Here we are again. It’s that time of year when we build our TBR piles against the better judgement of those who wish to censor literature and control thoughts. Yes, Banned Books Week takes place again next week!
But before the week is upon us, let’s pause the book shopping for a moment to look at this phenomenon.
What is Banned Books Week?
It’s a full week of honoring the books that have been banned, challenged, relocated or burned because the books contained words or ideas that some people found offensive. The week is spearheaded by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Banned books include classics, children’s and young adults’ books, and books with diverse content such as race or sexuality themes.
It was begun in 1982 when the director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom Judith Krug decided to expand on a banned book display. It was an immediate hit with book lovers. People made book graveyard displays and wrapped books in brown paper. Schools and libraries got heavily involved because they were the ones most affected by bans.
That was 40 years ago. People are still banning books—and we are still celebrating Banned Book Week.
Bans create a false sense of security for people who feel they lack control. It’s believed that if someone can’t access the topic, they won’t think about it. We know that’s a concept borne of fear and ignorance, and our cast-iron proof is that the people who ban the books usually haven’t read the books.
Well. Someone has to read the banned book, and there are millions of volunteers. Heck, we’ll even pay to read the book!
History of banned books
Obviously, books have been banned since the beginning of written language. Early evidence of book banning includes the first Qin dynasty Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, who burned all the books so history could begin with him. All governments have exerted some level of control over which books get publish and which books have been destroyed, including developed countries which occasionally parade under the moniker “first world”. English-speaking countries ban a huge numbers of books for being “obscene”. Asian countries often lean towards those criticizing their government or portraying their history in an unfavorable light.
Other groups—religious, cultural, educational—frequently ban, challenge, relocate or burn books in an effort to protect society from corruption.
Are you one of those people who believes book banning is a thing of the past? Do you believe Banned Books Week is entirely unnecessary in this liberal day and age? Reality check: the beginning of this 2019 school year was marked by a Catholic school in Tennessee banning the Harry Potter series because the school priest believes the spells are real and the readers might be able to summon demons.
Privilege and books
General literacy in a population is a relatively new thing; reading used to be for those with a lot of money and a lot of free time. The rich could buy books, get a full education, and continue reading while the other members of society were scrambling to earn their food and shelter. If a book was banned, enough money could buy a copy of even the most scandalous of the Marquis de Sade’s books.
Nowadays, access to books is still limited when one lacks the education and/or disposable income. The banning of books reduces library and school collections even more than budget cuts have. If a person is depending on free resources to complete their education and/or increase their knowledge, there is no chance for them to access banned books.
The poor, the powerless, the uneducated: they don’t ban books. The people who ban (or try to ban) books are the ones who feel entitled to tell others how to live their lives, what to think, and what to learn. These are people who believe they are the best type of person, and everyone should be like them.
When we think of schools and libraries as privileged or unprivileged, it starts to make sense. Ivy League universities don’t have their massive libraries purged by purity policing. Small schools and public libraries, which depend on donations and public money, often—no, regularly—have their books taken off the shelves.
Prostasia has three major problems with the banning of books:
1. It infringes on human rights
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone the right to education. Section 2 of Article 26 says, “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Education depends on the resources—i.e. the books—being available. As more than 80% of book censoring occurs in public libraries and schools, and most of the banned books are for children and young adults, our younger members of society are having their rights reduced or removed by book banners.
While adults should be aware that not all topics should be introduced at young ages, there are going to be children who are ready long before their peers are, and these advanced children should not be denied their right to education just because an adult “knows what’s best for them”.
As well, so many books are banned for (author’s note: pause for several minutes to contemplate the polite wording… and then give up) ludicrous reasons. Imagine not being allowed to read Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen because a librarian thought the character needed diapers.
Article 26.3 upholds parents’ rights to choose the education their child receives. While this certainly allows a parent to ask for a different book for their child to read, it also allows a parent to have their child to read a certain book. The books must be readily available if all are to have their human rights respected.
As you can see from our infographic, we agree that there should never be any support for books that include child sexual abuse imagery. Child protection is vital to all societies.
We are concerned, however, with real children. Banning books that contain child sexual assault, such as Lolita and Tampa, does not prevent assault to real children. In the September 2019 newsletter, Prostasia reviews Guy New York’s Taboo Tales, which have been banned for consensual age-play (i.e. consenting adults pretending to be minors). There is no child sexual assault in the books. There is no hard evidence to prove that fictional erotica leads to child sexual assault, and we are raising funds for research to find out whether it causes indirect harm that our society should address in another way.
Article 27 of the Declaration says, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Banned books often contain LGBT+ content or mental health themes; as science brings facts to light, society must keep up with its understanding of sexuality and mental health. By making these books generally inaccessible, the bans are denying people the right to “enjoy the arts” and to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.
2. It reinforces sexual stigma
Books are often banned for their sexual content. Prostasia is a sex-positive organisation that encourages education in and discussion of all consensual sex. This includes books that contain sexual themes—no matter how much “ickiness” the reader (or non-reader) feels. The reader must have the right to make their own choices about their reading material. People mature at different rates, so while one person may be in their thirties before they can process Tamara Faith Berger’s or Henry Miller’s books, others may be barely into their late teens.
Finding one’s own identity represented in art can be a lifesaver. Many people from the LGBT+ community say they owe their continued existence to books. In the days when one feels one is the only queer person around, when absolutely no one understands, the one or two queer authors found in the library may be the thing that prevents depression or suicide. Young Adult books need to portray the spectrum of sexual identity, as most people are between the ages of 10 and 16 when they discover their sexual orientation. If we ban queer characters until adult books, it will be too late for the younger members of our society.
Adults also look for representation in books. If one has a particular kink, for instance, that isn’t easily accessed where one lives, one might find sexual satisfaction through reading about it. If one has a kink or attraction that is non-consensual, reading about it might be the only way to find satisfaction. Denying people consensual outlets is just increasing the burden on mental health systems and (potentially) the legal systems.
3. The internet is more powerful than bans
Back in the days of pure print, copies of Judy Blume’s books were surreptitiously slipped from school bag to school bag; Giovanni’s Room and Maurice were passed through the gay community as fast as they could be devoured; Lady Chatterley’s Lover could be purchased by those with the patience to ask discrete questions. Bans only sent the books to dark corners; the desired effect of bans was short-lived.
Banning books is completely ineffective in this era of technology. People are warned that a single image on the internet will be there forever; the same applies to books. Somewhere, there is a digital copy of every banned book, or a link to access a print copy of every banned book.
Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village is now a reality. If one school or one state or one country bans a book, people can get access to the book from anywhere else in the world. By banning books, more control is lost than gained.
Any parent or person who works with children knows the effect of the word “no”: it presents a challenge to the child, who then tries to figure out a way to do the very thing they’ve been told not to do. The same concept applies to banned books.
Authors usually appreciate having their books banned. As bans mainly affect libraries and schools, they can serve to drive up sales in book stores.
In fact (we can attest) there are people who wait for Banned Books Week to get their newest reading list.
What do book bans have to do with child protection?
Absolutely nothing. Banning books does not prevent sexual assault on children. This is why we need to end book bans.
People who claim that a book ban is to “protect the children” are blowing smoke. They are shirking their responsibility as members of society. Preventing child sexual assault will not be achieved with something as simple as “you can’t read this book”.
With this in mind, Prostasia recommends education and communication rather than bans. By letting people know what the book is about (let’s try banning the “brown paper wrapping” approach to book covers and advertising), people get to make their own decisions about what to read.
Upholding human rights to education and culture is crucial to a healthy society. This includes allowing people access to books about sex and sexuality—even books about sex that would be illegal in real life.
Should society stop banning books? Yes. Making rules about what other people can read is immoral.
Will society stop banning books? Unfortunately, no.
Will society stop reading banned books? Never.