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For These Conservatives, Depicting Rape in Literature is “Child Pornography”

For These Conservatives, Depicting Rape in Literature is “Child Pornography”

Written by Alyssa Rosenberg

It’s always depressing to see attempts to get good, challenging literature out of school curricula. But the current push to get Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye removed from the federal Core Curriculum for eleventh graders as part of a larger effort to resist federal involvement in education, contains a particularly disturbing element. As The Atlantic Wire reports, some conservatives backing the attempt to ban the book are suggesting that scenes of sexual assault in the book amount to “child pornography”:

Hotzclaw told the Alabama Media Group, “The book is just completely objectionable, from language to the content.” The novel is seemingly the most controversial on the 11th grade reading list, and thus, an easy one to criticize — there have been efforts to ban it in schools and libraries since it was written in 1970. It does contain graphic scenes of forced sex (which the conservative blog Politichicks helpfully provided context-free in a post titled “(WARNING: Graphic) Common Core Approved Child Pornography”).

First, calling The Bluest Eye child pornography is a troubling thing to do because it’s not true. It’s grotesque to accuse Morrison of producing child pornography when she’s doing anything but, and it suggests the weakness of the actual case against The Bluest Eye that the novel’s detractors have to reach for this kind of hyperbole.

Even more than that, suggesting that scenes of rape are pornography erases the distinction between sexual assault and consensual sex in a way that’s all too common in our larger culture. Furthermore, it plays into the idea that depiction of a bad act is always an endorsement of it, which is a belief that tends to circumscribe what’s possible and effective in art in a way that’s truly unfortunate. Taken together, these approaches make for an ugly, but effective, way to suggest that a work of art that’s forcing a confrontation with the reality of rape is actually meant to titillate. If you drive people away from honest depictions of sexual assault because they think consuming the material makes them complicit in the sexual exploitation of children, or that it renders them sexually abnormal, you’ve found a very good way to prevent them from engaging with work that could expand their thinking and their empathy. That approach is dangerous because it’s got the potential to be very, very effective. Right now, the people using it are marginal. But that’s not a reason to take this argument seriously, and to expose it for what it is.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

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125 comments

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2:31AM PDT on Apr 20, 2014

Thank you for a rational and realistic article.

Censorship is *never* valid. In most cases, those who advocate censoring of a particular work is most often made by those who haven't even seen or read it and when they have, who clearly don't understand it.

Unfortunately, librarians are some of the worst censors and are able to do it surreptiously through supposedly legitimate "collection development" policies. That is, of course, not to say that *all* or even *the majority* of librarians are so inclined. It is simply to say that, unfortunately, they are over-represented among those who censor.

Invariably, censorship results in greater attention to a work and, it could even be argued that it may be the best form of publicity a work could get - for many who wouldn't otherwise be even aware of it, let alone engage it, will be prompted to do so.

The argument for banning or restricting this book and the criticisms made of it are, as you have so rightly pointed out, completely without substance and much more likely to promote pornography than they are to reduce it. They are facile, demeaning and unjust. They simply demonstrate a backward and negatively conditioned approach to learning and the contrary effects of opaque as compared to transparent attitudes in dealing with anti-social issues in our society. For that reason, they do no favours for those for whom the censors purport to have concern.

I could provide a lengthy list of books and artworks that have been

12:40AM PDT on Apr 20, 2014

Thank you

1:57AM PDT on Oct 25, 2013

Modern children in the USA and Europe are not as innocent as they were 30 years ago. The internet and the media have seen to that. While we shouldn't encourage children to read or see obscene material, nevertheless as a society we expose our children to far too much 'filth'. It's not uncommon for children to know all about the birds and the bees at a very tender age, and have seen inappropriate material on the internet.
We shouldn't however, expose them to such material in school or college. It might be seen as a license to go out to commit sexual crimes. I am an author myself (see my profile re my novel), and I certainly wouldn't want anyone under 18 reading my novel that contains descriptions of violence and rape. Some material is for adults only.

1:00PM PDT on Sep 12, 2013

First of all, the Common Core shouldn't even exist on two fronts. The first is that Education is a states issue because it is not explicitly stated in the Constitution as a right of Congress (see the 10th Amendment). The second is in the Primary and Secondary Schools Act, it explicitly bans the federal government from instituting a national curriculum, which this does. As to the censorship, all banning a book does is makes students want to seek out the book on their own time and read it.

3:46PM PDT on Sep 11, 2013

Censorshp is dangerous in any form, even to "protect" eleventh grade teens. I have read Toni Morrison's books, though not this particular one, and have never felt she wrote about gratuitous anything. There was always a reason for her putting something in her books. I Will go and order this one when finished here.

Censorship is the surest way to get people to buy a book, listen to graphic music, see a movie or play. These Puritanical people have to learn that America is a Democracy. This means We, the People, get to choose whether or not to watch, see, read, hear, buy anything - even pornography...

These fanatics, as all censors are, can make the same choices we do. That's how Democracy works...

10:18AM PDT on Sep 11, 2013

censorship is the sign of a corrupt government.. hmmm

8:07AM PDT on Sep 11, 2013

Might cause some unexpected people to read it.

6:09PM PDT on Sep 10, 2013

cont

Hiding reality from children does not help make a better world. On the contrary. It's said that knowledge is power and I believe that it is. One of the best ways in which we can empower our children is to alert them to potential dangers; to equip them with an understanding of their own bodies and awareness of the "warning signals' that their bodies and minds give them.

Of course, we must be aware and protective - I am not advocating that children be allowed to walk willy nilly into danger. I just don't believe that pretending it doesn't exist or hiding the bad side of life from them is a productive strategy. Far better, in my opinion, for them to know about risks and how to deal with them.

Censors, you will find, no matter how well-meaning they may feel, are controllers and seek to impose their beliefs and views on others. In my opinion, no one has the right to do that and I have never, in my 66 years, seen any evidence that it ever did any good. On the contrary, it appears to me that whenever something is prohibited or hidden, both children and adults will go to any lengths to discover it.

6:08PM PDT on Sep 10, 2013

Christine S - You are very right.

When it is really analysed, pornography exists only in the minds of those that see it that way as with anything that is offensive. In effect it is no different to the concept encompassed in, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". We accept that readily but seem unable to do so with a negative concept, yet they are just two facets of the same phenomenon.

Most of our unhealthy preoccupation with "danger" and "nastines" being associated with nudity or sexuality, derives from anachronistic cultural and religious strictures imposed on people who either didn't know any better or couldn't do anything about it if they did. They have no place in modern society and, in fact, do more harm than good.

Child abuse is abhorrent but, in reality, no worse than adult abuse. The different perception comes from our belief that children are innocent and vulnerable and can't defend themselves. To a major degree this is true - but it is no less true for most of those who are abused, no matter what their age or agenda. Our protective instincts for children simply make us more disgusted and horrified by it.

My view is that all forms of abuse are negative. My view is that the best way to rid our society and our world of abuse is to raise awareness, to educate, to remove hypocritical taboos, and to be open and honest - with one another and with our children.

Hiding reality from children does not help make a better world. On the contrary. It'

3:43PM PDT on Sep 10, 2013

If some perv will get titillation out of reading the passage about rape- then maybe it is pornography! But if the rape is mentioned briefly and not gratuitously, and teachers will be able to answer the students' questions about it, then it can be something for kids to discuss intelligently and erase the stigma of being a rape victim.

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