Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Censorship Story (or, what I did with my summer vacation)

As red-blooded Americans, we instinctively recoil against censorship. But living in a world filled with small children and old ladies, we also realize that not every imaginable expression of everything needs to be everywhere. Most of us recognize censorship as a shade of gray involving who has easy access to what, not a black-and-white absolute. The only exception readily coming to mind is child pornography, because both its production and consumption have demonstrable negative effects.

Mostly, we try to censor words, images and ideas. Words and images are easy. Change the f-bomb in a song to a beep, throw a cloth, shadow or gore over otherwise exposed genitalia, and we’re good to go. If a director is trying to get a PG-13 rating, they can depict a blood-less murder.  Censoring ideas is harder, causing strange compromises- songs glorifying drug use can get air play if they don’t mention a specific drug, but songs with an anti-drug theme that name a specific drug can’t. Tremendous controversy surrounded the release of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with an R rating (as opposed to an NC-17) because it “depicted a rape”. Actually, the movie depicts three, of two different characters, plus several instances of consensual sex, and several attempted murders. The plot of the movie encompasses dozens of murders, rapes and incest. But it was the graphic-ness of one rape scene that pushed the critics’ envelopes. A combination of images and ideas, as the scenes of consensual sex were no more graphic, anatomically speaking, than two of the rape scenes. The salient detail no one mentioned is that the graphic-ness of the rapes scene does a great job at depicting how ugly and brutal rape is- it’s fiction illustrating something common but almost invisible. It depicts a victim putting herself in a situation where her re-victimization is likely. This isn’t unheard of, but such cases almost never get convictions, and if they make it to trial, the baffling headlines generally cause people to conclude that someone is “playing the system”. The scene illustrates that the power a rapist has over their victim isn’t always physical, but the graphicness of it shows how abusing that power is vastly wrong.

One little FYI- in the time it takes to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 89 people in the US will be raped, and 44 % of them will be under the age of 18.

When I read about a musician or director struggling with a censorship issue, I always breathe a small sigh of relief, as writing is among the least censored creative genres. Most parents are so happy to see their child reading anything other than text messages or Facebook updates they’ll tolerate almost any choice of reading material. There is no rating system for books, only the vague categorization of books into “young adult” (or YA, a genre encompassing 12-18 year-olds) or younger and “adult” genres. There are no prohibitions against selling books that aren’t “young adult” to minors. A teenager reading a novel that isn’t in the YA section of Barnes and Noble means-gasp- the teenager is reading at an adult level. This is something most parents celebrate.

I was recently invited to submit a story for a Halloween anthology. The anthology was being edited by an up-and-coming YA author, so she felt it was important that the anthology be acceptable for young adult audiences. The guidelines I was given were that the submission must have something to do with Halloween, although it need not be much. No swearing, no graphic depictions of sex or violence. Halloween is not my favorite holiday, and horror and suspense are not my favorite genres, but I was committed to finding something to contribute. I approached it logically- what are things people deeply fear? Spiders. Anything else? Pedophiles. Can I weave these two things together? Indeed. I came up with a story about the guilt and sorrow caused by justice a system that makes it hard to convict sex offenders, especially in NY. It’s set on Halloween, and it features a dream where a character is attacked by their pet tarantulas. It used the word “rape” once and the word “pedophile” once. And I was told it was too adult. What’s more, I was told that, according to a leading YA literary agent, discussion of child sex abuse is forbidden in the young adult marketplace.

And then I read that it’s apparently forbidden in some libraries, too. The public library in Lancaster PA decided to remove from the shelves Debi Pearl’s book “Sara Sue Learns to Yell and Tell”, a book teaching children to recognize child sex abuse and report it to adults. The library denied it was a censorship issue, and when questioned about it, a library official was quoted as saying "The goal of the library is to buy things people in the community want to read".

I understand parents wanting to shelter their children from every imaginable expression of everything. But, the cliché question in this case is “if you don’t talk to your children about pedophiles, who will?” One possible answer is “no one needs to talk to them about it, they can just download instructional photos on their phone”, as evidenced by this unfortunate case  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/photos-of-gang-rape-go-viral-on-facebook/article1710072/.

The other cliché answer to the above question is "pedophiles themselves". Of course, most parents’ knee-jerk reaction is “I don’t know anyone who would do that/there’s no one like that in my neighborhood”. I’ve seen one study stating that in 90% of child sex abuse cases, there is no non-offending adult who’s aware of the abuse. That means no trafficking, no parent or bystander providing tacit consent or help. I’m sure in most of these cases, the non-offending caretaker(s) of these children had no reason to suspect anyone they knew could hurt them in such a way, but lo and behold, hurt them they did.  

All the leaders in the child-sex-abuse-prevention field believe talking to children about both healthy sexuality and sexual abuse is likely to decrease the odds of that child being victimized. The assumed benefits are two-fold- a child who can comfortably utter a sentence like “Mommy told me never to touch someone’s penis” is likely to be a less attractive target to a predator. After all, they’ve just shown they can describe the act that is being planned, that they’ve talked about this sort of thing with Mommy, and that they’re probably capable of telling the police. The other possible benefit is that a child who understands what sex abuse is better prepared to minimize the damage done to them should they be victimized. If they have the misfortune of telling someone who doesn’t believe them or take appropriate action on their behalf, they may still understand they are the victim of a crime and the abuse isn’t their fault. They may be spared some of the guilt that often plagues survivors.

When a CSA survivor is left to piece together their experience based on the media and discussions with friends, they’re likely to draw some strange conclusions. There are very few depictions of CSA survivors who do anything besides survive CSA- in other words, the crux of their story is that they were abused, and usually a struggle for justice, an intense desire for vengeance, or vast amounts of crying ensue. But that’s it- these people have no life beside their victimization, and usually their character is never seen again. Sitcom parents struggle to bring the right kid to dance class and pick the right one up from karate, but not to bring one to the weekly support group for CSA survivors at the local child advocacy center. I suspect screen writers would say there is no humor to be found there, but that both embodies and furthers the belief that the life of a CSA survivor is too damaged for humor, and the healing it can bring. Murder is commonly depicted in young adult movies and books (what percent of the good guys in Harry Potter are murdered?), rape and CSA aren’t. This implies that rape and CSA are rarer, worse, or both. It’s true that I’ve never met a CSA survivor, myself included, who hasn’t struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression at times, but I’ve also never met any who don’t grow past it and reach a place where they’re happy to have survived their trauma.

Here’s what upset me the most about hearing that CSA is forbidden for YA audiences- in a class of twenty nine-year-olds (about the youngest a kid would be who tackles a YA novel), statistically two have already been sexually abused. Another will be abused by their 14th birthday (when the official YA age bracket starts), and another will be abused before they celebrate their 18th birthday.

I was lucky with my story. I was able to do the cinematic equivalent of throwing some gore over genitals. I eliminated the words “rape” and “pedophile”, I made the spider dream a smidge less graphic, and I threw lots and lots of gloss over the whole thing. I argued a little about why it’s important that young adults be able to read about this issue. And I know that neither my story nor my arguing over it is going to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but I also know that awareness of an issue, even the smallest measure of it, is necessary to fix it.

I know what it’s like to hold a new baby and feel completely unworthy of something so pure and full of potential. I’ve watched many parents try to cast out anything that may sully this new person’s future. Voluntarily, their freedoms to smoke, to drink, to drive recklessly, to swear, to watch TV when the baby is awake, go out the window. But reality eventually sets in. Some of those self-imposed limitations prove impossible, some prove excessive, and some prove unimportant. But still, there is a desire to keep this young person’s world pure is strong. It can be very hard and unpleasant to remember that children dwell in the same flawed world we do. But a pristine corner of it may be one who’s inhabitants find themselves unarmed against well-hidden enemies.  


  1. Hi Melanie,
    You make some really good points here. What most sticks in my mind is the point that victims become defined by their "victimness".
    I also agree with you that the only way to fight something we all must surely agree is evil, is to expose it to the light of day. Censoring or glossing over the truth doesn't accomplish that. In fact, I suspect that keeping something in the shadows can actually be more scary - especially for kids. I've never had kids (unless you count all my furry ones) so I don't know. But I think if I did have kids, I'd try to find a way to keep them safe by keeping them honestly informed. Sure, there are different levels of information for different ages but I'm sure it can be done.
    Parents, teachers, family and friends can't recognize problems or even be tipped off to look a little closer if they are not educated on such an important issue as child abuse either.
    I admire you for your direct engagement. Be assured you are making a difference.
    Fiona Dudley

  2. By the way, the comment by a librarian that the purpose of the library is to provide the community with books they want to read. I am sure my librarian mother would beg to differ! Libraries are there to provide more than what we already know, for goodness' sake. Shame on that Lancaster PA library!
    Fiona Dudley

    1. Hi Fiona. It's funny, I had a friend try to comment here, and the said he couldn't, but he showed me the comments through another way, and they were very similar to yours. The funny thing is that I don't think you can make non-abused kids afraid of sexual abuse. I used to work at a regular-old day camp with regular-old kids, and when I was trying to explain why things like hitch-hiking was bad, and I'd start to lay out the concept of sex abuse, I'd just get blank stares. Kids are protected from fear of this by their own innocence. Then as they get older and sexual activity becomes part of their universe (even if they, themselves, aren't sexually active they have peers and siblings who are) they can't wrap their mind around the possibility that they can be victimized. I think that when adults talk about protecting kids from undue fear, they're expressing their own. Adults are responsible for keeping kids safe. There are no two ways around that. One facet of this is to make sure they have knowledge of the dangers in this world, and that knowledge is appropriate and correct. And one of the best ways to educate people and bring about effective change in this culture is thorugh entertainment.

      As for the library thing... I didn't know whether to laugh or cry as I read that. Libraries are supposed to have things like the complete works of Shakespear, classics of the western cannon... things that aren't in high demand but are unspeakably useful for people trying to truely understand this culture and nation of ours.

      Thanks for reading!