Ways of Seeing: Pornography and our libraries

I checked out a book from Ilsley Library a few weeks ago that had a back cover proclaiming it a charming satire in the style of a particular author. I know that writer; his books are gentle, non-violent, and respectful of women. In this book I found torture, multiple murders, and graphic sexual violence against a woman. When the torture was hinted at, I skipped pages only to find myself reading about rape. I skipped ahead farther and it was still going on. I will spare you the details of it, which are appalling.
Though I was skipping, I still caught phrases describing it. This book was not describing something consensual. Then I skipped to near the end of the book to see how the rapist got caught and found that the villain — the rapist — turns into the hero, getting away with his crimes, the money, and the woman. The woman decided, “I enjoyed being mastered” and then runs away with him.
This to me is obscene. In this case, I define “obscene” as something that teaches evil. Or if you’re uncomfortable with the word “evil,” then something that teaches people to do something that grossly harms others.
No woman enjoys rape. It’s NOT the way to get a girlfriend! Boys and men could take this story to mean that a woman’s “No” means “Yes.” Rape survivors could be re-traumatized by this book.
In what world is this plot “charming?” Since the back cover is completely misleading, I got in touch with Dana Hart, Ilsley Library’s director. I described the book as “soft porn,” told her its message, and asked if Ilsley wants to have that kind of book on its shelf. She sent me the Library’s “Request for Reconsideration” form, which I filled out.
It was turned down. It turns out that Ilsley cannot decide that a book is pornographic, whether soft or hard. First, there is no accepted definition of pornography because society’s values change so much over time. Second, as a government facility, Ilsley is bound by laws which prohibit labeling a book pornographic. So once a book is bought, it can’t be removed because readers find it so.
However, there does seem to be an “invisible” policy in that Ilsley doesn’t have a pornography section. So the library, in reality, is excluding that category. So why can’t they “reconsider” such a book if it was purchased unknowingly?
Dana invited me to meet with the Library Board of Trustees to find out what can be done. Some of them were as appalled by the book’s content as I was, noting that they would not want to read such a book nor have their teenagers read it. Still, they are bound by the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. So I asked if books can be rated like movies, as a guideline to their content. It turns out that the publishing industry doesn’t have an agency that could rate books for adults, though there are several websites that rate children’s books to help out parents. So could Ilsley do this itself, starting with new purchases and books pointed out by patrons? No. The library’s “Materials Selection Policy” does not allow it to label a book in any way that would set it apart from the rest of the books in the library.
This also prohibits putting on the back cover a truthful description about the book, such as: “This book contains torture and graphic sexual violence.” My last suggestion was to label such books with the kind of warning we hear before certain news stories: “This story may not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers.” No go on this, either. The Trustees had a thoughtful discussion, but they were against it for a variety of reasons. The only action the Board could think of is for people to look up online reviews before checking out a book from the library. That seems extremely cumbersome to me.
I asked Dana later how books are chosen for the library. Staff select books that they expect will circulate and will contribute to a diverse collection. There are many sources from which they draw information.
Please don’t write to me yelling that I want to ban books. I don’t want to ban books. I simply want their back covers to tell the truth. If they don’t, I’d like our libraries to be able to do it for them. For us.
Because no book that teaches that if a man wants a particular woman for his girlfriend, he should rape her, and that she’ll be glad of it, should be described as “deliciously quirky,” or, even worse, the word used twice on the back cover:
I asked Dana, if I don’t return this book, and I pay the fine, would you replace it or not? Since a few people had checked it out, the answer was that they would buy another copy. Too bad. I would have had a charming time ripping it apart and recycling the paper.
Barbara “shulamith” Clearbridge offers interfaith spiritual direction and energy work healing. She lives in Middlebury. She is the author of “Finding God/Prayers & Spiritual Practices from Many Traditions,” “Natural First Aid and Simple Health Solutions,” “Heal With Your Hands,” and “Recovery: Women’s Words About Healing After Trauma.” Her website is: FeelingMuchBetter.org.

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