Book Excerpt: 'Harmful to Minors'

In Judith Levine's controversial book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, she looks at children and sexuality. In the excerpt below, she argues that the public has an irrational fear of pedophilia, and that censoring children from sexual content does not protect them.

The Pedophile: The Myth

Hear the word pedophile and images and ideas flood to mind. Pedophiles are predatory and violent; the criminal codes call their acts sexual attacks and sexual assaults. Pedophiles look like Everyman or any man — "a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, a scout leader, a police officer, an athletic coach, a religious counselor" — but their sexuality makes them different from the rest of us, sick: pedophilia is listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the canon of psychopathology. Pedophiles are insatiable and incurable. "Statistics show that 95 percent of the time, anyone who molests a child will likely do it again," declared an Indiana senator proposing community notification laws for former sex offenders. "The only molesters who can be considered permanently cured are those who have been surgically castrated," Ann Landers once wrote.

Pedophiles abduct and murder children, and people who abduct and murder children are likely to be pedophiles. "The pedophile who kidnapped Adam from a mall and killed him in 1981 … " began a feature on molesters by Boston Herald reporter J. M. Lawrence, following Jeffrey's killing. He was referring to the still-unsolved abduction-murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh, whose case helped spur the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and (some say) the career of his father, John, now the host of The FBI's Most Wanted. Even if a child survives a liaison with a pedophile, we believe, he will inevitably suffer great harm. "The predatory pedophile is as dangerous as cancer. He works as quietly, and his presence becomes known only by the horrendous damage he leaves," stated the children's lawyer and sex-thriller writer Andrew Vachss.

And pedophiles are legion, well-organized, and cunning in eluding detection. "I believe that we're dealing with a conspiracy, an organized operation of child predators designed to prevent detection," Kee MacFarlane, director of the Children's Institute International in Los Angeles and a premier architect of the satanic-ritual-abuse scare of the 1980s, told Congress in 1984. "If such an operation involves child pornography or the selling of children, as is frequently alleged, it may have greater financial, legal, and community resources at its disposal than those attempting to expose it." Ten years later, after a far-reaching national network of state and federal agents had been put in place to track them down, pedophiles were still strangely invisible. "There really aren't any figures. It's a hidden offense that often doesn't come to the surface," said Debra Whitcomb, director of Massachusetts' Educational Development Center Inc. in 1994, referring to the "child sexual exploitation" on the Net that her organization had just received a $250,000 government grant to combat.

Perhaps it is no wonder that in a Mayo Clinic study of anxieties reported to pediatricians, three-quarters of parents were afraid their children would be abducted; a third said it was a "frequent worry," more frequent than fretting over sports injuries, car accidents, or drugs. And no wonder Jeffrey Curley's murder, the crest of a wave of highly publicized criminal brutality, revived the crusade for capital punishment in Massachusetts, or that it was in this movement, as a spokesman for state-administered revenge, that his father, a firehouse mechanic named Bob, briefly found voice for his unutterable grief.

The Facts

The problem with all this information about pedophiles is that most of it is not true or is so qualified as to be useless as generalization. First of all, the streets and computer chat rooms are not crawling with child molesters, kidnappers, and murderers. According to police files, 95 percent of allegedly abducted children turn out to be "runaways and throwaways" from home or kids snatched by one of their own parents in divorce custody disputes. Studies commissioned under the Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984 estimate that between 52 and 158 children will be abducted and murdered by nonfamily members each year. Extrapolating from other FBI statistics, those odds come out between 1 in 364,000 and fewer than 1 in 1 million. A child's risk of dying in a car accident is twenty-five to seventy-five times greater.

Fortunately, pedophilic butcheries are even rarer than abduction-murders. For instance, in 1992, the year a paroled New Jersey sex offender raped and killed Megan Kanka, the seven-year-old after whom community-notification statutes were named, nine children under age twelve were the victims of similar crimes, out of over forty-five million in that age group. As for Adam Walsh, invoked by the Boston Herald as the Ur-victim of molestation murder, no defendant was ever indicted in his disappearance. According to detectives in Hollywood, Florida, where the crime occurred, Adam's father spread the rumor that the abductor was a pedophile, most prominently in a much-quoted book about child molesters, although there was neither suspicion nor evidence of sex in the case.

Molestations, abductions, and murders of children by strangers are rare. And, say the FBI and social scientists, such crimes are not on the rise. Some researchers even believe that some forms of molestation, such as exhibitionism, might be declining.

There are, moreover, few so-called pedophiles in the population, though it is hard to say how few. "I write '1, 5, 21, 50' on the board and ask my students, 'Which is the percentage of pedophiles in the country?'" said Paul Okami, in the University of California at Los Angeles psychology department, who has analyzed the data on pedophilia in America. "The answer is all of them." That's because a "pedophile," depending on the legal statute, the perception of the psychologist, or the biases of the journalist, can be anything from a college freshman who has once masturbated with a fantasy of a twelve-year-old in mind to an adult who has had sexual contact with an infant.

As for the "pure" clinical species, Okami believes that the proportion of Americans whose primary erotic focus is prepubescent children hovers around 1 percent. Estimating from lists of so-called pedophile rings, arrest records, and his own experience, David Techter, the former editor of the Chicago-based pedophile newsletter Wonderland, put the number at "maybe 100,000." Criminal records do not indicate there are large or growing numbers of pedophiles. Even as the age of consent has risen and arrests for lower-level sex crimes have increased dramatically, arrests for rape and other sex offenses, including those against children, still constituted only about 1 percent of all arrests in 1993.

Pedophiles are not generally violent, unless you are using the term sexual violence against children in a moral, rather than a literal, way. Its perpetrators very rarely use force or cause physical injury in a youngster. In fact, what most pedophiles do with children could not be further from Charles Jaynes's alleged necrophilic abominations. Bringing themselves down to the maturity level of children rather than trying to drag the child up toward an adult level, many men who engage in sex with children tend toward kissing, mutual masturbation, or "hands-off" encounters such as voyeurism and exhibitionism.

Indeed, say some psychologists, there may be no such thing as a "typical" pedophile, if there is such a thing as a pedophile at all. Qualities by which social scientists and the police have marked him, such as his purported shyness or childhood sexual trauma, do not bear out with statistical significance. More important, sexual contact with a child does not a pedophile make. "The majority of reported acts of sexual abuse of children are not committed by pedophiles," but by men in relationships with adult women and men, said John Money, of Johns Hopkins, a preeminent expert on sexual abnormalities. They are men like Charles Jaynes, who wrote in his journal about a fast crush on a "beautiful boy" with "a lovely tan and crystal-blue eyes" and in whose car police found literature from the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) but who had an adult girlfriend and was rumored to be lovers with Sicari, who also had a girlfriend.

In other words, there may be nothing fundamental about a person that makes him a "pedophile." So-called pedophiles do not have some genetic, or incurable, disease. Men who desire children can change their behavior to conform with the norms of a society that reviles it. Pedophilia can be renounced; in the medical language we now use to describe this sexual proclivity, it can be "cured." Indeed, contrary to politicians' claims, the recidivism rates of child sex offenders are among the lowest in the criminal population. Analyses of thousands of subjects in hundreds of studies in the United States and Canada have found that about 13 percent of sex offenders are rearrested, compared with 74 percent of all prisoners. With treatment, the numbers are even better. The state of Vermont, for example, reported in 1995 that its reoffense rates after treatment were only 7 percent for pedophiles, 3 percent for incest perpetrators, and 3 percent for those who had committed "hands-off" crimes such as exhibitionism.

The Enemy Is Us

All this rational talk may mean nothing to a parent. Nine in forty-five million children are raped and murdered: slim odds, sure, but if it happens to your baby, who cares about the statistics? Still, most parents manage to put irrational fears in perspective. Why, in spite of all information to the contrary, do Americans insist on believing that pedophiles are a major peril to their children? What do people fear so formidably?

Our culture fears the pedophile, say some social critics, not because he is a 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 desirable 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 JonBenét Ramsey was entered). But we also find that attraction abhorrent (witness the public shock and disgust at JonBenét's "sexualization" in those pageants). So we project that eroticized desire outward, creating a monster to hate, hunt down, and punish.

In her classic 1981 study, "Father-Daughter Incest," feminist-psychologist Judith Lewis Herman suggested another source of self-revulsion that might lead us to project outward. Child abuse, she said, is close to home, built into the structure of the "normal," "traditional" family. Take the family's paternal authority enforced through violence, along with its feminine and child submission, its prohibitions against sexual talk and touch, and its privacy sanctified and inviolable, she said. Add repressed desire, and the potential of incest festers, waiting to happen.

Herman's work was at the front edge of a horrifying suspicion, the truth of which is now firmly established. Even if child-sex crimes against strangers are rare, incest is not. Like pedophilia, it's hard to say how common it is, since incest figures are almost as muddied as those of adult-child sex outside the family. On one hand, child abuse statistics are notoriously unreliable; for example, of the 319,000 reports of sexual abuse of children in 1993, two-thirds were unsubstantiated. The expansion of the definitions of family members, the ages of people considered children, and the types of interactions labeled abuse have jacked up incest figures. So has the popular suspicion of incest as an invisible source of later psychological distress, especially among women. Since the 1980s, self-help authors have claimed that you don't even have to remember a sexual event to know it occurred. "If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were," wrote Ellen Bass in The Courage to Heal. The symptoms of past molestation listed in such books range from asthma to neglect of one's teeth.

On the other hand, professionals under the influence of Freud have denied the existence of incest for decades, interpreting children's reports of real seductions as oedipal fantasies, and still may count only cases involving physical coercion, discounting the inestimable pressures on children to yield to a parent's sexual advances out of dependency, fear, loyalty, or love.

At any rate, reliable sources show that more than half, and some say almost all, of sexual abuse is visited upon children by their own family members or parental substitutes. The federal government recorded over 217,000 cases in 1993 (fewer than the media hysteria would indicate, but still plenty). Research confirms what is intuitively clear: that the worst devastation is wrought not by sex per se but by the betrayal of the child's fundamental trust. And the closer the relation, the more forced or intimate the sex acts, and the longer and later in a child's life they persist, the more hurtful is the immediate trauma and longer-lasting the harm of incest. Incest is a qualitatively different experience from sex with a nonfamily adult; almost inevitably, the former is a lot worse.

Even those who don't buy Kincaid's claim that the cultural "we" are drooling over the prepubescent Macaulay Culkin cavorting through Home Alone in his underpants or Herman's metaphor of the family as incest incubator might be surprised to find that their own secret yearnings could be illegal. The vast majority of so-called pedophiles do not go out and ravage small children. So-called criminals are most often caught not touching but looking at something called child pornography (which I will get to in a moment). And their desired objects are not "children" but adolescents, about the age of the model Kate Moss at the start of her modeling career. "The clients are usually white, suburban, married businessmen who want a blow job from a teenage boy but don't consider themselves gay, and heterosexual men who seek out young girls," said Edith Springer, who worked for many years with teenage prostitutes in New York's Times Square. "I have never in all my years of therapy and counseling come across what the media advertise as a 'pedophile.'"

Psychologists and law enforcers call the man who loves teenagers a hebophile. That's a psychiatric term, denoting pathological sexual deviance. But if we were to diagnose every American man for whom Miss (or Mr.) Teenage America was the optimal sex object, we'd have to call ourselves a nation of perverts. If the teenage body were not the culture's ideal of sexiness, junior high school girls probably would not start starving themselves as soon as they notice a secondary sex characteristic, and the leading lady (on-screen or in life) would not customarily be twenty to forty years younger than the leading man. I asked Meg Kaplan, a widely respected clinician who treats sex offenders at the New York State Psychiatric Institute's Sexual Behavior Clinic, about the medicalization and criminalization of the taste for adolescent flesh. "Show me a heterosexual male who's not attracted to teenagers," she snorted. "Puh-leeze."

Rather than indict our Monday night football buddies, rather than indict the family, though, we circle the wagons and project danger outward. "Screen out anyone who might be damaging to your child. Whenever possible, assume childcare responsibilities," the FBI's Kenneth Lanning advised the readers of Life. "Tell your kids that if an adult seems too good to be true, maybe he is."

Censorship: The Sexual Media and the Ambivalence of Knowing

The twin concepts of innocence and ignorance are vehicles for adult double standards. A child is ignorant if she doesn't know what adults want her to know, but innocent if she doesn't know what adults don't want her to know. — Jenny Kitzinger, Children, Power, and the Struggle against Sexual Abuse

At the turn of the twenty-first century, America is being inundated by censorship in the name of protecting "children" from "sex," both terms capaciously defined. In the 1990s among the most frequent targets were Judy Blume's young-adult novel Deenie, in which a teenage girl likes to touch her "special place," and Maurice Sendak's classic In the Night Kitchen, because its main character, a boy of about five named Max, tumbles through his dream with his genitals bare. The student editor of the University of Southern Louisiana yearbook was dismissed because she published a picture of a young woman feeding spaghetti to a young man. Both were shirtless. The New York State Liquor Authority denied a license to Bad Frog Beer. According to the authority, the label — a cartoon frog with his middle finger raised and the legend "An Amphibian with Attitude" — was "harmful to minors." Paul Zaloom, the star of the children's television science program Dr. Beekman's Universe, was forbidden by his producers to answer his viewers' most-asked question: What is a fart? Even sex educators are not allowed to speak about sex. In 1996, when author Robie Harris went on the radio in Oklahoma to promote her children's book It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, the host requested that she not mention the S-word. Harris was obliged to refer to sex as "the birds and the bees."

The cultural historian Michel Foucault said that sex is policed not by silence but by endless speech, by the "deployment" of more and more "discourses" of social regulation— psychology, medicine, pedagogy. But our era, while producing plenty of regulatory chatter from on high, has also seen an explosion of unofficial, anarchic, and much more exciting discourses down below. When the sexual revolution collided with the boom in media technologies, media sex mushroomed. We started collecting statistics to prove it: 6.6 sexual incidents per hour on top-rated soap operas (half that number ten years before); fourteen thousand sexual references and innuendos on television annually (compared with almost none when Ozzie and Harriet slept in twin beds); movies most popular with teenagers "contain[ing] as many as fifteen instances of sexual intercourse in less than two hours" (Gone with the Wind had one, off-screen).

Sexual imagery proliferated like dirty laundry: the minute you washed it and put it away, there was more. In Times Square, whose streets were transformed into a Disney-Warner "family-friendly" mall, the neon signs from shut-down peep shows were put on exhibit in a sort of museum of the smutty past at the back of the tourist information office. Meanwhile, looming over the heads of camera-toting tour groups from Iowa, half-block-long billboards advertised Calvin Klein underwear, inside of whose painted shadows lurked penises as large as redwood logs.

As the ability to segregate audiences by age, sex, class, or geography shrinks, we have arrived at a global capitalist economy that, despite all our tsk-tsking, finds sex exceedingly marketable and in which children and teens serve as both sexual commodities (JonBenét Ramsey, Thai child prostitutes) and consumers of sexual commodities (Barbie dolls, Britney Spears). All this inspires a campaign with wide political support to return to reticence, especially when the kids are around.

History refutes the notion that we live today in a world of sexual speech but did not, say, three centuries ago. A child could witness plenty of dirty song-singing and breast-and buttock-grabbing in any sixteenth-century public house. Yet there is reason for concern about the world of unfiltered, unfettered sexual knowledge that is particular to the past several decades: pictures and words have attained unprecedented cultural influence in our time. Our marketplace produces few actual widgets; we make almost nothing but digitized ideas and the media to distribute them. As the economy moves from the Steel Belt to Silicon Valley, the boundary between the symbolic and the real is disappearing. Representation is no longer just a facsimile of a thing: it is the thing itself.

Nobody lives more in the "hypermediated" environment than the young. The critic Ronald Jones, writing about two young artists in the 1990s, distinguished them from the now-middle-aged postmodernists of the 1980s, who stressed that "the way the media represented the world was a constructed fabrication." Younger artists, the critic said, work from an assumption of "inauthenticity as a normal course of life." At the end of the twentieth century, a quarter of kids had their own televisions by the time they were five years old. It was no use telling them to go outside and get a "real" life. Why play sandlot baseball when you can pitch to Sammy Sosa from a virtual mound? Even technologized sexual speech no longer just stands for sex; it is sex. Sherry Turkle, a social analyst of computer communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the on-screen erotic exchanges that Netizens call "tinysex": "A 13-year-old informs me that she prefers to do her sexual experimentation online. Her partners are usually the boys in her class at school. In person, she says, it is 'mostly grope-y.' Online, 'they need to talk more.'"

Where do you learn about sex? a television interviewer asked a fifteen-year-old from a small rural town. "We have 882 channels," the girl replied.

Excerpted from Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, University of Minnesota Press, copyright, April 2002.