New book explores children’s sexuality

Michael Krieger

University book publishers have a history of printing controversial material, often providing sanctuary for authors who stray from mainstream ideologies.

But some say a recent book published by the University Press is pushing societal boundaries too far.

Judith Levine’s book, “Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex,” has provoked hundreds of complaints – including one from a state legislator who labeled it “pedophilia” and another from a religious group that denounced it as an “agreement with Hell.”

The chorus of opposition to the book – which is scheduled for release next month – prompted University officials to approve an external review of their publishing decisions to begin immediately.

Christine Maziar, vice president for research and Graduate School dean, said she is organizing a group of academic advisers from other universities to evaluate how the University Press decides which books to publish.

Maziar said she wants “to make sure we are operating within the norms of university presses around the country.”

“This is not a review of the book; it’s a review of our policies and procedures,” Maziar said.

Levine, a New York journalist, says her book challenges conventional approaches to sex education and suggests protecting minors from sex can be detrimental.

“(The book) is based on the premise that sex, meaning touching and talking and fantasizing for bodily pleasure, is a valuable and crucial part of growing up, from earliest childhood on,” Levine writes in the introduction of her book.

“America’s drive to protect kids from sex is protecting them from nothing,” Levine writes. “Instead, often it is harming them.”

Citing interviews and research, Levine argues that shielding minors from sex can lead to unwarranted fear and anxiety and can hinder a positive sexual experience.

“For our part, adults owe children not only protection and a schooling in safety, but also the entitlement to pleasure,” she writes.

Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan, issued a statement of opposition to the book last week, saying it endorses sexual relations between adults and children.

“There is a difference between freedom of speech and state-sanctioned support for illegal, indecent, harmful activity,” he said in the statement.

“The University of Minnesota should put a halt to this book immediately,” he said.

Douglas Armato, director of University Press, said the school is upholding its role of making available a diverse range of academic thought and has no intention of halting the book’s publication.

“We tend to be the people that introduce intellectual discussion, and sometimes we end up with controversial books,” he said.

The press, Armato said, is “part of free inquiry and part of the university system.

“This is how you build knowledge,” he said.

The Westboro Baptist Church – a Kansas-based religious group that runs the Internet site www.godhatesfags.com – said its members will visit the University campus next week to protest the book’s publication.

“Anybody who has moral character and who knows about this book would object to it,” said Betty Phelps, a church member.

Levine’s book faced close scrutiny even before it was published, University officials said. Ordinarily, two experts review each book, but five scholars from a variety of academic disciplines studied Levine’s.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, said he was disappointed with the University’s decision to examine its press.

“It makes it appear that the University of Minnesota is engaging in self-censorship in response to criticism,” he said.

“The issue is not what is in the book, but the fact that the book should be published,” Samuelson said.

Armato said he believes much of the opposition to the book is focused on the idea of a book that talks about children’s sexuality rather than on the book’s content.

“We hope the debate turns to what is in the book,” he said.

Michael Krieger welcomes comments at [email protected]