Warning: Explicit Content

Labeling and Rating, Legislation, School Libraries

By: April Dawkins

After the governor of Virginia stepped in to veto the “Beloved Bill” (HB 516) last spring, almost identical regulations have been proposed and are being considered by the Virginia Board of Education. The regulations would require local school districts to tell parents when books or textbooks that contain “sexually explicit material” are being used for teaching.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU-VA) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), along with other free speech groups, sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Education opposing such regulations. In addition on Nov. 22, the Virginia Library Association sent a letter of concern to the Virginia Board of Education. Letters from the American Library Association (ALA), the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Virginia Association of School Librarians will also be sent about this issue.

Specifically, the amended regulations will require school districts to identify any materials used in teaching which contain “sexually explicit” material and provide alternative materials for students upon request. Why is this a problem? The labeling of material as “sexually explicit” is extremely subjective. What one group of parents deems “sexually explicit” or age inappropriate, may be deemed perfectly acceptable by another group of parents. Another concern is that in order to avoid the difficulties caused by a challenge to materials, school librarians and teachers may choose not to use or include materials considered controversial.

Content labeling is becoming more prevalent in the United States, with labels being placed on library materials warning of sexually explicit content or mature themes. The October 2016 School Library Journal (SLJ) Controversial Books Survey notes this trend.

School Library Journal Content Labels

The image above from the SLJ Controversial Books Survey (p. 8) shows a significant increase from 2008 in the number school librarians who reported they were now placing content labels on books. One school librarian noted in his/her comments that “Our science books all carry the label inside the front cover: ‘This book may contain statements that contain evolutionary theory. We encourage parents to discuss this with their children.’” This is very disturbing.

Both the ALA and the National Council of the Teachers of English (NCTE) have position statements that warn against labeling materials. ALA’s statement is an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights that specifically deals with labeling. This interpretation makes a distinction between direction aids that are viewpoint-neutral and labeling in an attempt to prejudice attitudes.

“Directional aids can also have the effect of prejudicial labels when their implementation becomes proscriptive rather than descriptive. When directional aids are used to forbid access or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement, the effect is the same as prejudicial labeling.  Even well-intentioned labels may have this effect.”

The NCTE position statement on rating or “red-flagging” books discusses the consequences of using a rating system or marking titles that might have been challenged in the past. The NCTE statement explains that “the practice reduces complex literary works to a few isolated elements — those that some individuals may find objectionable — rather than viewing the work as a whole.” Pointing out that labels provide little information about the totality of a book’s content, the real outcome of rating or flagging books has been to limit access to materials for students.

Publishers and authors do provide suggested ages and book summaries for use in guiding readers to books. If we then create additional content labels, could we be undermining the intent of the author by pointing out that a book has specific types of content? What would the end result be when we begin labeling books as “sexually explicit?” Will books with LGBTQ content be considered “mature” and only acceptable in a high school setting? Will content labels be placed on literature that had previously been considered part of the canon for English classes such as Romeo and Juliet? What constitutes “sexually explicit” material for middle school students – one kiss, two kisses? And who gets to decide?


April Dawkins is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation is understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. April is part of the NxtWave program funded by an IMLS grant, a national cohort of PhD students whose focus is school librarianship. As a graduate teaching assistant with SLIS, April is teaching Information Literacy and Young Adult Materials. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for fifteen years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians.

One thought on “Warning: Explicit Content

  • Let me think about my former syllabus: Bye bye Othello. Night has the word breasts, a sex scene, and naked people everywhere(they were concentration camp prisoners, but that is beside the point). Things Fall Apart has sex. All Quiet on the Western Front has sex. Hmmmm that leaves us with Anthem- God help us- which alludes to an “embrace,” but nothing explicitly stated.

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