CRIMINALIZING SEXUAL CURIOSITY                       National Post           April 25, 2002

Patricia Pearson                                                                                                                                        [Back]  

 

[Note that Kenneth Whyte was still editor-in-chief of The Post when the Levine article and this one were published.]

Some years ago, an anthropologist emerged from the jungles of Papua New Guinea with shocking

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

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

 tribe, Dr. Gilbert Herdt reported, believed that masculinity was contained within sperm in the guise

 of an essence or spirit. To become men, therefore, the boys in the tribe needed to swallow sperm.

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

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

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

 

 The boys didn't appear to be emotionally scarred, the men were all heterosexual, and everyone

 lived happily -- if strangely --ever after. I thought of this story when I read about a controversial

 new book discussing childhood sexuality, by New York journalist Judith Levine, called Harmful to

 Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Excerpted in this paper last weekend, Levine's

 book documents the harm we are doing to children by being so paranoid about their sexuality. By

 reacting in high alarm to their sexual behaviour, we convey to them a sense of sinfulness that is

 arguably more damaging than anything they are actually doing to each other.

 

 Levine offers examples of commonplace sexual curiosity -- such as kids playing doctor or boys

 goosing girls on the bum -- which have been made over as deviant.

 

 Likewise, she points to commonplace gestures of affection between teachers and students, and

 parents and children, which have been placed under hysterical surveillance, in the process

 reinvesting sex with fear, guilt and shame.

 

 Levine is right. You cannot swing a stick these days without hitting someone with a story about

 weird institutional reactions to kids and sex. My neighbourhood daycare got all in a flutter last fall

 when two four-year-olds were found to be investigating one another's penises behind the play

 kitchen. Was this abnormal? Was it too sexual? Was one of the children molesting the other? Had

 one of them been sexually abused by a parent? Everyone was whispering. It was all very fraught.

 

 A professional came in to "brief" parents on what might be deemed appropriate and healthy for

 four-year-olds. Parents came away confused, because the briefing was so delicately put and

 taboo-ridden and jargon-prone, that nobody really understood what was said. A pall simply

 lingered over the boys.

 

 More recently, a friend's 11-year-old son was suspended from school for pulling a girl's training

 bra strap. SNAP. I remember that happening to me back in the '70s: giddy Grade Sixers kissing

 the girls on a dare from their buddies, or pulling bra straps, or flipping up our skirts. So what?

 

 Now it's a sexual offence, that's what.

 

 Levine documents the odious flourishing of juvenile sex offender treatment programs in the United

 States, where kids who "mooned" or "groped" their classmates are being made to renounce their

 deviant ways. This "therapeutic" response -- which is not a hell of a lot different than a Calvinist

 response in 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, and the craze for

 hurling sex abuse allegations at spouses in bitter custody disputes, and a whirl of sexual harassment

 claims, and scandal after scandal in the clergy.

 

 In other words, the child sex offender has emerged at a time of overriding preoccupation with sex,

 power and victimization in our culture. The question that Levine raises is whether we adults have

 ever thought about the ramifications for children, who are swept up in this volatile confluence of

 trends.

 

 We read headlines in the paper, now and then, about kids arrested for "sexual molestation," yet we

 don't consider what happens to them next -- the punishments and treatments they are caught in,

 and the paradoxes they struggle with, when their own sexuality is verboten but the most heavily

 marketed heroine directed their way is Britney Spears, who appears to be unfamiliar with clothing.

 Of course, this is the essential paradox of America in general, that sex sells everything from

 toothpaste to cars, and yet has the power to bring down a president.

 

 Levine reported on the impact that these mixed messages and hysterias have on children, and what

 she got, for her efforts, was hysteria. Pundits and advocates accused Levine of being pro-

 everything-bad. Pro-pornography, pro-pedophilia, pro-promiscuity. Judith Reisman, head of the

 ultra-conservative group Concerned Women for America, reportedly compared Harmful to

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

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

 Majority Leader to decry Harmful to Minors as "debased," demanding that the University of

 Minnesota Press "punish" its director for publishing it.

 

 The university assembled an external review committee to second- guess the appropriateness of its

 decision to publish the book.

 

 That's American politics, plus ca change. They keep forgetting that they let the sex genie out of the

 bottle with the Playboy Bunnies. Criminalizing children and vilifying authors is not going to put it

 back in. Thinking rationally about what's harmful to minors, and what's not, is an infinitely smarter

 approach.