The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
Editor’s Note: In describing some of the content issues that parents are concerned about in this case, some graphic topics are discussed. They are included to increase understanding of the validity of these parents’ concerns, but sensitive readers should be aware.
Recently an open letter was written and signed by forty Utah authors speaking out against the nationwide push by parents to remove certain books with offensive content from their children’s classrooms and school libraries. From the tone of the letter, one would think that these parents were advocating a modern Fahrenheit 451-style destruction of knowledge or calling to remove The Scarlet Letter or To Kill A Mockingbird—reflecting a larger image of pearl-clutching prudes or Nazi book-burners who want to take away the freedom of expression.
Even worse, however, the signers of this letter insist that these parental attempts “overwhelmingly target books by and about LGBT+ people, black people, indigenous people, and people of color”—as if bigoted, racist attitudes were driving most of these concerns. That makes me wonder if signers of the letter are even aware of the specifics of the objectionable content in question.
I’m writing in an attempt to set the record straight—especially for the many prone to accept as true this sad and insulting misrepresentation of these concerned parents. However socially popular their own critique may be, the full truth still matters.
1. School libraries, not all libraries. First of all, it’s important to understand that we are talking about public school classrooms and school libraries. No one is calling for outright “book banning or burning.” All the books in question can still be obtained in public libraries, bookstores, or online.
It’s true that many parents across the nation are advocating a labeling system be implemented in public libraries providing a warning about sexual or violent content similar to what is currently required on movies, music, and video games. As one mom stated, “I think libraries provide an absolutely important service to the community, but I’ve seen some pretty inappropriate stuff in the youth section (old men forcing young boys to give them oral sex). We moms are just trying to help other moms. No one can read it all.”
What parents are asking for is that schools simply follow existing guidelines regarding age-appropriate content with regard to indecency and obscenity.
In this specific case, however, parents are primarily objecting to certain texts being read in the classrooms or being available in school libraries.
2. Sexually explicit content is the primary issue. The open letter claims these attempts to restrict books “overwhelmingly target” texts about marginalized communities—but doesn’t ever detail what parents actually find objectionable in the books. The truth is that only 20-30% of the books of concern touch on themes in LGBT+ and ethnic minority communities. (Out of 52 books being reviewed, 33 books contain bright line rule violations of sexual or violent material—with 5 of these involving LGBT+ themes and 7 touching on racial minority status.) Yet even in that subset of books, it’s not the reference to minority or marginalized communities that is the real issue.
The primary concern of parents is sexually explicit scenes in these books. What parents are asking for is that schools simply follow existing guidelines regarding age-appropriate content with regard to indecency and obscenity.
For example, A book called Two Boys Kissing is about two boyfriends but does not contain any passages that would qualify as a violation under Utah law (HB 374). Whereas a book called Gender Queer features a full-page visual image of two males engaging in oral sex—clearly qualifying as violating the same law’s “Bright Line Rule.”
Both of these books deal with LBGT+ subject matter, but one violates the code, and one does not. The problem in this case not being the subject matter but the explicit sexual content.
It’s hard to write this article without subjecting the reader to some of the specifically objectionable content. Aaron Bullen, who was tasked with compiling a list of all the passages from the 52 books in question in Utah and the codes they violate, describes becoming physically ill as well as spiritually and emotionally debilitated after having to read all the objectionable content (most books violate the bright line rule because they contain explicit descriptions of masturbation or sexual intercourse—with one depicting a sexual assault). At a recent meeting of the Alpine School Board, as six parents presented their objections, a member of the Board asked the parents not to read to them the offensive content from the books. Evidently, the passages from some of these books were too offensive for adult ears but are currently available in classrooms of students as young as 12 years old.
If you don’t mind being subjected to the obscene content in these books, you can watch the Zoom meeting between parents and The Utah State School Board. And this link cites all the offensive passages from the books in question and includes page numbers of the books and which schools in Utah currently carry those books. You can also follow the site Laverna in the Library on Facebook for additional updates on what’s in our schools. It’s important to keep in mind that if a student were to text the sexual content verbatim included in some of these books to another student, they would get in trouble for “sexting.”
To further illustrate, one parent from Park City complained to her child’s Middle School Principal that her 9th-grade student was required to read Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian”—a book that has received parental complaints across the nation. This is what the Common Sense Media summary says about this book (Remember, we are talking about 14-year-olds here):
- The book is gritty and has often been banned for its mature content.
- The main character enjoys masturbation and describes how he does it and how much he enjoys it.
- The main character describes an erection he gets while hugging a school counselor.
- The main character enjoys looking at magazines with nude pictures.
- People are burned alive.
- A man is shot in the face.
- There is alcohol abuse.
- The author was accused of sexual harassment in 2018 and has not denied the charges.
This type of content is not unique to this book. In fact, this one is tame compared to other passages that one can review at the link provided that describe graphically violent scenes, as well as detailed accounts of how to engage in different sexual acts and types of sex, including vivid descriptions of how it feels and the bodily sensations involved when doing so, etc. It’s difficult to imagine any more explicit passages in an adult novel. In considering the problem of evil in writing fiction, award-winning author Orson Scott Card differentiates between “depicting” evil and “enacting” evil. Many of the passages up for review in these books would qualify as “enacting evil.”
Despite all this, signer Lindsey Leavitt is quoted in a follow-up interview as suggesting that “pornographic” is a kind of cover for other things—insinuating that some are trying to categorize “anything different than the Utah norm as pornographic.” That’s simply not true. In fact, it’s the opposite that seems to be the case—since it’s “diversity and inclusion” that appears to be used as a distraction from or an excuse for the sexually explicit material (see #5).
3. Parent vitriol and hatred? The original author of the letter states she is concerned about “the mood of the country” and the “vitriol and hatred” she is seeing. That’s a concern so many of us share in America’s growing hostilities today, and yet she is implying here that this is the fitting backdrop to evaluate ongoing parental efforts to hold schools accountable.
It’s certainly true that parents are concerned—not only about violent and sexually explicit content, but also about the ferocious pushback they and/or their children receive when they raise legitimate concerns. And it’s to be expected that when it comes to the welfare of one’s children, emotions can run high. But it’s important to differentiate between normal Mama Bear concern and outright hate and vitriol. My experience with parents has been that they have voiced their concerns in a respectful and informed manner.
4. Censorship, as long as it’s the right kind of censorship? At the same moment that strong condemnations are raining down on parents seeking restrictions in school classrooms and libraries, there is a wave of attempts to rid school libraries of other books that run afoul of larger socio-political orthodoxies. J.K. Rowling, for instance, has been targeted for a boycott due to her statements that she believes there are only two genders, scientifically speaking, and because of the lack of representation of gays and trans people in her highly successful Harry Potter series.
Meanwhile, librarians seeking to ban feminist classics like Little Women or books that center on the experience of racial minorities like Island of the Blue Dolphin are immune from accusations that those seeking to remove them are motivated by racial and sexual bigotry.
So, this raises the question—are those arguing against parents who want to remove exposure of their children to porn in public schools primarily concerned about censorship and free expression, or is it more about pushing back on those not aligning with the prevailing, preferred socio-political narrative? Are they, in effect, telling parents that they have no right to call for “censorship” of pornographic content in the schools, yet they have no qualms about censoring and canceling an author for not complying with a larger social justice agenda?
5. Defending explicit material as “art” or “diversity.” Regarding sensitive materials in schools, the Utah State Legislature adopted H.B. 374 in 2022, which prohibits “sensitive materials in schools and requires all school districts to have policies with similar prohibitory language and standards.” The challenge that is arising is that the code defines pornographic material “as something that, taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient interest in sex, is patently offensive in the depiction of nudity, sexual conduct, and sexual excitement, and does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (emphasis my own).
It’s that last sentence that can be problematic. Several parents presenting before the school boards pointed out that this type of review can take months, and in many cases, the determinations are very subjective while the books in question continue to remain in the classrooms and school libraries. One parent pointed out in the presentation to the Utah State School Board that initially, the Utah State School Board seemed quite committed to protecting our children and making school a safe place from pornography, but this appeared to change after the Board began feeling pressured by national activist groups to keep these books in schools as a sign of support for “marginalized groups.”
Many of us are wondering why we have to accept pornographic passages in books in order to be accepting of minority or marginalized groups. Isn’t it rather problematic to assert that LGBT+ youth or racial minority youth do not also deserve protection from pornographic materials? And isn’t it somewhat of an insult to these under-represented groups to assume that in order to be inclusive of them, one must tolerate degrading content as described under HB 374? According to law HB 374, the presence of any book that contains passages that are an egregious violation of criteria stated therein should be automatically removed for being in violation regardless of the perceived “literary or artistic value.” Consistent with that statute, when there are blatant violations of the Bright Line Rule, there is no need to consider any other criteria as the book should be categorically deemed “of no value.”
Under that same statute, indecent content is defined as the following: “Description or depictions of illicit sex or sexual immorality meaning human genitals in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal; acts of human masturbation, sexual intercourse, or sodomy; fondling or other erotic touching of human genitals or pubic region, or fondling or other erotic touching of the human buttock or female breast.” Many of the books in question are blatant violations of these criteria. Despite this clear line, Pleasant Grove High School, Skyridge High School, and Lehi High School have a book called “Fade” that explicitly details sexual relationships between teachers and students, including teacher-student orgies. This book was originally supposed to be removed, but the school board decided it should be reviewed first for “potential literary value.”
One advantage of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to see the evolution of attempts to peddle this kind of explicit material under different labels. I lived through the packaging of pornography as “art.” I’ve seen it defended under the banner of “academic freedom,” and now we are supposed to accept these texts for our children under the guise of promoting “diversity and inclusion.”
All the while, our nation suffers from the debilitating effects of pornography addictions. And our students are falling behind in key scholastic areas while we are distracted by defending them from this kind of toxic exposure.
We can do better. But if we ever have a chance of getting there, we’ve got to start with a more honest and forthright public conversation.
Stop calling parents haters and bigots just because they’re concerned with explicit materials in schools. The fact is, there is a growing number of parents across the country concerned about the large amount of highly sexual, political, drug-related, pornographic, violent, abusive, and divisive content their students are being exposed to on a daily basis. These are sincere concerns that deserve to be taken seriously, rather than minimizing and writing them off as a cover for something more sinister.
It would be a mistake to see these concerns among Utah parents as exceptional or exclusive to our state’s heavily religious population. What’s happening in Utah is a microcosm of the larger debate on school books across the nation—with many similar concerns raised elsewhere (see, for instance, “Banned Books Week looks more like Porn for Kids Week” just published today; this article also summarizes some of the things happening in other states with regard to this issue).
In the most recent general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dallin H. Oaks stated, “We are commanded to teach and contend for principles and practices that provide the best conditions for the development and happiness of children under God’s plan.” Many parents see this effort to align what is in our schools and classrooms with the current standards of decency under the law as an effort to do this.