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About Kids and Sex

Many would recoil, but some scholars are urging more open discussion of children's sexuality

June 03, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their theories are explosive, even subversive. They are also a very hard sell, especially now, when the horror of predatory priests rumbles ever louder.

Nonetheless, a handful of maverick writers and academics are calling for a cultural revolution when it comes to children and sex. They argue that we protect our children too much. They insist that much of what we fear as "abuse" is actually healthy sexual expression.

They are kicking up quite a debate.

"There's a visceral reaction when you bring this topic up," said Harris Mirkin, a professor at the University of Missouri who has written on the subject.

Added Judith Levine, author of a controversial new book on child sexuality: "The minute you even suggest it's OK for kids to have sexual pleasure in their lives, you're treading dangerous waters."

Levine, Mirkin and other provocateurs start with the premise that children of all ages are sexual beings with legitimate desires. They argue, then, that kids should be free to seek out pleasure with consenting peers. Some insist that adolescents should be free even to experiment with adult partners.

They acknowledge, of course, that abuse does exist, such as when one party does not consent to the sexual relationship or when an adult in a position of authority, such as a priest or teacher, uses his or her status to gain the victim's trust. And they draw some age distinctions, noting that though children can explore their sexuality from babyhood on, pre-pubescent children should stop short of intercourse.

But overall, they insist we are too quick to see aggression, molestation and outright deviance in healthy expressions of childhood sexuality.

Why, they ask, do we assume it's exploitation when a 14-year-old girl is intimate with a 23-year-old man? Why do we refer an 8-year-old boy to therapy if he's caught exploring a friend's genitals? Why do we dismiss children's own explanations of such acts--that they were mutual, that they were fun--as implausible, even dangerous?

"These kids are telling me they know the difference between coercion and consent," Levine said. "I believe them."

This is a tough time to be pushing such arguments.

On top of the daily revelations about abusive priests, several stories about student-teacher romances hit the headlines last month. The Seattle student who, at age 12, got involved with teacher Mary Kay Letourneau--fathering two children with her--lost a lawsuit he brought against his former school district for failing to stop the affair. A San Bernardino teacher who ran off to Las Vegas with a 15-year-old student she called her soul mate has been charged with several counts of statutory sexual seduction.

Yet even as they unsettle, these cases have served to bring child sexuality up for discussion. And while many experts find the calls for revolution alarming, some therapists and academics concede the issues are worthy of debate.

"What we've been talking about in academic circles for a decade has been brought to public attention in a dramatic way," said Jorja Prover, an adjunct professor at UCLA who specializes in child sexuality.

"The priest scandal has changed the way people look at things. They're realizing there's a difference between a priest abusing a child and a 19-year-old having sex with a 14-year-old," Prover added. "We can't have these absolutist views any more about what constitutes abuse. We've got to look at [each case in] context."

Yet that call for "context" strikes many as absurd. Adolescents might want--or think they want--certain sexual experiences, critics point out, but that doesn't mean they should be given free rein. It's up to adults, they say, to define what's safe and appropriate--to set limits, then enforce them.

"As a society, we already do a notoriously bad job of observing boundaries [in sexual behavior], whether it's professional therapists getting involved with clients, employers getting involved with employees, or priests abusing altar boys," said David Finkelhor, a national authority on child abuse.

"Those boundaries are important because they provide people with protection, with guidance, with a sense of security," Finkelhor argued. So it's important, he said, "to reinforce the norms" instead of pushing to erode them.

The lightning rod for this emerging discourse has been Levine's book "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex." A freelance journalist, Levine has spent the last 20 years writing about gender and family issues. Much of her book, especially the section on sex education, has drawn praise from experts.

But her central thesis--that children need more sexual freedom--has proved radioactive. Critics have called the book "evil," "intolerable," and an "academic cover for molestation." Mirkin has experienced similar backlash: This spring, Missouri lawmakers voted to strip $100,000 from the state university's budget to urge that he be fired for what one politician called his "illegal and morally reprehensible views."

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