Sex, Lies, and Ampersands

We know it when we see it

By Charlotte Wall

What is it about the word “porn” that draws the eye? And what phenomenon allures your mouse to click on (or at least hover over) the word “sex?” What catches your attention more than the idea of electric sex pulsing off the page or glowing on-screen? Banned Books Week took place September 27th to October 3rd this year, and the American Library Association (ALA) steams and sautés this by allegedly supporting censorship awareness and the freedom to read as one pleases.

Since the era of Shakespeare and Chaucer, Western Civilization has indulged in vulgar literature—sometimes to be amused, sometimes to be aroused. Yet, because citizens were embarrassed by their lascivious appetites, censors took the reins. Obscenity laws were instituted in the 1800s, and vulgar books were banned and forced underground. In 1873, Congress granted well-intentioned moral advocates, such as Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, the power to arrest pornographers and confiscate erotic works. In contrast, a figure opposed to the rampant censorship, Theodore Schroeder, flirted with the boundaries of erotica and promoted it. Schroeder was the first to point out censorship was a direct violation of the First Amendment and shortly after, because of his arguments and the influence of Freud, sexual themes increased in avant-garde literature. With this rise of literary sexuality, censors began to challenge more and more books. These titles were by prominent authors too: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce. 

The U.S. government was determined to put an end to all erotic literature. Those in positions of literary power believed that such vulgar literature should be banned, citing its harmful impacts on children and women. U.S. customs officers aimed to put an end to the flow of erotic literature into America—especially from France during the 1920s, when James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was first published. 

The book was widely attacked for its sexual depictions and explicit content. According to “The Economist,” in 1912 alone, New York Suppression of Vice advocated for police forces to arrest 76 people caught reading the book. By 1920, that number increased to 184 arrests. The sudden tightening of laws resulted from the proclaimed “obscenity” depicted during the rising popularity of literature and urbanization of U.S. cities. However, “Ulysses” is incredibly difficult to interpret, and the sensual depictions are cryptic. A person can easily read through the entire book without realizing the sexual innuendos. 

Joyce’s book created a new authoritative legal precedent. It established that only books that sexually aroused readers could be banned. However, who actually has the authority to declare whether or not a book is arousing? Avant-garde writers who wrote about sex considered their work “high art” and regarded themselves as more skillful than the pornographers who merely produced dirty renditions of sex for the untutored class. 

Psychologists Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen polished and reformed the arousal theory of pornography in the 1950s. They delineated sexual matter into two sects of literature: pornography, which was ignoble, degrading and deserved to be banned, and erotic realism, which was noble, uplifting and deserved legal protection. The Kronhausens claimed that pornography aroused, while erotic realism did not. They further established that pornography’s main purpose is to provoke an erotic reaction in readers, whereas erotic realism depicts truthful portrayals of the basic realities of life in personal sexual experiences. But who is to say what a book’s naked purpose is? What arouses a middle-aged housewife may put a modern college student to sleep.

The Kronhausens argued that suppression of erotic realism is dangerous and illogical, because it led to the creation and consumption of more pornography. They argued that without dignified representations of sex, adolescents would become perverted and corrupt. The head-honcho obscenity experts of the time, the Kronhausens oversaw multiple cases of banned books during the latter half of the twentieth century. They strove to prove that most banned books were not justly banned and were rather “erotic classics.” The Kronhausens were, in essence, lawyers who fought for the justice of literature. The function of these “literature justices” is strikingly similar to the principle on which the ALA’s Banned Book Week is founded: to condemn and raise awareness of censorship, to promote the freedom to read. But then, what is outright “banning” and how is it possible to truly annihilate a book from universal circulation? That’s the hoax. Banned Books Week is fictitious, for very rarely do books achieve full-blown restricted access.

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The ALA receives reports of challenges from libraries, schools and the media who try to restrict texts and deny others’ access to read or acquire them. With these reports, the ALA composes a list of attempts to ban books. Most challenges are unsuccessful and materials are removed only from school curricula or individual school libraries. The ALA simply makes these cases known. Their priority is to advocate free access to information. 

But are books ever really taken off shelves? Removed from circulation entirely? Hardly. According to Slate Magazine, the ALA has only removed four of the 11,300 books challenged since 1982. The typical grounds for a challenge arise from sexually explicit content, offensive racial slurs, biased religious slurs, general derogatory language, inappropriate subjects for intended ages, inclusion of homosexual depictions and violence. In 2014 alone, 311 challenges were made to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Just what constitutes a true “challenge?” According to the ALA’s website, a challenge is a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” Often we overlook the delineation between books removed from school libraries and academic curricula and books removed from public libraries. Only the latter causes books to become generally unavailable to the entire population.

It’s reasonable for a parent skeptical of a certain book on a school reading list to submit an anonymous tip to the school board. This scenario is less extreme than a book being entirely banned from a municipal library for explicit content. As it is extremely difficult to truly ban a book in the U.S., it’s very rare for citizens to advocate for wholly restriced access. It is more common for a book to be taken off a school reading list to keep the peace among parents concerned about their children’s exposure to “adult” content.

However, one exception is Irwin Schiff’s 1999 “The Federal Mafia.” Schiff wrote this novel while imprisoned for tax evasion, and the book was taken to national appeals court for its argument that the federal income tax is illegal. During the case, the judge banned Schiff from selling the book, despite the infringement on his free speech. However, finding a loophole in the ruling, Schiff began to give away the text for free online in downloadable PDF form. The paperback book is also available on Amazon for about $250—unfortunately, not Amazon Prime-eligible. Schiff’s banned book is one of the only true cases that defies the laissez-faire approach to U.S. publishing today, where practically anything goes.

A book is often challenged with good intentions by parents and authority figures only trying to protect those for whom the material may be unsuited. It is ironic that overbearing adults have the final say on what titles are “inappropriate” for young readers when the author writes the book for the young reader—not the overbearing adult. A true reader finishes a book before condemning or recommending it. Most often those who are challenging books haven’t entirely read the book before passing judgment and deeming it “inappropriate.”

In the grand scheme of book banning, parents and school officials have the final say on what is outright removed from a school library. This is relatable to the parents who have the final say on whether or not their child partakes in classroom sex ed. Those parents cannot however, restrict all children from participating in sexual education. Similarly, librarians are unconstitutionally allowed to censor books for the general public.

Literature allows us to employ others’ perspectives alongside our own. It offers social and personal solutions learned through others’ experience. In books, these experiences are offered without the pain and ardor of making such memories ourselves. Why then should literature be limited by others’ opinions? An individual should be able to have the final say on what he or she reads and believes. People should have the authority to dictate and amend their own rules with the changing of norms and personal preferences.

But what are the rules and taboos today for porn and provocative media images? Hugh Hefner, editor-in-chief of Playboy Magazine, unveiled that as of March 2016, the magazine will no longer display fully nude women. This is an extreme change for Playboy. It was a revolutionary leader in making sex in America ubiquitous rather than furtive. The company’s chief executive claims that the change arises from the omnipotence of the Internet, where “you’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free… [printed nudity] is just passé.” The 12-year-old boy inside every man who grew up with the magazine is most likely disappointed; however, the move toward a more modern and refined Playboy is “the right thing to do,” says Cory Jones, Chief Content Officer. Although not banned, printed images of erotica have become hackneyed. Americans are now immune to these formerly provocative images. Nudity is no longer risqué.

In a world where sex is “one-click away,” Americans are no longer aroused by formerly “provocative” images. Perhaps this is why banned books are virtually-extinct fossils today. Some writers actually enjoy the publicity brought by controversy. When a book flirts with controversial subjects, it is because the norm has already transformed, which the author recognizes. It is he or she who brings said change to light. America cherishes free speech, but it also encourages those with marginalized views to censor their thoughts and feelings and deny who they really are. To challenge a book or try to censor it is terrorizing constitutional freedoms. Instead, America should kindle and encourage the diverse ways people express themselves through literature.