Banned Books Week: It’s (Almost) Always About Sex

Sarah Seltzer

Banned Books Week is always fascinating because it turns our attention to what actually is banned and challenged by school boards and parents and religious groups--and it’s almost never the truly offensive stuff.

Just in time for “Banned Books Week” 2010 comes the censorship related scandal du jour--isn’t there one every few months? This fall’s fracas involves a Missouri fellow, Wesley Scroggins, who took it upon himself to investigate his local school curriculum–on behalf of the taxpayers, of course. And his reaction will be familiar to any reproductive health advocate who has worked with teens. He promptly wrote an angry editorial against the school’s sex-ed program as well as in favor of censoring a lauded Yound Adult (YA) book, “Speak”–as well as the immortal Kurt Vonnegut novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” and other similar titles. Wrote Scroggins:

For example, my review of the eighth-grade sex education curriculum revealed that children at the middle school are being introduced to concepts such as homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex and specific instructions on how to use a condom and have sex….[In fact, the school’s curriculum was optional and also emphasized abstinence].

Equally shocking is the content of the high school English classes. In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.

“Speak” author Laurie Halse Anderson, who is critically-acclaimed, award-winning, and unfortunately for Scroggins, active on the internet, found out about the op-ed. She took to her blog (and was reprinted in Jezebel) to offer her own thoughtful response to Scroggins’ criticism:

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Wesley wrote an opinion piece in the NewsLeader of Springfield, MO, in which he characterized SPEAK as filthy and immoral. Then he called itsoft pornographybecause of two rape scenes. 

The fact that he sees rape as sexually exciting (pornographic) is disturbing, if not horrifying. It gets worse, if that’s possible, when he goes on to completely mischaracterize the book.

As a result of Anderson’s urging action, an anti-censorship hashtag #speakloudly was created and a campaign and website in favor of the book sprung into action, gaining huge momentum on the web. Within a week or so,  the groundswell of support for Anderson and her challenged book–a mass movement which has already been reported on in dozens of extremely major news outlets–has all but drowned out the misguided voices calling for her book to be banned.

Dozens of sexual assault survivors, teachers, and readers have testified to the healing power of the book, some even forming a rape-awareness curriculum around it. One UK writer decided to open up about her own experience with sexual assault for the first time after reading the book–and she only read the book when she heard about the attempted banning. All the publicity has actually helped the cause of rape awareness, particularly among teenagers and young survivors. As Anderson said in a recent interview with School Library Journal, “These readers have changed the world by declaring that rape victims have nothing to be ashamed of, but that book banners like Scroggins do.”

Banned Books Week–started by pioneering free speech advocate and librarian Judith Krug–is always fascinating because it turns our attention to what actually is banned and challenged by school boards and parents and religious groups–and it’s almost never the truly offensive stuff. This week, cultural bloggers have been confronting liberal sensibilities by asking whether those of us who gladly go to bat for “And Tango Makes Three” would also protect graphic depictions of violence or Holocaust denial pamphlets from censorship–which of course we ought to do, no matter how repulsive we find the content. And indeed, books like the above do get banned, particularly abroad. But in American libraries and schools, these books aren’t usually the subject of firestorms. Instead the targeted books are often great literature dealing with troublesome topics like race or violence, or something imaginative and fantastical like “Harry Potter” that makes religious folks uncomfortable.

But hands down, one of the biggest magnets for censorship is sex. That’s why Judy Blume, queen of the sexually explicit (but always marvellous and meaningful) YA novel, is such a voice against censorship and has spoken out on Anderson’s behalf. To back up this assertion, I looked at the 2010 list of mostbanned books, and surprise, surprise, nine out of the ten listed “sexually explicit” or “homosexuality” as the reasons for the book’s being opposed–included in this category, bizarrely, is abstinence-porn series “Twilight” as well as usual suspects like “The Color Purple” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Social conservatives just can’t handle the idea of teens reading about sex.

Indeed, Scroggins’s op-ed is the perfect example of how the book-banners and the abstinence-education crowd are the same people, the folks who want to keep information out of young people’s hands rather than let them decide for themselves. Just as sex education doesn’t make teenagers go out and have sex, “The Color Purple” won’t turn them into lesbians if they’re not, and books about healing from rape certainly won’t titillate them. But the beauty of literature, and art, is that if teens are struggling with their sexuality, or with trauma, or with loneliness or any other typical or exceptional adolescent malady of the soul, finding the right books will help them feel less isolated, less ostracized, less alone. Feminists and sex-education activists should support Banned Book Week, and the “speak loudly” campaign, because at the end of the day we’re all facing the same enemy. So grab a banned book and discuss it with a teenager near you.

Commentary Abortion

Discredited Sting Operations and Sex-Selection Abortion in the United Kingdom: An Open Letter in Support of Providers

Reproductive Health Matters

"Sting" operations carried out by anti-choice groups who want to eliminate women's access to abortion and birth control have become an issue in the United Kingdom where misrepresentation of the issue of sex selection is being used in a new series of attacks on providers.

On 22nd February the Daily Telegraph published an ‘investigation’ into abortion providers in the UK, to support the claim that the practice of providing abortion for women on the basis of the sex of the fetus is widespread in this country. Pregnant women, accompanied by undercover journalists with hidden cameras, visited abortion clinics and pretended to want terminations on the basis of fetal sex.

Following publication there are those who have called for the prosecution of doctors and changes to UK abortion law, expressing horror at the sex discrimination that sex selective abortion implies. However, it is clear that the intention of those behind this newspaper investigation is not to improve the lives of women or eradicate the discrimination that so often provides the context for sex selection, but solely to make access to safe, legal abortion harder. Far from tackling discrimination, creating a culture of fear in regard to abortion referral will disadvantage all women. The intention of those behind this project was to create a chilling effect amongst doctors, making them less likely to refer for or provide abortions; to divide the majority of public opinion which supports the provision of abortion; and to stimulate a wholesale critique of current legal grounds for abortion.

The following open letter of support for the doctors involved must be just the beginning of a campaign to ensure that doctors are protected and that the current law, which serves women pretty well, is preserved.

In the face of the Daily Telegraph’s attempt to entrap and discredit a number of doctors who provide abortions, we would like to express our support for all those doctors who are willing to provide abortion referrals in the United Kingdom and all health professionals who provide safe abortion services.

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We represent pro-choice organisations that have been working for women’s right to safe abortion for many years. We believe that abortion should be available to every woman who requests it, and that the provision of safe, accessible abortion care is a vital element of health care provision.

The Daily Telegraph‘s interpretation of the 1967 Abortion Act is mistaken. The law does not specify that rape is one of the legal grounds for abortion, but a doctor can provide a referral for abortion if a pregnancy results from rape. Similarly, abortion on grounds of sex selection is neither legal nor illegal in itself.* Under the 1967 Abortion Act, it is the effect of the pregnancy on a woman’s health, mental health and life that must be taken into account to determine whether or not she has grounds for abortion. Doctors are not given a shopping list of specific grounds for which abortion is allowed or not allowed. Rather, the law gives doctors the responsibility to decide whether the risk of continuing the pregnancy to the woman’s health and mental health is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated. In making this judgement, doctors are directed by the law to take into account the woman’s personal circumstances. These include, for example, her age, her being unemployed or on low pay, or trying to complete her education, or being single, or having other small children to care for, or feeling strongly that she simply cannot cope with a baby (or another baby) at this particular time because of the negative impact it would have on her life, or because she has fears about the outcome and/or life chances of the child if it were born. The law further allows doctors to authorise an abortion if there is a risk to the woman’s existing children of continuing the pregnancy, or if there is a risk of serious abnormality in the fetus if the pregnancy were to go to term.

The 1967 Abortion Act gave doctors the responsibility for authorising abortions in the belief that women could not be trusted to take this decision for themselves. Yet today, it is clear that women who have babies and women who have abortions are the same women. Today, most doctors and most people recognise that women themselves do know what is best for their own lives and do take responsible decisions. Hence, most doctors are willing to provide an abortion referral for a woman if she requests it because they understand that continuing an unwanted pregnancy is not good for women or their children, and will almost always cause a woman greater distress than having an abortion.

We believe the 1967 Act is outdated because it puts the onus on doctors to be gatekeepers, rather than providing women with the right to decide what is best for their own lives. We think that abortion should be available on a woman’s request, and not be governed by criminal statute at all.

We are also opposed to gender discrimination, but sex selective abortion is not gender discrimination. Gender discrimination applies only to living people. A fetus does not have rights in the same way as a living person does, and therefore cannot be said to suffer from discrimination. Gender discrimination has its roots in economic, political, social and religious life; sex selective abortion may be one of the consequences of gender discrimination, but it is not a cause of gender discrimination.

The ‘investigation’ reported by the Daily Telegraph was carried out by unidentified persons in the context of concerted attempts by anti-abortion politicians and anti-abortion activists to discredit and frighten abortion providers by characterising them as unprofessional, greedy and wicked. Yet no evidence exists to support this proposition. Hence, they have stooped to using methods that are closer to entrapment than to any semblance of legitimate investigative journalism.

These methods are highly questionable if not downright unethical. In a video taken without the doctor’s knowledge or consent, a short segment of which was screened on ITV’s Granada Regional News on 23 February, a young doctor says to the bogus patient in front of her: “If you want a termination, you want a termination. That’s my job. That’s all. I don’t ask questions,” while the patient tries to insist on divulging her bogus reasons. This is not evidence of illegal behaviour on the doctor’s part. That this doctor has since been suspended and the police asked to investigate her and others is a travesty of justice.

We would have hoped that pro-choice politicians would stand up for abortion providers, and maybe some still will. However, initial reactions have been hasty and heavy-handed, betraying underlying anti-abortion sentiments. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, who otherwise claims he wants doctors to be in charge of all our health care services, said that doctors would face the “full force” of the law if they break the 1967 Abortion Act. This is hard to swallow, especially considering that many of us hadn’t even been born the last time a doctor had to face the full force of the law in relation to illegal abortion. The Health Secretary should know better than most that the 1967 Abortion Act was formulated precisely to allow doctors to exercise their professional judgement. It is shocking that he would threaten them with prosecution for doing so on such flimsy evidence.

Some politicians, Nadine Dorries, for example, would dearly love to turn the clock back. She must be delighted that the Daily Telegraph has boosted her attempts as a woman to curtail other women’s rights. In her blog on Conservative Home, she went one better than Andrew Lansley and threatened doctors not only with prosecution but with being struck off the medical register. She even mentioned life imprisonment, which is ludicrous, but intimidating nonetheless.

The vast majority of heterosexually-active people of reproductive age are currently using a method of contraception to the best of their ability, but one in three women in Britain will have an abortion in her lifetime. We will stand up for doctors and other health professionals who support and are willing to provide safe abortion services. We applaud their commitment in the face of unwarranted harassment and condemnation. Even though the public are periodically showered with disinformation on abortion, every poll and every public debate show that most people in Britain are aware of and support the right to use contraception and the right of women to seek abortion when pregnancy is unwanted. We call on everyone who supports family planning, including safe abortion, to express their appreciation for the health professionals who provide them.

Signed by the following members of Voice for Choice:

Marge Berer, Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

Jane Fisher, Director, ARC (Antenatal Results and Choices)

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive, and Patricia A Lohr, Medical Director, Bpas

Lisa Hallgarten, consultant

Ann Henderson, Chair, Abortion Rights

Lesley Hoggart, Principal Research Fellow, University of Greenwich

Ellie Lee, Co-ordinator, Pro-Choice Forum

Wendy Savage, on behalf of Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion

*As the Chief Medical Officer explained: ‘Sex selection is not one of the lawful grounds for termination. It is illegal for a practitioner to carry out an abortion for that reason alone, unless the certifying practitioners consider that an abortion was justified in relation to at least one of the section 1(1) grounds’. (CMO/CSA letter gateway ref 17305, 23 February 2012, Abortion Act 1967 (as amended): Termination of Pregnancy)

Further reading

Reproductive Health Matters

Education for Choice

Observer editorial 

Granada Television report and video clip

One of many Daily Telegraph articles

Blog of Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP

In defence of abortion

Sex selection abortion

Decriminalise abortion now

Statistics on sex selection in the UK

Easy A: A High School Sex Comedy for the Girls

Sarah Seltzer

The film isn’t a feminist rallying cry, and it certainly manages to have it both ways by making lots of jokes about sex and sluttiness without actually featuring a single female teenager who has lost her virginity.

One lame Tom Cruise joke aside, trailers for teen sex comedy-cum-“Scarlet Letter” allusion-fest “Easy A” were highly promising. A high-school flick about a lady, played by a lady, Emma Stone, with evident comedic chops, no less! If you love teen movies but lament the way contemporary versions of the genre feature an almost ritually male-centric attitude towards sex (with “Juno” and “Mean Girls” as the adored exceptions), then the sight of that big female face on movie posters might be enough to reel you in. And if you’re a geeky feminist English major, the film’s references to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century masterpiece of symbol-laden Puritan-bashing don’t hurt either.

Thankfully, “Easy A” lives up to expectations, particularly, as critics have noted, in introducing to its star, who was merely a love interest in dude-fest “Superbad” and now gets to flex serious comedy muscle in a way that’s usually denied to actresses in such films. Stone takes full advantage of the opportunity, from quips and eyebrow-raising all the way through musical montages, exaggerated sobs, mimicry and simulating sex while jumping up and down on a bed with a gay pal.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, “Easy A” is the story of Olive (Stone), a smart-aleck nobody at her West Coast high school, the kind of place with pep rallies, cliques, raging parties at big houses with swimming pools, and gossip that spreads like wildfire through whispers and texts. Olive has a big mouth, and a small reputation–most people don’t know who she is. Until one afternoon, in a moment of pseudo-serious messing with her best friend, she makes up a fib about sleeping with a college guy. Jesus-loving alpha female Marianne (who, as others have pointed out, channels Mandy Moore’s fantastic performance in “Saved!”) overhears the lie and spreads it. Soon Olive is the object of a lot more curiosity and attention in the hallways, and she kind of likes it.  So she agrees to the above-referenced fake nookie-session to save her gay friend from being bullied. She promises she’ll make him seem like a stud, and at a weekend party, they initiate the quite hilarious bed-jumping sequence as the entire school listens in at the doorway.

The movie’s most spot-on critique of the double standard which goes way beyond the teen years occurs just after that scene, when Brandon, having just gotten fake-laid, is given knuckle sandwiches and high-fives galore, while Olive is mocked and stared at to the extent that she feels she has to leave the party. Her “easy” reputation is cemented, with consequences as well as benefits. Most people think she really did it. But one misfit guy after another catches on to the real favor Olive did for Brandon, and in exchange for gift cards to various local retail outlets–but really because she pities them and perversely enjoys being sought after–she lets them brag about their own made-up sexual exploits with her.

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Olive’s class is coincidentally reading the Scarlet Letter, as most high school English classes do. Ironic to the core, Olive affixes a Hester Prynne-like “A” to a series of corsets, and starts stalking the hallways in stilettos, with her red hair bouncing off her bare shoulders, looking like a modern day Belle Watling. She’s wearing her (imaginary) sins with pride, as intrigued by tampering with her image as all teens are.

Of course, things eventually spin off the rails for our virginal heroine who has discovered “slut pride.” One seemingly-harmless boy thinks Olive’s proclivities are an invitation to sexually assault her. Others blame her for their STDs which arose from other sources. An absurd subplot featuring Lisa Kudrow as the school’s brittle, lying, adulterous guidance counselor feels like it was plucked from another, far inferior movie, but it lands Olive in the path of an angry anti-skank picket line. Never fear. Our heroine has a talk with her quirky yet loveable boomer mom who informs her daughter that she herself was actually promiscuous in her youth, had a reputation, and moved beyond it thanks to the family sense of humor. And with the help of a goofy good guy waiting in the wings (played by Penn Badgely of Gossip Girl fame), Olive redeems herself with a stunning public finale and then a long, live webcast, which provides a convenient framing device for the film. Olive uses social media, which has served to spread her bad reputation, to salvage it, explaining the whole sorry situation to the entire internet and rather contradictorily telling them to stay out of her business. And then she rides off into the sunset like a character from the 80’s movies she, and the film’s creator, admire so much.

The film isn’t a feminist rallying cry, and it certainly manages to have it both ways by making lots of jokes about sex and sluttiness without actually featuring a single female teenager who has lost her virginity. As Jezebel’s Dodai writes:

What would happen if Olive did sleep with a few guys in her class? Would she cease to be a heroic character? Survey says: Yes… It seems that for girls today, even on film*, you can talk about sex, pretend to have sex and joke about sex — but if you want a happy ending, you can’t actually have sex.

Still the film’s own adherence to Hollywood double standards about teens and sex doesn’t stop it from busting other stereotypes–about genuinely, goofily funny women, about sexual double standards, about high school movies that don’t have to center on gross-out jokes or a passel of dudes banding together to lose their V-cards by prom.  “Easy A” goes down like its title, nice and easy, challenging the status quo in a pleasantly understated, and often truly amusing, way. One can hope that it will lead the way for more teen comedies with girls at their center, and even more aggressive critiques of our still-Puritan attitudes towards young women’s sexuality.