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Is Young Adult Lit Too “Obscene”?

Is Young Adult Lit Too “Obscene”?

Books for teens contain a surprising amount of swear words – at least, so says a study by Brigham Young University social sciences professor Sarah Coyne. Looking at 40 YA bestsellers, Coyne found that the average teen novel contains 38 swear words – or, by her calculations, seven instances of profanity per hour of reading.

This is a study coming from a Mormon university, so the obvious assumption embedded in this research is that profanity in books is harmful to adolescents. Coyne’s analysis showed that characters with “high social status, better looks, and more money” used curse words more frequently – which she believes may cause children to try to emulate these “positive” portrayals.

While the implied link between mild juvenile delinquency and young adult lit is tenuous at best, Coyne does have some reasonable suggestions. Namely, that parents who are concerned about the content in their children’s books do some research on them using free online resources, and that parents talk about books their children are reading with them.

I don’t believe in censoring the literature children have access to once they’re in middle or high school (and I think that younger children are mostly confused or bored by subject matter that’s too mature for them to understand, so careful censorship isn’t strictly necessary). It is good for parents to know what their children are reading and watching on TV. It’s important to be able to discuss problematic subjects and how they’re portrayed in the media. And it’s good for parents to be able to speak to their children about their interests. These are all important considerations regardless of your political leanings or opinion on “obscenity” in literature.

But let’s be honest. Students probably hear curse words more than 7 times per hour in school hallways (except maybe in Utah). People learn swear words from friends or family members as a child or teen – even if they avoid using them in normal conversation, or at all. While everyone’s entitled to their own opinions about foul language, most people know exactly when it is and isn’t considered socially appropriate and are capable of conducting themselves accordingly. (And if not, they realize they’re deliberately alienating people.) This has probably been true since the beginning of time, and society has failed to collapse.

I sincerely doubt that reading some profanity in a book will have any greater negative effect than hearing it aloud on a daily basis. And it seems like a stretch to assume that the “cool” characters in a book will have more of an influence on teens than peer pressure from their friends.

What do Care2 readers think? Is this study exaggerating the harm of foul language in teen literature? Or is there something to this study?

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39 comments

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9:40PM PDT on Sep 6, 2012

Thanks

3:21PM PDT on Aug 25, 2012

gasp?! a naughty word!? how awful. puh leaze. They see and hear much worse in school, on the street, in movies, and on the news. we as a society cannot lawfully censor it. what a child reads, watches and hears is up to their parents.

4:01AM PDT on Jun 1, 2012

Swearing is nothing, kids swear too, can't you lot remember swearing as a kid? it was a lot of fun! But anytime I hear a kid swear in front of me, I always explain to them; Do not swear in front of adults, you can swear and use curse word amongst your friends if you want to, but just don't do it in front of adults!
Some people think swearing in literature is worse than violence! They're just wrong. As a teenage boy I was only interested in a book if it had sex in it. Violence was boring and as for swearing I would not even have noticed it, we have been swearing and spitting since we were five years old, playing games of violence murder and kidnapping too! Emulating what we saw on TV and life. (cowboys and Indians and soldiers and cops type of games) I live in England where we swear and blaspheme constantly and thoughtlessly. Builders refer to a half truck of bricks as a shitload, a full truck is a f**kload. If a line isn't straight or something is slightly out of kilter, we called that line 'pissed' And a particular easy task is known as 'piss easy' or a 'piece of piss!' Working in mud is referred to as a C**t of a job. We do not refer to an objects base, but the 'arse end of it'. There are probably more terms that I can remember but in finishing I say one thing, we also use swear words as a working tool. When there's a particularly hard job, we swear with the effort and it gives us that little extra boost we need to turn the spigot or pull out the tree root in our way. Swea

12:00AM PDT on Jun 1, 2012

The kids today hear far more swear words at school and at home than they will ever read in books.

My primary objection to profanity is seeing it printed on T-shirts, worn out in public, and hearing parents or others (adults, or not) in public places, who cannot speak one sentence without using at least one ugly swear word, no matter where they are. There is a place and time to express yourselves in that manner, and wearing offensive clothing, or speaking it aloud in a group of strangers, is not classy.

10:27PM PDT on May 31, 2012

oh, the dark arts of literacy and creativity...

10:09PM PDT on May 31, 2012

In the late 60s the Catholic Church blacklisted all books that even suggested anything sexual. Next to the Muslims, the Catholic Church is the most sexually repressive fascist regime on earth. They are sick, twisted and perverted. Talking about sex horrifies them but butt slamming their children by their priests hardly causes them to comment. The Southern Baptist Neo-Nazi brainless pricks incite riots to round up gays and kill them but put up a national protest when Schweady Balls ICE CREAM comes out. Religious people are NUTS. Torture and MURDER doesn't bother them one bit nor the political corruption that is taking America on the road to destruction but a WORD makes them GO CRAZY. No wonder every civilized country is laughing at us.

8:56PM PDT on May 31, 2012

When I was in high school (ages ago), the few girls in the physics class were not allowed to go on the field trip to the hydroelectric dam because of the fear our modest ears might be subjected to the sound of men swearing. The higher-ups who made the decision clearly had never been in the girls' locker room.

5:14PM PDT on May 31, 2012

I am not against swears in a book but think at times it is a bit too much. That being said I always encouraged my kids to read....and rather then censor them I would take them to a book store and allow them to select a book to read. I would also read the book and we would discuss it as it was read. I don't see where it harmed any of them, what was important, I believe, was having discussions about the content so they weren't left thinking that some of the weird stuff they read about was acceptable in a civilized setting. What it did do was open their minds and that sure is a positive thing.

4:36PM PDT on May 31, 2012

Swear words? So what? The holy book of horrors, the BuyBull, is so full of blood and guts and
calling women every filthy name under the sun, that it should be BANNED as pornographic and
NOBODY should read it. It's a DISGUSTING record of man's INHUMANITY to MAN and especially to WOMAN! A few SWEAR WORDS ARE NOTHING!!!!

3:24PM PDT on May 31, 2012

DEPENDS ON THE AUTHOR AND THE BOOK...I HAVE READ A COUPLE OF AUTHORS THAT WRITE FOR YOUNGER PEOPLE...THE BETTER BOOKS NEVER SEEM TO BE CHECKED OUT...I AM SURE HIGH SCHOOL KIDS COULD WRITE BOOKS OF THEIR LIVES WE WOULD NOT WANT TO READ AT ALLLLLLLL. SO PARENTS SHOULD MAKE SURE THEY KNOW WHAT THEIR KIDS ARE READING. I WAS FORTUNATE MY TWO WERE OLD ENOUGH BEFORE THE COMPUTER GENERATION CAME AROUND.

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