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Book-Banning Controversy

Originally Published By: Women’s eNews on December 13, 2010

A book-banning effort against “Speak,” a young-adult novel about date rape, is creating an uproar. A campus group is making a documentary, a Twitter feed is discussing censorship and a library group expects the controversy to attract teen readers.

(WOMENSENEWS)–A Missouri State University professor’s bid to ban a young-adult novel about date rape, among other “filthy books,” from the school district’s English courses is spurring young-adult authors and teachers to speak out against censorship in a country where more than 10,676 books have been challenged in libraries and schools since 1990.

“Teens don’t live in a vacuum,” Andrea Cremer, author of the young-adult novel “Nightshade,” wrote in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “They inhabit the same brutal world as adults without the knowledge and tools of adulthood. For those teens whose lives have already been affected by drugs, violence, suicide or any number of traumatic experiences–what children as well as adults struggle with–books can provide comfort, healing or simply the realization that one isn’t alone.”

One in six women will be a victim of sexual assault during her life, according to data published by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, based in Washington, D.C. Young women between 16 and 19 are four times more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.

“Speak,” a young-adult novel by Laurie Halse Anderson about a teen who was raped at a party, is on the New York Times bestseller list, was a National Book Award finalist and has received many honors, including the Michael L. Printz and Golden Kite awards.

However, Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of business management at Missouri State University in Springfield and a fundamentalist Christian, is demanding that “Speak” and two other books be banned from public high school English coursework in Republic, Mo.

Scroggins filed his complaint in June to the Missouri public school board and wrote an opinion piece on Sept. 18, arguing that the two rape scenes in the novel should be classified as “soft pornography.”

Call to Ban Two Other Books

One of the other books Scroggins wants struck from high school reading lists is “Slaughterhouse Five,” the 1969 antiwar novel by Kurt Vonnegut, which Scroggins complains has too much profane language and sex for high school students.

The other is “Twenty Boy Summer,” by Sarah Ockler, published in 2009. Scroggins said the book “glorifies drunken teen parties” and sex on the beach with condoms.

He is opposed by those who argue rape is a violent act of assault–not porn–and that removing the book would infringe on students’ First Amendment rights.

“Teen readers lose their First Amendment rights as well as access to information that may help them grow intellectually or emotionally if a book is unjustly removed from their local school or public library, or if the library unjustly restricts access to it in some way,” Beth Yoke, executive director of the Chicago-based Young Adult Library Services Association, said in an interview with Women’s eNews.

Since 1990, the association has documented the removal of at least 10 books from the schools and public libraries in Missouri. However, the information provided to the group is voluntary, said Bryan Campbell, an administrative assistant for the Chicago-based Office for Intellectual Freedom, in an email interview.

He also said the group is working on a system for larger data collection that may provide a more reliable picture of book banning statistics in the future.

Each year the American Library Association, based in Chicago, recommends a variety of books to libraries, including “contemporary realistic fiction that reflects the diversity of the teen experience.”

Hundreds of books, including some recommended by the organization, are also challenged or banned from schools and libraries each year.

Between 1990 and 2009 the most common reason listed for challenging a book was “sexually explicit,” at 3,046 complaints. Complaints of “violence” numbered 1,258, according to data provided by the American Library Association.

Thousands Say Thanks

“When ‘Speak’ was published, there was some whispering that this was not an appropriate topic for teens,” Halse Anderson said in an interview with the Springfield, Mo., News-Leader four days after Scroggins attacked the book on the newspaper’s opinion page.

She added that thousands of readers had written to thank her for the book: “They said it made them feel less alone and gave them the strength to speak up about being sexually assaulted and other painful secrets.”

The highly popular young-adult author, Judy Blume, a frequent target of book banning herself, has written to the National Council Against Censorship, based in New York City, on behalf of Halse Anderson.

Ockler, author of “Twenty Boy Summer,” one of the three books condemned by Scroggins, blogged on her Web site in September and October about the dangers of censorship. She also emphasized the importance of healthy discussions among parents and their children: “Truly asking for parental involvement would mean encouraging parents to read the books in question, discuss issues and themes with their kids and come to their own decisions about what’s best for their own families.”

“I’m against book banning in schools,” Daisy Whitney, author of “The Mockingbirds,” a young-adult book published on Nov. 2 that also treats the subject of date rape, said in a phone interview. “‘Speak’ is a novel that has helped so many teenagers understand the emotions surrounding someone who has been through a traumatic experience. The reason some people have suggested banning ‘Speak’ also concerns me because in no way should rape ever be equated with sex.”

Teachers, Librarians, Parents Protest

Paul Hankins, an English teacher from Indiana, started a Twitter feed called SpeakLoudly in response to Scroggins’ complaints. A community of teachers, librarians, parents and publishers also founded SpeakLoudly.org with Hankins soon after, in September.

The controversy has also helped publicize the books under attack for censorship.

“Tell a teen that a book is banned or challenged and they will want to read it to find out why,” said Yoke, of the Young Adult Library Services Association. “So, in one way, book banning actually piques many teens’ interest in the controversial titles.”

Vern Minor, superintendant of the Republic school district where Scroggins’ complaint was received by the school board, told the News-Leader in September that “Slaughterhouse Five” was removed from the English course curriculum.

However, in a Dec. 6 e-mail with Women’s eNews, he said: “We have not made any decisions on the books in question. Our discussions are currently focused on board policy, not the three books per se. We are really trying to look at this matter from a much broader perspective than just three books.”

The school board hopes to set standards for book selection. They do not have a set time frame to implement the revised curriculum policies.

Candice Tucker and Brandon Bond, students at Missouri State, have started filming a documentary about the events, censorship and Scroggins’ “radical views.” Bond has also launched an advocacy group on Facebook called “No More Banned Books,” where he hopes to fight against “the enemies of reason and tolerance.”

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Christa Fletcher is an online writer and editor dedicated to promoting awareness about women’s issues. Her work has been featured by Channel One News, InterviewHer.com, Marie Claire and she keeps a blog at ChristaWrites.com.

For more information:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network:
http://www.rainn.org/

National Council Against Censorship:
http://www.ncac.org/

SpeakLoudly:
http://speakloudly.org/

Speak
http://www.powells.com/partner/34289/biblio/9780142407325?p_ti

What About the Girls?

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There are two very important topics relating to girls’ self-esteem weighing heavy on my mind lately.  Both deal with the fate of young women and how they think of themselves and each other.

Cyberbullying and Teens

First, I’d like to call attention to the recent surge of suicides among teen girls due to cyberbullying.

In Massachusetts, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hung herself two months ago after repeated verbal assaults by classmates on social networking sites. And, horror of horrors, the nine bullies who are being charged with harassment, stalking and rape, mocked her death online after she passed.

According to an article in the New York Times, “two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney, said at a news conference in Northampton, Mass.”

There’s a similar case underway in New York regarding 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington and the harassment she experienced on Facebook that also drove her to commit suicide. Both of these incidences show the intense need for intervention among teen interactions. In both cases, boys and girls were involved in the torment of these girls.  And, given how easy it is to verbally attack someone on Facebook or Twitter, we need to find ways of protecting girls’ self-esteem — and their lives. Even bullying among boys is often related to gender issues, specifically the notion of being more “masculine.”  Blogger Kelly Croy talks about his experiences with bullies and what he thinks people should know about it.

Not sure what cyberbullying is exactly?

  • Sending mean, vulgar, or threatening messages or images via email, text, instant message, or by posting on social networking sites.
  • Posting sensitive or private information about another person (this includes sexting).
  • Posing as someone else to make that person look bad online.
  • Intentionally excluding someone from an online group.

In an article I wrote for Channel One News you can get a closer look at cyberbullying and its affect on teens, including very interesting studies about teen behavior online and information about the psychological effects of bullying: http://www.channelone.com/news/cyberbullies/.

Women’s History Month: What Girls Need to Know

One of my other concerns for girls and young women involves self-esteem and pride. I was thinking about Women’s History Month.  I haven’t seen many tributes to women in the media. Have people forgotten about the rich cultural history women’s rights has brought to the world? Shouldn’t we be teaching young women to take pride in their accomplishments and honor those of other women?

I read this article by Allison Kimmich, about how women’s historical achievements should be incorporated in school curriculum better.  Kimmich is right. Much of what is taught about women leaders, revolutionaries, writers and activists ends up in the recycle bin after the month is over. We need to move beyond creating poster boards and find ways of including women in the classroom.

Kimmich makes another great point, women also need to be encouraged in the fields of math, science and technology. She recounted an anecdote about her daughter that reminiscent of the classroom gender dynamic many experience growing up.

“When my daughter was 5, she announced after school one day that ‘girls don’t do science.’ And in a recent meeting, her third-grade teacher praised her for helping a male classmate keep his desk neat.  So my daughter learned quickly that girls are not ‘supposed’ to excel in certain subjects, but teachers reward ‘feminine’ behaviors such as caretaking and neatness — sometimes more than, or in place of academic performance.”

Though these two aspects of you gender culture among youth seem disparate — they are not.  The subjugation of young girls and the pressure to be “feminine,” which can include taking abuse, not standing up for one’s self and even being tidy in the classroom, are all gender norms we impose upon young girls. We must teach them to defend who they are and their interests in order to preserve and encourage self-esteem among girls and women.

Until we are willing to accept that these problems are gender related and the roots lay deep in the stereotypes females grow from — we will continue to see young women suffer from problems like cyberbullying, low-self esteem, depression, suicide and even a disinterest in more “masculine” studies like math and science.

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Legislation Opens to Women in India

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The hands of government are opening and welcoming women into power with a bill that will likely pass allowing 1/3 of the legislation seats be designated for women.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the 186-1 vote to the Associate Press, a “historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood.” Given India’s history of oppression among women — from the systematic killing of female fetuses, the banishment of widows and the dowry system, the Prime Minister’s goal to improve the lives of women in India is not only bold, it’s much needed.

According to the Economist, “Women are missing in their millions — aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now.” And, despite the awareness raised by news articles, human rights groups and documentaries like the ones featured in my post “A Women’s Work is Never Done,” change needs to come quickly.

With women working in legislation, it will happen.

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International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of this special day for women everywhere, Ms. Magazine has launched their new blog!

To check out the latest in women’s news across the globe, go to Ms. Blog at MsMagazine.com.

And, for an updated look at their special post for today, view:

How We’re Doing: International Women’s Day Edition.

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Shut Up

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We’ve all faced it to some degree — one of those burdens of being a woman — sexual harassment. What happens when harassment becomes abuse? Where do we even draw the line between the two — isn’t verbal harassment still a form of assault?

Countless times I’ve been verbally attacked in public.  And, I say attacked because that’s exactly how it feels.  Someone is aggressively hurling words my way with the intent to make an impact.  I’ve agonized over questions like, “Do men think this is acceptable?” “What do they expect me to say back?” Are they trying to make me angry, scared, sad, or — worse yet — turned on? PLEASE. What the hell do they think they are doing and why does it happen so frequently?

I’d like to think since 1972 when Title IX was enacted, a law that prohibits sexual discrimination in the workplace and in education, we’d come a long way. Yet, harassment at work, school, in public — anywhere — is a form of discrimination.  When men say perverted things to women on the street they are saying it because they are women, not because they are a person. How is it any different from shouting a racial slur at someone? In my opinion, someone saying a sexual remark to me is the same as calling a black person the N-word. These forms of language are hurtful and discriminatory toward particular groups. There’s no difference and no way to stop either occurrence.

Why is there nothing you can do about harassment on the street? Even on sexual harassment support sites it defines the problem as: “unwanted and  unwelcome behavior, or attention, of a sexual nature that interferes with your life and your ability to function at work, home, or school. ” What about a woman’s right to walk on the street?

I asked a friend who works as a police officer for the NYPD about the safety of carrying pepper spray in my purse, in case harassment ever became a physical danger while walking a sketchy stretch of sidewalk on my way home.  He said I could carry pepper spray, but it’s tricky because unless the harasser or attacker actually hurts me, he could accuse me of assault with a weapon if he doesn’t touch me. So basically, he could chase me, with an attempt to cause injury, but if I act first, I could be charged with assault.

As I said before, where do we draw the line? Is sexual harassment protected by the First Amendment out in public?  Can women really be convicted of assault if they are attempting to protect themselves?  The biggest danger of these verbal attacks is the potential for them to become actions — rape, molestation, assault, and kidnapping. And the risk is high when the threats are made.

However, if our own government cannot even protect their female soldiers from sexual abuse from their comrades, how can we expect them to protect civilians like us too?  When do we stop being silent and take action to make the harassers shut up?

To report incidents and find support in New York City, check out Holla Back NYC, a group dedicated to supporting those who have been harassed on the street. And, to increase awareness about this problem, don’t forget to share your story below.

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Top Ten Resolutions For the Sexist Woman

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A new year can bring a fresh perspective. Here are a few tips and tricks for the wayward woman because, let’s face it, we can all be a little sexist sometimes.

10.  Do not buy, download, borrow, or even waste time thinking about Going Rogue by Sarah Palin.  Her words are toxic and are not meant to help humankind.

9. Avoid sexist terms when describing yourself or other women.  Sexist vocabulary begets more negative treatment toward us on the street, in the home and in the media.

8.  Do read more literature and non-fiction by women writers — from the classics like Brontë and Austen, to modern geniuses like Didion and Atwood. There is so much to learn and enjoy in their wisdom and perspectives.

7. Stop stressing over what you eat and how you influence others about food. Eat healthfully and in moderation, you don’t need to starve or stuff yourself — both can hurt your body and mind.  Balance will sate you.

6.  Read the news.  Be aware, but please stop gossiping. And, buy less celebrity magazines focused on who’s skinny and who’s not. It doesn’t matter, focusing on the superficial makes us all just a body.

5.  Stop judging other women for their choices.  Liberation gives us the freedom to do anything from piloting planes or playing point guard, to baking cakes or being a mom.

4.  Say no to posing nearly naked for magazines. Seriously, who cares if you get paid, the cost for the rest of us and the continued sexualization of women in the media is too high. Your bare ass has consequences for ours.

3.  Stand up for yourself, don’t let others make you feel like less of a person because you are a woman.  You are an equal in this world.  Live the part.

2.  Embrace your talents and support those of the women around you. There’s no need to compete, we’re in this together.

1.  Love yourself and everything that makes you a woman.

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Born to Be…What?

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Over the last couple weeks I read two very interesting books centered on the future of humankind and concerns of population control.  Both proposed these extremist views of birth, life and death in the wake of a post-apocalyptic Earth.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, by Maragaret Atwood, the United States has become a hyper-religious police state where women are stripped of their rights as citizens. They fit into one of four classes: a Martha (housemaid/cook), a Wife (who is typically upperclass, but sterile), a Handmaid (surrogate) and an Aunt (teaches Handmaids).  All women are forced to wear conservative clothes that are a uniform of their class, concealing individuality and their bodies — handmaids wear red.

In the novel, handmaids are treated as slutty servants or worse, as incubators.  They cannot have relationships of their own and if they interact with the husbands without the wives present, they are punished.  The handmaids are also stripped of their identity, being named Offred or Ofren depending on the name of the man they are contracted to at a given time — like Fred or Ren.

The other book I’m reading, many people read in high school.  Brave New World, by Alduous Huxley, has a quite different portrayal of the future. Where the Handmaid’s Tale is stripped of sex, but uses women’s bodies as a rape of rights, Huxley created a future of test tube babies altered in utero to fit into destined castes.

I found the juxtaposition fascinating.  Each narrative has their own precise delineation of class and gender, speaking to society’s economic and racial  divisions.  In Huxley’s world, people are made to look different and think separate thoughts — inferiority and superiority are trained mantras and biologically created. In Atwood’s account, they are later separated depending on their biology — fertile or not?

One thing both of these books share (aside from a commentary on contemporary culture) is the removal of family.  Huxley makes the idea of family a perverse and heathen ritual of the past, where the word “mother” makes people want to vomit.  For Atwood, families are ripped apart. Children are not allowed to be with their true mothers, the handmaids.  Family is a construct built to perpetuate the human population, not to nurture with love and foster a happy life.

The most significant thing I found in reading these books together, is how women’s rights are inherently linked to the survival of family and individuality.  Without equal rights, humankind is just as any other animal — reproducing, or in the case of Huxley’s novel, replicating for the sake of survival.

There is no real living. There is no love.  There is no humanity. Whether you force the burden of pregnancy and birth on a woman or take it away, either way you deny her rights.  Choice promotes individuality and family.

And, what is most ironic: American teens read these books when they are in high school. Yet, for them, the lesson doesn’t stick.  They don’t see the connection between the books, themselves and our world.  Where are the brave and new changes to feminist thought?

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