Shocking Sexual Content in School Books??? A Step-by-Step Plan for Speaking Up
Editor's Note: The staff member who wrote this article is a former school teacher and understands the challenges educators and school librarians face. To clarify, we are not against books that represent diverse points of view in any way. We simply believe that pornography in books can be just as harmful as pornography in videos and that books in school libraries should not contain pornographic material. If a passage cannot be read out loud at a public forum because it contains obscene and graphic descriptions of sex, we don't think that content should be available at a school library. We stand for a parent's right to speak up and this article encourages civil and respectful discourse.
In the past year and a half we’ve seen a rise in parents speaking up against sexual content in school books–on the shelves of school libraries, in electronic libraries, on recommended reading lists, and even on required reading lists.
In this article we’ll cover:
- sexual content found in books in school districts across the nation,
- the responsibility of school districts to provide age-appropriate materials,
- the harms of exposing children to sexualized content,
- tips for previewing books,
- talking points for discussing this topic with your child, and
- suggestions for speaking up.
Sexual content in school books
In January, The New York Times reported “Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an ‘unprecedented’ 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books, last fall.”
A quick internet search will yield dozens of news stories from the current school year about how parents are objecting to the sexual content in books at their children’s schools.
Here are a few examples:
- Virginia Fairfax County school system pulled two books from their library shelves after a mother questioned the school board about why sexually explicit books were available at the school library. As reported in U.S. News, the book Lawn Boy, ”...an illustrated memoir, contains explicit illustrations of oral sex and masturbation.” Gender Queer “...contains graphic descriptions of sex between men and children.” As the mother read excerpts to the school board to prove her point, the school board members interrupted her when she read the graphic passages aloud because it was inappropriate for a school board meeting. They immediately removed the books. Then, as they do with all challenges, the school board created a committee to review the books. Unfortunately, the committee made the decision to reinstate these two books to school library shelves–available to kids in grades 7-12.
- Indiana Parents of Carmel Clay Schools spoke up at a school board meeting regarding books with sexual content available to all kids–including Kindergartners. In an interview with a local television station, one dad said, “If I were to read it to you, you would not be able to air it because it would be against FCC obscenity laws.” He said parents did read passages during the school board meeting and that “...everyone was uncomfortable–and these were adults.”
- Texas A mother in the Leander Independent School District spoke up against books on a list of recommended options for student-led book clubs. The books in question “...feature strong profanity and obscene sexual scenes.” One of the books, In the Dream House, is “...a very detailed memoir about a violent same-sex relationship.” Another book, Lolita, “...is a 1950s-era book about a 37-year-old man’s obsession and inappropriate relations with a 12-year-old girl.” After the school board meeting, a petition was started. One signer commented, “As a healthcare professional, I’ll just point out the obvious: The above content presented to a minor constitutes sexual abuse and should be reported as such.”
The list goes on and on as parents across the nation take a stand.
Schools should provide age-appropriate material
While many of the stories in the news are calling for more widespread banning of books that present diverse viewpoints, we are not calling for a ban on books that present ideas or values that are different from our own. We are merely asking for age-appropriate learning materials.
All educators take classes in childhood development. Providing age and developmentally appropriate materials is critical in education.
One mother in Texas stated, “We are asking for age-appropriate reading material that advances independent thought and critical thinking. … Netflix uses maturity ratings and classifications so that viewers can, and I quote, ‘make informed viewing choices for you and your family.’” We are asking for no less than that for our students.
One dad in Montana stated that the books in question in his district constitute pornography. “If I stood outside of that school and handed out pornographic materials, I would go to jail. And it seems odd to me that these books would be in our school libraries for everybody to access.”
The harms of exposing children to sexually explicit materials
Pornography is most often thought to be pictures or videos of nudity or sexual acts. But the depiction of those sexual acts in animated content (such as cartoons and video games) and in literature is also pornography.
The American Bar Association states that “Exposure to pornography harms children and youth by normalizing sexual violence, creating unrealistic expectations for intimate partners and relationships, and increasing the risk of addiction.”
That happens whether it’s a graphic video or an explicit passage in a book. To find out more about the harmful effects of erotic lit and pornography, see these articles:
- How Porn Hijacks Young Brains and 3 Effective Ways to Defend Your Kids
- 5 Proven Ways Porn Harms Kids that No One Talks About
- Porn Harms Girls in 12 Ways: Fight Back with 3 Empowering Mindsets!
- Sexual Assault Nurse Links Porn to Child-on-Child Abuse: Interview with National Expert Heidi Olson
- Erotic Lit and Young Minds--How Hyper-Sexualized Fiction Harms Girls and Boys
Defending our kids from sexual content in books at school
One mom had a goal when her children were young that she would preview every book before her kids read it. But when her oldest started reading on his own, she quickly realized that her voracious reader consumed books far faster than she could possibly keep up with.
Her goal then became to at least read reviews of each book before he read it. But he would often check out a book at school, read the entire thing during the day, then return it and check out a new one before ever coming home.
It was soon obvious that she could not possibly screen every book he read. It was not a sustainable ideal. But what if he picked up a book with inappropriate content? We’ve learned that even the school library shelves can’t be trusted.
While we do encourage parents to pay attention to what their kids are reading, it’s a nearly impossible task to keep up on it all.
So what are parents to do?
Tips for previewing books
Though it’s not possible to read or review every book your child ever reads, it’s still ideal to have an idea of what your kids are reading.
Here are a few tips:
1. When possible, look at book reviews for required and recommended reading lists. Ask your children to bring books home that they are reading in class. Flip through the book and skim a few random passages.
2. Do random checks of the books your child is bringing home from the school library or reading electronically.
3. Ask your child questions about the book. See our talking points below.
Talking points for discussing books with your child
Again, if your child loves to read, it’s nearly impossible to read every book they ever read. Even if you manage to read reviews for every book, review sites don’t always have the same definition of what’s age appropriate as you do.
That’s why it’s so important to empower your child with a warning about sexual content in books and a plan for what to do when they encounter it.
Here are some talking points:
1. Talk to your child about pornography in an ongoing conversation. Kids need to be equipped with these 3 defensive tools: an age-appropriate definition, a warning and a plan. Emphasize that they are not bad and won’t be in trouble when they are exposed to pornography.
Not sure how to start? Here are some resources to help you approach this topic in age-appropriate ways for kids ages 3-12 and beyond:
- Our most popular free guide How to Talk to Kids About Pornography
- The best-selling Good Pictures Bad Pictures series of read aloud books
- Our parent and teacher-approved Brain Defense: Digital Safety course
2. In your discussions about pornography, be sure to emphasize that it’s not just pictures and videos. Pornography includes animation, video games, and written stories. Come up with a plan for what to do if they are reading a book that has sexual content. The above mentioned resources will help you make a plan with your kids.
3. Ask your kids about the books they are reading. Use language that’s appropriate for their age. For example:
- What’s this book about?
- What’s happening in the story?
- Tell me about the main characters.
- Is there anything you’ve read in the book that makes you feel uncomfortable?
- For older kids, ask directly if the book contains depictions of sexual acts.
What can parents do if they find sexual content available at their school?
We want to make clear here that we love educators. They are increasingly overburdened with responsibilities. Just like you can’t read every book your child reads, teachers and librarians can’t read every book on the shelves at the school. They rely on approved reading lists from the district or state level and on online reviews. Are there educators who are crossing the line? Probably. But please give the benefit of the doubt and approach educators with kindness when addressing this issue.
Tips for speaking up against sexual content in school books:
1. Be involved at your child’s school before there’s a problem. If you have the time, volunteer at your school in some capacity–help in your child’s classroom, chaperone field trips, be part of the PTA/PTO, help with a club or sports team or a single event at the school. When you’ve established a good relationship with people at the school, it’s much easier to bring up a concern and they’re more likely to take action. We understand many parents can’t spend a lot of time at the school, but anything you can do to have positive interactions there before bringing a complaint will be to your advantage.
2. Calmly and kindly speak with the teacher, advisor, librarian, or administrator.
- If the book is required reading for a class or club, calmly express your concerns to the teacher or advisor. Ask if the book is required by the district or school curriculum or if it is a book the teacher chose themselves. Request an alternate assignment.
- If the book is on a recommended list or found in the physical or electronic library of a school, speak with the librarian. Ask who chooses the books for the list or collection. Express your concerns about the book. Ask for a specific remedy. “Can this title be removed from our school library?”
- If you speak to the teacher in person, be sure to send a follow-up email copying an administrator so there’s a record of the conversation.
- Have a follow-up conversation about the book with the school’s administrator. If the book was chosen by a teacher or librarian at the school, ask for the book to be removed. If they refuse to do so or if it is part of a district-approved curriculum or on a district-approved list, then your next step is to address it with the school board.
3. Do your homework
- Note specific pages and paragraphs that aren’t age-appropriate.
- Enlist other parents to help you look at other books in the course, program or library where the material was found. Talk with the school’s PTA/PTO presidency to see if they will get involved.
- Find out what your school and/or district’s policy is for reviewing books used in classes and libraries. Is there a district-wide approved reading list or can teachers assign any book?
- Start a petition asking for a committee to review the books in question as well as to create a district-wide approved list if there isn’t one already. There are many online petitions available–like Change.org–that make gathering signatures easier than ever.
4. Address your school board
- Find out the date and time of the next school board meeting where you can make public comments. Register to comment ahead of time if needed.
- Enlist other parents to sign up to speak on the topic as well and others who will just come to show they support your statements.
- Prepare and practice your statement. Public commenters are often limited to only a couple of minutes. Be sure to clearly and calmly articulate the problem and cite specific examples. Reading the actual passages makes people uncomfortable and that only strengthens your argument. Watch videos of other parents commenting on this topic as you prepare. In addition to some that were in the news stories we referenced at the beginning of this article, here’s a great example from a mom in Dallas.
- Share your petition asking for a committee to review the books and to create a district-wide approved list. Request to be on that committee.
- Follow up. Return to future meetings and ask what action has been taken to correct this problem.
Demand better for our kids
Books containing graphic, violent sexual content normalize harmful sexual behaviors, and we owe it to our children and our communities to speak up. It’s amazing what one motivated parent can accomplish.
To defend the kids in your life against graphic sexual content in books, remember–
- Converse with your child about the books they read.
- Speak up with civility, grace and conviction when you find books that have sexually harmful content.
- Enlist other parents to help you address the school board.
Do you have a story about finding sexual content in your child’s school? We’d love to hear it! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brain Defense: Digital Safety Curriculum - Family Edition
"Parents are desperate for concepts and language like this to help their children. They would benefit so much from this program - and I think it would spur much needed conversations between parents and children.” --Jenet Erikson, parent