ProChoice IDEA – Summer/Fall 1997

Sex and the Censors

Censorship of anything related to sex is on the rise. Here are some recent examples: 

The police in Oklahoma City seized copies of the Academy-Award winning film, The Tin Drum, after a local group complained about it and a judge called it "obscene." The Wall Street Journal reported that the new French film version of Nabokov's classic novel, Lolita, can't find an American distributor.

The same day, there was a report about Esquire's decision not to print a short story about a gay man who wrote papers for students in exchange for sex, after a major advertiser requested notice of material that might be "provocative or offensive" – although the editor denies that this affected his decision. Then the Chronicle of Higher Education carried a story about a decision by the Idaho Board of Education to deny funding for a research project about gay communities.

These are part of a dangerous trend to suppress information about sex and sexuality, and there's more. School officials and librarians around the country are continuously embroiled in disputes over books which mention homosexuality, masturbation, contraception, safe sex, extra-marital sex, or non-traditional families. Just ask Judy Blume, whose popular books for young readers have been targeted by censorship campaigns. Or Meredith Tax, whose book about different kinds of families has met with protests. Or Jocelyn Elders, who caused an uproar when she mentioned masturbation in connection with sex education.

And censorship of information about sex is about to take a new turn. As the result of a little-noticed provision in last year's welfare law, the federal government is now offering financial incentives – $250 million over 5 years – to encourage states to provide "abstinence education."

The provision, buried at the end of the 250-page Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996, requires that teaching abstinence must be the "exclusive purpose" of the state program.

Whatever the merits of teaching about abstinence, limiting the discussion to abstinence excludes valuable information, such as the physiological aspects of reproduction, what forms of contraception are reliable and how they work, safe-sex practices, and so on. If students really had no other sources of information, they would be seriously unprepared – even for marriage.

An equally important question is whether this combination of indoctrination and censorship will work. Even Governor Pete Wilson of California, who made abstinence education part of his 1992 election platform, dropped the program, conceding that "it doesn't work," after a University of California study documented that it failed to reduce or delay sexual activity.

Sex won't go away just because we don't talk about it. The media, advertising, and the lives of the rich and famous are full of sexual messages. Even some government officials, not to mention members of the military services, don't practice what the federal government preaches. It's a mistake to think we can help people sort out the mixed messages about sex by censoring their access to information and limiting their ability to discuss issues of concern to them by making some subjects "taboo."

We can do something about censorship, first by calling it what it is. Every day, somewhere in this country, a teacher or a librarian has to take a stand for a book that is under siege because someone doesn't like what it says. The battles to defend intellectual freedom succeed when people in the community come to the defense of First Amendment values in their own schools and libraries. Sex education is no different. School district by school district, parents and students must claim their right to get truthful, accurate, and uncensored information about sex.

The National Coalition Against Censorship helps individuals and community groups across the country oppose censorship – whenever and however it appears. With our 45 participating organizations of teachers, artists, writers, church officials, librarians and others, we rally around those who would dare to claim their right to speak, to see, to learn, and to think freely.

Sex is not, after all, a four-letter word.