How Your Library Can Support Comprehensive Sex Education (and Fight Censorship)
There is a long history in the U.S. of controlling, suppressing, and censoring information about sex, even if the information is meant to educate, not arouse. The Comstock Act of 1873 made it a criminal offense to, “send ‘obscene, lewd or lascivious,’ ‘immoral,’ or ‘indecent’ publications through the mail. The law also made it a misdemeanor for anyone to sell, give away, or possess an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement.” This law also specifically stated that mailing information on contraception or abortion, as well as the mailing of contraceptive devices, even if done by doctors, was illegal. Now, many aspect of the law have been found to be unconstitutional, especially relating to the disruption of information on contraceptives and abortion, but aspects of this law were still being enforced up until the 1990s.
Attempts to restricted sex education materials, under the guise of protecting children form obscene and inappropriate materials, are continuing to happen today in the form of challenges in K-12 schools and public libraries. A recent example comes from Gillette, Wyoming where Hugh and Susan Bennett filed a complaint with the county sheriff’s office over the inclusion of five books in the local library’s collection. Those books were This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, How Do You Make a Baby by Anna Fiske, Doing It by Hannah Witton, Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, and Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy by Andrew P. Smiler. The sheriff’s office brought the complaint to the county prosecutors, who had to ask a neighboring country to address the matter due to a conflict of interest. Weston County Attorney Michael Stulken contacted Campbell County Sheriff Department in late October 2021 to inform them that he had no intention to press charges on library employees because the books in question do not break the “sexual intrusion” laws in Wyoming.
Here are some ways that you and your library can support quality sex education for young people in your community:
- Make sure your collection is up-to-date and inclusive – Having updated resources available is important for two reasons. The first is that older resources might not include all birth control options that are currently available or they might not address certain topics like consent or healthy relationships or if they do address them they may include outdated information about them. The second is that even resources published in the last ten years may lack information or have outdated information related to gender expression, sexual orientation, and naviagting sex and relationships as an LGBTQIA+ person. Many popular books for young people, such as Robie H Harris, It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing have released updated versions that include updated information about gender and sexual orientation. There are also newer titles that aim to be more inclusive looks at sex education like The Every Body Book by Rachel E. Simon. This guide on inclusive language in sex education may be helpful when you are evauling resources for inculsive of marginalized genders and sexual idenities.
- Look beyond books – Like any topic, in the sea of bad information about sex on the internet, there are some really great resources in the form of youtube videos, websites, even tiktoks! You may want to create a resource guide for parents and young people that points them to some of these vetted resources. Remember to use the same criteria for evaluating these online resources as emphasised above for your print collection (up-to-date information and inclusive language).
- Have your collection development talking points ready – If your library does not already have a strong collection development policy that includes guidelines for selection as well as the process for reconsideration, start the process of creating one (whether that means reaching out to admin, creating a policy committee, etc…). You can find more information on creating these policies in ALA’s Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit. Once you have your policy as a guide, come up with talking points that you can use with patrons if they question why a resource is included in the library’s collection. These talking points should emphasize our profession’s commitment to every patrons freedom to read and that the responsibility of choosing materials appropriate for themselves and their families is on each individual parent, not the library. If a patron does choose to challenge any materials in your library, you can find the form to report the challenge to the OIF, as well as more information about how the OIF can support you and your library during the challenge here.
Tayla Cardillo is the Branch Librarian of the Oak Lawn Branch Library in Cranston, RI. Before her current position she was a YA librarian. She completed her MLIS at the University of Rhode Island and her B.A. in English at Rhode Island College. Tayla has known that she wanted to be a librarian since she was 17 years old. When not doing library wizardry, she enjoys playing tabletop games and cosplaying.
Thank you for this article! I just finished up a display at my library for the month for World AIDS Day and felt this was validating my work while also helping me to look for more room to grow and improve our library in regards to public sex education. I found it especially helpful you put the element of fighting censorship, as these materials are unfortunately too often challenged. I’ve loved everything I’ve read that you’ve written on here, so thank you and keep up your fantastic work!