Banning the Birds and the Bees: Challenges to Children’s Books about Sexuality
“Nobody in their right mind would give a book like that to children on their own, except the library.” — From an unsuccessful 1994 challenge to several books on human sexuality at the Washoe County Library System (Reno, NV)*
As the mother of two small and very inquisitive girls, the question of how and when to educate them about their bodies and the larger issue of human sexuality is something I think about often. The older my girls get, the more they want to know and the more involved their questions become. Their father and I are currently their primary source of information on the subject, but there will be a lot they learn elsewhere, in school (from teachers and, for better or worse, their classmates) and books they may come across on their own in the library. As a librarian I believe everyone should have access to the information they need, but as a parent I can understand how the lack of parental control presented by school programs and unrestricted library books can be unnerving. Much like protests to the teaching of sexuality education in schools, books on the subject are challenged in libraries due to the role they play in the spread of such important information.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) defines “sexuality education,” or sex ed, as covering not just anatomy but also “healthy sexual development, gender identity, interpersonal relationships, affection, sexual development, intimacy, and body image for all adolescents, including adolescents with disabilities, chronic health conditions, and other special needs.” My husband and I plan to make this wide-ranging issue an ongoing topic of conversation in our house, addressed as questions arise, rather than waiting to have “the talk” when they hit puberty. Studies have shown that conversations about sexuality primarily involve parents and children, and the most effective of these come from relaxed and responsive conversations between parents and children, particularly for adolescents. The young adult sexual health nonprofit organization Advocates for Youth calls this being an “askable parent,” and they offer guidance for how to become one.
School is another important source of sex ed for children and adolescents, which can be particularly helpful when supporting and expanding on information discussed at home. The AAP notes that “[c]reating access to medically accurate comprehensive sexuality education by using an evidence-based curriculum and reducing sociodemographic disparities in its receipt remain a primary goal for improving the well-being of teenagers and young adults.”
However, this goal is not uncontroversial, and there are recurring public debates in the U.S. about if, when, and how children and adolescents should be taught these things in public schools. This contention has led to a lack of national standards based on unbiased scientific knowledge, the ability in some states for parents to have their children opt out of sex ed in school, and uneven teacher training for schools that do offer it. An analysis in 2016 by the Guttmacher Institute showed that fewer American adolescents are taught comprehensive sex ed now than in the past. Abstinence-only programs, in which students are taught to abstain from sex until marriage, are not uncommon, despite being publicly unpopular and opposed by every major relevant organization. By one measure of the effectiveness of sex ed in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that teen pregnancy is “substantially higher” in the U.S. than in other industrialized nations where the teaching of sex ed is less stigmatized.
The Mysteries of 613.9/HQ53
A book sitting on the library shelf can seem particularly threatening to a parent who wants to be more in control of what their child learns. Of the 1,890 books listed as having been challenged and/or banned in Robert P. Doyle’s 2014 edition of Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read (the 2017 edition is available from ALA), 98 or 5% of the total are designated “Sex Education Titles.” Several books on ALA’s current list of Frequently Challenged Children’s Books and Frequently Challenged Young Adult Books are on the subject of human sexuality, from Wardell Pomeroy’s Boys and Sex (1968) and Girls and Sex (1970) through Who’s In My Family?: All About Families by Robie H. Harris, published in 2012.
Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, has, by Doyle’s tracking, been challenged more than a dozen times since being published in 1994. In 2007, a Maine woman was threatened with jail time because she refused to return the two copies of the book she had borrowed from public libraries, but her actions instead led to more copies of the book being donated. Challenges don’t have to end in the removal of a book from circulation in order to be successful, as protesters have asked to have titles placed in the adult section of the library or made available only with written parental consent. But, as Harris said in an interview with NPR, “[i]f a book is in a special section of the library, maybe the kids who need it the most are not going to get it.”
In Book Banning in 21st Century America (2015), Emily J. M. Knox notes that common rationales for book challenges about sexuality, in both nonfiction and fiction, often fall into one of two camps: either these books risk diminishing a child’s “innocence” and “sexualizing” them before they’re emotionally ready for it, marring the “tabula rasa” of the child’s pristine mind without any oversight by the parents, or they risk awakening certain latent urges, “triggered through some outside mechanism” (pp. 82-83). These threats seem clear-cut to those making the argument: “To disagree with the challengers’ assessment of a particular book means that one is unconcerned with children’s innocence” while those protesting are actively defending the defenseless (p. 83). The It’s Perfectly Normal challenger in Maine claimed the book was a risk to children’s health, even though Harris’s goal was to “provid[e] kids and teens with the most up-to-date and accurate scientific and psychological information.”
I understand and empathize with the uncertainty people feel about this issue. However, these concerned parents take on the unasked-for responsibility of educating all children, not just their own, by deciding what books should and shouldn’t be accessible. It is also the case that many studies show the need for parents to be taught how to best talk about sexuality with their children. The challenging of these books therefore also hurts my own ability to learn about the issues so I can be best prepared to discuss it with my children as they get older.
While the struggles over sex ed are not likely to end soon, the need for children and adolescents to learn this information is perpetually important. The best we can do as parents and as librarians is to help keep this information available and accessible, to help establish an environment where children and adolescents can learn and ask questions without fear of judgment.
*Quoted in Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read (Robert P. Doyle, 2014)
Vicky Ludas Orlofsky has been the Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, for more than five years. She has long had a personal and professional interest in issues of copyright, user privacy and intellectual freedom, which has informed her approach to instruction and reference. She lives in New Jersey with her family, and in her spare time, such as it is, enjoys bakeries, reading, and bullet journaling.