The Wonder Years

The Wonder Years


Since this is going to be a story about sex and children, let’s start with a bit of groping in the priests’ chamber.

I must have been 12. My confederates and I, all suited out in our little Scout uniforms–demure blouse, ribbon tie, sash of merit badges across the chest, jaunty tam-o’-shanter–were mustered in the rectory of St. John Gualbert’s, there to be investigated on our knowledge of and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. This was the last step toward our achieving a Catholic girl’s honor called the Marian Award. I remember the word “investigated.” I remember, too, sitting on the long bench, looking at the heavy draperies, the carved legs of the vast dining table, waiting my turn in the half-dark, feeling the gaze of the stripped and suffering painted Jesus behind me while, at the head of the table, our resolutely unmortified investigator began asking first one girl then another such questions as “Where do babies come from?” “What do you have between your legs?” “What do you have here?” laying hand on breast, and so on like that. Hmm, I thought, these were nothing like the sample questions in the manual I’d been reviewing for days. And what was he doing easing my friend up across his tumid belly and onto his lap? I’d never liked this priest. He was florid and coarse, with piggy eyes, a bald head and thick fingers that he’d run along the inside of the chalice after Communion, smacking his lips on the last drops of the blood of Christ. My mother didn’t teach me about sex–I don’t count the menstruation talk–but, without quite saying so, she taught me to regard authority figures as persons who had to earn respect. Obedience was rarely free, never blind. Time has stolen what this priest asked me, where, if anyplace, he touched me; I remember him stinking of drink is all, and myself standing schoolmarm straight and reciting, with the high-minded air I affected for such occasions, the statement I’d been preparing: “Father, I fail to see what that question has to do with the Marian Award. Girls, let’s go.” We escaped in a whirl of gasps and secretive giggles, rushing to telephone our Scout leader. I had no inclination to tell my mother, but most of the other girls told theirs, and soon the priest was relieved of child-related duties. We got our Marian medals without further investigation, and before too long the priest dropped dead in the street of a heart attack. Even now, as middle-aged men weep about the lifelong trauma inflicted by an uninvited cleric’s hand to their childish buttocks, I consider my own too-close brush with the cloth as just another scene from Catholic school.

There were very different scenes, many more in fact, that I could just as easily conjure forward now under the heading “sex and childhood,” though at the time I no more thought they had anything to do with sex than our encounter with the priest or, for that matter, my mother’s subtle lessons in self-possession. They contained, rather, the bits and pieces of a sensual education that would be fit together in some recognizable pattern only later. And because, at least in my school at that time, official silence about sex meant we were also spared lectures against abortion and homosexuality, onanism and promiscuity (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”? who knew?), what was left to us was indulgence in the high-blown romance of the church: Gregorian chants and incantatory Polish litanies; the telling and retelling of the ecstasies of the saints; the intoxicating aroma of incense, of hyacinths at Easter and heaped peonies in June; the dazzling brocades of the priests’ vestments and the Infant of Prague’s extravagant dresses, which we girls would paw through when cleaning the church on Saturday; the stories of hellfire and martyrdom; and the dark, spare aesthetic of the nuns.

There is a parallel in my ordering of childish memories here and the public reaction to Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors. Levine spends a large portion of the book advocating for candid, comprehensive sex education in schools, something I and many of my generation never had. But the spirit that animates the book is a less programmatic, polymorphous appreciation of the sights and smells, the sounds and language and tactile delights that make a person–adult or child–feel alive in her skin. Levine’s central preoccupation, running like a golden thread throughout the book, is the pursuit of happiness, the idea that kids have a right not just to safety and knowledge but to pleasure too. And “pleasure” here is more than the sweet shudder of a kiss, the happy exhaustion of climax; it is the panoply of large and small things that figure under the heading joie de vivre, including the satisfaction, quite apart from sex, of relating deeply with others in the world. “Knowledge” is more than facts and technical skill; it is the ability to understand the prompts of body and mind–to recognize “when you can’t not have it,” as one woman quoted by Levine replied to her daughter’s “How do I know?” question–and the wherewithal to decide when it’s time to get out of the rectory.

In another age and country this might be called reasonable, everyday stuff. Levine spends hardly any time talking about pedophiles, none on priests. In dissecting the various sexual panics of the past couple of decades, she marshals a catalogue of what, in the scheme of things, should be reassuring studies and statistics to show that satanic ritual abuse is a myth; child abduction, molestation and murder by strangers (as opposed to family members) is rare and not rising; pedophilia (an erotic preference of maybe 1 percent of the population) typically expresses itself in such “hands-off” forms as voyeurism and exhibitionism; child sex offenders have among the lowest rates of recidivism; child porn, whether on the Net or the streets, is almost nonexistent and then (less reassuring) its chief reproducers and distributors are cops; sexual solicitations aimed at children over the Net, while creepy, have not resulted in actual assaults; and “willing” encounters between adults and minors do not ruin minors. Although Levine has noted in interviews that, as a teenager, she had a sexual relationship with an older man, she never mentions it in the book, nor does she delve too far into this last taboo. She relegates to a footnote the fascinating, difficult story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old Seattle area teacher jailed for her affair with a 13-year-old student who impregnated her twice and insisted to the press, “I’m fine.” Levine’s most detailed discussion of age-of-consent laws involves the more easily comprehended story of a precocious 13-year-old, who also asserted her free will, and an emotionally immature 21-year-old, currently locked up for statutory rape. More than once Levine states, for anyone suspicious enough to wonder, her unswerving opposition to every form of forced, coerced or violent sex, and to sex between adults and young children. It shouldn’t be necessary for her to assert that just because kids have a far greater chance of dying in a car accident than at the hands of a sex offender that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t a problem, but she does. Yet, for all that, her book is being blasted by the heavy guns and light artillery of the right-wing sex police as a child molester’s manifesto.

One reason is timing. The priest scandal, one of those things that everyone knew but kept an unbothered or guilty silence about until the court cases and daily headlines forced a response, has raised a hysteria against which any rationality on youthful sexuality has about as much chance as that student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. Even without that, nothing seems to make the blood boil like the suggestion that it’s possible for minors to emerge unscathed or even enriched from consensual sexual relations with adults. I have had such conversations with leftists who angrily reject the whole notion, even as I ask, What about X, who says it was like an answered prayer when his parents’ 30-something friend initiated him sexually at 13, when for months afterward at the end of the school day he would politely kiss his same-age girlfriend (now his wife of twenty-five years) and then rush to this experienced woman’s bed? What about Y, who seduced her married teacher when she was 17 and he 45, and who, thirty years later, has with this same man one of the most loving unions I have ever seen? What about Z, who as a youth regularly sought out the company of older men because, apart from a sexual education, they offered him a safe place for expression, a cultural home, a real home? The priest scandal, which forecloses any attempt to separate vicious crime from pervy nuisance from consenting encounter, has further limited the possibilities for thoughtful discussion on the real things people do and feel, the causes and effects and complex power exchanges of a human activity that does not, and will never, operate according to the precepts of a textbook or lawbook.

Another reason is that Levine’s most bombastic critics had not read Harmful to Minors before damning it. Dr. Laura, who called on the University of Minnesota Press to stop the book’s release, took her cues from Judith Reisman, who declared Levine an “academic pedophile.” A longtime zealot in the trenches of the antipornography cause, Reisman told the New York Times, “It doesn’t take a great deal to understand the position of the writer. I didn’t read Mein Kampf for many years, but I knew the position of the author.” Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota House majority leader and a Republican hopeful for governor, also admitted to not having read the book before equating the press’s role in its publication with “state-sanctioned support for illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting children.” Robert Knight, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America who urged the university regents to fire those responsible for publishing this “evil tome,” says he “thumbed through it.” Knight, whose organization is dedicated to bringing “Biblical principles into all levels of public policy,” might consider what, at a practical level, that might mean, starting with Moses’ commands to his warriors in the Book of Numbers: “Kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

Still, I think Levine would be pilloried by Dr. Laura and her ilk even without the priest scandal and even if she had ignored the subject of sex across the age divide. For the pleasure principle she enunciates challenges the twenty-five-year-old organizing strategy of the right. Ever since Anita Bryant first demonstrated that a power base could be built by attacking homosexuals, the right has exploited real anxieties about sex, love and family to constrain the liberatory spirit, whether expressed by sexual preference, divorce, abortion, contraception, women’s freedom or teen sex. This has not managed to send queers back to the closet, lower divorce rates or “protect the children.” American teenagers have about four times the pregnancy rate of teens in Western Europe. Those in a program of “abstinence only” education still have sex and are about half as likely to protect themselves than kids who’ve received broad sex information. Even with abortion rights severely curtailed, US teenagers have abortions at about the rate they did just after Roe v. Wade. One in four has had a sexually transmitted disease; one an hour is infected with HIV; and, not incidentally, among American children one in six is poor. That notwithstanding, the sex panic strategy has succeeded in the only way it had to: creating a movement, with all the institutions, political power, lawmaking capability, grassroots presence and funding that implies, to advance an agenda for everything from global dominance to bedroom snooping. Levine’s critics are all part of that project, and since she butts against it almost from the opening pages of her book, they are striking back.

What is more telling is who isn’t rushing to the defense. While a group of free-speechers, pro-sex feminists and radical gay activists have generated press releases, opinion pieces, e-mail alerts and letters of support to Levine’s publisher, there has been silence from mainstream feminist organizations and the liberal sex-education and child-health establishments. That may be partly because they, too, have felt the sting of Levine’s criticism. Rather than build a countermovement to insist on sexual freedom, she writes, such heavyweights as Planned Parenthood, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, ETR Associates (the largest US mainstream sex-ed publisher), the National Education Association, the Health Information Network and a host of progressive sex educators tried to appropriate the “family values” rhetoric of the right, joining in “a contest to be best at preventing teen sex.”

“The Right won,” she writes, but the mainstream let it. Comprehensive sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the 1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory, until the Right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural consensus…. Commenting on its failure to defend explicit sexuality education during an avalanche of new HIV infection among teenagers, Sharon Thompson [author of the engrossing book on sex and love among teenage girls, Going All the Way] said, “We will look back at this time and indict the sex-education community as criminal. It’s like being in a nuclear power plant that has a leak, and not telling anybody.”

Throughout the Clinton era those forces largely stood by as the most sexually reckless President in memory signed a sheaf of repressive legislation, acts with names like Defense of Marriage, Abstinence Only, Personal Responsibility and Child Pornography Protection. The last on that list, capping a legal trend that, as Levine says, “defined as pornography pictures in which the subject is neither naked, nor doing anything sexual, nor…is even an actual child,” was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. The second to last, also known as the welfare bill, is up for reauthorization this year, along with its enhancements of penalties for statutory rape and its policing of teen sex, motherhood and marriage. As part of that bill the Clintonites fanned the notion that minors were too young to consent to sex with an adult, while in criminal law they eased the way for prosecuting children as adults and jailing them as adults, in which circumstance consent usually isn’t an issue. To grasp the effect of liberal silence about Levine, it is perhaps enough to recall one name: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, sacked by Clinton as Surgeon General in 1994 for saying that masturbation is part of childhood and it doesn’t hurt to talk about it. Elders has written an eloquent and sensible foreword to Harmful to Minors. Back when Elders was twisting in the wind ABC’s Cokie Roberts called her “a sort of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person”; now the Washington Times insinuates she’s soft on molestation. From self-abuse to child abuse in eight years, one absurd charge prepares the ground for the other.

That said, it’s too easy to read the reception of Levine’s book as simply more evidence of right-wing lunacy and liberal retreat. What the brouhaha also signals in its small way is a failure of the left. In organizing around issues of sex, love and family, the right has surely been cynical but at least it speaks to the deepest questions of intimate life. Its answers are necessarily simplistic and straitened. The family is falling apart? It’s the homos. Marriage seems impossible? It’s the libbers. Sex brings suffering? Just say No. Love seems distant? Await the Rapture. Except for a small group of queer radicals and pro-sex feminists, to the extent that such questions are even entertained on the left, the answers tend toward a mixture of social engineering and denial: There’s nothing wrong with the family that an equitable economy, divorce or gay marriage won’t fix. Marriage is possible; equality is the key. If sex ed was better and condoms were free, teens wouldn’t get pregnant and wouldn’t get AIDS. If abortion is painful, you’ve been propagandized. If sex is painful, you’re doing it wrong. If love is painful, find a new lover.

Levine is too sensitive to the mysteries and complexities of human relations to be characterized as advocating anything so pat as happiness-through-policy in the area of childhood sexuality. But if her putting children and sex together in the same sentence can be read by the right as a call to licentiousness, her heavy emphasis on the pleasure-enhancing possibilities of sex education may encourage readers on the left to believe that kids can be protected from bad sex, mediocre sex, regret, risk, danger, pain. And they can’t, any more than adults can. They can’t because in matters of sex, desire is a trickster. What you see isn’t always what you get, much less what you want, though it may be what you need. In matters of the heart, intimacy means vulnerability means daring to bet against pain. As with all bets, sometimes, often, you lose.

Levine actually makes this point but she so wants kids to have better information, better experiences–and she argues so well and hard for these–that somehow it gets lost. Citing a study showing that 72 percent of teenage girls who’d had sex wished they had waited, Levine wonders whether this regret isn’t perhaps really about romantic disappointment and asks, “Might real pleasure, in a sex-positive atmosphere, balance or even outweigh regret over the loss of love?” Can we know pleasure without pain? one might ask in return. Can regret over lost love, at any age, be so easily balanced? Even sidestepping those twisting lines of inquiry, isn’t the promise of “real pleasure” as much a romantic ideal, as much an invitation to disappointment, as the promise of true love, especially for the young? However wished, it’s not so easy to disentangle sex from the hope for love, to revel in pure, transporting sensuality without letting expectations, not to mention fumbling technique, get in the way. It doesn’t have to, and it doesn’t always, but sex can change everything between two people. We are weak, after all, and life’s little joke is that in that weakness lies the potential for our ecstasy and our despair.

This isn’t to discount the lifesaving value of open education about sex, condoms, desire, freedom. (And because discussions like this always force one to state the obvious, I’ll also note that nothing in the foregoing should suggest that I oppose equality, economic redistribution, abortion rights, child safety, sexual liberation, the search for love or, so long as heterosexuals insist on having the state sanction their unions via the marriage contract, divorce and gay marriage.) But rather than promise kids a world of good sex–like promising a world of happy marriages, monogamous fulfillment, self-sustaining nuclear families–maybe it’s more helpful to explain sex as the sea of clear water, giddy currents, riptides, sounding depths and rocky shoals that it is. You navigate, find wonder in the journey, scrape yourself up, press on anyway and survive. And sometimes, sometimes, you experience a bliss beyond expression. The political job is to expand the possibilities for such experience, to free people to navigate, help them survive the hurt or not hurt so bad. Maybe if we could be honest about sex, we could be honest about marriage and monogamy and family. Maybe if so much didn’t hinge on an outsized faith in pleasure and fidelity and romantic love–if for people in couples or families, everything didn’t depend on the thin reed of love, and for people alone, coupledom wasn’t held out as the apex of happiness–all the talk we hear about community might actually mean something. The greatest virtue in Levine’s book is its hope that children might learn to find joy in the realm of the senses, the world of ideas and souls, so that when sex disappoints and love fails, as they will, a teenager, a grown-up, still has herself, and a universe of small delights and strong hearts to fall back on.

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