the home. Starting in the 1980s an effective counterrevolution led by the Christian Right moved the program to advocate only abstinence, silence on sexual orientation issues, and silence on abortion. Meanwhile hysteria on pornography, molesters, AIDS, sex crimes, and inappropriate touching have triggered waves of legislation and police action in society in general.
Judith Levine's "Harmful to Minors" seeks to describe society's view of the sexuality of minors and of sex education and to point out the problems the current conservative, restrictive views are causing our youth and those who love them, including parents.
The book provides good illustrative examples and gives reasonable histories of legal and legislative trends leading us to where we are now. It is an excellent catalogue of how teachers, social workers, psychologists, and legislators (even against their better judgment) have created an atmosphere where people are to be regarded as innocent children until they are 18 and that any teaching or touching or relationship that upends the notion is to be severely punished. She cites many studies and other references to back up her descriptions and views. She lays out an attractive alternative vision of how society would manage these issues. It is a useful book because it gathers together in one place observations that convincingly counter the current political correctness.
If she writes a revised edition, it would be useful for her to expand the explanation of why the counter-revolution happened, going beyond Republican presidents, Christian fundamentalists and AIDS scares. There should be mention of changes in the family, with dual income earners, fears of tort liability, kids staying in school longer, day care becoming more important, and parental fears and desires to assert control. In the midst of blaming tax cutting, she should acknowledge somewhere that society channels the maximum money it can to the elderly, who often vote against funding for children's programs. Also, the media love sex stories about minors. She should note President Clinton's weakness on initiating more truth-telling and in supporting Joycelyn Elders. Still, the notion that religiously-crafted federal grants changed sex education everywhere is something to ponder when proposed secular federal funding of religiously-based charities (some with clerical sex scandals) could lead in turn to a federal audits and overhauls of all religious organizations and some of their policies.
The revised edition should flesh out her alternate vision more. For example, she acknowledges that there are children with different sexual orientations and that some of them get kicked out of their homes at an early age to live on the streets. How would sex ed program content expand to be sure these and other LGBTQ children and their peers were well educated? On exiled kids, she neither calls for charging the parents with criminal child abandonment nor for local governments to launch civil suits to recoup the costs of services provided to the kids. The parents want rights and authority but are allowed to escape obligation without any questions asked. Why?
Curious kids, stonewalled on all sides, grow up twisted and neurotic.
This book is a good starting point for talking back to the stampeding herd on these topics.
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on September 2, 2005
I first knew about this author and the title of the book from watching C-SPAN "Book TV'. She made observations that impressed me sufficiently to purchase this book. If you are very concerned about the increasing rate of child sex abuse growing in our nation, then you must read this book.

The author has bravely written about a very controversial topic in a candid and cogent manner. She reveals that a lot of the agencies (both government and private) that are involved in the business of child sex abuse are in it only for the money and unbridled power that is placed in their hands. In one case, she exposed the humilitating conditions that one agency imposed on children whose only crime was acting in a juvenile manner, which one can aptly state that 'corrupted power' was used in this instance.

She also shows how they use questionable statistics to support their existence, which is laughable to serious social scientists. To read the children's description of their experiences with the agencies that were suppose to investigate or cure them should be described as an abuse of public trust and, more importantly, to the children affected.
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Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

I have read, over the years, a handful of books that I consider to be truly important, books that look at a particular aspect of our society, how it has damaged us (perhaps irreparably), and how we might change facets of our culture to stop further damage, and maybe heal some of the damage that's already been done-- Stanton Peele's The Diseasing of America, Gina Kolata's Rehtinking Thin, Philip K. Howard's The Death of Common Sense, and a few others. It's a very short list, mostly because these are books that do not fit in with the prevailing norms in the least. These are books that are unafraid to take a stand against the stupidity of our current culture. They are unpopular, and it's very hard to get them published. That, of course, makes them all the more important. And of them, perhaps, Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors is the most important. While all of them address very important topics, this one attacks the most wide-reaching subject I've found in one of these books: how America's puritanical attitude towards sex has resulted in generations of increasingly oversheltered, and dangerously uninformed, children, and how that oversheltering and lack of information have pushed America to the brink of disaster and allowed a number of social ills (of which AIDS is only the most visible) to fester unchecked.

When I started thinking about how to write this review, the obvious place to start, it seemed, would be with an extended quote from the book. Problem is, I couldn't come up with just one quote; so much of this book needs to be quoted, so much of what Levine has to say needs said, that singling out one or two paragraphs from the book seemed to be doing the rest of it a disservice. With one short exception (we'll get to that later), the entire book is quotable. Obviously, reprinting a 270-page book does not make for a good review, and yet if I could have done so here, I'd have done it in a heartbeat; this is a book that every American parent, or anyone who was raised in the increasingly oppressive anti-child culture that began to foment in the 1950s, desperately needs to read. Some will find validation in these pages that their embarrassing, socially unacceptable, or "morally repugnant" thoughts are universal. Some will come to understand that their beliefs about how they should be parenting their children are shared by many others. The majority, I think, will find that they are not alone, or nearly as rare as they had believed. It's the people whose voices have caused all these insane "protect the children" laws to be enacted who are in the minority; they just scream louder and know what buttons to press. When Levine traces the raft of onerous laws involving day-care workers (especially male day-care workers) not being allowed to show affection to children to the long-discredited McMartin case, the obvious reaction is, "well, since none of that actually happened, why do we still have the laws?" Indeed. And yet, somehow, we do.

I was prepared to stick this book far atop my list of best reads of the year for 2008, despite us being less than five months into the year, before I hit the epilogue. Levine stumbles a bit at the very end of the book; where she spent the majority of the book completely on-point, in the epilogue she suddenly starts lashing out at things that seem to have nothing to do with her thesis, drawing the most tenuous of connections at best. But this is in no way to say that the rest of the book is not well worth your time; in fact, were I drawing up a curriculum of must-read books for every American, this would most certainly be on it.

Children, especially those who are suffering between the onset of puberty and the so-called "magic age" at which we are all supposed to gain maturity overnight, are the last subclass of people it is considered socially acceptable to repress in America. Judith Levine is outraged by this, as we all should be, and Harmful to Minors is the result. The trouble she had getting the book published, which she recounts in the prologue, should set off major warning bells to everyone reading it. This is a deeply, deeply important book, and I strongly suggest you read it as soon as you possibly can. For in the six years since its release, not surprisingly, things have only gotten worse. The arm is already lopped off; the more of us who read this book, understand the consequences of our culture's actions, and speak up about them, the better a chance we have to stanch the bleeding. For if we don't, the patient may not survive the operation. **** ½
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on March 10, 2005
Judith Levine asks the important questions that have lurked in my mind for a long time. Where is the proof of this that "everybody knows" that sex or porn is harmful to minors? There is none, but there is plenty proof that making a great mystery out of it is very harmful indeed.

There is no doubt that writing and publishing a book like this puts one's career in jeopardy in the current political climate. My hat is off to the author and the publisher!
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on January 4, 2008
First I'll begin by saying that most of the 1 and 2 star reviews of this book are brought on by exactly what this book tries to address; the American sexual taboo. Those that have expressed that this book does not advance the morality of the current society have only supported the claims this book makes (using perfectly cited research).

The author communicates what she is trying to say in a very eloquent but straight forward way which is truly very successful. This book is truly a page turner and the foreword by Dr. Elders (former Surgeon General) is mind blowing.

This book is a must read for parents and teachers and a recommended read for everyone that wants to know a little bit about the least harmful taboo- sex.

Lastly, if you don't like your views and opinions challenged with facts then I don't think this book is for you.
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on May 9, 2002
Harmful to Minors presents a well-researched and powerful case against the stereotypical sex-negative and anti-pleasure philosophy that has pervaded Western thought about minors since Freud. Levine's work is in no way an apologia for predatory pedophilia, but rather is a long overdue reexamination of the roots of sex-negative thinking and its consequences in distorting the sexual lives of minors in Western culture. It also exposes the terrible consequences of that thinking - grave miscarriages of justice, teen pregnancy, harsh stigmatization of normative sexuality, teen prostitution, damaged self-esteem, shattered relationships, etc.
Levine rightly calls into question a great many "unquestioned" assumptions about minors' sexuality, highlights the abject failure of "abstinence unless married" sex "education," and exposes the real motivations and beliefs of the religious and secular conservatives who have seized control of the public agenda surrounding sexuality and sex education. A must-read book for any sex-positive citizen, not only for its truthful and hard-hitting treatment of the sexuality of minors, but also for its chilling message of how our culture has been hijacked by sex-negative thinking that could influence future generations in profoundly harmful ways.
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