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Girl in Pink Holding Book Open | Protecting Kids From Explicit Material Shouldn’t Be Controversial | Public Square Magazine | Explicit Books in Schools | Explicit Children's Books

Protecting Kids From Explicit Material Shouldn’t Be Controversial

However popular it’s become to portray parents concerned about sexualized scenes in books as somehow secretly motivated by bigotry and racism, it’s simply not true.

Racist. Homophobe. Bigot. Book banner. Nazi. Pearl-clutching prude. Far-right, extremist parent. 

Those are all names I’ve been called, thanks to a narrative being promoted about parents like me.  I am the creator of “Laverna in the Library,” a Facebook page that I started with the purpose of showing parents excerpts of sexually explicit passages from books in public school libraries.  I rarely read the vitriol, and when I do, my reaction is one of amusement, fascination, and curiosity about a charlatan’s trick I’m mildly interested in dismantling. 

We’re used to being portrayed unfairly in national, secular media. But when the same narrative shows up in journalists working for Church-owned media, it feels important to make direct clarification.    

A tale of two surveys. On October 3rd, 2022, Rasmussen Reports published a nationwide poll with the commentary, “Voters overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in public school libraries. … Sixty-nine percent (69%) of voters believe books containing explicit sexual depictions of sex acts. … should not be present in public high school libraries.”

One day later, on October 4th, Deseret News published a poll that they had conducted with a social media post declaring that “just 12% of Americans agree that books should be removed from libraries if a parent objects.”

There is no book-banning problem happening in Utah.

Some readers may be confused by these seemingly contradictory results or may be asking themselves which of these polls is accurate. The answer is that both of them are.  This conclusion becomes easier to reach as a person critically reviews the underlying questions of each poll.

The Deseret News poll asked respondents if they agree with the following statement: If any parent objects to a book in the public school library, that book should be removed, even if other parents like the book. Some may consider that question leading or possibly neglectful of the issue of sexually explicit materials, but I’ll be gracious and just call it vague.  

 Given the unspecific nature of their question, it’s hard to understand how anyone taking the survey answered: “agree.”  What book are we talking about?  Is it “Clifford, the Big Red Dog”? Is it “Catch 22”? Is it “The Great Gatsby”? What if it’s a book that I like?! If I took this poll, I would be forced to answer this question in line with the majority of respondents—“strongly disagree.” (Otherwise, the implication is that any book could be removed if anyone merely asks for it. We must have standards for book challenges. If we remove anything and everything, the library will be empty within the year!)

 In contrast, the Rasmussen poll is very specific. It does not ask about just any parent or any book. The survey asks, Should books containing explicit sexual depictions of sex acts be present in public high school libraries?It makes perfect sense that respondents would respond to this question much differently than the broader query. Once again, I would personally come down on the side of the majority because I do not think minors should be offered obscene or explicit material at a public school.

 An honest conversation about what is happening. Can you see why the difference in question matters?  When it comes to this issue, the specific details about books being discussed mean everything. Most Americans don’t want to remove Dr. Seuss from schools, but they do believe that books in schools should be age appropriate in regards to content and not just reading level.

 Instead of drawing these logical conclusions from the data, it was disappointing to see a journalist at the Deseret News proceed to tie their poll result directly to the efforts of Utah Parents United and others that are focused on removing sexually explicit books from schools. 

Jeremy C. Pope, co-investigator for the survey, likewise draws this overly broad conclusion about these efforts: “The public really doesn’t like book banning.” Perhaps unwittingly, this professor’s statement unfairly conflates book banning with removing sexually explicit books from schools. Yet to be very clear, the polls have shown that most people disapprove of book banning while they approve of removing sexually explicit books. These are two distinct efforts.

 The Deseret News poll is not a fair representation of public opinion on sexually explicit books in school libraries simply because that’s not the question they asked. Nevertheless, Marjorie Cortez’s article on the topic was written as if they asked that question.  Furthermore, a centerpiece of the commentary is the claim that most of the challenged books have LGBT+ themes. Yet, when one reviews the books being challenged, it is obvious that this is simply false.

Look at the numbers. You can uncover the ratio of explicit homosexual and explicit heterosexual books by looking at the rated reviews yourself.  Ratedbooks.org lists many books that have been rated on a scale from 0 through 5 based largely on the MPAA rating system for movies.

Content-Based Rating Graphic | Protecting Kids From Explicit Material Shouldn’t Be Controversial | Public Square Magazine | Explicit Books in Schools | Explicit Children's Books

Books rated 4 and 5 should be thought of earning an NC-17 rating or above. The website lists 90 reviewed books with a 4/5 rating, but only 13 of those books (14%) have LGBT+ characters and themes. Parents that are concerned about explicit books are not “silencing minority voices.” The facts show that the public is against any sexually explicit content being served up to children, regardless of orientation. We can maintain school libraries reflective of diverse viewpoints, including LGBT+ authors and stories, without stories involving explicit sex. 

Let’s not pretend there aren’t consequences. One woman we know has a daughter whose pornography struggles started from what she read in her own school library. Another family paid upwards of 12k per month for residential treatment for their child due to a pornography addiction that included books found in public school libraries. There are many other stories like these. 

This is where we need journalists to help shine a light on what’s happening. Yet when news media like the Deseret News emphasize language such as “book banning” in a discussion this important, they invite the public to conjure up fascist history and provoke an emotional response to something that simply doesn’t exist in America. After all, even the most controversial books are widely available in public libraries and from booksellers.

Despite media stories to the contrary, current book removal efforts in Utah have never been about removing viewpoints from the public square.

Setting the record straight. So, let me say this clearly: there is no book-banning problem happening in Utah. This rhetoric is a frenzied smoke and mirrors display to incite fear and name-calling.  These sexually explicit books are available in great abundance from public libraries and booksellers. The specific efforts we are making are focused on sexually explicit books in Utah and entirely aimed at school libraries, not at public county/city libraries, and not at book distributors. Despite media stories to the contrary, current book removal efforts in Utah have never been about removing viewpoints from the public square.  They have always been about creating an age-appropriate collection of material that a child can browse and read at school unsupervised without being exposed to explicit obscenity.

While there is no comprehensive list of every book that has been challenged in Utah thus far, I will offer here a sample of code violations from 10 books challenged within the Alpine School District.  (Warning.  This content is sexually explicit) According to the law, these books are indecent and do not belong in schools.  But it’s best to look at the material and decide for yourself.  

Thankfully, we have seen other voices featured in the Deseret News—albeit less prominently—pushing back on these claims and setting the record straight, including a helpful commentary from Representative Ken Ivory (“It’s not discrimination—we are protecting children from pornography”) and Suzanne Bates, (“Parents are right to be concerned about what kids read”; see also “Stop Calling Concerned Parents Hatersin this magazine). 

Yet a host of questions remain. If activists (and activist journalists) really believe that children should have no warnings or limits on what they access, then why aren’t they protesting ratings in movie theaters, music, video games, and TV? 

And if they truly believe in the First Amendment, then why are parents publicly shamed for exercising the freedom of speech to say that sexually explicit and, ofttimes, pornographic books are even more harmful to children than controlled, addictive stimulants like alcohol and drugs? 

Instead of addressing the real issue, which is giving unlabeled sexually explicit books to children, we continue to witness a popular yet misleading narrative that turns our attention away from a unifying issue (protecting kids from sexually explicit material) to one that is deeply divisive (these people are just racists! And bigots!).  

For a topic of such importance, and about which parents could unite to work together, it’s disappointing to see journalists confusing the matter. The lack of clarity in that leading Deseret News article seems to intentionally undermine the reasonable efforts of citizens to protect children from obscene content that violates the existing standards of decency under the law.

 

 

About the author

Brooke Stephens

Brooke Stephens received her MA from UMass Boston and sits on the board of Utah Parents United, which aims to educate and empower parents to advocate for their children. She is a wife and a mother of four
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