Open Book

In Search of a Balance

Informing our children of both the beautiesmdashand dangersmdashof sex

Jim Naughton
In Search of a Balance

This article first appeared in the November/December 2002 issue.

Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

By Judith Levine

University of Minnesota Press. 225 pps. ISBN 0-8166-4006-8

Harmful to Minors enjoyed a brief moment in the culture-wars limelight. Author Judith Levine, a Brooklyn-based journalist and sex-education activist, lost her commercial publisher, who apparently thought Levine’s argument–that Americans have become hysterical about shielding their children from sexual experience and information–would bring down calumny upon it. The University of Minnesota Press adopted the abandoned manuscript, but no sooner was it published than a powerful state legislator demanded a review of the press’s acquisitions process. This touched off a predictable media dustup, complete with a vitriolic denunciations by conservative television commentators who make their living by being appalled. In the end, the book received far more attention (probably selling far more copies) than it would have, had the commercial publisher hung with it in the first place.

So what was all the fuss about? Not much. In the first half of her book, Levine surveys the repressive terrain. In the second, she points the way to liberation. Her ideological bias and the shallowness of her reporting mars the first, and her overly simplistic view of sex (there is, apparently, nothing that more openness won’t cure) sinks the second.

To give Levine her due, she’s right about a couple of key points: parents do fear the consequences of their children’s sexuality, which leads them to overemphasize the danger of sexual feelings and to underemphasize their naturalness, ubiquity, and pleasurable aspects. She’s also right that current public policies regarding teen sexuality and sex education are repressive, and most likely ineffective. But she evinces little understanding of the delicacy of the challenge that parents face in attempting to portray sex in a positive light while still instilling a healthy level of self-restraint.

This is very much an intellectual’s book, informed more by the salon than the kitchen table. Readers don’t hear much from parents and children, except those involved in a few highly publicized cases in which adult authorities overreacted to adolescent sexual expression. These cases make it easy for Levine to demonstrate her intellectual superiority to a predictable cast of adversaries (Orrin Hatch, the religious right), but they’ve got little to do with the issues that most parents and children are dealing with.

Suffused throughout the book is Levine’s conviction that parents need progressive intellectuals and sex educators to save them from themselves. After attending a training session for sex educators that emphasized the importance of having parents speak openly to their children about sex, she expresses her concern to the instructor “that there seemed to be little guidance to parents about what they should say and that they therefore might well say inaccurate and bigoted things.”

That’s possible. All manner of damaging nonsense has been spoken about sex. Some of it gets spoken by parents. But, as this book amply demonstrates, some of it is spoken by intellectuals who believe they’ve attained a level of sexual wisdom that’s beyond the average person’s ken.

 

The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and Our Discontents

By Joyce Milton

Encounter Books. 291 pps. ISBN 1-893554-46-5

America has gone to hell in a hand basket, according to journalist Joyce Milton, and humanistic psychology is to blame. The concept of cultural relativism, developed by anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, coupled with the optimistic view of human nature espoused by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, has fostered a culture of self-indulgence, the author claims, and gulled baby boomers into believing that the conflict between good and evil is merely a difference of opinion. In Malpsychia, she attempts to explain how we came to this devastating pass by focusing on the lives of several key intellectuals. The result is a distasteful if dishy book, which attempts to discredit humanistic psychology primarily by showing readers the wreck that its guiding spirits made of their lives.

Although Milton’s agenda is clear from the start, her treatment is not without its pleasures. “Although it is hard to imagine now, the great fear of American college students in the early 1960s was that we were repressed,” she writes with understated humor in opening her book. She’s good at pointing out the shortcomings in the fieldwork of Mead and Benedict, both of whom, she says, adapted facts gathered from minimal fieldwork to support preexisting conclusions. And she succeeds in illuminating the almost willful naivete that kept many movement leaders from recognizing their own capacity for evil. But in the end, her interest in her subjects’ personal foibles, her barely concealed delight in each failed marriage, tawdry affair, and parental failure, turns this into an exercise in group pathography.

Milton’s preoccupation with the movement’s decadence leads her to devote as much space to Timothy Leary, a marginal publicity hound, as to Maslow. She also underplays the journey of Leary’s former colleague Richard Alpert, who, as Baba Ram Das, has lived a life that illustrates both the potential and shortcomings of the human potential movement. In the closing chapters of the book, Milton attempts to blame Maslow, Rogers, and their intellectual heirs for everything from the shortcomings of child-centered education policies to conflict within Catholic women’s religious orders. But the chain of evidence in these instances is missing a few links, and the book devolves into a series of rhetorical gestures and right-wing set pieces.

In the end, this book is a sermon preached to a culturally conservative choir. The message–America went to hell in the ’60s–has been stated many times before. Milton has simply identified some new bogeymen.

 

Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication

By Stuart Walton

Harmony Books. 350 pps. ISBN 0-609-61044-9

Stuart Walton likes a good time. That at least is the impression one is left with after reading what is somewhat less a “cultural history” of intoxication than a witty, well-argued defense of the right to alter one’s consciousness with recreational drugs. “There are no recorded instances of fully formed societies anywhere in history that have lived without the use of psychoactive substances.” Hence, he argues, the urge to get drunk or high is an instinctual drive, one that society attempts to suppress at its own peril

To make his case, Walton, a historian, offers a quick, but erudite survey of intoxication from ancient Greece to the present, reminding us that the ancient Greeks, among others, participated in sacred ceremonies–the symposium, for instance–of which intoxication was the stated purpose. But, by the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, he writes, “the idea of intoxication as a higher state of consciousness was looking pretty shop-soiled.” he believes this is an unhappy state of affairs rooted in a dualistic Western tendency to distrust the pleasures of the body and exalt the pleasures of the mind. Against this tendency, he argues for the right to seek intoxication, so long as this pursuit causes no one else pain.

Books about intoxication tend to fall into two categories, Walton notes. Either the author makes it seem that perhaps he knows just a bit about what he speaks of–wink, wink, nudge, nudge–or else that he has plumbed forbidden, Bacchic depths in the name of science. Walton’s is the second sort of book. While he never depicts his own experiences, his description of how various drugs work, how they make people behave in social situations, what effects they had on the London club scene of the 1980s and 1990s, and how they leave one feeling the morning after could only have come from direct observation. The effect is to enhance what might be called the book’s street credibility.

That said, there are limits to Walton’s experience, and to his argument. This is most evident when he advocates the legalization of–just about everything. “Only a drug that invariably caused its users to enter a murderous frenzy while under the influence could be said to be truly socially corrosive and, despite the best efforts of the prohibitionist brigades, no such recreational drug has come into being,” he writes. But this misses the fact that intoxication frequently takes a social toll. Cops know this, and so do emergency services workers. It can be argued that if drugs such as cocaine were legal, the violence that surrounds their distribution would dissipate. But even if that case were conclusively made, it would not address the facts that controlled substances ruin millions of individuals’ lives and society pays a steep price to rehabilitate (or incarcerate) them and, in many instances, to raise their children. Some people can dabble in intoxication. Others become its captive. How one protects the freedom of the former and the well-being of the latter is a question this provocative book poses, but doesn’t try to answer.

 

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils

By David G. Myers

Yale University Press. 249 pps. ISBN 0-300-09531-7

In this crop of books being reviewed, the work of psychology professor David Myers is distinguished by its modesty and evenhandedness. He demolishes the notion that there is a privileged kind of knowing that some would call intuition. At the same time, he maintains that much of our learning occurs outside of awareness and pops into our consciousness in ways we don’t yet understand. This knowledge is absorbed through the same perceptual apparatus as knowledge of the more prosaic sort–it just announces itself in a more mysterious way.

This thesis won’t come as news to anyone who has read any of the recent literature on brain science, but Myers applies his knowledge in interesting ways. Seven of the thirteen chapters examine how intuition informs, usually erroneously, the decisions of judges and jurors, investors, gamblers, sports coaches, directors of personnel, and psychotherapists. The research he cites proves with devastating clarity that most “intuition” is a blend of prejudice, suggestibility, and an inadequate understanding of probability and statistics.

Networker readers may find the chapters on clinical intuition to be both useful and sobering. Myers marshals a surfeit of evidence to prove that wisdom based on statistically verifiable propositions (e. g., is the SAT score an accurate predictor of academic success?) is generally more reliable than the considered judgment of the average clinician. A 1998 study conducted by the Canadian Solicitor General’s office is typical. After examining 64 smaller studies involving more than 25,000 mentally disordered criminals, researchers found that the most reliable indicator of an offender’s future criminal activity was the extent of his past criminal activity. The least accurate predictor was a clinician’s judgment. More recently, a team at the University of Minnesota reviewed 134 studies that pitted intuitive knowledge against statistical predictors of human behavior. The statistical predictors were superior in 63 studies. Intuition proved superior in 8. The remaining 63 were draws.

Does this mean there is no place for intuition in therapy? No, Myers says. There are plenty of clients who present problems on which no actuarial evidence is available, and there are plenty of instances in which actuarial data is not equal to the complexity of the situation. Still, as Myers points out, where data does exist, it’s unwise to ignore it. A heart of gold, he writes, doesn’t compensate for a head of feathers.