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What’s the Big Secret?

There’s sex and then there’s sex. While I have long argued that allowing and even defending Internet porn in public libraries just makes librarians look silly, I do occasionally have some sympathy for my brethren and sistren in libraries that have to put up with certain book challenges.

Not all book challenges, because I don’t take the ALA OIF hard line that all works are appropriate for all people of all ages, which is implied by automatically fighting all book challenges. As far as I know, no library has taken my Library Porn Challenge to put a pornographic magazine in its children’s area and defend it against parental challenges.

Sometimes, the book challenges are from people not taken seriously in society, such as the poor and the semiliterate, who are usually ignored and marginalized.

The challenges that puzzle me are the ones about books that actually contain factual information, like the challenge in Washington state over a sex education book entitled What’s the Big Secret.

In this instance, a mother objected that her daughter read a library book trying to teach children about sex. The girl is in the fifth grade, which according to the story is the grade when Washington public schools begin teaching sex education.

Lots of parents like to encourage intellectual curiosity in their children and like it when they explore the world through books. The problem is, once you start being curious about the world, the arbitrary limits to knowledge imposed by your parents disappear.

The mother said, “I can’t even stand that she had already read this without me even knowing.” Since it seems the book just contains undeniable facts about life, that’s a puzzling response. It’s not like reading the book was the result of a campaign by the school to turn children into homosexuals, or whatever it is some people seem to believe schools do. The girl chose to read the book.

What’s more, it’s not even about horrific facts of life, like serial killers and suicide bombers. It’s not even about horrific facts of life regarding sex, like rape or STDs. It’s about something not unpleasant that will almost certainly happen to most people.

The mother objected that she wanted to wait until middle school to have the “conversation.” She very well might have had her daughter’s curiosity not been so strong. I don’t know how parents of the current generation handle the “conversation,” but lots of parents of my generation handled the conversation by avoiding it altogether.

The school handled this in the way libraries do, by giving irrelevant defenses. The school superintendent defended the book’s place in the library, saying it had been there for ten years without a parent complaining, which isn’t really a justification for the book. “Nobody has complained until now” is irrelevant. Someone now is complaining.

Also, all the “books are reviewed by staff for age appropriateness, look at outside reviewers, their ratings, and quality of materials.” However, many of those outside reviewers are also librarians. This argument amounts to saying, “This book should be in our library because librarians say so,” which completely ignores the substance of the complaint.

If you go by the “outside reviewers,” the girl was too old, not to young to read the book. Publisher’s Weekly rates the book for 4-8 years old, and the School Library Journal review complained that the treatment was superficial, “overly detailed for younger children and too incomplete for those nearing puberty.”

Relying upon outside reviewers and age recommendations is a good way to shift responsibility for including the book in a library, but it just avoids the issue. Why should any parents trust “outside reviewers” at all?

Then again, why should anyone trust the parents who object so strenuously to sex education? It’s the parents’ job, they say, and then don’t do it.

However, even some of the positive user reviews at Amazon imply the book isn’t appropriate for the suggested age group, though the reasoning seems to be that the book talks about masturbation and sexual intercourse, which is sort of what one wants a book like this to do, just maybe not for four year olds.

You can’t talk honestly about sex and reproduction without talking about penises and vaginas. And people masturbate. It’s just the way of things. Parents seem to consider their children’s sexuality the way children do their parents’ sexuality. At a certain point, you know it happens, but you’d prefer not to think about it.

Some of the Amazon reviews are amusing, especially the one calling the book kiddie porn, which just shows how ignorant and reactionary a lot of people are about sex.

The arguments against sex education, which amount to arguments against knowledge, are often from the religious right. For example, CitizenLink, “a family advocacy organization that inspires men and women to live out biblical citizenship that transforms culture,” dislikes this book, claiming it “minimizes the consequences of sexual activity…while awakening passion in young children before its time.”

That’s a strange claim, since it graphically illustrates one of the consequences of sexual activity, namely pregnancy. And the chances of awakening passion with those silly drawings is about nil.

Besides, as studies like this one indicate, children from religious families protecting them from knowledge about sex might have even higher rates of teen pregnancy than other children. There’s not much empirical evidence that shielding children from sex education lowers any of the negative consequences we associate with sex. It just allows parents to avoid conversations they find uncomfortable.

There are books that teach sex education from other perspectives, that discuss how sex is related to other parts of human relationships, rather than just presenting a book of sexual facts. There are even books that have detailed discussions of sex in a Christian context, which could be supplied to interested students, or more likely to students of interested parents. Everyone could benefit by learning what major religions teach about sex.

Missing from the exchange as reported was any reasoning about Why. Why is teaching children about sex bad or inappropriate? Merely because you feel uncomfortable with the issue?

Why should there be books teaching sex education to children in school libraries? There must be some better reason than nobody has complained so far and that the book gets good reviews from librarians.

These are conversations that should be started by book challenges like this one, but librarians aren’t trained to have these kinds of discussions. Library schools indoctrinate students to think that book selection can be censorship, and that censorship is bad. Neither is necessarily true, but you wouldn’t get far in library school arguing otherwise.

This is a debate I think librarians happen to be in the right about. The big secret is how poorly they defend their positions to a hostile public.

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Comments

  1. YoungLibrarian says:

    I agree AL. My mother had “the talk” with me when I was in 5th grade. I actually went to her asking about babies & boys. I don’t think of myself as over-sexualized, just curious. My mother was honest with me but phrased things to make sense for a 5th grader. As I got older, we talked more. It worked really well & we became closer because I felt like she could be honest with me. As far as this mother being upset about the books, perhaps school libraries should make it known that those types of books do exist in the library. Perhaps the child should have to bring home a permission slip before being able to check out the book? This way parents are aware & can have the chance to talk with their kids. Parents should be honest about what sex can do including negative consequences. My parents were & it’s worked so far :)

  2. CleverMoniker says:

    *waits to see how SafeLibraries will spin this*

  3. Randal Powell says:

    In my ideal world, everyone would have the resources and encouragement available to reach their full intellectual potential. That’s why I like good libraries. When K-12 schools, libraries, and parents withhold information about topics that kids are genuinely interested in, they stunt their intellectual growth. When schools create unintellectual, rigid, and unnecessarily competitive cultures, they also stunt intellectual growth.

    I agree that, “The problem is, once you start being curious about the world, the arbitrary limits to knowledge imposed by your parents disappear.” I would also add “community” and “society”, in certain cases. I think librarianships dislike of censorship is a very good thing; otherwise, any sufficiently powerful interest could (more easily) control the public.

  4. Montmorency fan says:

    “Neither is necessarily true, but you wouldn’t get far in library school arguing otherwise.”

    That is incorrect if you are in an LIS program that encourages critical thinking. Some still do. My classes included extensive discussions regarding whether or not selection was always de facto censorship. Some did quite well who argued that not all selection is censorship. Further, we had discussions about societies and communities today who still believe that censorship is a positive good. Not everyone agreed they would like to be a part of those communities, but they agreed that they exist and that some of them want library services, defined according to their values (even if we disagree with those values).

  5. K says:

    Hey, CleverMoniker, you may be trying to suggest that the SafeLibraries guy is a reactionary weirdo, but when you refer to yourself in third person plural, it undermines your credibility and makes you sound like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Just because the Safelibraries guy doesn’t approve of pornography in libraries doesn’t mean he will disapprove of this book being in a school library. While I don’t particularly approve of sheltering kids too much, parents have the right to determine when a child is ready to read about sex. I don’t think the government’s interest in educating children about sex trumps a parent’s right to determine when that education occurs.

  6. Melissa says:

    I went through public school districts that liked to reduce sex ed classes to “Don’t do it, you’ll get AIDS.”
    Birth control wasn’t discussed (it’s evil, you know?), sex was strictly positioned inside marriage, and babies were great things to have. We had mock weddings broadcast over the classroom televisions every year. We also had a rather high teen pregnancy rate and several diseased teenagers. I couldn’t find anything at the time on sex ed in the library. I ended up digging through an old college anatomy text for basic information.

    I think people in the U.S. tend to over-react to sex. I’ve met people incapable of saying the words vagina or masturbate (yet, they have no problem saying coochie or jerk off). It’s like we have to make everything dirty, even when we’re trying to be scientific and professional. Of course, the same people I meet that are horrified of and/or uncomfortable with sex are usually horrified of many other things. They’re a wierd group. They tend to push this uncomfortableness onto their kids. I think if kids were allowed to be curious (like the girl mentioned in the post), we’d have less problems as a culture. But when you teach your gets to react in a negative way to certain topics, you’re just perpetuating a problem.

  7. Fat Guy says:

    CleverMoniker,
    Let me save you some time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh2sWSVRrmo

  8. @CleverMoniker
    There’s nothing to spin. The AL said it straight.

    @K
    Thanks.

    @all
    What I think is irrelevant. How the ALA OIF misleads local communities is what is relevant. How communities respond when they learn the full truth is what is relevant.

    For example, the ALA placed a certain book in one of its top 10 lists, and an ALA librarian thereby selected it and placed it into hundreds of schools. When the community caught on, the book was removed. From hundreds of schools. In New York. http://www.plan2succeed.org/nypost-citys_ed_boobs13oct03by_carl_campanile.htm

    I had nothing to do with that case. And it was one of those sex ed books like those the AL is discussing.

    And I love the way the AL exposed the book reviewing cover story. This is relevant to that: “School Excoriates Book Reviews that Fail to Disclose ‘Graphic Sexual Details’ in Books for Children; Lush by Natasha Friend is ‘Wildly Inappropriate’ for Certain Children” http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2010/12/school-excoriates-book-reviews-that.html

    That said, K is right. For example, a school just stopped a play of To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? It contained the word “nigger.” While I do not think the ACLU has standing to threaten yet another school, I do believe it was wrong to cancel the play for the stated reason. But what I think is irrelevant. The community is perfectly entitled to legally act in its own interests, even if we — or the ALA/ACLU — may disagree with those interests or actions.

    @AL,
    You really have been knocking them out of the park.

    Like the “no one ever complained about the book before” excuse? Happens all the time. Here’s the latest, from just this week: “School Removes Squirting Sperm Book After 8-Year-Old Complains To Her Mother” http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/05/school-removes-squirting-sperm-book.html

  9. WorthlessLibraries says:

    What do people even need libraries for anyway? All the answers are in the Bible.

  10. Marian says:

    You are way off base when you characterize right-wing parents as not talking to their children about sex. I know because I am one (yes, some of us ARE librarians). We teach our children about sex and so do our churches. We just want them to hear it from us first, which is why most of us don’t support sex ed in school. Though some disagree with me, personally, I would agree that libraries should carry such books. Parents should be monitoring what their children read, and libraries don’t cater to only right wing citizens. We all pay taxes.

  11. Michelle says:

    AL Why should there be books teaching sex education to children in school libraries?

    Because sex education is being taught in the school and the library is there to support the curriculum.

  12. @Michelle

    That’s right. At the same time, sex with animals, with adults, with groups of people, etc., is not part of the curriculum. Such material may be inappropriate for a school library. It’s not “anything goes.” See that NY Post article I cited above about hundreds of books removed for containing “information” on “how to perform anal sex, oral sex and group sex.”

    Michelle, can you tell us all a single typical American public school where sex with animals is part of the curriculum?

  13. Cattycataloger says:

    I”m going to put in my 2 cents worth here and it’s on a personal nature. I’m the mother of 4 girls. The oldest is 11. I have no plans to raise grandchildren. I have plenty of friends doing just that. Now I’m not saying anything about their parenting skills. What I am saying is information is power. Power is knowledge. I think it is important to talk to children about sex. I’ve been talking to them ever since they were old enough to ask questions. The answers have changed and gotten more detailed and explicit over the years.

    I believe it is the parents DUTY to be aware of what your child is reading. I am familiar with everything my children read. We discuss the books. Why? Because I’ve read the books myself. Just last night I went to the public library and picked out a new series for my daughter to read. It was from the Teen section. Before I handed it to her I had a very good idea what the book was about and whether or not there was explicit sex.

    When I gave it to her I answered her questions about it and told her that I had reviewed it for explicit sexual materials. Her response was EEEEWWW. We’ve been having a discussion about whether or not she can read the Twilight series. I don’t see a problem with the 1st book but I’m not sure about the others based on some information from a friend who has read the others. I’m not sheltering my daughter I just don’t want to introduce explicit sexual material to my daughter just yet. I have told her that I will be happy to guide her in finding books when I think or she thinks/curious about this area. One book that comes to mind that I would like to share with her is Fade by Robert Cormier but she isn’t read for this book just yet.

    So essentially what I’m describing here is what I believe all parents ought to be doing. WE need to be in their lives. WE need to answer their questions honestly and appropriatley and calmly. We also need to support parents who are trying to do this. Do we need to censor the whole collection or certain books. ABSOLUTELY NOT. The Twilight discussion got started because several girls in her class have read the books already. I explained to her as I always have in the past that I don’t care what OTHER parents let THEIR kids do. I care about her.

  14. CleverMoniker says:

    @SafeLibraries

    Really? There are instructions on how to perform group sex? Do people need instructions? Is there a protocol or custom to group sex that people need to be aware of?

  15. Puberty 101 says:

    @SafeLibraries: Thanks for that link. I never knew there are instructions for stuffs like these. Interesting!