We're living 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


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,