Why We Should Read "Soft Pornography"

Concerns about,, andhighlight a deeper and more troubling belief -- that is, that young people should be prevented from exposure to anything that discusses sex and sexual activity in any way.
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Slaughterhouse-Five has been removed from the English curriculum in a Missouri school district because of its inappropriateness. Score one for censorship. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson's award-winning young adult novel about a teenager struggling with the aftermath of rape, has also come under attack for what one man calls the "soft pornography" aspect of the book. Score one for appalling judgment.

Wesley Scroggins, an Associate Professor at Missouri State University, recently wrote an opinion piece for the Springfield News-Leader entitled "Filthy books demeaning to Republic education" in which he expresses outrage and concern at what's being taught in schools these days. Children are being forced to read books that are essentially "soft pornography," Scroggins says, and this needs to be stopped. The idea that Scroggins is equating Speak, a sensitive novel about rape, with pornography is horrendous. Is Scroggins suggesting that rape is somehow sexually exciting? I spoke with Laurie Halse Anderson via e-mail about her thoughts on the situation. Anderson says that she is "horrified. 'Pornographic' implies sexual excitement. Rape is not pornographic. Rape is assault, an attack. Anyone who finds the rape of a 14-year-old girl sexual exciting needs professional help. Scroggins completely mischaracterized the book. Speak explores the emotional aftermath of a rape victim, and follows her through her struggle to find the courage to speak up about what happened to her and reach for help."

The literary merits of Speak or Slaughterhouse-Five are apparently irrelevant. (How could a book have literary merit when it discusses such obscene things as sex? Right?) Or maybe the idea is that it's okay for novels to include sex scenes, just as long as we aren't letting young people read them. But Mr. Scroggins, when has censorship ever been a good idea? Do you think that not informing students about sex will mean that they know nothing about it and therefore will abstain? Have you ever been a teenager? And while you do have the right to decide what your children read, who gave you the authority to decide what other people's children should and should not be allowed to read?

Republic Superintendent Vern Minor announced that Slaughterhouse-Five has been removed from the English curriculum. No word about Speak, but another book attacked by Scroggins, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, is currently under review regarding its status as a recommended book in a Republic school district library. The problem with Twenty Boy Summer, according to Scroggins, is that it depicts parties where teenagers get drunk, and "drunken teens also end up on the beach, where they use their condoms to have sex." Scroggins thinks children shouldn't be exposed to this kind of "immorality" because then they might go ahead and do some of the things depicted in the books. Like using their condoms to have sex. But wait, isn't encouraging teenagers to use condoms during sex a good message to send?

Not if you think teenagers should not be exposed to anything sex-related, I guess. Scroggins' concerns about Slaughterhouse-Five, Speak, and Twenty Boy Summer highlight a deeper and more troubling belief -- that is, that young people should be prevented from exposure to anything that discusses sex and sexual activity in any way.

At the end of the article in the Springfield News-Leader, there is an Editor's Note saying that Superintendent Vern Minor pointed out that the curriculum is abstinence-based and students can opt-out of sex education classes.

Opt-out sex education classes? That's worse than having an opt-out option for Math class. No school board would ever approve opt-out Math, so why approve opt-out sex ed? Not knowing very much about geometry has less of a chance of shaping and inhibiting your future than becoming a mother at the age of sixteen does. And even if sex education classes were mandatory, abstinence based education is about as helpful and informative as teaching kids to do long division by counting on their fingers. Both are doable, but neither is very practical or plausible. Teenagers have sex. Not teaching them about how to practice safe sex only makes it more likely that they will practice unsafe sex.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and my sex education classes taught us all about reproduction, homosexuality, oral sex, and how to use a condom -- all things that Scroggins mentions as being unfit topics of instruction for schools. But for me, far more important than sex ed was having the freedom to read without restrictions. When I was growing up, novels often helped me come to terms with and understand situations and questions that I was struggling with in my own life. As a writer, I am a firm believer in the power of words and the need for intellectual freedom. My first novel, Hancock Park, which is about a teenaged girl trying to make sense of her crazy Hollywood world, includes condoms and underaged drinking and discussions about sex. I'm fairly certain that Wesley Scroggins would not want to see it in school libraries. Needless to say, this is an issue I feel strongly about.

Speak has proven to have a tremendous impact on girls who have been sexually assaulted themselves--thousands of young women have written to Anderson about their own sexual assault experiences and the way that Anderson's novel gave them the courage to speak up. One girl wrote to Anderson saying, "I found Speak in the youth section of the public library when I was in 7th grade. I had experienced sexual assault and I was a cutter, and I had walled myself off so much not much could reach me. But this book did, i was grateful for the honesty and a voice besides my own to say the things i was feeling, things too scary to tell my mother or my friends. And considering the situation outside of myself, gave me perspective to see ME beyond that pain." Without Speak, this girl, and countless others, would not have had the courage to come forward about their sexual assaults. How could censoring Anderson's book (or any other book, for that matter) possibly be a good idea?

When asked about the state of book censorship in the U.S. today, Anderson said, "censorship attempts are on the increase. But the ability of people willing to defend intellectual freedom is developing exponentially. I am confident we will prevail."

In order to prevail, it's up to those of us who care about intellectual freedom to stand up and protest cases like this Missouri school district situation and make sure that the Wesley Scroggins of the world have no chance to make ignorant and harmful decisions for their communities.

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