As hard as it is to believe that we still ban books in modern-day America, it seems even sillier that we ban books like Cecily Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series. The books, which earned praise from highbrow publications like the New Yorker, not only did not impress parents in places like Mississippi, but earned their outright ire.
“The f-word is in there. It makes reference to ‘Fuck this test,’ ‘Fuck the teacher.’ It makes some sexual explicit comments in their that I find very offensive, as a parent,” Tony Smith told WLOX News when Picayune, Mississippi decided to ban the book at its junior high school last year.
I’ll hardly defend the Gossip Girl books as must-reads for all teens — despite some clever writing, I didn’t care for the selfish, privileged teens portrayed in the books much at all. But I will defend the right of a teenager to read them, especially given that one of the main objections to Gossip Girl was its inclusion of any sexual content.
Of the ten most challenged books in 2011, eight were challenged on the grounds that they portrayed nudity or were sexually explicit. So while banning books has always been about controlling people’s minds, it’s now exclusively becoming about controlling young people’s bodies.
Banning the Gossip Girl books, much like banning other top entries like ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r, The Color of Earth, My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alice, Brave New World, and What My Mother Doesn’t Know is, according to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, a misguided attempt to keep young people from information about, or even fictional portrayals of, that most taboo of subjects for young people: sex.
And though, personally, my teenage inquisitiveness about sex was mostly satiated by voraciously reading my mother’s romance novels or checking out trashy science fiction from the library on the sly, for many today, Gossip Girl gives teens a window into a world where sex is openly, and even unabashedly, a normal part of teen life. And that, it seems, is what’s behind effort to ban the books: that normal teenage sexual impulses are portrayed (and dealt with) as normal, even when they are misguided or have negative consequences.
The same impulse that pushes parents to ban books like Gossip Girl is the one that pushes ineffective abstinence-only education (funded through 2014 thanks to the Affordable Care Act). Back in 1995, only about 8 percent of teens received abstinence-only instruction. Today, this is the model for sex ed for about one in four American teenagers, according to data complied by the sexual health think tank the Guttmacher Institute. It seems that many adults, despite their own experiences and all evidence to the contrary, believe that if you can keep information about sex from kids, you can keep kids from having sex.
Mississippi, incidentally, has America’s highest teen pregnancy rate, more than 60 percent above the national average — and it’s hard to argue with a straight face that the Gossip Girl books are to blame. It’s far more likely the case that a state law requiring the state to teach abstinence-only education or simply opt out of sex ed altogether restricts teenagers’ knowledge about how to prevent pregnancy without actually stopping them from having sex. This year, the state adopted a new law that allows school districts to teach contraception — but still allows them to downplay its effectiveness.
The notion that we can somehow keep teens from having sex by keeping them from accurate information about or literary portrayals of it is absurd on its face. The advice most sex-positive counselors give to parents about having “the talk” with their kids is that you should go ahead and assume that your kids have already been exposed to pornography or sexually explicit material — with the Internet so accessible and sex so ubiquitous in popular culture, it’s to be expected that children will stumble upon content we think of as “for adults only” without adult supervision.
Instead of ignoring it or banning books that contain sexual content (which more effectively calls attention to said sexual content better than any book cover could) in the hopes that it keeps teens from having sex, we’re far better off giving teens and young adults the best and most accurate health information we can — and focusing our attention on imparting on them the moral values the characters in Gossip Girl lack. Certainly, banning books won’t do either.