Banned Books Week: It’s (Almost) Always About Sex


Just in time for “Banned Books Week” 2010 comes the censorship related scandal du jour--isn’t there one every few months? This fall’s fracas involves a Missouri fellow, Wesley Scroggins, who took it upon himself to investigate his local school curriculum–on behalf of the taxpayers, of course. And his reaction will be familiar to any reproductive health advocate who has worked with teens. He promptly wrote an angry editorial against the school’s sex-ed program as well as in favor of censoring a lauded Yound Adult (YA) book, “Speak”–as well as the immortal Kurt Vonnegut novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” and other similar titles. Wrote Scroggins:

For example, my review of the eighth-grade sex education curriculum revealed that children at the middle school are being introduced to concepts such as homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex and specific instructions on how to use a condom and have sex….[In fact, the school’s curriculum was optional and also emphasized abstinence].

Equally shocking is the content of the high school English classes. In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.

“Speak” author Laurie Halse Anderson, who is critically-acclaimed, award-winning, and unfortunately for Scroggins, active on the internet, found out about the op-ed. She took to her blog (and was reprinted in Jezebel) to offer her own thoughtful response to Scroggins’ criticism:

Wesley wrote an opinion piece in the News-Leader of Springfield, MO, in which he characterized SPEAK as filthy and immoral. Then he called itsoft pornographybecause of two rape scenes. 

The fact that he sees rape as sexually exciting (pornographic) is disturbing, if not horrifying. It gets worse, if that’s possible, when he goes on to completely mischaracterize the book.

As a result of Anderson’s urging action, an anti-censorship hashtag #speakloudly was created and a campaign and website in favor of the book sprung into action, gaining huge momentum on the web. Within a week or so,  the groundswell of support for Anderson and her challenged book–a mass movement which has already been reported on in dozens of extremely major news outlets–has all but drowned out the misguided voices calling for her book to be banned.

Dozens of sexual assault survivors, teachers, and readers have testified to the healing power of the book, some even forming a rape-awareness curriculum around it. One UK writer decided to open up about her own experience with sexual assault for the first time after reading the book–and she only read the book when she heard about the attempted banning. All the publicity has actually helped the cause of rape awareness, particularly among teenagers and young survivors. As Anderson said in a recent interview with School Library Journal, “These readers have changed the world by declaring that rape victims have nothing to be ashamed of, but that book banners like Scroggins do.”

Banned Books Week–started by pioneering free speech advocate and librarian Judith Krug–is always fascinating because it turns our attention to what actually is banned and challenged by school boards and parents and religious groups–and it’s almost never the truly offensive stuff. This week, cultural bloggers have been confronting liberal sensibilities by asking whether those of us who gladly go to bat for “And Tango Makes Three” would also protect graphic depictions of violence or Holocaust denial pamphlets from censorship–which of course we ought to do, no matter how repulsive we find the content. And indeed, books like the above do get banned, particularly abroad. But in American libraries and schools, these books aren’t usually the subject of firestorms. Instead the targeted books are often great literature dealing with troublesome topics like race or violence, or something imaginative and fantastical like “Harry Potter” that makes religious folks uncomfortable.

But hands down, one of the biggest magnets for censorship is sex. That’s why Judy Blume, queen of the sexually explicit (but always marvellous and meaningful) YA novel, is such a voice against censorship and has spoken out on Anderson’s behalf. To back up this assertion, I looked at the 2010 list of most-banned books, and surprise, surprise, nine out of the ten listed “sexually explicit” or “homosexuality” as the reasons for the book’s being opposed–included in this category, bizarrely, is abstinence-porn series “Twilight” as well as usual suspects like “The Color Purple” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Social conservatives just can’t handle the idea of teens reading about sex.

Indeed, Scroggins’s op-ed is the perfect example of how the book-banners and the abstinence-education crowd are the same people, the folks who want to keep information out of young people’s hands rather than let them decide for themselves. Just as sex education doesn’t make teenagers go out and have sex, “The Color Purple” won’t turn them into lesbians if they’re not, and books about healing from rape certainly won’t titillate them. But the beauty of literature, and art, is that if teens are struggling with their sexuality, or with trauma, or with loneliness or any other typical or exceptional adolescent malady of the soul, finding the right books will help them feel less isolated, less ostracized, less alone. Feminists and sex-education activists should support Banned Book Week, and the “speak loudly” campaign, because at the end of the day we’re all facing the same enemy. So grab a banned book and discuss it with a teenager near you.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Sarah Seltzer on Twitter: @sarahmseltzer

To schedule an interview with Sarah Seltzer please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.