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Harmful to Minors Review

Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex is a must-read for those who seek to understand American attitudes toward sex education and childhood sexuality and for those interested in how to use the Internet to reach out to young people who are exploring their sexuality and seeking sexual health information, despite Internet filtering.

Here is an excerpt from pp.15-17:


When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Communications Decency Act, civil libertarians sighed relief for the First Amendment rights of adults and rose en masse, along with the parenting magazines and cyber columnists, to salute a fleet of new software packages that would guard the borders by "filtering" Net-borne filth from kids. The software came with names evoking caregivers (NetNanny, CyberSitter) and cops (CyberPatrol). The telecommunications bill, to which the CDA would have been an amendment, was also the first to propose the V-chip, a device to be installed in televisions that could screen out programs according to ratings coded for sex, vulgar language, violence, and so forth. Around that time, a New Yorker cartoon showed a computer scientist at her workstation, telling a colleague, "I have in mind a V-chip to be implanted directly in children."

As the joke suggests, these people's relief was misplaced. Sure, parents had a hand in deciding what movies their kids saw, what books they read and what Web sites they visited. But the could not filter out all the "dirty" sex, even if they wanted to. And technology was not going to solve the problem, no matter how smart the programmers made it. For one thing, computer-savvy kids were smarter. One enterprising twelve-year-old A student programmed the computer to record his father's keystrokes as he set up the filter, then deleted them, downloaded some porn, and sold it to his friends.

Moreover, this artificial intelligence was about as discriminating as Senator James Exon, the Nebraska Democrat who sponsored the CDA. CyberSitter couldn't tell the difference between the dirty word penis and the clean one any better than a person could. So the programs, and the people employed to scroll through the names of Web sites looking for potential offenders, erred on the far side of caution. America Online blocked the word breast until cancer patients complained they couldn't get to their support groups and information sites. Cyber Patrol's top-secret CyberNOT list banned Planed Parenthood's sites, feminist, youth, and gay sites, as well as free speech and Second Amendment sites and such "violent" information as that posted by the city of Hiroshima about is peace memorial. CyberSitter blocked the site of the National Organization for Women. The poet Anne Sexton and the Sussex County Fair were universally banned because of the spelling of their names, as were Christian sites advertising videos about sexuality. Even the allegedly more sensitive PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), software that employs a site-rating system and was recommended for schools and public libraries as well as homes, could leave kids "confined to a research world smaller than their school library," attorney Heins pointed out, "because after all, the Encyclopedia Brittanica has an entry on 'contraception,'" a word that would give it the equivalent of an R or X rating. Nevertheless, by 1999, almost a third of online households had installed a filtering device on their computers. And in December 2000, unnoticed during the prolonged presidential postelections, Bill Clinton signed the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), requiring public libraries to filter their computers or lose federal funding; upon his assumption of the presidency, George W. Bush affirmed his commitment to Internet censorship. At this writing, the American Library Association and the ACLU have brought suit challenging CIPA's constitutionality.

Opponents of government regulation of the Net usually maintain that parents, and not the state, should decide what their children see and read. But there are some adults who believe kids can make their own decisions. In Wired magazine, journalist Jon Katz argued that by accepting technological surrogates for government censorship under the Communications Decency Act, liberals had sold out their kids' free-speech rights. Katz said he and his wife were concerned for their fourteen-year-old daughter's safety, but they had also schooled her in media literacy and instilled moral intelligence, also known as conscience. In short, they trusted her. So the girl surfed the Net unsupervised, discussing what she found there just as she'd discuss a movie or an event at school. If an uncomfortable or threatening situation arose, she was instructed to employ the tactic she learned in preschool: "Use your words." The appropriate phrase for Internet creeps, said Katz, is "Get lost."

Here is an excerpt from pp.143-150:

The Facts

Luckily, just as the sources of information about sex dried up in the earthbound institutions of the public school and the publishing house. they started proliferating in cyberspace, where kids are wont to read anyway. The cheap and wide-open World Wide Web began to offer a bounty of witty, hip, pleasure-positive, credible, comforting, user-friendly sites on sexuality for kids and by kids, as well as those not specifically targeted to youngsters but useful to anyone engaging in sex or contemplating it. (In fact, at this writing the two best recent sex-ed books are compilations of the contents of Web sites: "The 'Go Ask Alice' Book of Answers," from the Columbia University Web site of the same name, and "Deal with It!" from

Yes, any twelve-year-old with a jot of computer literacy can quickly click to a postage-size photo of a man in scuba gear forcing a female amputee to have anal intercourse with a sea cucumber (well, the sea cucumber is blacked out unless you type in your credit-card number). "Boy, I go on the Web and I'm seeing stuff that makes me feel Amish!" exclaimed a member of a group of not exactly prudish propagandists called the Safer Sex Sluts. But in his job as a freelance sex educator, this man, Rob Yaeger, encourages kids to search out all the sexual information they can find. And he knows they can find it, up-to-date and uncensored, on the Web.

Because Web sites are here today and gone tomorrow, the designation of any sort of a sex-educational cyber-canon is impossible. Instead, I'll name names of sites extant at this writing as exemplars of what a good resource should be.

Detailed, Playful, Egalitarian

Go Ask Alice, Columbia University's sex and health information site staffed by a half dozen writers in occasional consultation with the university hospital's doctors, answers hundreds of questions a day from nervous first kissers and unsure bisexuals, HIV-positive teens and those wishing to avoid becoming so, virgins and pre-orgasmic lovers in more than fifty countries.

"I am 16 years old and I have never been kissed and I have so many questions about it, but I am very nervous about it because I think I am really going to mess up," writes Freaked Out About First Kiss. "What is the common age for a girl to be kissed? When you kiss someone, do you both move your tongue at the same time? And where do you move your tongue? God this is driving me crazy. And since I have never kissed anyone, I am afraid to go out with a guy because what if he freaks out when I tell him that I have never been kissed, and, if he tells a whole bunch of people, I would feel so stupid."

Calm, reassuring, and authoritative, Alice replies: "No need to get your knickers in a twist over your very first kiss -- the more relaxed you are, the more enjoyable this event will likely be for you and your lucky partner. Nor does Alice see why you need to tell any potential partner about your kissing, or non-kissing, history."

Typically thorough and gently humorous, Alice proceed through more precise suggestions for kissing practice. She resolutely resists defining normal behavior, even though "Am I normal?" lurks beneath many of the questions she, and every other "expert" receives (particularly the perennials about masturbation, penis size, and homosexuality). "Each kiss will be a little different, depending on many things, such as who you are kissing, how you feel about the person, and what is going on at the time," she says. "Kissing is not a science."

Alice's values are those of democracy, equality, communication, and mutual consent: "Your tongue will most likely be met by the other person's, and the both of you can go from there -- figuring out what pleases each other and what is, and is not, comfortable." Although she does not dispense over-the-counter behavioral or medical prescriptions, questions about intercourse or oral or anal sex are accompanied by safe-sex tips. Information on contraception and abortion, STD testing, homosexuality, HIV prevention and treatment, and sexual violence are ubiquitous on the site, along with links to other resources.

Sex-Positive, "Graphic"

Like Alice, and like the best classroom teachers and texts, the superior sex-ed sites combine realism about the likelihood of youthful sexual activity with enthusiasm, but not boosterism, for sex -- a sort of sexual pro-choice position. This balance is struck nicely on the home page of Chicago's adult-and-youth Coalition for Positive Sexuality and in its slogan, "Just say yes."

"Just Say Yes means having a positive attitude about sexuality -- gay, straight or bi. It means saying "yes" to sex you do want, and "no" to sex you don't. It means there's nothing wrong with you if you decide to have sex, and nothing wrong with you if you decide not to. You have the right to make your own choices, and to have people respect them. Sex is enjoyable when everyone involved is into it, and when everyone has the information they need to take care of themselves and each other."

Even while they espouse such wide-open values, many of the sex sites post warnings that their discussions might occasionally be "graphic" (this may be to mollify fretting moms and dads or zealous politicians or federal agents). What this means is that the information is detailed enough to be useful to someone who actually intends to use it. So, unlike abstinence-plus educators, who might teach condom application using the ever-firm banana, or the abstinence-only educators, whose goal is to make the condom sound so icky and unreliable that students will reject the whole ordeal of penetration, the designers of safe-sex pages proceed as if the condom is going to be rolled onto a penis, which is then going to be inserted into a bodily orifice of another person. These sites universally discuss a crucial, and too often neglected, component of condom use: lubricant, which renders the latex prophylactic more pleasurable in sensation and less likely to tear. On Just Say Yes's site, an animated limp penis stands up to receive its rubber hat, applied by someone else's hands, then goes limp and starts all over again, endlessly. "Get it on," the text advises, noting the other vital detail that the penis has to be erect before the condom goes on it. The organ, by the way, is healthy-looking but not intimidatingly large.

Youthful, Compassionate

Equally important in the interactive universe of the Web are the kid-to-kid chats and personal stories featured on many sites. On, a site maintained by the SAFETeen Project for GLBTQ (that's gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered, and "questioning") youth, "Jason -- A Story of Love, Determination, Hope, and Death," tells the autobiographcial (and possibly embroidered) tale of a fourteen-year-old, "innocent, young, [Mormon] boy... struggling to understand myself and my sexuality," who falls in love with Jason, a twelve-year-old boy in his Boy Scout troop. After some months their "relationship bloomed into a powerful bond of love. We became one in spirit, soul, and often enough, body." Kicked out of his house, Jason runs away, becomes a porn actor, and eventually kills himself. A melodrama perhaps, but judging from the number of similar stories online, a direct arrow to the hearts of isolated gay and lesbian kids. Of the estimated five thousand young people who commit suicide annually, 30 percent are gay, lesbian, or desperately "questioning."

Chat on Coalition for Positive Sexuality's "Let's Talk" bulletin board wheels freely, from sadomasochism ("Okay, so here's the question. im [sic] interested in becoming a submissive and then maybe a slave. do any of you know any websites about that? mainly informative, not porn") to a plea for help from a religious boy, "overwhelmed by my hormones," who wails, "Is there any kind of pill I can take or something else I can take to totally stop this sex drive or at least curb it?" He received only one practical response: "All I can say is avoid spicy food.", a Webzine for teenage girls, was founded by two women not so far into adulthood that they'd forgotten either the pain and humiliation ("Those Yucky Emotions") or the sweetness of teen-girl life, including the discovery of sexuality. Along with the straight-on info about such physical subjects as the clitoris and vaginal discharge, the zine's interactive Sexuality Series challenges the mainstream media's tyranny over young people's sexual tastes and expectations. "[I]n the world of thinking about sex, anything can be sexy," wrote the Webmistresses in one installment. "This is sometimes difficult to remember while being bombarded with images and what-not from the world which try to tell you 'WHAT SEX(Y) IS.'" Visitors' contributions to a page on kissing included, for instance, "Kissing people's eyelids is really nice, too."

A publication that comes both on paper and in pixels is Sex, Etc. (, an award-winning newsletter produced for teens by teens under the aegis of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers, State University of New Jersey. Treating issues from open adoption to parental consent for abortion, from depression to whether masturbation can "hurt you in any way" (answer, in short: no), the well-written, good-looking pub strikes a balance between uncertainty and knowingness, feeling and fact. Its racially, sexually, and economically diverse editorial board ensures a wide range of language and opinion.


Although adults have posted Danger signs all along the byways of cyberspace, the online world is actually one of the safest sexual zones. If a young person is inclined to try her typing fingers at cyber-sex, she can experiment with sexual poses and fantasies without worrying about pregnancy, STDs, or even, for the most part, emotional involvement. If the action gets too hot, she can politely absent herself or delete an overanxious suitor.

The same anonymity that gives cybersex its fluidity and safety also lubricates the dissemination of sexual information. The namelessness of its correspondents, usually flagged as the Web's inherent peril, shelters youngsters from the mortification of appearing klutzy or uncool, slutty or prudish. Questions that are virtually unaskable in person are easily asked virtually. One boy queries Alice about the etiquette of oral sex, specifically, whether or not to come in his girlfriend's mouth and how to talk about it. The correspondent closes his letter, "I realize this question may sound rather juvenile, but who else can I turn to?" Alice's answer: Discuss it beforehand. Then, when the big moment arrives, say, "Where would you like me to cum -- in your mouth, or somewhere else? ... I'll tell you when I'm about to go... or I'll bark... or something." Alice congratulates the writer for his maturity in being so considerate of his partner.

And then there are the postings whose responses might save a young person from more than embarrassment. "My boyfriend hits me." "I am turning tricks and want to know if I have to use condoms every time." "My parents hate me because I'm gay. I want to kill myself." On the Web, the lonely can get fast companionship; the clueless, compassionate, nomoralistic support and crucial practical help. At best, a kid in need can find a community of kindred souls struggling with a marginalized sexual identity, with violence or date rape, hostile parents or depression -- and then bookmark it for the next time.

Plentiful, Accessible

Many adults would argue that there's too much sexually explicit materials on the Web, in the form of pornography. Doubtless, there's lots. Will it hurt kids who look at it? I asked the constitutional lawyer and writer Marjory Heins, who has probably reviewed the subject more thoroughly than anyone else in the United States. Her response (replete with lawyerly and scholarly qualifiers): "As far as I'm aware, there's very little psychological research on the effects of viewing pornography on children at all. And to the extent one can even talk about scientific proof in social-science research, it's my opinion that it has not been proved that there are widespread or predictable adverse psychological effects on kids from exposure to pornography." My own reviews of the literature, scant as it is, come to the same conclusion. Pornography doesn't hurt the viewer, and, especially for a young person trying to figure out his or her sexual orientation, it can help in exploring fantasies and confirming that other people share the same tastes.

But porn offers only one kind of information: rudimentary images of physical parts and the permutations of their display and contact, blessedly free of judgmental commentary (if you don't count "Jessica's perfect boobs," etc.). In my opinion, the problem with sexual information on the Net is not that there is too much of it but that too little of it (at this writing, anyhow) is any good. That's what David Shpritz, a high school cyberwizard at the Park School in Brooklandville, Maryland, found when he went online in the late 1990s, prospecting for resources on sexuality for his classmates. Under the keywords sexual health, he turned up some information on AIDS and HIV that he thought might be intimidating to teenagers, a few good pages for gays and lesbians, and a preponderance of advertisements for sexual aids, mostly for impotence. "One disturbing observation," he wrote, was "that even out of the sites that seemed helpful for teens, there were very few that dealt at all with topics like communication or relationships." All he found on this score was "Teen Love Connection," run by two sixteen-year-olds, but it was more like "a dating game or 'singles bar'" than a source of information. When he queried, "How do I know if I'm in love?" (incidentally, an extremely frequent FAQ from teens), he received no answer. Said Shpritz, with endearing humility, "I guess it's a good thing I didn't really need to know."

Finally, what's on the Net is simply unavailable to too many kids. While the percentage of American households with Internet access is soaring, and Internet penetration is increasingly rapidly, alongside that growth exists a persistent, even widening racial, ethnic, and economic "digital divide." More than half of American households owned computers and 41 percent were going online in August 2000. But fewer than a quarter of black and Hispanic households had Internet connections, a bigger gap between those families and white and Asian American families than existed two years earlier. Not surprisingly, income also accounted for disparities in Web access. Whereas more than three-quarters of households with incomes over fifty thousand dollars had Internet accounts in 2000, only 12.7 percent of those making less than fifteen thousand dollars and 21 percent between fifteen thousand and twenty-five thousand did.

Government and privately funded efforts to provide Internet access to school and libraries in poor neighborhoods may do little for sex education anyhow. For, under community and political pressure, many of these institutions have installed filtering software, and Congress has required it on every publicly owned computer accessed by minors. Such filters, as we saw in chapter 1, block the very information that might forestall a pregnancy or HIV infection or help a kid extricate herself from an abusive relationship. To get the facts, kids need freedom.

For more info about the book, see and

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