‘Sexually Explicit’ books shouldn’t be feared

Writing this, I have a slight notion that I need to put a disclaimer here: I am not a sex pest. I think. A recent news article from The Washington Post on a Virginia bill proposal suggests that schools in the state would be forced to highlight which books on a given syllabus contain sensitive or “sexually explicit” material.

“All local school boards would be required to set up a way for parents to opt out of objectionable materials; teachers would have to provide replacement texts for those who ask for them,” Washington Post writes.

The proposal resembles a bill that the state’s governor vetoed last year. Nevertheless, its implications have educators and activists vocally worried, particularly as this is the second time restrictions have attempted to be placed on the literature syllabus.

The chief concern: such a rule could prevent young readers from accessing stories of literary and educational merit. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha — celebrated classics — are among the many books that’ve been banned or challenged due to sexual content since 2014.

And, in the past, books deemed “sexually explicit” have often been titles featuring queer characters or women asserting their sexual personhood. For access to be cut off to such stories could be damaging to kids who otherwise have no way of meeting fictional representations of their own experiences. According to the American Library Association, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about two male penguins raising a baby penguin, is regularly featured on the organisation’s annual list of most-challenged titles.

As someone who picked up Judy Blume’s Forever at eleven, I feel sexuality is not something that should be seen as harmful in books. While I’m not saying that you should place a book with an explicit sex scene into the hand of an eight year old, I am saying that if you follow age appropriate guidelines, a class will usually be ok – aside from a few giggles and blushes – to read something that holds a sexual context. Truth be told, many of these moments in classic novels go over students heads until they are much older. I remember being in class, age fifteen, and the majority of the class didn’t get why Curly has a glove full of Vaseline in Of Mine and Men.

However, why is it important to be exposed to a little bit of sex during literature education? Crucially, it is the only other form of media that is not visual that can represent the act itself and dispel other representations that seem to only tell one story. Yes, I’m talking about pornography.

It’s no secret that porn is often where young adults especially teenage boys, get their understanding of sex from. Along with sex education it is crucial that young people are exposed to different variations of sex and sexuality through literature. It doesn’t need to be a Mills & Boon-esque escapade but it does need to show that sex isn’t something wholly based on male dominance and female submission.

Sex, like literature, is a bird of many features and this is why it’s the perfect medium to explore this part of life in education. The simple talk of anatomy and what it does is not enough as a teenager. They need to know that sex isn’t perfect, it comes in all shapes and sizes and it certainly isn’t just between a man and a woman for procreation purposes.

While a parent has the right to be informed on what their child is studying in school, limiting their resources in this nature often takes out books that are incredibly culturally and socially important for their learning. If a ‘sexually explicit’ book causes upset in the classroom for the students, it’s important to talk about why this is. Why are we disgusted by Humbert Humbert in Lolita? Why are we revolted by Curly’s candour towards his sex life?

This is the teacher’s moment of action, where they can encourage young adults in education to openly discuss sex in a safe environment. Where sexuality, possibility and difference becomes a discussion rather than a perverse revulsion that eventually leads to obsession.

I certainly wasn’t corrupted by Forever, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Roxana, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Canterbury Tales certainly didn’t corrupt me, yet all hold references to sex and even ‘sexual deviancy’ or so it was thought to be around the publication date. Instead, the books normalised sex, and the discussion of it. Literature made me realise that you don’t have to a perfect porn star, though some people might wish you to be, and that sex, like death or power, violence and romance, is often part of life and should be demonstrated through novels in all its difference.

To ban a book in a school because it may be ‘sexually explicit’ without understanding its social or textual context only limits the students and their learning ability. Instead, you simply have to educate and be prepared for a blushing classroom.

Please don’t give Lolita to an eight year old though, unless they’re really mature.

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