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04/16/2002 - Updated 10:58 PM ET





Experts debate impact, gray areas of adult-child sex
By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY


Harmful to Minors
by Judith Levine
Sex researchers and academics are tussling over a topic that most Americans don't even want to think about: sex between adults and children. Some of these experts are making the startling assertion that not all sexual activity between adults and minors is necessarily harmful. The result is a questioning of one of the country's most strongly held taboos.

Parents and others may gasp at the concept, especially in the current climate of scandal over sexual abuse by priests. But some serious researchers and academics want to review the term "child sexual abuse," preferring a more neutral term such as "adult-child sex."

They do not say coerced sex is acceptable. Rather, they debate questions such as whether a 25-year-old man should be prosecuted for statutory rape if he has sex with his eager 17-year-old girlfriend. Laws vary by state.

How about if an older woman provides a sexual initiation for a teenage boy? It's a fantasy dear to the hearts of many young men and a frequent theme of TV shows and movies, including the classic Summer of '42.

Experts debate whether sex with an adult is more damaging for an adolescent girl than for a boy, as some research indicates. Also being discussed is whether it's really possible for a minor to initiate sex with an adult. However, if the older lover is an authority figure, such as a teacher, coach or priest, most respected social scientists say the power imbalance is clear.

The controversy is engaging some researchers at top universities. "I think the evidence has been clear for some time that child and adolescent sexual abuse does not always do harm in the long term," says David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, one of the nation's foremost researchers on the sexual abuse of children. "That is the good news." One question now, he says, is determining if some youngsters are more mature and "able to consent to sexual relationships with older partners."

The belief that children can truly consent to sex with an adult horrifies critics across a wide spectrum. "Our major task is trying to figure out how to stop this nonsense, this justifying and encouraging adult-child sexual behavior," says Paul Fink, past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

"Is it open season on our children?" asks Stephanie Dallam, a researcher for the Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice and the Media, a non-profit advocacy group for children that focuses on pedophilia.

The issue should not be blurred by talking about sex with a 17-year-old versus a younger child, Dallam says. "That is just one hill in the battle" pedophiles are waging, she says. "Once they have the 15- to 17-year-olds, then it will be OK with the 12- and 13-year olds."

There is still "a lot to be cleared up," Finkelhor says. The adult-child issue would be easier to deal with, he says, if America had fewer children who had been victimized and "so badly hurt by the imposition of adult sexual activities."

Alarmed critics often quote a list of negative effects Finkelhor has catalogued. His inventory includes depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, an earlier entry into sexual activity, a larger number of partners and a greater tendency to be sexually victimized later in life.

Discussions about adult-child sex are appearing in professional journals, including a special issue last month of the AmericanPsychologist, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Researchers are not trying willy-nilly to turn traditional American values upside down, says APA spokesman Rhea Farberman. There is no drive among mainstream mental health professionals or social science academics to "legitimize adult-child sex." But she says there are reasonable questions for research, including analyzing types of sexual activity that include everything from fondling to rape.

Defining terms is one of the problems researchers face, she says. "Your definition, mine and the researcher's down the hall can all differ. Are we talking about homosexual or heterosexual sex? What is sex? How old is a 'child' ?"

The APA thinks child sexual abuse is by definition abuse and is "immoral and wrong," she says. But "we can all agree it is a much more serious and potentially harmful situation when a 9-year-old is raped than when a 16-year-old has 'consensual sex' with a 19-year-old. We need to be very careful of what we talk about."

The adult-child theme has been picked up on TV shows such as Boston Public, Once and Again and Dawson's Creek.

Actor Peter Krause's character on Six Feet Under recently revealed his sexual initiation occurred when he was 15 with a woman 20 years older. And a sequel to the 1971 movie Summer of '42, in which an older woman pleasures a teenage boy, reportedly is in the works.

The debate has spilled over into a public battle over a book due May 1 on children and sexuality. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex is from the University of Minnesota Press, a noted academic publishing house. The author, Judith Levine, is a respected journalist and activist who has been writing about sex and families for 20 years.

The book has prompted bitter attacks from critics who say its publication should be stopped. The University of Minnesota, which provides 6% of the Press' budget, responded to the criticism in early April by announcing an independent review of how the Press chooses what it publishes.

Contrary to what some critics say, the book does not advocate pedophilia, says Douglas Armato of the University Press. Instead, it makes a case for open and honest discussion about adolescent and children's sexuality. "We published a 300-page book, and people are paying attention to four pages of it," he says.

E-mails are running 2-to-1 against the book, Armato says, but a corner has been turned. "We are beginning to hear favorable things from those who say these topics must be addressed."

A number of respected groups including the Association of American University Presses released a statement Tuesday in support of the Minnesota Press and its decision to "enrich the public debate."

Levine's book focuses on the need sex educators feel to get solid sexual information to adolescents. Frightening them, overemphasizing the dangers from pedophiles and from predators on the Internet, and overprotecting them does more harm than good, she writes.

"In my book, I deplore any kind of non-consensual sex between persons of any age," she said in an interview. "But teens deserve respect for their decisions, and they need from us the emotional and practical tools to make good decisions."

Levine had sex with "a man in his 20s" when she was "about 17" and believes such sexual contact is not always harmful. But in her book, Levine goes much further. She applauds a Dutch age-of-consent law that permits adult sex with a child ages 12-16 if the young person consents. Either the child or the child's parents can file charges if the sex is coerced.

Reaction has been swift. "We are really appalled," says Fink, who also is director of the Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice and the Media. "Children need to grow up unencumbered and unused by adults. This whole movement is justifying the needs of adults by utilizing children in a negative way."

Dallam says: "Children should be off-limits sexually. There is a concerted effort among certain academics to change society's basically negative attitude toward sex with children. They try to say scientific data show some children are not harmed, therefore society is wrong in thinking that this is harmful."

Others object passionately to Levine's book. Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute calls the book "evil." The institute takes its guidance from God and the Bible, its Web site indicates. "The book makes a case for pedophilia," he says. "I have not read it cover to cover, but I am familiar with its themes. She is drawing on quack science. It gives a scientific gloss to the arguments that child molesters use."

The American Psychological Association is once again coping with the hot-button issue of adult-child sex. A 1998 article in one of its more obscure publications, the Psychological Bulletin, created a firestorm that included a denunciation by Congress. Now a March 2002 special issue of the American Psychologist published by the APA examines how it handled what turned into a debacle of criticism and counter-criticism.

In the 1998 article, three authors analyzed 59 studies of college students recalling sexual abuse. The researchers reported that despite what many think, child sexual abuse "does not cause intense harm on a pervasive basis regardless of gender in the college population," although boys fared better than girls. And they concluded that some children experienced positive reactions in "willing" sexual encounters with adults, according to the March APA analysis of what happened after publication and why.

One of the authors — researcher Robert Bauserman, who was with the University of Michigan in 1998 — now says, "I have the feeling that if you don't say anybody under 18 is permanently psychologically harmed by any type of sexual experience," then you are called a supporter of pedophiles by critics. He has never, he says, called for lower age-of-consent laws or "changing social norms." Instead, he says, researchers "need to identify the situations and circumstances that produce the most harm."

Researcher Finkelhor says that, as a society, "We seem to have an extremely difficult time recognizing the need for boundaries. We will be talking about this subject for some years" to come.

Source:  http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/04/17/adult-child-sex.htm

 

 

 

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