[Cool Teen Sites]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.