I'm recently back from Austin, where I spoke at the annual meeting of the Texas Library Association. My topic was America's War On Sex, Libraries, & Librarians. I'm pleased to say I was warmly received.
And I sure learned plenty from them--some of it heartening, some of it scary. And some of what they said was sadly familiar. Just a few notes:
* A small number of people can cause a lot of trouble.
In almost every community, some people feel terrified that people--young or otherwise--are being exposed to immoral, inappropriate, unpatriotic, or dangerous material in the library. One might argue that that's exactly when a library is doing its job, but of course not everyone agrees with that mission statement.
Thirty years ago, educator Sol Gordon said that "it only takes four people to disrupt a school board meeting, and only five to take over a school board." It turns out the same is true of library boards.
Most librarians reported that without active, vocal boards, their library would be reduced to a half-dozen cookbooks.
* Every library offers the public computers.
And that means dealing with questions of "access": who can watch? What can people view? How much protection do other patrons need?
Different libraries deal with this "security problem" differently. Some are highly protective of adult patrons' rights to watch undisturbed. But other librarians told me of security cameras aimed squarely at computer users; to facilitate the photography, one library forbids hats. Some libraries keep records of who looks at what sites, which I'm certain is what libraries and internet cafes in Iran do.
When I asked about the urban legend—thousands of masturbators spending hundreds of hours watching porn on library computers--only two librarians in a room of 200 said they'd seen someone watch porn. And both said it was an old, lonely guy who genuinely hadn't realized he was being rude.
* Even cataloging books turns out to be a political task.
Should a book about teen life go into "young adult" or "adult"? Some parents and religious leaders fear that certain novels will give kids ideas, so they want them put in the "adult" section, which kids can't easily access. Some librarians cleverly put books about contemporary teen life in "history," "sociology," or other sections to enable young people's access.
* And the taboo stuff?
These librarians were plenty savvy on dealing with censorship. One talked about keeping certain books with sexual information behind his desk, quietly lending them outside the official system. Another librarian has a collection of gay-themed books that she's been collecting on her own, which she quietly lends out to people from a dozen small towns that don't even have libraries.
* How's book banning going?
Most librarians with whom I spoke wearily acknowledged that books were challenged on a regular basis--"and once in a while, someone has actually read a book that they challenge."
Since 2001, half the challenges are due to either "sexually explicit" material or "offensive language." The Color Purple and Catcher in the Rye are among the most banned books each year.
Only a few communities hold actual book burnings, none of them last year in Texas.
* Is reading dangerous?
Inevitably we come back to this question. The biggest fear about Guttenberg's press was that "too many" people would read. The biggest concern about mass paperback printing in Victorian England was that servants would read and get the "wrong ideas." And today more than ever there's concern that kids who read about other kids' difficulties--physical abuse, alcoholic parents, drug use, rape, exploitative divorcing parents--will somehow want to pursue similar horrible lives.
"Urban fiction" is the new term for these books, and they're being banned with the ferocity that only self-righteous missionaries can muster.
It's like withholding Black history books from Blacks, or Jewish history from Jews. Minors are a repressed minority--without the dignity or legitimized outrage of any other such group.
* Of course, it wasn't work every second of the day.
At dinner one evening, someone ordered peach cobbler. I asked two simple questions--"why cobbler?" and "what makes cobbler different than pie or crisp?"--which had everyone scurrying for their smart phones and iPads in pursuit of historical and etymological treasure. Most librarians LOVE research; one said her job was like playing "Trivial Pursuit" every day.
So: Want to be politically active, but don't want to run for governor or start a new political party? Get appointed to your local library board. Turns out that's where a lot of American decisions get made.
The newest entry in the "Sex is dirty, please watch our show while we prove it" sweepstakes is this clip from ABC News.
It's an "exclusive" interview with Christine Hubbs, a 42-year-old woman who was recently convicted of having sex with her daughter's 14-year-old boyfriend and his best friend.
She's now known as "the Hummer Mom" because she drove her little lovers around in her Hummer, creating the world's most perfect sexual reference. The interview is very odd and very disturbing. I felt like I desperately needed a shower after watching it--and not because of Hubbs' crimes.
The first odd thing is that she gave the interview in the first place. She apparently did it to improve her image, asserting that "I don't want to be portrayed as predator" (Ironically, the chyron slapped across the bottom of the screen during the piece is "preying on neighborhood boys").
Christine never got the memo that there simply is no way to improve your image once you admit you've had sex with minors some 63 times. Sixty-three times--that's more than most 42-year-olds have sex in two years.
So OK, she does the interview: with full makeup, her hair done, and with perfect TV lighting. All this in jail, of course. And this is where the clip gets smarmy.
Because no detail is left unspoken, no visual is left unseen. We're solemnly shown the motel where she slept with the first boy, and the car in which she had sex with the second. They actually reconstruct a bedroom scene with vague body shapes moving under a blanket, intercut with interior shots of her house. It isn't enough that we're told of her intimate text messages--"You are mine, mine, mine," "I miss your touch," etc.--we have to actually see them on the screen, lovingly recreated on a fake phone.
No wonder the clip has to be so long (5 1/2 minutes on the news? That's usually reserved for things like Pearl Harbor).
Through it all, interviewer and interviewee earnestly talk about sex, yearning, responsibility, and sex. The serious-looking, very highly-paid "reporter" exploits the crap out of a disturbed woman desperate for her 15 minutes. How disturbed is she? She actually thinks ABC cares about her, and actually thinks people will like her better when they hear her tell the story of her own selfishness. She's delusional.
And what do we learn?
Absolutely nothing. The normal-looking woman is obviously sick, and has learned nothing. Her family is now in counseling. The boys, who were given thousands of dollars in gifts and cash to have sex with a beautiful woman three times their age, are "victims" who will be instructed in exactly how damaged they now are. Husband Tim says he'll stand by his wife, since their Mormon religion teaches that they'll be married for "all eternity" (an expression that will acquire new meaning for Christine during the next five years).
And sex is the culprit--the vehicle with which one selfish person ruined a half-dozen lives. That's what this news clip is about, from start to finish.
There's nothing new here at all: Christine Hubbs is a Sweeps Week dream come true. Four times a year the TV industry needs people who enable them to put sexual perversion all over the evening news. You can set your watch by it: Addiction to hookers in February. Sex with kids in May. Teen strippers in July. Swing parties in November. It’s porn that Republican senators can love, because at the end, people get shamed and punished.
These aren't news stories, they're part of what has destroyed "news" as we know it. This reality TV is a series of morality plays, all with the same point: sex is ugly, sex is evil, sex is powerful, sex destroys.
So, viewers, please, please enjoy our decades-long series about the attractiveness of ugly, powerful, destructive sex. We know you love watching. And criticizing. And watching. And condemning.
You've memorized the headline: Sex does terrible things to people--film at 11.
I'm seeing an epidemic of "porn addiction" in my office. Not of porn addiction, but of "sex addiction."
Here's how it looks: Wife/girlfriend somehow assumes that husband/boyfriend does not watch porn (guess that's what she means by "he's one in a million"). One day, his porn watching comes to her attention (he leaves something on the screen, she searches his website history, he gets an email or bill from some friendly porn site, etc.).
She decides what his porn watching "means":
* He doesn't care for her
* He's been faking sexual desire or enjoyment
* He'd rather be with other women (or men, or kangaroos, or whatever he's been watching)
* He's a pervert
* He's unfaithful
Needless to say, these interpretations make his porn watching her business. And frequently, she decides she has the moral high ground from which to dictate what his problem is, the fact that he must get it fixed, and what the treatment needs to be. With slight variations, a new version of this case walks into my office almost every week.
In a different world, Mr. Porn Consumer would turn to Outraged Wife/Girlfriend and say "Wow, I can see that you're really upset about what I'm watching. Let's talk about it and see what we can do." In the real world, however, most men are so loaded down with shame about their sexuality that the second their partner attacks them for watching porn, they collapse and allow their partner to seize control of the relationship.
She then drags him into my office so I can fix the poor guy. I'm supposed to turn him into a non-perverted, non-selfish, non-hiding, aroused-by-her-and-only-her ex-porn consumer.
I understand that some guys really have a problem with porn (I see these guys more than most therapists): some watch way too much, some have abandoned their partners emotionally, some think porn depicts real life (yeah, like the NBA depicts your local gym). But most guys who watch porn just, well, watch porn. And of course they hide it from their partner--because they assume their partner will hit the roof if she finds out.
While some women don't, too many do. And these days they have a choice: they can decide their man is a selfish bastard, or they can give him the dignity of a medical problem--"porn addiction" (as a bonus, she acquires the dignity of suffering with a partner who's ill." A lot of guys like the disease option, too. If a wife claims that porn use is infidelity, if a girlfriend claims that porn use means he isn't attracted to her, a disease is a good place to hide. It's like a high school dropout being busted for car theft--and choosing to join the army instead of going to jail.
How much of the woman's pain is really about him masturbating (the reason he uses porn, of course)? A lot of women insist that "as long as I'm sexually available to him, he has no reason to masturbate." When pressed on this, they say he has no right--"he shouldn't take his sexuality outside the relationship," as if they're jealous of his right hand.
If a woman has complaints about a guy's behavior--he calls her the wrong name or daydreams during sex, never wants to talk about anything, checks his phone during dinner--those are legitimate grievances that need addressing. Couples therapy is a great place to do that. But if her complaint is simply that he uses porn, which she finds disgusting or confusing, that doesn't give her the power to ban his hobby, or force him to defend it.
You can get a guy to promise to give up porn, and some guys actually will. You can even get a guy to promise to give up masturbating. A few actually will. The rest will do what they did when they were 14--they'll do it in secret, feel bad about it, and hope they won't get caught. And so a life of lying about sex continues. You can imagine what that will do to the couple's closeness.
Sadly, some women will continue to blame the porn, rather than examine how they've used coercion to undermine intimacy.