Courageous Trust

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex
by Judith Levine

Review by Joanne Alcantara

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex is a brave book. In it, author Judith Levine advocates for children's rights and discusses child sexuality without condescension. She argues for the development of a radical, leftist sex education and challenges us to trust children and teens with making their own decisions about sex and sexuality.

Levine celebrates the incredible access to information that children have. She speaks out against alliances between some feminists and conservatives to censor sexually explicit content on the internet. Levine points out that the consequence of most internet filters is to block pornography along with a wealth of information about sexual health, contraception, and pleasure. Harmful to Minors challenges educators and parents to teach children to be media-savvy consumers.

For adults who parent or work with children, Harmful to Minors asks us to put our fears away and understand child sexual exploration as we do other types of learning. Levine argues that the skills children need to grow in a healthy way, such as confidence, integrity, trust, kindness, and compassion, are the same skills they need to become sexually mature. She argues that we cannot and should not protect children from sex, but we can help them make better decisions for themselves by building their sense of self-love and self-esteem.

A good decision about sex, Levine argues, does not imply abstinence. She is critical of the mainstream sex education in our schools that touts abstinence-only or abstinence-plus safe sex and does not openly discuss sexual pleasure. Levine is adamant that we need to be fully honest with children about sex and why we enjoy it, to meet them where they are at, and to give them the privacy they need to learn from themselves and other young people.

While I fully agree with the sex-positive attitude that Levine advocates for, her discussion on statutory rape, child sexual assault, and abuse is lacking. Levine's strong belief in child sexual agency threatens to dismiss the possibility of child sexual coercion and assault. She plainly states that child sexual encounters, like adult ones, cannot escape the realities of social hierarchies and uneven power relations. Levine, however, provides little commentary on these inequities and seems to simply trust that empowered children will not be sexually harmed-a difficult idea for anyone concerned with children to swallow.

What is missing in Harmful to Minors is a discussion on how adults can better serve as sexual role models for children and how we can get past the language of consent. We cannot teach children to be sexually mature unless we are able to be honest, celebratory, and critical of our own sexual selves. Additionally, unless we can talk about sex as an act appropriate only when mutually desired, rather than one party initiating and another consenting, I do not believe we can encourage or have for ourselves equitable, pleasurable sexual lives.

Still, Harmful to Minors is an absolutely compelling book. It is well written and challenges conventional ideas about child sexuality and what is appropriate for minors. It pushes adults to communicate in a radical way and allow children access to all the information we have. It asks us to teach children and then to trust them with the decisions they make for themselves.

"The most violent element in society is ignorance"
- Emma Goldman

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