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The title of Judith Levine’s controversial book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, summarizes her main themes. Modern American society tries to prevent children from being exposed to involved in any sexual activity. However, Levine argues that this protection of children actually acts against their own best interests.

On some topics, the book reinforced my existing beliefs. Sexual imagery, such as pornography, does not cause any psychological harm. Abstinence-only sex education has a limited effect, delaying sexual activity by a few months on average. But, when students start having intercourse, they’re less likely to practice safe sex and more likely to become pregnant or catch an STD. Levine provides interesting details about the current policies, the social currents that fostered them, and their impact.

In the most provocative chapters of the book, Levine challenges the conventional wisdom about sexual activity by younger people and its impact. She illustrates her argument with a well-publicized case of a 13-year old female who became involved with a 21-year old guy who she met on-line. In that situation, they both appeared to be in love with one another, but the teenager’s parents pressed charges and the guy ended up in jail. Levine points out that women often lose their virginity to older men, and that studies have found no correlation between early sexual activity and later psychological problems. Though those arguments make sense intellectually, something still feels wrong about that much of an age difference in a romantic relationship.

Another chapter describes the societal reactions to what anthropologists call “sexual rehearsal play.” Though it often makes adults uncomfortable, many children touch one another sexually. Levine describes a nine-year old boy who touched his younger sister. The government put the boy into psychological treatment as a sex offender and took both children away from their mother for years. Levine argues that the sex play didn’t cause any harm, but the official response did. I have no idea what's the correct course of action in this situation.

Levine advocates her views strongly, to the extent that she omits valid opposing issues. For example, the chapter on pedophilia mentions the small percentage of men attracted to children, and how few of them act on their desires. She also reviews the hysteria over satanic ritual abuse, which never actually happened. These arguments downplay the many children who are molested each year. A more balanced discussion would be easier to accept.

The proceeding discussion is all based upon the first five chapters of Harmful to Minors. The second half of the book is basically worthless, consisting of common knowledge and trite observations. I’d recommend the first half of the book, which you’ll find thought-provoking, though unsettling, even if you disagree with it. After that, there’s no reason to push through to the end.

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