It isn’t exactly hot off the presses, but I was following citations in Jessica Fields’ book on sex education and discovered Judith Levine’s 2002 work Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Levine is a feminist activist and journalist, and her analysis of the political, adult framework for both understanding and dealing with childhood sexuality is heavily weighted toward the legal-political framework. However, she does the deeper understanding of childhood and sexuality (separately and entwined together) that permeates our cultural narratives about situations such as sexual consent and sex education.
A common thread running through many books I read on human sexuality and American culture, from Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005) to Heather Corinna’s s.e.x. (2007) and Fields’ Risky Lessons is the discomfort Americans have with sexual pleasure and joy, despite the proliferation of hyper-sexual imagery. We are told through educational and entertainment mediums that sex is both highly dangerous and highly compelling — but we’re not so good at (or are frightening of) articulating sexual joy. Levine considers what this cultural skittishness means for children and young adults, who are bombarded with message of self-defense against sexual activity, but provided with few resources or protected, private, spaces in which to develop their own bodily knowledge, and consider the way in which sexuality can be an expression of positive human connection and physical embodiment.
In her epilogue, she pulls back to place the specific concern about children’s sexual agency within a larger framework of children’s rights as human rights:
When we are ready to invite children into the community of fully participating citizens, I believe we will respect them as people not so different from ourselves. That will be the moment at which we respect their sexual autonomy and agency and realize that one way to help them cultivate the capacity to enjoy life is to educate their capacity for sexual joy.(224)
These connections between embodiment, pleasure, childhood, education, and human rights are some of the threads I’m hoping to tease out in my history research this term, as I explore the counter-cultural (and establishment) educational endeavors of early-19th century thinkers and activists such as Bronson Alcott and Horace Mann. Levine’s research is largely contemporary, but the themes she teases out are recurring tensions in attitudes toward children and the educational project.