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Different cultures have different views on whether adult-adolescent sex is always wrong. In the Netherlands, the law allows children ages 12 to 16 to make their own decision about sex, though if Mom and Dad feel a relationship is exploitative, they can ask the authorities to investigate. Most Americans would find such a law abhorrent. Recently, the University of Minnesota initiated an unusual review of its university press after it published a book that calls the Dutch law "a good model." Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, scheduled to arrive in bookstores this month, asserts that "teens often seek out sex with older people ... For some teens, a romance with an older person can feel more like salvation than victimization."
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.