Friday, April 13, 2007

Sex in Libraries

Carrying on from the previous post about graphic novels, for anyone who may be interested, the graphic novels in question were the "Crying Freeman" series. Now I should point out that these are perfectly legitimate and respected examples of the genre (I actually found them to be quite good reads myself), and on reflection I probably wimped out big time by removing them from the collection. To be perfectly honest, if it had been a written book, or a movie, I would not have had any problem with it, it's just the immediacy of images and the possibility of some sensitive person or child innocently being exposed to it in my library that was the clincher. Perhaps libraries in Japan don't have this dilemma, given how widely accepted explicit manga are there. I guess I could have made them "kept at desk" material, for adults only, but - where would it stop? Then I got to reflecting on the place of public libraries in providing sexually explicit resources in general.

Let's make one thing perfectly clear - I am not here to arbitrate on the morals or sex lives of my customers! Consenting adults and all that ! As an older human being, I am more than aware of the increasing "sexualization" of society, and I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing (compared for instance to the repression and shock horror attitudes that I remember from my not too distant youth). In so far as libraries deal in resources of popular culture (books, movies, music), we can't be expected to hold back the tide. And a lot of sexually explicit/erotic materials are very very popular with library customers!!

Here are a few anecdotal examples:

Some years ago I bought an American book called "Gay Blades", a novel about the gay ice skating scene. While cataloging this book I was a bit surprised to find several very graphic scenes of joyful, rollicking, going for it gay sex, which frankly, at the time, was quite personally educational (as it was for all of the library staff at the time)! I wondered how this would go over with the customers, and whether it would generate any complaints. Well that book has been out many many times to many many of our regular (adult) customers both male and female, young and mature, without one murmur of complaint! The staff tell me that another novel, "It's my f___ing birthday" has also been a big hit.

It's no secret that Mills and Boon novels and the associated genre, historical "bodice rippers" (with titles like "I was kidnapped by a pirate" and "What's that under your kilt, Dougal ?" -sorry I just made them up but you get the idea) are becoming raunchier in response to popular tastes. Even I was surprised, when, flicking through a recent Mills and Boon title to the end where the lovers, all misunderstandings now swept aside, are preparing for a blissful future together, and having a bit of a kiss and a cuddle, when the man pauses momentarily "to roll on a condom'!!!! - I'm glad to see even Mills and Boon are promoting safe sex.

After the success of Linda Jaivin's literary erotica in the 90s, customers (interestingly mainly female) started to ask for "any more books like that." So we tentatively started experimenting with the purchse of novels frankly badged as "erotica". We didn't put them into their own section or anything like that, just in with the rest of the adult fiction, but it became frustrating (pardon the pun!) to both us and customers seeking that kind of material. We use genre stickers for other stuff like historical, humour etc to help customers identify material, so why not a genre sticker for these as well? But what symbol to use (the imagination runs riot). Our most mature staff member came up with the perfect solution - the universally recognized 'X' discreetly affixed with the spine label. Please note, the primary function of the X is a guide, NOT a warning!

Recently a customer did complain about some sexually explicit material - not because he didn't approve of it, but because he was concerned that young adults should not be unknowingly exposed to it. The offending material was the scifi/fantasy novels by John Ringo. I read the passages involved, and, I had to agree. What was involved here was not erotica, it was sadistic violent non-consensual degrading and graphically described sex. But it could be argued that this is perfectly legitimate in the context of the storyline. This is not the first time I had come across personally offensive material in this genre - I read the first book in the wildly popular "Wheel of time" series by Robert Jordan and I dearly wish I had not. There was a scene of such mysogynistic violence in that book that it has haunted me for many years. As a discerning adult, I can put that into perspective and choose not to read any more Robert Jordan, while not denying the enjoyment of clearly millions of adults who love Robert Jordan. As for objections about young people reading this material, I could say: It's catalogued in the adult section. Parents are responsible for the monitoring of their child's reading. However, given the undeniable reality and acceptance that young adults freely access the adult section, and in particular, the SCIFI /Fantasy section, I do feel there is a compromise position - perhaps we can assist parents with that duty. Not by affixing our beloved X - remember we decided it's a guide not a warning. To confuse the two would no doubt be confusing to our customers. So after discussion amongst the staff, we think we might affix a label on the inside of the book along the lines of "This book may contain material not suitable for younger readers. Parental review is recommended" or some such. It's a funny irony isn't it that there's a national classification system for movies, but for books we have to think up something ourselves?

So what's next. If our customers start to ask for (real) X rated materials and porn, should we comply? It would be undeniably popular, and we might reach a new audience of non-users! Of course, the answer (currently) is no. But as a parting irony, take the case of the recently published novel "Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel." A recent reviewer for the Australian made the point that if it was a movie, it would be x rated, but in respectable book format, it passes as literature. Now I have that book beside me as I type, and I've also liberally dipped into it (for professional purposes only - NOT!) and it is very very steamy. Not something I could continue to read at work and expect to get any productive work done afterwards, if you get my drift. It involves erotica of a kind some people would find very offensive. But it's had good reviews as a piece of storytelling, and I'm betting it's going to be very very popular...


  • Fabulous post Deb - just rollicking.

    I'm curious. Do you actually have a "kept at desk" selection at all? If so, what do you put there? Do you stock movies and DVDs as explicit as your books?

    I can't imagine the conversations your staff have been having happening in the public libraries where I worked 10 years ago. Then again, I don't think Mr Tall Dark and Handsome was whipping out rubber johnnys back then either.

    Glad to hear some public libraries are keeping up with user demand and doing it in such a good humoured and accepting way.

    By Anonymous Kathryn Greenhill, at 10:24 PM  

  • I echo Kathryn's thoughts. Very good post on an issue that we don't generally discuss, except as mutterings between staff at the desk. You make some very good points that I will ponder for some time.

    By Blogger Michelle McLean, at 11:55 PM  

  • Kathryn

    Re your question, do we have a kept at desk section? Yes we do,not primarily for censorship purposes, but mainly for items that (judging from experience) would be at high risk of being stolen, including heavily used assignment material, books about tatooing, and (interestingly) witchcraft books! There is one interesting exception - a few years ago I innocently bought a non-fic book about the Roman Emperor Caligula which is filled with such gross images of (factual) depravity including peadophilia, I dared not risk some innocent high school student picking it up for his/her assignment!! (As a consequence it's never been out). And a few years ago of course we all had to keep "American Psycho" under the table, by order of the Government! But as a rule I intensely dislike keeping anything at the desk, and would strongly resist keeping materials there purely on the basis of censorship, because, as I said, where would it stop? We do have a couple of R rated DVDs - after all, a good Tarantino surely deserves its place as a cultural resource? But we don't go out of our way to purchase raunchy material with no other redeeming quality.

    By Blogger Deb, at 11:40 AM  

  • I agree with your post. Very well argued!

    By Blogger Laurie, at 3:03 AM  

  • The old saying what is one man's meat is another's poison is true about all books in a collection.

    The most off book that I have read from our local excellent public library was one on the history of flogging and all its sadosexual overtones. I found the movie Seven very sickening from my point of view but my husband enjoyed it.

    I think you are right about kids' reading, the parents are the ones who have to monitor it. My daughter is a very good reader and enjoys graphic novels and some she has read are probably on the dark side. If graphic novels get kids into reading , a collection of them are a boon to the kid and the library.

    I read bodice rippers sometimes along with Mills and Boon for escapism and some come form the local library and I often think such books can be classed as women's porn. I think libraries have to catholic and universal and have to buy a bit of everything for all their readers. Maybe in time this will extend to hardcore porn who knows but at present such offerings are available easily on the web> Let me know Deb when you write What Dougal has under his kilt, Deb as I will have to read it. Just be certain to make him impossibly tall dark and handsome and loaded with money. Maybe you will be able to embark on a second career then with Mills and Boon as I know some of their authors are Australian.

    By Anonymous Karna, at 12:10 AM  

  • im afraid, all due respect, that you are confirming all my prejudices about librarians. i guess im just a libertarian hippie type after all, and will admit i have never had to front an angry far right christian group of angry parents. sigh.
    fran m

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:32 PM  

  • As a kid I remember that my local public library had a playboy subscription. The magazines just sat in the magazine racks like any other item, although I always imagined that if I tried to look in one a librarian would swoop upon me like some sort of censoring swooping machine.

    Later, as a teenager, I was working for the state library of NSW in ILL and I remember the shock and awe that came the first time I was asked to go to the 'porn cupboard' for a document delivery request. Despite being in a staff only area the cupboard was kept under lock and key and as the only teenage boy on the payroll at the time I had to feel they didn't trust me.

    By Blogger ADHD Librarian, at 3:00 PM  

  • There are a few books I'd have chosen not to read had I been warned about its content, and some I'd have appreciated a note to just skip certain pages in an otherwise enjoyable book to avoid a graphic rape and a sick torture.

    Is this something where catalogues that allow patron-participation might help? Like AADL and/or Hennepin who allow readers to provide review, and/or tags?

    My local library provides a user note sheet (like the old due date sheets) in some books... while most people seem to just use a mark as if to remind themselves they've read it - could a library help patrons develop a set of codes to advise each other on certain types of content?

    By Blogger moonflowerdragon, at 12:23 AM  

  • I found this page by searching for John Ringo and sadism.

    I am a "hippy liberal" child psychiatrist, and this book disturbed me. I confess that I am turned off by sadistic sex. However I had no problems with "Story of O" (alright, I had difficulties relating to it, but not problems, and no concerns about kids reading it, it is an example of truth in advertising).

    But Ringo's book is Military SciFi, adn to expose that readership to unadvertised sexual sadism and covert misogyny (too mild a word) is awful, in my opinion. The story line? He rescues abused female teens who are forced into prostitution, then turns them on to masochistic sex, which is all right because they are consenting, and enjoy it.

    I accept that there are women, and men, who enjoy masochist sex, and don't have much problem with that. However, I do have a problem with the idea of rape victims liking the sadistic sexual treatment they get in these books.

    I confess I did not read the whole book, but I did read the development of his protagonist turning on the rescued rape victim to masochism, which he could tell she was wanting, and his statement that lots of abused women like this because of their experience.

    I would suggest that this material be labelled as sadomasochistic pornography set in a military action genre context.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:47 PM  

  • Moonflowerdragon and Anonymous - thankyou for your thoughtful comments. It may well be that Library 2.0 tools like letting borrowers annotate the catalog is just what we need! - allowing public libraries to maintain the balance between freedom of speech (and reading) and letting readers make informed decisions about WHAT to read.

    By Blogger Deb, at 11:52 AM  

  • I'm curious- where is there a scene of "mysogynistic violence" in the first book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series? I just finished re-reading it, and i would swear that there is nothing even vaguely mysogynistic in the whole story. It also doesn't have any more violence then anything else in the genre. If i'm wrong, please explain it to me.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:43 PM  

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