in a climate of fear and, since Sept. 11, it's been getting more intense.
Initial anthrax scares and rumours of further terrorist attacks have
given way to images of Palestinian suicide bombers, Israeli tanks, Indo-Pakistan
tension and lingering shadows of Saddam Hussein.
It's against this ominous backdrop, with our stomachs already tied in
knots, that we're hearing of murdered prostitutes on a British Columbia
pig farm, John Robin Sharpe's acquittal on child-porn charges and sexual
abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, smack dab in the middle of this sickening stuff comes Judith Levine,
launching her book, Harmful to Minors: the Perils of Protecting Children
from Sex. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a worse time to be broaching
the topic of children's sexuality, questioning abstinence-only sex education,
and even suggesting that we rethink in a more permissive way consent
laws, censorship and what we mean by "pedophilia."
It's hardly surprising that Ms. Levine is being attacked. Calling her
book "evil," Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at
the Family Research Council, a pro-family Washington, D.C., think-tank,
accuses her of giving "academic cover to child molestation"
and "advocating criminal sexual activity with children." The
council, which "seeks to preserve Judeo-Christian values in law
and public policy, to protect family rights and to provide a voice for
women who feel unrepresented by the feminist movement," has demanded
the book's suppression.
Branding it an "endorsement of child molestation," all the
while admitting that he hasn't read the book, Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota
state legislature majority leader, has beer trying to force the book's
publishe! the University of Minnesota Press, to cancel it.
Fear has spread as talk-radio hosts, such as the formidable Dr. Laura
Schiessinger, and advocacy groups including the Leadership Council for
Mental Health, Justice and the Media, have taken up the call to warn
parents and politicians of impending danger.
In the book's defence, civil liberties organizations, including the
National Coalition Against Censorship, and book publishers such as the
American Association of University Presses and the Association of American
Publishers, have signed a petition condemning censorship and supporting
Ms. Levine and her publisher.
In our society, polarized as it is around issues of security and freedom,
protection and privilege, a book that seemingly condones, or at least
doesn't condemn outright, all adult-child sex, and
appears to encourage adolescent sexuality, is sure to evoke wrath. Yet,
there is no better moment to raise these issues than when they're "hot."
So, it's possible that for Ms. Levine, this may be not only the worst
of times but also the best of times. Already the first print run is
sold out on advance orders and the publisher has ordered a second printing
of 10,000 copies. That's great news for any author.
Ms. Levine is, I'm sure, hoping that the people buying it will read
it and that the content will salve their fears, calming their worries
about predatory pedophiles, Internet stalkers and child porn. But I
have my doubts, as likely she does, too, that it will bring greater
understanding to society and rationale to public policies.
The problem is that it's fear that motivates this controversy and fear,
as we all know, nurtures enmity. Already, the line has been drawn in
the sand. Sides have been taken, issues simplified, knives sharpened
and a win-lose warlike mentality has set in. As Colin Powell's recent
trip to the Middle East demonstrated, such situations leave ittle room
for discussion, the sharing of views or conciliation. And they're quite
likely to blow up in your face.
As Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen points out in The Argument
Culture, it's very much the North American way to let that happen. We're
prone to deal with disagreement in a reflexive, clench-the-fist fashion.
We manage to turn countless issues into aggressive, sensationalist debates
with two opposing forces shouting each other down, intent on beating
the other into exhaustion and incapable of finding points of agreement
on which to build. Ms. Tannen identifies language as the weapon in this
warfare. Words have the power "to frame how you think about things,
how you feel about things, how you perceive the world," she says.
Ms. Levine's enemies accuse her of supporting "pedophiles"
- now there's a volatile word if ever there was one. It seems unlikely
that those condemning her book will sit down and look at the way she
questions the term's usage, examining how it's applied too widely, all
the way from the very few adults who force sexual intercourse on young
children, to any man or woman caught innocently ogling a pretty teenager
or casually snapping a photo of their unclad toddler.
But the argument culture is nourished by such invectives, both feeding
from and creating an atmosphere of defensiveness and fear. "And
that's not very good for our society," says Ms. Tannen. "When
we turn everything into a rancorous, polarized debate, then we make
it harder to solve problems."
This doesn't bode well for Ms. Levine, whose ideas evoke such fear that
they may well be construed as moral terrorism. Nor does it bode well
for anyone else who tries to foster more open discussion between parents
and children, and researchers, educators and policy-makers.
See also: Pedophila
- May 1999