Essays

Sex Ed Books Don’t “Groom” Kids and Teens. They Protect Them.

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When Robie Harris began research on It’s Perfectly Normal, she was told by friends and colleagues, “Don’t write this book. It will ruin your career. You’ll never be published again.”

It was the early 1990s, and the concept of an accessible book about puberty and sex marketed towards kids and tweens was radical. More than 20 years later, it’s still in print — and it’s still radical.

Sex education books are one of several categories being targeted in this latest wave of book bans, especially those that include LGBTQ topics — the anniversary edition of It’s Perfectly Normal was updated to include trans youth. The rhetoric sounds awfully familiar to the book bans of the ’90s, where titles like It’s Perfectly Normal and Heather Has Two Mommies were accused of sexualizing kids and/or turning them gay. LGBTQ books and sex ed books continue to be some of the most popular topics for book challenges, and while the ’90s saw gay authors and teachers being called pedophiles, the new right-wing buzzword is “grooming” — which is only the slightest update to the same accusation.

In the book You Can’t Say That!: Writers for Young People Talk About Censorship, Free Expression, and the Stories They Have to Tell, edited by Leonard S. Marcus, Harris shares some of her experiences writing the book, her collaboration with illustrator Michael Emberley, and the censorship attempts of the title (and its companion book, It’s So Amazing!) over the decades. She talks about how carefully both Emberley and herself considered every aspect of the book, from the text to just how much a blanket should cover in a certain illustration.

She’s gotten accustomed to the book being challenged in schools and libraries, though it never stops being painful, and often reaches out to librarians and teachers with information about the professional reviews and awards it’s received to help arm them in the fight.

At an event, a librarian shared with Harris that It’s Perfectly Normal kept disappearing from the shelves. She replaced it several times, but it kept happening, and it was beyond their budget to keep doing so. Then, one day, they all came back in a backpack with a note: “I took this book because I thought no child or teenager should read it. Then my 14-year-old niece got pregnant, and now I realize that children do need books like this.”

Harris and her sex education books have been accused of a lot of things, but she remains grounded in the knowledge that education is powerful, and that kids deserve access to reliable information about their bodies. “How can we hold back writing about powerful feelings, or not include certain information children crave and have the right to know, simply because we are afraid?”, she wrote in 2012.

The most illustrative story she shared, though, was about a 10-year-girl in Delaware who picked up her book when at the library with her mother. Her mother let her check the book out, and when they came home, she showed her mom the chapter on sexual abuse and said, “This is me.” She was being abused by her father, and it was the first time she’d spoken about it.

The father was convicted, and the judge said, “There were heroes in this case. One was the child, and the other was the book.” Harris wrote in to add that the mother was also a hero in this story, for listening to her daughter, and that the librarian who ordered the book and kept it on open shelves also made this possible.

In the interview with Marcus, Harris said:

I have been called a pornographer, a child abuser — every name in the book, as the saying goes. But whenever I am called one of those names, I think of that ten-year-old girl. I wish we never had to talk with kids about any of these aberrant behaviors. But we have to do so because they already know about them to some extent and because kids have a right to have the accurate information that can keep them healthy and safe. They need to know how to get help to make any abusive behavior stop.

When right-wing groups petition and protest to get sex education books off the shelves of school and public librarians, this is the effect. It stops the most vulnerable people in our society from accessing the tools and language that can help them. It helps to shield and hide abusers. It communicates to children suffering from abuse that they are shameful, and that it’s not safe or polite to speak out about.

Many right-wing “parents’ rights” groups have claimed that they’re asking for a compromise: they just want to move these books to the adult section, or from school libraries into only public libraries, or to keep them behind the counter. But this story wouldn’t have been possible if It’s Perfectly Normal was in the adult nonfiction section or kept behind the desk. The kids who most need these books are the least likely to be able to get to them if they have to jump through hoops to do so.

The timeless book banning cry has been “Think of the children!” Groups pushing to pull sex ed books (and LGBTQ books and books by and about people of color) off the shelves claim they’re doing it protect kids. But ignorance doesn’t protect anyone. Next time you’re choosing between attending a school board meeting or staying home, between speaking out for or against sex ed books in schools, between having a difficult conversation with your kids or putting it off for later, remember that 10-year-old kid in Delaware, and all of the kids suffering in silence. They need your voice to find their own.

To join the fight against censorship and book bans, check out How to Fight Book Bans and Challenges: an Anti-Censorship Toolkit. Stay informed with our weekly Censorship News Round Up, and sign up for the Literary Activism newsletter.

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