Issue 71, Fall 1998

“I hate to shock anyone, but teens are having sex.” So said Jeremy Meyers, a 19 year-old high school student, at the Sex and Censorship seminar sponsored by NCAC in June. Meyers, creator of a website about books for gay and lesbian youth, spoke on a panel discussion of Sex and Censorship: Dangers to Minors and Others?

The panel considered recent efforts to censor sex education and nudity in art. Sarah Gibbs, coordinator of the Sexuality Education Task Force, (a project of the Unitarian Universalist Association and The United Church Board for Homeland Ministries) told how the UUA’s voluntary church-based sexuality education project for junior high school students came under attack on national TV. Gibbs said that the UUA remains committed to the program. “It’s too bad,” she commented, “that they attacked a program that has been very successful in helping people make positive responsible decisions about their lives.”

Leonore Tiefer, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, noted that there is a dearth of sound scientific support for claims that explicit material can be harmful to children. Many barriers to research make the issue a difficult one to study scientifically. Her review of the literature leads her to believe that exposure to sexual material by itself is unlikely to cause harm to minors.

Marjorie Heins, author of Sex, Sin and Blasphemy, A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Reno v. ACLU, discussed court decisions upholding “harmful to minors” law, and noted they have not been based on psychological or empirical evidence of harm, but on concepts of morality and efforts to protect women, teens and “the lower classes” from “immoral influences.” Last year, however, the Supreme Court acknowledged that there is sexually explicit subject matter on the Internet that may in fact be educational and useful, rather than harmful, to minors.

Commentator and author Wendy Kaminer, NCAC’s president, noted that what is new about sex and censorship is the loss of control that many parents feel because they are not as adept at using the Internet as their children are. What is old about sex and censorship, she said, is cultural ambivalence about sex.

For NCAC’s briefing paper on Sex and Censorship, click here.