Sex and Teens and Books – Oh My!
Yesterday, someone expressed hesitation in recommending books that they perceive as “highly sexualized” to teens and quite the storm erupted surrounding the conversation. The truth is, I can understand where everyone at some point takes a moment to ask these questions. When I first became a librarian I was working on a Youth Ministry degree at a conservative Christian university. And I remember very distinctly the moment when I was processing a bunch of horror books that I had purchased for my teen area and I questioned whether or not it was in line with my spiritual beliefs. It was a real moment where I had to examine who I was, what I thought, what I believed, and whether or not working in the library was a real thing that I could do.
Then one of my adolescent classes revealed a staggering fact: 80% of all decisions to become a Christian are made during the teenage years. This is a very important formative time in development, it is a time when we try on roles, examine the world around us, and starting really deciding who we are going to be. And I maintain that in order for teens to do that successfully, they need as much information as possible. Real life information. They need to understand how messy and complex and how broken and how glorious the human race can be. And they need, if at all possible, to do this in the safest way possible. Books – all types, even the razor sharp edginess of contemporary fiction – can be a safe place to do that. And sadly, for far too many teens, they don’t need those books to tell them how unsafe and messy life can be, they are already living in that reality and these books helps affirm their life stories and give them a voice.
We don’t like to talk to teens about sex. We don’t want to think about teens having sex. I get that, I really do. I am a mom to two not yet teenage girls and I don’t want them having sex. Not until they are 30 and married (Ha!). But what I do want is for them to have the information they need to make informed personal decisions about sex, I want them to be comfortable in their sexuality, and I want them to see all kinds of examples of what healthy sex can and does look like, and what it doesn’t when it is age appropriate. I want them to be able to protect themselves, express themselves, and to not have a bunch of preconceived notions about sex and their personal identity informed by hamburger commercials and cartoons that seem to suggest there is only one right way for a woman to be.
So when they are ready, I want them to be able to read true to life stories that help them process this important part of their life and identity. I don’t want outsiders – say a librarian who is not their mom – to make those decisions for me by determining what they can and can’t read. I don’t want others imposing their opinions and belief systems on my child, which is why as a librarian I refrain from doing that very thing onto other people’s children.
I think we all wrestle with this question from time to time, it is part of being human and caring about those we serve. But we have to remember that service also means that we remove our personal opinions and belief systems out of the equation. My job is to help make books accessible to the teens that want to read them, not to parent them.
Here is a look at some of the Tweets I sent out on the topic yesterday . . . It began as a conversation about Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian and grew from there.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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