Issue 117, Fall 2012

Ah, sex. We love to think about it, we also love to condemn it. Censors are second perhaps only to pornographers in the amount of time they spend talking about sex. NCAC was launched in the wake of a 1973 landmark obscenity case, Miller v. California, and to this day censorship of sex is the biggest single challenge for this organization. To get a sense of the extent of censorship of sex-related material today, here is a sampling of recent issues and incidents NCAC has tackled:

Sex in books
In 2011, NCAC successfully overturned a ban against Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as part of the curriculum for all high school classes in the Richland, WA school district. A board member proposed rejecting the book because of “gratuitous language and depictions of sex.” In our experience, any mention of sex in a novel included in the school curriculum, as suggested reading, or even only present in the school library, can provoke a challenge. Given the prevalence of sexual themes in world literature and art, such complaints are plentiful. Unfortunately, school administrators sometimes prefer to appease a few disgruntled parents rather than follow the recommendations of the professional staff who selected the book.

Nudity in books
The mere suggestion of nakedness – in an illustrated children’s story about a cowboy taking his yearly bath (with his private parts cleverly covered) – was enough to provoke a book’s removal from school libraries in the Annville-Cleona (PA) district this year. Some parents expressed concern that, as a result of viewing or reading Amy Timberlake’s The Dirty Cowboy, “Children may come to the conclusion that looking at nudity is OK, and therefore pornography is OK.”

Nudes on display: sexually suggestive, sexually harassing, or none of the above?
Nudes in public exhibition spaces are a constant target of attack. Sometimes the concern is that a nude is sexually suggestive, that children might see it, or that it constitutes sexual harassment. NCAC is frequently called on to explain to local officials that the display of a nude, in itself, does not constitute sexual harassment, obscenity, or harm to minors. Quite often, as recently happened in Marin County, we are able to persuade city officials to retain or reinstate the art.

Nudity online
Facebook notoriously censors all photographic representations of nudity. Other Internet platforms censor it selectively. Not long ago, NCAC and the Electronic Frontier Foundation worked together to convince YouTube to change its content guidelines and exempt artistic content from its ban on nudity. Video artist Amy Greenfield’s works, which had been taken down for “violating community standards” due to nudity, were reinstated as a result.

Sexual orientation in school
If nudity arouses the censor, it’s not hard to imagine the response to suggestions of alternative sexuality. In June 2012, the Erie, IL school board voted to remove Todd Parr’s The Family Book from the school’s diversity curriculum because of a page with the phrase “some families have two moms or two dads.” NCAC’s letter explaining the school’s ethical, legal and educational responsibilities at stake was co-signed by nine organizations, including The Family Book publisher, Little Brown and Co.

Sexual orientation in college
Earlier in the year, Villanova University revoked performance artist Tim Miller’s artist-in-residency theater workshop. Miller is outspokenly gay – a fact sufficient to make him unwelcome, independent of the content of the workshop. NCAC joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in calling on Villanova to live up to its own stated standards of academic freedom.

Internet Filters and LGBT issues
Internet filters required in schools and libraries (see p. 2) invariably screen out sexual content as a matter of course. However, sometimes schools and libraries go further in their efforts to block certain ideas. Not long ago, NCAC teamed up with the ACLU and Tennessee students to overturn the selective blocking of LGBT websites from school workstations – noting that websites attacking homosexuality remained unblocked. School officials only relented after a lawsuit was filed.

Private companies regulating your fantasies
Nudity in public exhibition spaces and LGBT content in schools are predictable targets of censorship. But would you think that a private company would take it upon itself to police your fantasies?  PayPal threatened to terminate the accounts of online marketplaces offering erotic ebooks containing fantasies about bestiality, incest, and rape. Under pressure from NCAC, organizations representing booksellers, authors, and other free speech groups, PayPal relented.

Abstinence-only Sex Education
Censoring sex education presents a serious danger to the very physical health and safety of the children that pro-censorship organizations claim they protect: NCAC has campaigned against abstinence-only sex education as a First Amendment issue. Indeed, compelling schools to teach abstinence-only means suppressing information about STIs, safe sex, pregnancy prevention, and a whole array of other much-needed health issues. The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama brought funding for abstinence-only sex education back in 2010 after the White House zeroed out grants in 2008.