Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 23, 2002


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"I expected a reaction from the Far Right," says journalist Judith Levine, "but nothing like this."

On the phone from her home in New York, Levine is talking about the uproar surrounding her book, "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex." Protests and accusations from the Religious Right exploded long before the first printing was released (official pub date: May 1).

Under attack from conservative factions - "Dr." Laura Schlessinger, Concerned Women for America, American Family Association and what she calls "the hordes on talk radio," Levine says she's been called "a sex-abuse victim, an advocate of sexual abuse, and even (in one radio interview, implied) a sex abuser."

I'll get to why in a moment, but first, the forum Levine has found in the media to discuss these charges has been "pretty demoralizing. As a journalist I'm ashamed of my profession," she says.

Reporters and broadcasters "only repeat what each other say without checking sources. They present my detractors as rational 'experts' without investigating legitimacy or telling the audience who and what these people really represent."

An example was "Good Morning, America," which Levine says pitted her against an "expert" whose clinic once claimed that a majority of its patients were victims of "satanic ritual abuse." "The FBI did a 5-year in-depth investigation and found not a shred of corroborative evidence of 'satanic ritual abuse,' " she notes. This wasn't mentioned, either.

The Christian Right has thrown such a huge tantrum about the book in public places - not only about Levine but her publisher, the University of Minnesota Press - that some booksellers, not having seen it (the first printing was 3,500), are wary.

The second printing of 10,000 - quite a leap for this scholarly press - is due this week, and in the meantime First Amendment advocates in the book industry have issued the following:

"Statement in Support of The University of Minnesota Press

"The undersigned organizations strongly support the University of Minnesota Press, which has been attacked for its decision to publish "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Minors from Sex," by Judith Levine. Without even reading the book, critics have called for its suppression and demanded that the Minnesota legislature cut the funding of the University of Minnesota.

"Ideas become controversial when they challenge conventional wisdom. Many are unwise. However, some are beneficial, challenging us to examine our basic assumptions and consider changing the way we have always done things. The First Amendment exists to allow us to debate the wisdom of those ideas and make up our own minds. Censorship only supports a status quo that cannot otherwise be defended.

"We applaud the University of Minnesota Press's decision to face that challenge and enrich the public debate about this essential issue. Its decision is one of which a great university can, and should, be proud. We trust the University of Minnesota appreciates the value of a courageous press to its educational mission and reputation.

    "American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
    "Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association
    "Association of American Publishers
    "Association of American University Presses
    "Association of Research Libraries
    "Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression
    "Feminists for Free Expression
    "Freedom to Read Foundation
    "First Amendment Project
    "Modern Language Association of America
    "National Humanities Alliance
    "National Coalition Against Censorship
    "Online Policy Group
    "Publishers Marketing Association
    "PEN American Center
    "PEN New England
    "Upper Midwest Booksellers Association"

I'm going to interview Levine face-to-face in June, but for now, here are a few quick observations.

"Harmful to Minors" is one of the most respectful and compassionate books I've read in the long time. It's thoroughly documented and brilliantly argued, often angry for good reason and often painful, because Levine holds up a stunning, eye-opening, shake-your-head-and-clear-the-cobwebs-away mirror to what she rightly calls a continuing national panic.

Americans, she says, are in the grip of hysteria about sex and children. Thanks largely to the Christian Right and media exploitation, we have come to believe that pedophiles are everywhere, teen (and preteen) sex is soaring, sexual predators of children abound on the Internet and child pornography is a thriving, multi-billion-dollar business.

According to Levine, *none* of that is true to the huge degree we think it is. But because we believe it's true, we've allowed narrow right-wing forces to dictate ground rules for sex education (such as it is).

The result is a negative, punitive view of sex (you get in trouble, you get pregnant, you get depressed) that offers few options other than the "just say no" abstinence-until-marriage response.

With this Dark Ages approach, says Levine, sex education ends up abandoning young people to the only place that does talk about sex freely and openly, the Internet.

The good news, Levine says, is that websites do exist (and she names them) that provide responsible information about sex to anyone who asks. If the askers stumble across raunchy pornography along the way - well, they'll just have to sort it all out just as they do on late-night HBO.

Naturally at a time when the Catholic Church offers ample evidence of child-molesting priests, the environment for children seems filled with danger.

But Levine says let's calm down for a minute and look at the evidence. For one thing, not all sexual relationships between minors and adults are damaging - think, as USA Today has said, of "The Summer of '42," a classic testimonial to what has become a subject of cultural celebration - the teenage boy's initiation by an older woman.

For another, sending a man to prison for statutory rape with his teenage girlfriend, who ran away from home to be with him and wanted to stay with him, is both unfair and unrealistic. It adds to the kind of hysteria that makes public school officials publicly suspend a young boy for kissing a young girl.

Instead of helping young people develop healthy and positive attitudes about sex, punitive actions like these - always sensationalized by the press, of course - throw a shroud around the subject.

So Levine suggests that what we're doing about the problem of sex and children IS the problem. We're afraid to describe sex as what it should be - a pleasurable experience; afraid to offer realistic illustrations, afraid even to teach such classics as "Romeo and Juliet" and "Wuthering Heights."

A big fear behind all of it is the backlash by conservatives that can deluge any school system, church, newspaper or TV station with protesting letters, emails and phone calls.

Levine offers a terrific reading list of those very classics, by the way, and reminds us that if we don't lead the discussion with open, honest and responsible answers, we might as well turn American kids over to Hollywood, where a diet of simplistic romances and sexual violence (Levine calls these themes "puppy love and rape") send out the worst possible message.

I remember Andrew Weil saying in his first book, "The Natural Mind," published in the 1970s (I'm paraphrasing), "What society is doing about the drug problem IS the drug problem."

The other day on VH-1 television, a former rock band member said (again paraphrasing), "It was the fear of parents that made us successful, so thank you, parents."

Martin Duberman, writing about attempts to "cure" him of homosexuality, makes the point in his autobiography that what psychiatrists were doing about the homosexual "problem" WAS the problem.

Daphne Scholinski, incarcerated in a mental institution because she was considered too masculine, says in her book, "The Last Time I Wore a Dress," that what doctors are doing about the gender "problem" IS the problem.

The point is that responding with fear to a perceived cultural crisis is not new, and that once we're in the thick of one of these awful periods of hysterical it's almost impossible to consider rational, well-documented arguments that go against the grain.

That's why "Harmful to Minors" is so important - reading it sheds new light on a subject that conservative factions have kept dark and dirty too long. Halfway through, one feels the panic and ensuing paralysis lifting, and by book's end the fresh options Levine offers seem eminently doable.



I can't believe the subject of Dorothy Bryant's latest example of Literary Lynching - Kate Chopin and her novel, "The Awakening" - fits so perfectly with the battle described above.

As you'll see by clicking to the book's webpage, here, critics found Chopin "witty" and "daring" until she wrote about the purest of sexual pleasures - her character's first orgasm - and then, boy, did they go after her like a bunch of modern-day Furies.

What happened to Chopin after that reveals one of the more fascinating aspects of "Literary Lynching," and it's all the more chilling in light of what the uproar surrounding to "Harmful to Minors."


NOTE TO READERS: Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that last week's column was #314 (not #313). The staff is still on the road and getting purty weary, so we'll see you next week with long-awaited stories about the Oxford Conference for the Book and That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Has it ever occurred to you that your repeated personal attacks on me begin to suggest something beyond stereotyping? Can you not see that the language you use can do nothing but promote emotional reactions, which result in animus and the hatred of other human beings? Don't you realize that your stock in trade — sanctimony — is itself just another insidious form of censorship?

How dare you characterize me as being "vengeful" and "threatening," when in fact, your pen is the instrument which seeks to destroy and defame.

Leonard Riggio, Chairman
Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Holt responds: Thank you for your letter. Please understand that it has never been my intention to be sanctimonious or destructive. I'm sorry if words in the column have sounded personally hurtful to you.

My job as book industry critic is to speak out in a critical fashion when it seems to me that events may harm literature or limit the choices offered to readers in daily commerce.

The column also provides a forum in which everyone who writes with a point to make is given a spot in the Letters column. I know readers will appreciate seeing your comments, which I'll run in the next issue.

I'm curious about one thing. For years you've gone on record to say that publishers charge too much for books. PW characterized you as wanting "to knuckle publishers [to get them] to lower prices."

But since book prices have risen instead of fallen, a number of people in the book industry have told me that B&N's new publishing program - while it's of course a business decision on your part - is also your attempt to "teach publishers a lesson." This sounds, in part, like revenge to me, but if I am wrong, please let me know. I'll be glad to print those comments, too.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Forgive me if you already touched on this point about Oprah -- am I the only one who thinks she's probably going to start up her own press? It seems like a natural next step for her. I can see Oprah "discovering" new writers and even re-releasing old titles whose rights have reverted back to the authors. Whadya think? Am I nuts? (Wait, don't answer that . . .) Jackie Meeks

Holt responds: Nuts? That's inspired! I'm especially intrigued with the part about those "old titles." Nobody could breathe new life into books that have died - perhaps prematurely expired - like Oprah Winfrey, and you can bet none of the writers she might resuscitate will get uppity about a second life.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Can you stand another comment about the Jonathan Franzen/Oprah Winfrey issue? What makes me feel slightly ill about this discussion is some idea that authors should be good role models, or very polite, or tactful, or grateful or something. It would be good, I guess, if everyone was lovely all the time, but they aren't, and the fact of an author's personality can really get in the way of enjoying their work. (I think that the less we know of an author personally, the better, and I try to make a point of not knowing much about my favorite authors.)

If Oprah wanted to make pets out of authors she was bound to be disappointed sooner or later. Franzen is young so he is called a spoiled brat for not being a good little spaniel - an older author might be as easily dismissed as "curmudgeonly," a woman as, oh, I don't know, "strident" maybe?

If the books are worth it, Oprah should take authors as they come - temperament, ego and all. If they are warm and accessible, that would be one kind of show. If they are prickly and skeptical, that is another kind. Otherwise she will be further limiting her club to not only books she likes, but authors she can get along with. I think her book club was a great thing, really an astonishing thing, in the way it shifted people to reading current literary fiction, and I hope she continues to share books with her readers.

And if she continues to want to share the authors too, she is going to have to take pot luck on the charm factor.

Amy Thomas
President and martyr
Pandora's Books Inc.
Pegasus and Pendragon Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a longtime supporter of one of the best independent bookstores in the country, Book Passage of Corte Madera, Calif. This bookstore gets the top authors to do readings and teach classes. Having said that, let me play devil's advocate: I would rather see someone buy a book (especially a classic) from Barnes & Noble because it's cheaper than not buy one at all.

I applaud B&N for publishing the books that are in the public domain. I am one of those who laments all the gray hair I see at the symphony, ballet and opera. So many can't afford the prices so they lose the exposure to our American culture. If B&N can keep up the exposure to the classics by reducing the price, I won't knock them for it.

Bonnie De Clark

Holt responds: It's certainly difficult to keep the long-term view in mind when you're looking at a gorgeous book that seems uncommonly inexpensive. But the book industry is in crisis right now and we as consumers must try to understand what happens when a chain bookstore with all its power decides to become a competing publisher and knock other publishers off its shelves. The result has already been a deep and possibly irrevocable change in the art book field. In the long run, it's going to mean fewer choices at ANY price for all of us, not to mention less business, disastrously so one day, for your favorite independent.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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