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.]
years ago, an anthropologist emerged from the jungles of
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
book discussing childhood sexuality, by
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
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
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
group Concerned Women for
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
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