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FIRST-PERSON: Should raunchy be the fourth R?

GROVE CITY, Pa. (BP)–School is starting around the country. Awaiting anxious students are new schedules, new teachers, new challenges and in some school districts, old controversies about what books should be read in school. Wow, where did the summer go?

School districts have been facing challenges over what should be in the library as long as there have been libraries, but recent changes in the world of children’s literature and our society have focused the debates on matters of teen sexuality.

A recent MSNBC article regarding adolescent reading material describes growing parental concern over the explicit nature of books aimed at young teens. Correspondent Janet Shamlian reports on some recent hot selling teen titles: “In ‘Claiming Georgia Tate,’ a father has sex with his daughter. In ‘Rainbow Party,’ teens make plans for a sex party. And in ‘Teach Me,l due out in late August and seemingly ripped from the day’s headlines, there’s a student-teacher affair.”

While I am not aware of challenges to any of these specific books, if they find their way into schools, there probably will be. Recent disputes over books in Lexington, Mass., Pleasant Valley, Iowa, and Columbus, Ohio, have divided communities and led to legal action.

Perhaps the mother of all of these disputes over school reading material is in Fayetteville, Ark. Laurie Taylor, mother of two school age children in Fayetteville, recently found numerous volumes of fiction that vividly describe sexual acts of all sorts. “Doing It” features teacher-pupil sex, “Rainbow Boys” describes adult-teen unprotected sex, and “Choke,” uncovering the world of sexaholics, was graphic enough to have portions excerpted in Playboy. Perhaps the worst find was “Push” by author Sapphire. Filled with graphic sex, the book’s low point is perhaps the lead character’s description of sex with an infant.

Taylor is formally challenging these and other fiction books with similar content. She is not asking that the school remove all of the books permanently from the shelves; she simply wants librarians to gain a parent’s permission before allowing children to have them. She also wants the school to follow its own review policy while access is mediated by parents. The Fayetteville schools have a policy that requires the school to review materials parents find objectionable. For these reasonable requests, she has been pilloried in the local press as narrow minded and bigoted. The school district has received a veiled threat of a lawsuit from national groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Is Mrs. Taylor overreacting? Should these books be in public school libraries? Before I throw in my view, let me jump back to the MSNBC article on racy teen novels. Reporter Shamlian writes: “Experts say books like these are gratuitous — even dangerous — and parents need to know that.” She then quotes a specialist in adolescent psychiatry, Dr. John Sargent: “They buy it, thinking they’re doing something nice for their kid, when, in fact, they have no clue what it is they’re exposing their kid to.”

I agree with Dr. Sargent. Of course such reading material can be counterproductive to a healthy view of sexuality. Some of these books normalize and even glamorize sexual behavior that most educators and parents would like to prevent. Surely there are other ways to provide an education on topics touched by these books. What should public schools do about such gratuitous material?

Where a review panel of parents and teachers cannot agree about the appropriateness of a contested book, then parental permission should be required in order to read it. If teachers want to use explicit portions of contested books, then parents should be notified. Schools should allow parents to have a clue what their kids exposed to. Such a policy does no violence to free speech, nor is it censorship. If some parents want raunchy to join readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic, they are free to buy their own children sexually explicit material for consumption at home.
Warren Throckmorton is associate professor of psychology and fellow for psychology and public policy in the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City (PA) College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania.

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  • Warren Throckmorton