First Look

Backdoor censorship? Virginia to warn parents about sexually explicit books

Parents, educators, and lawmakers debated the merits of teaching literature that promotes discussions about sex and violence, such as Toni Morrison's 'Beloved.'

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    Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, listens to debate of HB516, which would require Virginia schools to inform parents of sexually explicit material and provide alternatives, in the Virginia Senate in Richmond on March 1, 2016.
    Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP
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A bill requiring Virginia schools to inform parents if literature contains "sexually explicit content" and to allow them to excuse their children from such curriculum will likely become the first law of its kind in the nation, after the state Senate approved it 22-17 on Tuesday.

The measure unanimously passed in the Virginia House of Delegates in January. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has not commented on the bill.

Many schools across the country already alert parents to controversial content in the classroom. But the Virginia bill could become the first to legislate that teachers must inform parents of sexual content, and that parents would then be able to exempt their children from reading the books with that content. Educators would be required to provide an alternate text.

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At the heart of the Virginia debate is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved," by Toni Morrison, whose works have frequently been challenged by parents concerned about their graphic content, including descriptions of sexual assault and violence: In "Beloved," for example, a female slave is raped by two school boys. The text also mentions bestiality.

A mother in Fairfax County protested that her son, a senior in high school, would be asked to read the novel. In Virginia, parents are allowed to exempt their children from sex education health classes, and she reasoned that sexual content in books should be treated similarly, according to The Washington Post.

Sen. Charles "Bill" Carrico (R) of Grayson told the Post that such content was dangerous for young people. "Evil is just – when you plant the seed, it’s a kitten," he told the paper. "You feed it, it becomes a lion and it eats you."

Senator Carrico said he had not read "Beloved."

Some literature teachers, however, argue that the greater danger is not letting young adults discuss violence, abuse, and healthier sexual topics in class. They say that teens are likely to be confronted with these things in their own lives, and to see them daily online, or to hear them discussed among friends.

When parents challenged Laurie Halse Anderson's novel "Speak," for example, which deals with a rape survivor's struggle, she wrote that many real survivors had written to her to say they had been holding in the "physical and emotional trauma," using "drugs, alcohol, or cutting to cope" until they read the book and were inspired to seek help.

"The written word is not the problem," another Fairfax County parent wrote in a 2001 op-ed:

Lack of parental involvement and an unwillingness to engage in healthy, honest dialogue with children are the real concerns.... Forbidding our children access to literature that explores complex, if at times disturbing, social realities is naive and potentially dangerous, as it does nothing to prepare them for the responsibilities and challenges of citizenship and community living. It is equivalent to sticking one's head in the sand and just about as effective.

The bill's defenders say it is not censorship, since teachers can continue to teach whatever their school permits. Districts hoping to avoid complications, however, may choose to narrow their book lists in advance. "It's a kind of backdoor censorship," said James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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