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Some have attacked Levine's book as trivializing the pain that sexual-abuse victims can feel. The idea that a 12-year-old could consent to sex is "just dangerous in every way," child psychologist Joy Silberg said last week on Good Morning America. Silberg pointed out that many children who have sex with an adult are "severely sexually traumatized." Some kids tried to bury their trauma, and as we have seen recently with priests' victims, the agony from sexual abuse can emerge much later.

Levine wrote her book to promote teens' sexual health--not abuse--but she could have predicted the storm that is greeting her. In July 1998, Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, published a dense, jargony paper by three academics led by Bruce Rind of Temple University. The Rind paper examined 59 studies of 35,000 college students who had been sexually abused as minors. The 59 studies had looked at how the victims were faring in terms of anxiety, depression and 16 other mental-health measures. The authors drew an important distinction between a 15-year-old who has sex willingly and a 5-year-old whose father rapes her. But the authors concluded that for most victims the effects of the abuse "were neither pervasive nor typically intense" and that "men reacted much less negatively than women." In fact, 42% of the men who were asked (vs. 16% of the women) looked back on their sexual experience with an adult as positive.

Radio host Laura Schlessinger discovered the Rind review and called it "junk science." House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas expressed "outrage and disgust" at the psychological association for printing "a study that advocates normalizing pedophilia," and the House voted unanimously to condemn the paper. Critics whispered that one of the review's co-authors, psychologist Robert Bauserman, had written for a Dutch publication that spoke admiringly of "man-boy" relationships. Now an aids official with the state of Maryland, Bauserman said in an e-mail that "it would have been better to find a different outlet" for his writing than the Dutch journal. But he also pointed out that the Rind study had withstood fierce academic scrutiny without being refuted.

Within the field of child psychology, the Rind study was controversial but not dismissed. Other authors had reached similar conclusions. Critics failed to note that Rind and his colleagues stipulated that "lack of harmfulness does not imply lack of wrongfulness" and said their findings warranted no changes in U.S. laws.

Most americans are savvy when it comes to making distinctions between a kid being abused and one coming of age in a healthy way. Lots of viewers laughed five years ago when Friends explored the relationship between Phoebe's high-school-age brother and his teacher. ("If that doesn't keep kids in school, what will?" Chandler wondered.) On Six Feet Under last season, Claire, a sexually active character in high school, made out with an older photographer, and viewers hardly seemed to notice the age difference. Americans buy plenty of garments from Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch, which showcase all-but-hairless flesh--often that of teen models--in their arty ads.

Ultimately, Friends and Six Feet Under stay on the air because the teen-sex story lines find the right side of a standard that makes sense to most people: if an individual is harmed, then it's abuse. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court adopted that standard in a 6-to-3 decision on child pornography. The court rejected a 1996 congressional ban on "virtual" child porn--pictures that use young-looking adults or computer-generated images to simulate children. "These images do not involve, let alone harm, any children in the production process," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.

With the church scandal still roiling, it wasn't a propitious moment to strike a blow in favor of kiddie porn, and many lashed out at the court. But those who have studied pedophilia say society never seems quite ready to explore the delicate issues surrounding sex and kids. "People want to see a monster when they say 'pedophile,'" says Berlin. "But the best public-safety approach on pedophilia is to provide these people with treatment. That will prevent future victimization." In other words, asking questions about pedophilia may make us squirm, but it may also be the first step toward ending it.

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