Graphic Content Restrictions Are Not Book Bans

Children who visit libraries in some American cities have grown accustomed to encountering drag queens who read LGBTQ+ stories to them. Parents began to object. Now it seems that public school librarians are on the receiving end of parental complaints.

A January 2022 Education Week article highlighted a growing battle between parents and school librarians. The librarians believe that conservative parents are waging an increasingly hostile war on books, and they are adamant about not “banning” any texts. Parents are equally as adamant about removing books with graphic sexual content.

How do the librarians’ arguments fare elsewhere in schools and in the outside world? For example, when schools restrict what students are allowed to eat from district-provided meals, they are not “banning” school lunches. Students can go elsewhere and find what is restricted. Likewise, physicians who place people on restricted diets are not “banning” food from patients. Disgruntled patients can shop around to find a doctor more to their liking, or they can disregard dietary restrictions altogether. Business owners who restrict patrons from entering their establishments risk losing customers, but they are not “banning” patrons. Similarly, when school districts restrict offensive content in their libraries, they are not “banning” books. This could not be any clearer.

The Push for Graphic Sexual Literature

One of the drivers behind the push to expose students to sexual content is the LGBTQ+ faction. I address this in my book, When the Secular Becomes Sacred: Religious Secular Humanism and Its Effects upon America’s Public Learning Institutions. Politicians empower the LGBTQ+ faction by granting it government-protected status. Ironically, this rather small amalgam is gifted imprimatur and continues to push its limits. The goal is to gather young hearts and minds and to develop empathy toward its cause. This is especially the case with activist teachers.

As I write in America’s Sex Culture, “Teachers can help teenagers and their peers in the development of empathy by allowing students to share their thoughts and allow their experiences with empathy to connect with others.  Sometimes writing is a way for students to express their thoughts.  Teachers ought to be aware of the tool they possess in student empathy but avoid using empathy to manipulate students’ emotions for an agenda or selfish reasons to step over the line of propriety.” Empowerment of a small group and its practices does not a social norm make! Let kids be kids—prepare them in their innocence and not according to the lens of adult moral compromise. Children will be adults soon enough.

Strong Opinions

People have strong opinions on this issue, and mine are no exception. Indeed, people often use hyperbole to advance a narrative and gain emotional traction with over-the-top claims. This seems to be the case when librarians claim that parents want to ban books. The real struggle is a cultural one, and children are again in the middle of it. There is a moral and spiritual assault on American families that has all the earmarks of a usurpation of parental authority. This assault is not only about graphic sexual content in reading material, but also over lifestyles pertaining to sex, gender, and race. What are parents to do about this?

Rebecca Hagelin, vice president of The Heritage Foundation and author of Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad, lays out several basic strategies for parents entrenched in today’s cultural battles. She explains how we can strengthen the family and cope with the cultural onslaught that encroaches each day into the lives of children. Some of these helpful strategies include:

  • Envisioning, assessing, and comparing daily living within the family by taking note of the cultural messages and trends that impact children.
  • Being aware of the forces that seek to pull children away from their moorings and having answers for children in response to cultural questions.
  • Reminding children that each of them is special in God’s eyes and is unique with intrinsic value, and that this value is not arbitrarily assigned to them.
  • Improving family life by spending time together and building deep, personal relationships with each child.

The challenge for families, which Hagelin rightly points out, is finding a balance between what is taught at home and what is taught at school. One of the answers lies in discovering whether children’s school curriculum diminishes their homes’ family values. When schools disregard parental concerns on matters such as sexual content in books, these concerns become points of conflict which disrupt the balance within families. Should schools restrict parents from what they teach their children at home—especially if these teachings conflicts with what the schools teach? By stating that parents have no voice in what students learn, are schools not establishing an educational hierarchy?

Nothing New Under the Sun

King Solomon’s timeless wisdom is unsurpassed in the annals wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, he wrote: “What has been, it is what will be. And what has been done, it is what will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” (NASB)  Over thirty years ago, Elliot Eisner addressed the cultural battle of his time in an article for the Phi Delta Kappan. Eisner wrote, “Teachers with limited time for planning and little intellectual contact with their professional colleagues are unlikely to redefine curriculum content radically.” Fast-forward to 2022, and we discover that teachers emerge from their training with activism in mind. Some are not shy about their intentions and aggressively advocate for their personal beliefs about gender, sexual attraction, race, and other personal issues in their classrooms. Therefore, it is not surprising that these same teachers take issue when parents question the graphic nature of certain literature.

Is it any wonder that millions of parents are rising up to hold decision-makers accountable? Eisner shares a timeless but telling reaction to schools that overstep their boundaries when he states: “Conservatism in education is attractive, particularly when schools are receiving bad press.  The past always seems to exude a rosy glow.” A movement toward accountability, which is today a more conservative value, is quickly becoming a national phenomenon. For a variety of reasons, more and more parents are expressing disgust and dissent, as they show up to their school board meetings ready for war.

[Related: “College Students Required to Detail Sexual History Before Registering for Classes”]

Restrictions Can Be Healthy

People are generally in support of restricting what children view on the Internet. The reasons for this are sensible, but the messaging is contradictory and unclear. For example, schools block certain documents, images, and videos on their networks. They then turn around and allow these same students access to similar materials in print. Why is this policy so inconsistent? Restrictions can be healthy and wholesome. However, adults, like children, shape reality to fit individual preferences.

Politics aside, and discounting emotional hyperbole, the fact is that school districts restrict content every day, and for good reason. Why then should school libraries call into question or thwart these restrictions?

Triggering Trauma

K-12 psychologists and school counselors contend each day with all sorts of student abuse. Literature focused on rape and sexual abuse, such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, is inappropriate content and can trigger more than a little anxiety for students whose experiences parallel those in the texts. This was one of my concerns after reading the book and participating in a community panel supported by a local newspaper.

In such cases, this literary focus is not ultimately good, especially for children who still suffer from their personal and emotional injuries. To what extent should school libraries be content-safe, unrestricted spaces for students, given the increased numbers of abused children? Likewise, one must consider the number of adults, from parents to teachers, who have also suffered abuse or sexual trauma as children. The figures are stark, and even underreported, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Even when graphic content sparks important discussions, the reading of such material is no substitute for professional counseling. Schools should restrict the use of triggering materials and avoid such risks.

Graphic descriptions of sex acts, found in some of the more concerning books, can further traumatize abused, homeless, or formerly trafficked students. Much is written today about concerns surrounding student trauma. Counselors develop courses and trauma-informed instructional strategies to deal with the student populations that occupy the average American public school. We must ask: which content triggers sexually traumatized students and which does not?

How About a Suggestion?

For those opposed to restricting graphic sexual content in school libraries, I suggest the following: Parents, librarians, teachers, and others should read the books in question aloud with their families. They should sit together and alternate readers so that their own children actually speak the graphic phrases aloud, word-for-word, at home. This will help many parents decide whether the school curriculum or reading material is appropriate for their families.

After all, a family conversation about graphic sexual content—either with violent themes or within the context of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual pleasures—should be welcome. Maybe parents could share personal stories of their own past abuse, current marital pleasures, or extra-marital sexual dalliances, so as to bring the real-world into their living rooms. Does this sound unreasonable and ludicrous?

When it comes to sexual content in books, it’s likely that the average parent would react similarly to parents of one Missouri school district. After being shown the middle school library book titled Perfectly Normal, parents became quite angry. The book “contains cartoon drawing of naked people and others involved in sexual acts . . . It has a lot of explicit drawings.  . . .  It actually shows people having sex.” Parents who were shown this book “were shocked and then their next reaction was outrage.”

[Related: “The Culture War Against the Little Man”]

Contradiction and Hypocrisy

Advocates for content openness in school libraries should adopt the same strategy for their children’s Internet access. Those that do not care to restrict content at school should be consistent and refrain from doing so at home as well.

Realistically, how many parents are willing to live by such a universal principle? Restricting graphic content at home while arguing for the opposite in school sends mixed messages to children—in a word, it’s hypocritical.

Parents must guard against what Florida’s Cranium Academy refers to as the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to child-rearing. The Academy states that this approach “is a typical parenting phrase that signals children not to copy negative behaviors they are about to witness. Some parents believe that simply telling their children what to do is enough to ensure positive development. But is that really the case?” The Academy’s response is no.

Those who are offended by parents wishing to promote sexual decency in their homes have an agenda far beyond the hyperbolic claim of “banning books.” Indeed, some parents and schools are in the midst of a cultural battle over the minds and hearts of children.  It is specious to suggest that every child comes to school with a need to satisfy curiosity about sexually graphic materials. Yet, purveyors and supporters of today’s graphic literature seldom consider grade level, age, and childhood innocence when advocating for open access to sexual content.

Curiosity: The Good and the Bad

Students will always be curious. According to Harvard Learning Sciences Professor Elizabeth Bonawitz and Emily Boudreau of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “curiosity is innate in all humans—a sensation much like hunger or thirst.” But should we place no restrictions on this curiosity? Curiosity should not be fulfilled by soul-staining or emotionally damaging content.

Content that feeds sexual curiosity, which is considered inappropriate by millions of parents, is neither appropriate nor healthy. Furthermore, there are now greater concerns about the excessive intake of pornography and increased rates of sexual addiction due to to locking down society, including schools. According to articles posted in the National Library of Medicine, “Pornhub, one of the largest pornography sites, has reported increased pornography use in multiple countries, with global traffic increasing over 11% from late February to March 17, 2020.” Specifically in the United States, increased rates of pornography addiction cross all generational lines, according to PsyCom Pro. By stocking their libraries with sexual content, schools are leading children into such addictions.

Scoot Over

When it comes to shaping academic content, parents are essential—they must be granted a place at the decision-making table. Schools are not parents. Parents are not schools. Working together is critical and, when done well, results in unified outcomes that benefit children. But nothing will be accomplished when the stakeholders charged with educating the next generation violate the trust of parents.

If they instead respect parents, then communities can be more confident about public education and extend this confidence to a wider cultural and educational purview. What happens when a teacher-activist instructs his students using content that is unacceptable or a book which parents flag as inappropriate? More often than not, there is a violation of trust.

No group should have authority over parents—especially when it comes to their children’s curriculum. Virginia’s recent outcries taught the nation this lesson. Yet, the onslaught of graphic content paraded in front of students is relentless. The power of the LGBTQ+ faction, and the subsequent push for graphic sexual content, gender fluidity, and family dissolution, cannot be overstated. Now and forever, public schools must never be permitted to replace parents. So, librarians and teachers should scoot over and make room at the table for parental discourse. This empowerment might well result in compromise that can only benefit communities in the long-run, and nurture students’ souls in the process.


Image: Aviz, Public Domain

Ernest J. Zarra, III

Ernest J. Zarra, III, Ph.D. is semi-retired and is now a full-time education researcher and writer. Ernie has worked as a secondary teacher and district professional development leader in California’s largest high school district, presented as keynote speaker for various national educational organizations, and served as assistant professor of teacher education at Lewis-Clark State College.

4 thoughts on “Graphic Content Restrictions Are Not Book Bans

  1. That whole “slippery slope” thing that the Religious Right harped on for years doesn’t seem so far-fetched now.

    1. True. Good eye, maniac! But it’s not just the “religious” right that saw this coming. The left saw it coming, as well, which is why they continue to press forward once given leeway.

  2. It seems to me that a reasonable solution would be to have much more protective policies in school libraries because school is compulsory, while allowing more graphic volumes in the Public libraries albeit with ratings like video games on each book. Library cards should be coded with ratings approved by parents and books with anything over PG-13 rating should be placed in a locked case. The child must show the card to the librarian to check out a book in the locked case. That way everyone who honestly wants their children exposed to radical material can allow it while other parents can protect their children.

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