Monday, September 23, 2013

Well, That's Okay: Banned Books Week, Sex, and Violence

This is not a story I ever intended to tell. 

It's Banned Books Week, and I have yet to really receive the honor of having a book banned--at least to my knowledge. And there are some amazing articles on book banning that I really think everyone should read--among them are:

As you can see, people far more qualified and smart and with much more valid experience have written better articles on the topic of Banned Books. And, frankly, I didn't really think that I had anything to add to the conversation.

But then Malinda Lo tweeted this article from the School Library Journal on "self-censorship." This is when someone (a library, a teacher--a gatekeeper to literature) doesn't necessarily ban a book, they just make the choice to not carry a book and make it available to students. And on the one hand, this is fine--gatekeepers are not the enemy, and it is their job to find material that is good for their charges.

But a scene from the article jumped out at me:

Soon Lyga started hearing stories about librarians who loved the book but refused to recommend or buy it, just in case someone complained. There was even an email from a high school media specialist in Maryland who was so nuts about Boy Toy that she read it three times—but ultimately decided not to include it in her collection.

“It’s sort of a soft, quiet, very insidious censorship, where nobody is raising a stink, nobody is complaining, nobody is burning books,” says Lyga about the plight of Boy Toy. “They’re just quietly making sure it doesn’t get out there.”

The book wasn't judged on its merit. It wasn't judged on whether or not the students needed it, or would even like it. It was judged on fear.

And when I read about that, I realized I do actually have a story that I can contribute during Banned Books Week.

I want to preface this by a few important things. First: I heard this second-hand, from an author-friend, so, as with all stories heard second-hand, please take this with a grain of salt. I trust my friend, and the validity of what she says, but I wasn't a direct witness.

Second: I love teachers and librarians. This story is not to speak negatively of either profession, nor of any specific individual. I'm speaking more about an attitude of our society.

And so, for the story:

An author-friend of mine was at a national teacher-librarian conference. This was not very long before my first novel, Across the Universe, came out, and Advanced Copies were at a table for the conference attendees to take and review for their libraries and classrooms.

My friend happened to be near the table when an attendee picked up a copy of my book. She jumped in and recommended the book to the attendee.

Friend: I think your students will like that book!
Attendee: I have to be careful which books I select for my school. Is it appropriate for high school?
Friend: I think so--it's recommended for ages fourteen up. But the story is about a murder mystery on a spaceship, so there is some violence, if that concerns you.
Attendee: Oh no, violence is fine. Is there sex?
Friend (starting to feel awkward): There's a scene in the book that does get a bit graphic, sexually. But it's relevant to the plot, and it's not gratuitous, and--
Attendee: *puts the book down on the table* No. We can't have any sex in the books for the school.
Friend: But it's a relevant issue. The girl in the scene is nearly raped and--
Attendee: Oh? It's not consensual sex? Well, that's okay. 

And she picked the book back up.

If we break down what this attendee was saying, she meant that in a school library:
  • violence--including graphic murder--is fine for her students to read about
  • rape and attempted rape/sexual violence is fine for her students to read about
  • consensual sexual relationships are not
And, sadly, this is often typical. Most books are banned not for violence (either physical, mental, sexual, or other), but because of consensual sex, healthy or not. The Hunger Games is literally about children being forced to kill other children, yet a picture book about two male penguins raising a baby penguin is banned more often

And then you have the books that aren't banned--such as Barry Lyga's book Boy Toy mentioned in the SLJ article--but are quietly taken out of the reach of readers. 

In Gayle Forman's post about censorship, she says:
I think parents think if they can ban ugliness in books, they can ban it in life, specifically in the life of their children. In a twisted way, it’s a noble impulse. But it’s completely misguided. And it also doesn’t work.
And this is true of other things as well. We want to keep our children innocent--it's the natural instinct of parents, of people. Keep them safe, keep them innocent.

But if we demonize sex--it's only something bad people do, it's only violent, it's only cruel--we don't teach our children about healthy, consensual, adult relationships. Education is vitally important, but sex is such a taboo topic in our society today that many teenagers do not have a healthy understanding of what sex is. I'm fairly sure any teacher in high school today can back me up on this. For me, I am haunted by the student who told me how she tried to use hot sauce as a contraceptive. I will never forget the look on the face of the student who tearfully told me she wouldn't report her rapist because her parents would then know she wasn't pure any more.

We live in a world where many states teach abstinence sexual education that leads teenagers to find information on sex from the media--the Internet, movies, television--and books. And yet, "In the first survey of its kind, School Library Journal (SLJ) recently asked 655 media specialists about their collections and found that 70 percent of librarians say they won’t buy certain controversial titles simply because they’re terrified of how parents will respond" (source).

We live in a world where Robin Thicke sings a gross song that says rape is nothing more than "Blurred Lines."

We live in a world where 16% of women have experienced an attempted or completed rape. Where there are 89,000 annually reported rapes in America. (source)

We live in a world where a professional educator wouldn't stock a book that has non-graphic, non-gratuitous consensual sex, but would accept one with rape.

Books about rape need to exist. But so do books about healthy, consensual sexual relationships.

Not stocking a book isn't as clearcut as open censorship. Making a judgment of a book's content is the job of educators and parents. And we all have morals we believe in, ones we make judgement calls based on.

I ask only this: when you think about what books you want to make available to teenagers--to anyone--remember that there is a difference between the books you want them to read and the books they need to read, just as there is a difference between the person you want them to be and the person they want to be.

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