R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Sex, Violence and the Challenging of YA Books -- Is There A Double Standard?

In a recent post carrie_ryan commented on an article suggesting that several newly purchased copies of Stephanie Meyer's Breaking Dawn had been withheld from shelving at a junior high library in Utah because of one parent's complaint about the book's content. The objectionable content: "a honeymoon scene in which sex is implied".

This led to a discussion on the tendency of conservative religious parents to challenge books which contain sexual references and content (even, in this case, when the sex occurs within the bounds of marriage), while rarely or never objecting publicly to books which contain violence and gore. Many of the commenters felt that this was a bizarre and worrying double standard. As anywherebeyond remarked:

I think it's time we quit acting like hysterical ninnies about teen sex and start taking a hard look at teen violence. I don't think a book should be challenged for EITHER reason, but it makes me crazy that people think nothing of the 1500 people who die at the end of Titanic, but hesitate because Leo and Kate might get hazily busy before the ship sinks. It's absurd.

And if that's what's really going on here -- that conservative parents are so blindly focused on keeping any sexual content away from their children that they are giving violence and other serious issues a free pass -- then I agree, that's not right. On reflection, however, I had some different thoughts.

I believe that what's really at stake here is not the kind of behaviour the conservative parents involved approve or disapprove, but the behaviour they are most concerned their children will emulate -- and particularly, the way in which the books being challenged seem (to them) to encourage or feed into that behaviour. As I remarked in comments:

...The reason conservative parents tend to challenge books for sex more than for violence is that by and large, they don't see teen violence as being nearly so widespread a problem and nearly such a threat to their children as teen sex is. Especially where girls -- girls who may become pregnant and be left with a baby to care for, or else choose abortion and thus (in the eyes of many conservative parents) be guilty of murder -- are concerned.

I don't think that many conservative mothers of teen girls are worried about their daughters being mauled from the inside out by their own half-vampire babies [i.e. as in Breaking Dawn], however distasteful they might find the concept in fictional form. Ditto for most other fictional violence, which they don't expect their teens are going to want to emulate, or even be able to (to borrow Saundra's example, how do you reenact the sinking of the Titanic?).

But anything too sensuous, that might get their sons and daughters sexually worked up and tempt them to become sexually active before they're ready for it -- that is a serious concern.

It may seem ridiculous for a parent to object to the off-stage sexual content in Breaking Dawn when that activity is taking place within the bonds of marriage -- after all, aren't conservative parents hoping for that very thing, that their children will wait to get married before having sex? But while I'm not in a position to read the mind of the parent making the complaint, I can imagine where she (I'm pretty sure it's a she) is coming from. The point is not that sex within marriage is morally objectionable, or even that it should never be mentioned or implied in any books whatsoever -- but that to put into the hands of a junior high reader a book where sexual activity is being presented in an enticing way is, to the mind of this parent, potentially dangerous to their child's sexual self-control.

I've used this example before, but I think it's a good one -- if you have a friend who is trying to lose weight, and you believe that she really needs to lose that weight for the good of her health, you're not going to give her a copy of 101 Gloriously Decadent Chocolate Desserts (lavishly illustrated with full-color photos) for her next birthday. It's not that you think chocolate is bad, or even that she won't be able to eat chocolate and enjoy it in moderation one day, but that at this point in her life it would be a bad idea to expose her to something that's going to make her want to make a chocolate cake and eat it immediately. And that kind of concern, I think, is really what's in the minds of many conservative parents when they challenge books that would otherwise be freely available to their children.

Nevertheless, having said that, I don't believe that banning books is the answer. Obviously if you're going to have a school library aimed at a certain age group, you're going to have to pick and choose what books you feel are appropriate for that library, and community standards are going to be part of making that decision. But for a parent to rise up and insist that all copies of a certain book be removed from the shelves, because it contains something that you personally see as problematic (even though few if any people agree with you) -- then you're stepping beyond your authority as a parent and as a member of the community.

The sane and measured response to a book you are concerned about your teen or pre-teen reading is to be aware of what's really out there, and prepared to discuss it with your child in the context of your own family and in accordance with your own convictions. In some cases that may amount to "Yes, you may read Book X, but I'd like to talk to you about some of the content afterward," and in others it may go as far as "I feel that Book X is not appropriate for you at this point, so I'm asking you to respect my wishes that you not read it." But I do not believe it should ever amount to, "I'm going to insist that nobody in my community be allowed to read Book X, regardless of whether they share my religious beliefs and moral convictions or not."

I believe in right and wrong -- in the absolute sense. I do believe that certain descriptive content in books, certain philosophies which those books may express, are objectively morally wrong and may damage the minds of those who read them. Nevertheless, I don't believe there's any merit in forcing people to do what you believe is right by taking away their ability to choose otherwise. If God Himself respects free will, so should we.

And that's why, even as a conservative evangelical Christian, I don't believe in this kind of censorship.
Tags: books, essays, linkage
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