Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 5, May 16, 2002


Book Review

Not in Front of the Children
"Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth

By Marjorie Heins, J.D.

Hill and Wang, New York (2001)
ISBN: 0-8090-7399-4; US$ 15.00
263 pages text, 139 pages of references and index

Reviewed by David S. Hall, Ph.D.

Click on this cover to buy the book

This book is for parents, educators, and ministers who are concerned with the moral development of America's youth. It is uniquely American, for no where else in the Western world has the heavy hand of censorship been so carelessly applied. This book makes the clear case that the idea of protecting minors from ideas and images is a moral concern, without any meaningful scientific evidence to back up any claims that minors are harmed by ideas, images or discussions of sexual and violent activities. What becomes obvious is that censors use the guise of protecting children to advance their agenda of control of our thoughts.

The book is written from a legal perspective, but is not a legal brief, and is not difficult for the average reader to understand. In fact, the average reader will only have difficulty understanding why judges, including Supreme Court Justices, do and say the things they do. Heins tracks the history of judicial decisions on censorship of sexual and other material from as far back as Plato:

"A young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts."

This passage from the Republic was quoted in a 1998 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, ruling that a teacher could be punished for allowing high school drama students to study a play which discussed divorce, homosexuality and unwed pregnancy. Ideas this ancient, and totally unproven by science, are still used to justify moral decisions by the highest courts in our land. They ignore the fact that high school students are often married, divorced, pregnant and actively homosexual before reaching the magic age of adulthood, what ever that is defined by law to be. Plato's ideas of government's role are as far from our modern ideas of free expression and democracy as one could possibly get, and yet he is called upon to justify decisions totally contradictory to our First Amendment.

It is not possible in this review to cover the many arguments made for and against censorship in this book, but the overall theme is that censorship deprives us from the opportunity to evaluate, learn from, and choose what we want to see, read and hear. The argument that something is harmful to minors ignores so many other issues;

Heins covers the scientific literature on the effects of sexual and violent material on children very comprehensively. It becomes clear that social scientists have not yet been able to quantify the effects of art and entertainment on anyone, yet we acknowledge such effects probably exist. The problem becomes avoiding simplistic answers to extremely complex questions, which is what happens in this debate.

A review of FCC v. Pacifica, the famous Supreme Court decision in support of banning George Carlin's "seven dirty words" from the airwaves is the classic example of the morality basis of harm-to-minor censorship. In Justice Brennan's dissent, he protested his colleagues' "depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court". Most minors today will hear (and use?) these words on the school grounds, if not in their homes, before they are 18. Such worries are largely symbolic, and may be a subject of concern, but censorship on behalf of minors is not the most effective way to deal with language, and the adult ear is censored as well.

The context within which all the "objectionable" material being censored exists is clearly important. Studies are reported where teaching critical viewing skills and media literacy eliminate the supposedly negative effects. Yet we reject teaching such skills, and allow ideas to be surpressed . Does this prepare young people for life in the real world, or does it stifle their ability to make intelligent choices? To quote Heins:

"The ponderous, humorless overliteralism of so much censorship directed at youth not only takes the fun, ambiguity, cathartic function, and irony out of the world of imagination and creativity; it reduces the difficult, complicated, joyous, and sometimes tortured experience of growing up to a sanitized combination of adult moralizing and intellectual closed doors."

"Intellectual protectionism frustrates rather than enhances young people's mental agility and capacity to deal with the world. It inhibits straightforward discussion about sex. Indeed, like TV violence, censorship may also have "modeling effects," teaching authoritarianism, intolerance for unpopular opinions, erotophobia, and sexual guilt. Censorship is an avoidance technique that addresses adult anxieties and satisfies symbolic concerns, but ultimately does nothing to resolve social problems or affirmatively help adolescents and children cope with their environments and impulses or navigate the dense and insistent media barrage that surrounds them."

This well referenced work, with a good index as well, is a must read for anyone concerned with the development of children into healthy adults.

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