Wednesday, July 13, 2022

On Claims of Porn in Schools

There's a call to arms on a social media from a few people who think the memoir in graphic novel form, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir pronouns), should be removed from shelves in school libraries for being pornographic. For the uninitiated, "graphic novel" means it's a cartoon, not that it's graphic in its content. My former school was named as one of the offenders who dares to carry such smut, so of course the post had the ironic effect of making me curious enough to go out and buy a copy of the book to see what all the fuss is about. 

Content Warning: Kobabe's drawing of a sex act is further down. Don't scroll down if you think you might be offended.

The original social media poster suggested parents call Family and Children's Services with their concerns about this bit of pornography in our schools, which is a horrible idea that would put undue stress on a service that has much more important needs to tend to than mediating quibbles around which ideas and images teenagers should be privy to. She doesn't seem to understand the scope of the organization. She also doesn't seem to understand what pornography is or what might actually harm teenagers today. 

My only criticism with the book is that, while it shows the main character, Maia, incrementally more courageous as e finds eir voice, illustrating specifically noteworthy events in eir life, the telling doesn't have a strong story arc. A graphic novel memoir that does this brilliantly, for comparison, is Persepolis, which is also a series of true events, but Satrapi crafts scenes together with a trajectory and more elements of storytelling, making good use of foreshadowing for instance. Gender Queer didn't end as much as it just stopped when e got to the present. But that's besides the point here.  

Is It Pornography?

Here it is! I believe this is the page of the book that is considered by some to be pornography. (Unless it's that pap smear scene, but surely nobody would think that's sexy in any way, right?) I'm putting it here to get it right out in the open so we're not led to believe that something truly creepy and horrific is happening in the book. Reviewing or discussing a book allows the reviewer to share a small percentage of the book with readers, typically direct quotations, and I believe it's the same with images, but do let me know if I'm in error here. 

It's not even a drawing of a penis, but a drawing of a strap on that anyone can buy on Amazon for $20 without proof of age. 

Here's why it's not porn even if it were a detailed and realistic looking penis or even a photograph of the same scene: Pornography has an intention to arouse. The depiction of a sex act, on its own, isn't necessarily porn if its intention is anything but arousal, if it's education for instance. It's possible for things to be arousing that aren't intended as such and used as porn, but that doesn't make them porn, like the underwear ads in a Sears catalogue might be bathroom fodder for some, for example. The intention of this scene is to show the author and main character's struggle to figure out eir own desires and how they work when another person is involved. The point of the panel is about communicating desires with another person. How is that smut?? 

It's an important, authentic illustration of self-discovery that we rarely see depicted. It reminds me of the sex scene in the 1973 movie Jeremy in which the two main characters discover one another, slowly, finding out what they each like and learning about the other. I watched that on TV as a pre-teen, and it had a significant impact on how I approached sexuality and how I think people should approach their first encounters. It's important to acknowledge, and useful to actually see this portrayed, as Kobabe has done, that it can be very complicated to figure out what feels good to us. It's especially important now that mainstream entertainment inundates viewers with fast and furious sex within a limited range of pretty standard actions. We need teens to see more healthy interactions. 

Will Seeing That Page Harm Kids Today?

The first simulated oral sex scene I ever saw in film was in Stephen King's Carrie, which I watched a couple years after Jeremy, when I was 12 years old, WITH MY MOM. It didn't show a penis, but it was clear what was happening. We knew from the first shower scene of the film that we were in for some mature content, but we loved our horror movies enough to cope with the nudity and sexual suggestiveness. So it's clear to me that I knew the general idea of a blow job at a pre-teen age, and that was way back in the 70s! And I was that quiet girl who had the answers to the math homework, so if I knew, then it's likely that everyone else knew too. 

I discuss personality development and relationship dynamics in my social science classes by using examples from movies and shows that most my class had seen. I used to use a lot of examples from Friends and then How I Met Your Mother, but these days only a handful of kids in my class know who's who in those sit-coms. The unlimited choices on the internet makes it harder to find common viewing. But the one show almost everyone knew intimately this year was Euphoria. It's a fantastic show for exploring so many issues, not the least is comparing the various way different characters cope with the loss of a father and the very realistic depiction of addiction. It's also full of tons and tons of full on explicit sex scenes. None of my students seemed remotely affected by the many sex scenes maybe because they also have access to actual porn, not to mention dick pics making the rounds. Check out season 1, episode 3, for Rue's tutorial on the new reality of sharing nudes. We can't pretend it's not happening just because it might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge. (Kinda like Covid!)

Right or wrong, teenagers today are seeing lots of sex scenes in a variety of contexts that could sometimes use some discussion. I brought the issue into the classroom to explore the harmful dynamics depicted in the show (they're depicted as harmful by the second season) and concerns with attitudes towards sex as it's now so affected by open access to pornography, particularly with Maddy's aim to please by copying porn without any authentic exploration of her own body. I mean, maybe that's her bent, and that's fine, but I get the feeling that she has no sense of self and is just presenting herself as a trophy to be won, which could be a problem. These are the types of discussions that should be happening with teenagers in an educational setting.

Will Banning It Harm Kids?

Yes. Unequivocally.

If we can't talk openly with teens about real sexual experiences of all types, then they're left to learn from possibly misleading mainstream media. And most important are teens at the margins with respect to their sexuality, who often don't see themselves at all in mainstream media. All kids need to see themselves and issues specific to their sexuality explored in books in our school libraries.

The Chair of Trustees at my former board, Scott Piatkowski, is in good company when he shut down the conversation on this at a board meeting a few months ago using almost the same words used by Berkeley Law Professor Khiara Bridges: "I want to recognize that your line of questioning is transphobic":

 

"It opens up trans people to violence by not recognizing them. . . . One in five transgender persons have attempted suicide. . . . Denying that trans people exist and pretending not to know if they exist is dangerous." 

Gender Queer is not pornographic, nor is it harmful to see, and, most importantly, refusing to allow access to this type of writing can be harmful if not outright dangerous. 

Unless it makes more people buy the book!

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