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Sexual Assault Awareness Month & Book Banning: Book Censorship News, April 5, 2024

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Over half of all women and nearly one-third of all men in the United States have been victims of sexual violence in some capacity. Those numbers are, of course, for those who’ve reported their experiences; the likelihood of those numbers being much higher, especially for men, is great. People of color are at even higher risk than white people for sexual assault. 82% of all victims under the age of 18 identify as female, and girls between 16 and 19 are four times more likely to be victimized than anyone else in the population.

Trans people experience sexual assault at a rate four times higher than their cis peers.

One thing that the far right gets correct in their complaints about bathroom and locker room use arguments is that the instances of sexual assault are indeed higher when transgender people use the bathroom they feel most appropriately aligns with their gender. The thing the far right gets wrong, though — and we know it’s purposeful mis- and dis- information here — is that it’s not the cisgender bathroom and locker room users who are being attacked. It’s the trans individuals, A quarter of those between ages 13 and 18 were assaulted when simply trying to do their business.

Victims of sexual assault experience many mental health consequences as a result. They might find relief short-term in substances like alcohol or marijuana, but the addictive nature of those substances may lead them to dependence in the long term. But that trauma lives in their bodies, and they’re far more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression than their peers who haven’t been sexually victimized. Over 9 out of 10 times, the victim knows their abuser.

Since the spring of 2021, book banning has been legion across the U.S. It first began quietly, single book by single book. As we enter 2024, it’s been not book by book but shelf by shelf and law by law. Individuals and groups have dedicated their lives to erasing stories that counter the lies they tell with pride in the name of “freedom” and “liberty.”

During the 2022-2023 school year, the most recent period for which we have an entire school year’s worth of data, PEN America found that the most commonly banned books in public schools across America were no longer books by or about people of color or LGBTQ+ people. The most commonly banned books in American schools were those that explored themes of violence and physical abuse (48%). Of those 48%, over half include instances of sexual assault.

In other words, 25% of all books banned in America being about sexual assault.

Image from PEN America report that relays subject matter of banned content between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023.

Zooming out and looking at the data for banned books in the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school year, 19% of all books banned in U.S. schools included a scene or theme relating to sexual assault.

Every 68 seconds in America, someone is sexually assaulted. Every nine minutes, that victim is a child.

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins, the most banned book in the country, is about teens who find themselves roped into prostitution; at its heart, it is a book about one of the many ways sexual violence is experienced and perpetrated among young people. It is not a book meant to titillate nor encourage such activity. It does precisely the opposite.

The second most banned book in this same PEN America data set from the last full school year has The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison as the second most banned book. It depicts a scene of a father raping his 11-year-old daughter. Eight out of ten rapes are done by someone the victim knows, with 34% of victims under the age of 18 being violated by a family member. Morrison did not write her book to elicit reader arousal.

Also in the top 10 most banned books? Sold by Patricia McCormick, a book about child sex trafficking and its horrors, as well as The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, wherein the main character witnesses a date rape.

Even beyond the top banned titles are scores of additional books written for young people that explore the topic of sexual violence, done so with the purpose, not of sexualizing or stimulating readers but to help inform and empower them about one of the most common forms of violence. Against one of the most common forms of violence of which they could become a victim. These include books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (both the novel and the graphic novel, illustrated by Emily Carroll), The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg. There are literally dozens more.

image of a book on fire with text that reads "25% of all books banned in america are about sexual assault"

Banning books not only violates the rights of young people to read. It violates their right to safety, as books that explore tough topics like sexual assault and rape help young people to understand that potential abuse might be happening inside their homes. That the biggest threat to their freedoms of life and liberty are those who are closest to them — people they see every day or every week.

Perhaps even the very people eager to get those books out of their hands so they remain in the dark.

Book banners use the rhetoric of sexual violence when it applies to their own aims. Calling educators and librarians “groomers” does not, in fact, make them so. Grooming is a specific act or series of behaviors meant to encourage a child to emotionally connect with an adult. When that connection is established, the adult uses the child’s trust to sexually abuse them. By providing books about sexual assault in schools and public libraries, no adult is grooming children. They are active in precisely the opposite: the books are gateways to understand where and how grooming operates and thus, young people are better prepared for situations where actual grooming may be occurring.

The same book banners invoke the “groomer” label while simultaneously calling out the “flood” of human sex trafficking through propaganda like Sound of Freedom. They create bogus statistics about the ubiquity of this human rights violation to garner attention for it while also banning books like Ellen Hopkins’s Tricks or Traffick and Patricia McCormick’s Sold, which explore these very topics in a teen-appropriate manner with the explicit goal of helping teens identify these horrifying atrocities (and protect themselves from becoming victims).

As it is, was, and forever will be until we turn the tide of book bans, it is the young people and their educators who lose again and again to louder voices and deeper pockets rather than truth and fact.

This month as you turn toward anti-censorship advocacy, utilize the facts about sexual assault awareness month to continue bolstering the need for these books to be made available to young people nationwide and not just in places where they’ve been lucky not to be banned yet.

Book Censorship News: April 5, 2024