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Moralists wrongfully punish youth for being curious about sex

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

Sometimes I wish I could crawl inside the head of the nation's most vocal virtuecrats, people such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, former secretary of education William Bennett and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. That way I could discover their true motivation for building political careers on the need to keep children from viewing anything erotic or sexual.

Do they really believe that explicit material is harmful to the sexual and moral development of teens, or are they just playing on popular sentiment?

I question their sincerity because I have to believe that they were once teenage boys who sneaked a peek at Playboy magazine or at least a Sears underwear catalog. And if by some oddity they themselves didn't indulge, they must have known boys who did. Didn't they? This is typical adolescent behavior, after all. Behavior that hasn't resulted in universal moral corruption, sexual perversion or dysfunction. But you'd think otherwise by listening to these moralists.

To the general public, the idea that sexually oriented material is harmful to children is almost as axiomatic as that one will go blind by staring into the sun. X-rated movies are known as adult entertainment. Rating systems and labels on movies, music and video games alert parents to any sexual content so they can keep it away from their kids.

Congress has passed two laws trying to limit sexual imagery over the Internet, ostensibly for the protection of minors; and a newly minted federal law requires anti-pornography filtering systems on computers at schools and libraries that take federal funds.

Even die-hard censorship opponents rarely object when laws narrowly constrain what minors may see. But are we right about this? Is it accurate to presume that as teens mature sexually they are harmed or corrupted by exposure to pornographic material?

Those questions are addressed in an important new book by prominent civil liberties attorney Marjorie Heins. Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth is a thorough exploration of our national preoccupation with repressing the sexual thoughts of youth. Her research finds scant evidence to support the idea that graphic sexual images actually do harm to adolescents. The basis for censorship, she finds, often derives from the need for adults to believe childhood is a time of innocence, and their desire to communicate to young people that sex for them is disapproved.

For the sake of this symbolism, we have approved wide-ranging censorship schemes.

Heins shows us how the courts blithely went about accepting differing obscenity standards for adults and minors. She relays the story behind the 1968 case of Ginsberg vs. New York, in which the U.S. Supreme Court okayed a law protecting children from sexually oriented material.

In that case, Sam Ginsberg who, along with his wife, ran a luncheonette in Bellmore, Long Island, sold a couple of "girlie" magazines to a 16-year-old boy. The teen's mother had sent him to purchase the magazines solely to prompt a prosecution. It worked. Ginsberg was convicted under a state law prohibiting the sale of magazines containing female nudity to minors.

In upholding the conviction, the Supreme Court found no constitutional rights violation. (Teens have no freedom to access information?) The court said the New York Legislature did not have to justify the law by showing an actual correlation between girlie magazines and harm. Lawmakers just had to prove it was rational to think there was one.

A dissent by Justice William O. Douglas scoffed at this sloppy thinking. "If rationality is the measure of the validity of this law, then I can see how modern Anthony Comstocks could make out a case for "protecting' many groups in our society, not merely children." He said: "The "juvenile delinquents' I have known are mostly over 50 years of age."

State officials took the Ginsberg ruling as a green light to become morals babysitters. The next year an Ohio court said Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was obscene for minors.

Of course this is the danger. We have given the government the power to decide what young people can read, hear and see in the sexual realms -- a government that is often homophobic and skittish about discussing sex and birth control beyond abstinence education. When former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders spoke honestly about the need for young people to learn about masturbation, she was shown the door. Our government won't even let health experts discuss what's going on inside an adolescent's body.

Who's harming whom?

Heins shows that our "harm to minors" rhetoric is an unproven crutch "on which to lean what are essentially moral arguments." Those are the kind of arguments that typically don't justify government censorship.

It is highly likely that Ashcroft, Bennett and Lieberman were once 16-year-olds with an intense interest in anything sexual. Yet they turned into "moral" men. Why do they seek to punish the youth of today for those same curiosities? I just don't get it.

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