Book Bans and Biases: Is There a Place for Sexually Explicit Materials in the Library?

Whether American libraries should host sexually explicit content has been a matter of ongoing debate throughout history, and it continues to be a heated topic of discussion today. The persistent failure, however, to recognize patrons as fully embodied human beings with physical and intellectual dimensions reveals deep cultural biases at play.

This blog post is part of a series that provides think pieces and resources for academic librarians.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has been collecting information about book challenges and bans for decades. From 2001 to 2020, the average number of yearly challenges hovered around 400. In 2021, however, it jumped to 729, and an ALA account recently shared on social media that they recorded “the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began tracking incidents” – a whopping 781 –just between January and October 2022, ensuring that the annual numbers for the year will set yet another record.

In the past few years, book challengers are also more likely to cite “explicit content” in their objections; all but one of the top ten most-challenged books from 2021 were called out for “sexual explicitness” or “sexual content,” with half specifically flagged for LGBTQIA+ material. Librarians around the country have faced threats from defunding to dismissal to physical and legal harm for providing access to works like Maia Kobabe’s illustrated memoir Gender Queer and Jonathan Evison’s coming-of-age novel Lawn Boy.

Collecting and sharing a wide variety of materials is key to the mission of American libraries as articulated by foundational texts such as the Library Bill of Rights and The Freedom to Read Statement. The ALA’s intellectual freedom advocacy and anti-censorship work are obviously of vital importance as those aspects come under attack more frequently and with more organized aggression than ever. It might seem odd then, in the midst of these assaults on libraries and librarians and readers, that I want to discuss why American libraries don’t have even more and larger collections of pornography and other sexually explicit materials.

Lacking Commitment

While the ALA and library workers across the country have actively fought to keep Kobabe’s book and others facing similar challenges on the shelves and available to patrons, these are in some ways not true tests of the profession’s approach to sexually explicit materials. In fact, one common line of defense by otherwise conscientious librarians when a work is challenged is to argue that the challenge is baseless, not because readers should be able to access explicit works, but because the work in question is NOT actually explicit or obscene, and thus it has a proper place in the library.

In reality, there have always been tensions within libraries and among librarians about whether and how to include controversial materials in our collections, with sexually explicit materials often at the center of these conversations – and I’m referring here to materials that are actually, literally, purposefully explicit, graphic, and obscene, rather than just those that certain vocal parts of the population want to erroneously label as such.

“Why is it that libraries as a whole have been so reluctant to make a definitive and lasting commitment to including sexually explicit materials?”

The question is then what libraries would, could, or should do with materials that are unquestionably explicit – materials that have long been excluded and marginalized in American libraries not just because of challenges and bans, but also because of active non-collection by librarians themselves. If intellectual freedom and facilitating access to the widest possible variety of materials is the mission of American librarianship, one we are willing to fight for at every turn, why is it that libraries as a whole have been so reluctant to make a definitive and lasting commitment to including sexually explicit materials?

The Mind-Body Debate

I think there are several fundamental binaries that shape the way American libraries deal with sexually explicit materials, including what is legal and illegal (as defined by several key Supreme Court cases like Miller v. California), as well as what is considered public vs. private and what is educational vs. what is entertaining. And at the root of all of this, I argue, there is an even more basic and yet more complicated duality: that of the mind and the body.

Western philosophy has a long tradition of debating the relationship between the mind and the body. Contemporary American culture has inherited a hierarchical view that draws a distinct line between them, assigning rationality, sense, and truth to the mind while leaving the body to the devalued realms of the subjective, the emotional, and other messy aspects of existence. It’s worth mentioning that this distinction has also traditionally been mapped onto a gender binary; men are creatures of mind while women are creatures of body.

Our cultural vision of libraries presents them as storehouses of knowledge, protectors of decency, and producers of citizens; clearly these are the realms of the mind. This view is supported by libraries themselves through institutional policies that eschew actively collecting, accurately describing, and openly sharing sexually explicit materials with library users. In one case, this practice took the form of a public library refusing to add Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the fastest-selling paperbacks of all time, to their collections, because they “don’t collect porn.”

It is also seen in the dearth of nuanced and specific terms available in the Library of Congress Subject Headings for cataloging explicit materials (which has led to the development of alternative, grassroots vocabularies like the Homosaurus to help describe works on diverse genders and sexualities) or classification systems that place works about bisexuality on the shelf directly next to works about “sexual deviations.”

Scholars of library and information science have also noted that librarians are often more comfortable with sexually explicit materials being collected in academic libraries than in public libraries, revealing a worldview where these materials are worthwhile only in the context of detached academic study and cultural preservation, rather than as tools for personal discovery or pure entertainment and pleasure; fodder for the mind and not the body.

The Power of the Written Word

Related to the tension between the body and the mind is a further binary: the one between words and actions. This gets at the heart of what book-banning advocates fear about these materials: that there will be a slippage between reading or thinking about something and actually doing it. If an impressionable reader encounters a text where a person like Maia Kobabe explores eir nonbinary gender and queer sexuality, would-be censors argue, this reader will be unstoppably compelled to do the same. This old and tired argument has been used over the centuries to deny information access to those who are judged to lack the sophistication required to differentiate fiction from reality or believed to be in danger of getting ideas “above their station.”

“Part of what makes sexually explicit materials a challenge for libraries (and censors) is that in many ways they destabilize the ways in which western culture seeks to separate out mind and body and to insist that only one of those two is valid or relevant in the space of the library.”

But in a sense, there’s some truth to this fear and its overwhelming belief in the power of the written word. Because there actually is a kind of transformative power in empathy and exposure that can go beyond thought to affect lived reality. Part of what makes sexually explicit materials a challenge for libraries (and censors) is that in many ways they destabilize the ways in which western culture seeks to separate out mind and body and to insist that only one of those two is valid or relevant in the space of the library.

Works of art that make us think and feel in new and powerful ways – including pornography – can help us reconceptualize and deconstruct things like gender and identity both as intellectual concepts and as lived, embodied experiences in ways that highlight the absurdity of trying to keep body and mind separate, and the possibilities that open up when we are exposed to new ideas and treated as whole people, body and all.

On the whole, there is a sense of fear and an impulse toward rejection when it comes to thinking about the body in the context of the American library. But the patrons who come in to use libraries are fully embodied and three-dimensional human beings. Denying the aspects of pleasure, enjoyment, and entertainment inherent in sexually explicit materials runs the risk of requiring our patrons to metaphorically sever their minds from their bodies and fracture their identity in order to interact with our collections, when these collections even exist.

It’s hard to say that librarians should be actively focused on overhauling their collection development approach to sexually explicit materials when the profession is already facing such a clear and present threat from book challenges even to materials that hardly qualify as explicit. Yet interrogating the larger cultural prejudices and professional assumptions that underlie our approach to these collections should be part of our larger advocacy as a field, both for intellectual freedom and for the inherent humanity and dignity of all readers – and all librarians.

[Title image by Charles Hackey via Wikimedia Commons]

Rachel Greenhaus

Rachel Greenhaus is a Library Assistant for Published Materials at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard Radcliffe Institute. In 2022, she obtained her Master's degree in Library & Information Science at Simmons University, Boston.

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