One Man’s Porn…

I know, I know. With a title like that, one might wonder what the rest of the post will be about. Could it be that I’m going to launch into a list of favored porn sites? Or perhaps I’m going to announce that I’ll be adding explicit scenes with favorite characters to stories I sell, offering you a chance to purchase XXX-rated versions instead of the simple PG-13 editions I do now. Or maybe I’m going to complain about the sexual content in some book I’m reading, excoriating the author for writing such stuff.

None of the above. I just read a news story about Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor at Missouri State University, who published an article labeling books on a Missouri high school book list as “soft-core porn.” Some of the books were YA—I don’t think Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five fits that label—and all had sexualized content of one sort or another.

The reason for the post’s title being vague is that a lot of pornography, like the title, is open to interpretation. Everyone draws the line somewhere, and a lot of us draw it in different places. I’ve read romance novels and crime story novels where there have been some decidedly explicit sex scenes—real Tab A into Slot B plumbing stuff. It’s the same sort of material one could find in Letters to Penthouse, but because it’s not labeled or sold as sexual, it’s not generally seen as porn. I do recall reading a science fiction novel that had a lot of explicit sex in it, but the author there had committed a mortal sin—he made the sex boring. (I’ve not seen much since from him and it’s been over fifteen years. No great loss.)

I’m sure Scroggins figures he’s saving the world, but I find a vast difference between someone being a Moral Guardian and a Moral Arbiter. An arbiter is someone who goes into your garden and starts pulling weeds—defining weeds as plants he doesn’t like. But, it’s your garden, and maybe you like radishes and wanted them there. He doesn’t, so they were going away. A guardian, on the other hand, would point at your garden and say, “You might want to take a look at those weeds and pull ’em.”

I’ve looked at YA books that have sexual content. I’ve looked at the content in some of my books and have suggested that parents might not want to let a twelve year old read them. The point being that while I might be uncomfortable with content in some books, I can only point at them and suggest that parents take a look and be the arbiters for what their underage children read. That is, after all, their duty and responsibility. Declaring books to be porn, on the other hand, does not encourage parents to make an informed decision and participate in their childrens’ education.

Some folks might point out that a lot of parents don’t have the time or inclination to read such things. They rely on the considered opinions of their community and spiritual leaders to make that sort of judgment for them. My counter would be that by ceding such decisions to others, they’ve abrogated their responsibility to their children. No matter how much they trust and believe in their leaders, I don’t think that’s good parenting. It doesn’t promote communication between child and parent, and that sort of engagement is, in my opinion, the soul of outstanding parenting.

In general I stand against censorship. I am dead set against ignorant censorship. If someone wants to deny their child the right to read a book, or watch a movie, that’s their right and duty. I would hope their decisions are informed decisions, and informed through personal experience, not relying on a surrogate. The more parents are involved in their childrens’ education, the better.

Content in some books may be uncomfortable and disquieting. Discussion of that material between responsible parent and child can provide perspective, and open up whole new worlds of understanding. And that, in part, is one of the best reasons for reading books.

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9 Responses to “One Man’s Porn…”

  1. I consider myself fortunate that my parents never censored my reading. I had free access to the public library, to my parents’ bookshelves, and, when I earned the money to do so, to pretty much anything in the bookstore.

    And while I remembering reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, by my pre-teen years I had no interest in the YA offerings and was reading adult books, primarily mystery (starting with Agatha Christie) and science fiction/fantasy (everything from McCaffery to Heinlein to Harry Harrison to Steve Perry to Elizabeth Lynn and beyond).

    My folks didn’t “pre-read” any of my books. By the same token, I never had an issue about asking my parents questions about what I read – they were always open to answering any questions I had without any fuss or bother. Through my teens, I was exposed to vast range of diverse adult content and it doesn’t appear to have done me any harm, unless you think an open and questioning mind is a bad thing.

    I would also suggest that throughout high school, from the ages of 14 through 18, I was bombarded with books that could in no possible way be described as YA. Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, The Crucible, 1984, Watership Down, Animal Farm … That’s just a minute selection of books I HAD to read, and those are not works tailored to the “delicate psyche” of a young adult.

    If parents are worried about what their kids are reading, they should pick those books up themselves and decide what THEY think is right for their kids.

    I think we as a society have a very skewed viewpoint, when you compare the literature we approve of that is taught in school versus the content of the books kids choose to read (and want to read) for their own enjoyment.

  2. Excellent essay Mike.
    Freedom of expression is one of those issues that should be cut and dried. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to read, watch, use, whatever. As long as it is legal leave me alone. Of course when children are consumers of content a huge spanner gets thrown into the works. I guess some sort of advisory should be in place for children to allow parents the choice of what is right for their children. Parental advisories should be just that though. A guide – suitable for children, younger teens, older teens or adult for example. Much as books are already labelled now. As you, Mike, said parents should be the arbiters for their children.

    The problem with many arbiters of taste is exactly that. Their taste doesn’t coincide with mine therefore I am a pervert. But here in Australia, and I guess everywhere, they frame it as “protecting the children”.

    In the US you are lucky enough to have a voluntary advisory system – the MPAA. In Oz we have the Office of Film and Literature Classification – OFLC. It is compulsory and legally binding. If a book, magazine, movie or website is Refused Classification it is illegal to show or sell that product in Australia. Fortunately for us it is not illegal to possess or acquire a RC product unless the content is illegal, for example child porn.

    We have a lot of discussion about censorship in Australia recently because the current government wants to filter the web. They want a firewall to protect Australians from Refused Content and all ISPs will be legally required to filter RC stuff. Australia’s firewall will be similar to what has been implemented in China and Iran. Fortunately the movement against the firewall has increased momentum and the laws are unlikely to be passed when and if they get presented next year. The concerning thing for us is that the OFLC maintains the RC list that is, I think, illegal for us to see or comment on. However the list was leaked on Wikileaks last year and much of the content was either perfectly legal or mistakenly / maliciously put on the list (a dentist’s website for example). But that dentist would be unable to challenge his listing because he wouldn’t be able to find out if he was even on the list. And it is all being done to “protect the children”. The senator in charge has even suggested that if you oppose the filter you are no better than a child porn facilitator.

    I guess my message is this is what happens when you allow moral arbiters some teeth. Support your local EFF (EFA in Oz).

  3. I don’t see the point in dictating the kids what to read and what not.
    With 10, I got my library card and so the world of books was open to me, without limit. Where’s the point? I picked, what looked good to me, later, which blurb sounded nice. No control by my parents.

    Did this harm me? I mean.. these are just books. Everything the child sees is in his imagination. So…

  4. Tanine, thanks for reminding me exactly what I was like as a kid. Kids will do whatever they damn well please. Parental advisories are probably only for the parent’s benefit anyway.

    Are there any studies anywhere that show any issues whatsoever with what children read? I expect not.

    I’d be more concerned about the kids that never pick up any kind of book at all.

  5. I recall being censored by my mother…once. It was such an aberration from the norm that I still remember it with irritation thirty years later. It was a free book from RIF that I got at school in 1st grade, yanked off the 8th grade table because the younger age books were boring. Apparently it had some kittens being brutally abused and then drowned in the beginning, and Mom felt that was too much for me.

    At least she read it before she took it away, though. 😉 I can’t imagine parents barring books from their children based on hearsay. Like my parents, our kids are being raised in a house filled with books (too many books, possibly!), and we’re introducing our kids to reading and the doors that it opens.

  6. I never had any books censored by my parents. On the contrary, some of the books that had the most explicit sex scenes were the ones that my mother recommended to me because they happened to be quite good besides. (Example: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.) No harm done except in how it was kind of awkward. -_-;;

  7. Some of your books go well beyond PG-13.

    But of course, that’s not really true either. Movie ratings just don’t apply to books because anything you “see” in a book is something you got out of your head. The complete text of a pornographic novel read on-screen should earn the film only a PG-13 rating, since there’s nothing graphic about text, or speech.

    It’s a bit much to say that parents should preview content for their children. Children are entire independent people, and their ability to consume content will inevitably far exceed the parents’ ability to preview it, especially given that parents have other responsibilities.

    So the moral guardians do things that make it easier — like the film ratings system you made passing reference to. Build a simple ratings system and all parents have to do is to decide they don’t want their children seeing “nudity, profanity, or violence” and they can steer their children away from R-rated films without ever actually watching them for themselves. They’ve delegated that task to a third party who actually has the time (and is even being paid) for it.

    We could, and maybe even should, do the same things with books. Of course, I’m generally against this sort of censorship. I mean, my parents were never able to effectively censor my content and never tried very hard (even considering the odd discovered-and-trashed porno magazine in the era before the internet,) and I think I turned out okay…

  8. It floors me that so many different media get such different treatment. If there is a question about sex or nudity in a videogame, people sharpen their pitchforks and light up the torches, never mind the fact that the same kids that might be exposed to the videogames can just go to their library and get whatever they might find.

    My daughter turns 1 this week and I would rather she learn about the world through books and discussions with my wife and I than from other schoolkids etc. I don’t think sheltering children does them any favors.


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