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.