Let me begin this post with a short statement:
Teens are having sex. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 71% of all teens have had sex when they reach the age of 19. Even at 16, a third of American girls and boys have had sex. Let’s just be honest here. Teens are getting it on.
As Banned Books Week winds down, and as I read article after article about parents reacting to content their soon-to-be-adult children are reading in their classrooms, and as I hear more and more about school boards censoring the material teenagers are exposed to – and even young children whose parents are seemingly offended by superheroes who just wear underpants – I am faced more and more with what in my eyes looks like little more than adults who don’t want to come to terms with the reality that teenagers are sexually active and smarter than they look.
In my own area, Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye was removed from class reading lists because her daughter’s friend was reading it and the parent took offense to the fact that it contained explicit sex – in the form of a girl being raped. The same justification was used for The Color Purple. The difference in this case between the two was that The Color Purple was judged to have literary merit, allowing it to remain as an approved book for book reports and alternative reading. Meanwhile, The Bluest Eye was completely stricken from the curriculum.
The Bluest Eye remains one of the most banned books in America. It’s been called pornographic by one school board President. A small girl was raped by her father and that’s pornographic. A girl was victimized by the society built around her by the very men who led to her plight. In Alabama, the scenes of non-consensual incestuous rape were called “child pornography”. In what world is that pornographic?
Why is it that the mere mention of sex is enough to offend parents but they continue to allow their children to watch media that portrays violence, murder, and the degradation of women as if it were nothing? Why is it that sex, a natural part of human existence, remains a horrible thing that should only be mentioned behind closed doors? In what world can it be allowed that a man murdering dozens of people on film is acceptable while reality portrayed on paper of a world where teenage girls truly are raped is seen as unacceptable for young, “impressionable” eyes?
Teenagers these days know about sex, even when we hide it behind the veneer of “no sex before marriage” and abstinence only sex education (which, mind you, was mandatory for children in North Carolina when I was growing up, and still is today). When I was growing up, I knew more about guns and knives and blood from television than I did about safe sex and protecting myself from rape. I’m not even sure I knew what rape was until I delved more into literature secreted away from the public library, while we discussed tame stories in classrooms devoid of anything controversial. Teenagers should know about the real life problems of rape, violence against women, domestic abuse, and assault. Books are our windows to other realities where we can see, learn, and experience these situations through the eyes of others, fictional or real. Banning them does nothing besides hide the painful truth from the very people who should have access to them. Pretending these books have no merit does nothing but propagate the myths that have continued on for centuries. What service are we giving our youth if we continue to pretend it doesn’t exist?
We cannot live in a world where we hide the truth from our children in the name of safety and wellbeing. It’s in the best interests of teenagers, who indeed can be impressionable, to show them the realities of the world they live in. The reality is that there is sex. There is sexual violence. There is racism and female oppression and hate and love and beauty and violence. To hide sex and hail mass violence as acceptable is a crime against the children we claim to love and care for. And it’s time we speak up and stop this in its tracks, whether you have children or not. We cannot stand by any longer while the curtains are pulled shut around us.