Home  |  About Us  |  Contact Us  |  Subscribe
Search NSRC:      Advanced search  
Sexual Literacy Logo Sexual Literacy spacer American Sexuality Magazine Logo American Sexuality magazine spacer Sexual Research and Social Policy Logo Sexual Research and Social Policy spacer spacer spacer

Friday, February 23, 2007

Censoring the wandering scrotum

A guest blog from National Sexuality Resource Center Director Gil Herdt Phd.

In the time of the ancient Greeks—with their myth of a uterus wandering through a woman’s body, strangling her as it reached the chest—to the Roman physician Galen—who believed that hysteria, most notably of virgins, nuns and widows, was caused by sexual privation—and to the Victorians, who widely ascribed all manner of modern “female” disorders to hysteria—the uterus incited panic.

Today some librarians in the United States, it seems, fear a similar property in the ordinary, everyday variety of the scrotum and do not want children to come in contact with this word. The anatomical feature of the male body in mammals that looks like a sack and houses the testes, AKA balls, AKA the family jewels, has long been the object of jokes and puns and even ridicule. But as the front-page story in the Sunday New York Times (February 18, 2007) reveals, the scrotum is now an object of vile.

The Times article reports:

“…there it is on the first page of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. The book’s heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

‘“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much, the book continues. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

Why does this word pose such a moral panic? The Higher Power of Lucky gives adults get the opportunity to respond to Janie and Jimmy’s question, “What’s a scrotum?” with one of their first lessons in sexual anatomy. “The scrotum is that little sack that holds the marbles that makes a boy a boy,” they said in my day. ‘That’s what can help to make babies.” That sort of thing. It becomes the first chance to help a child become sexually literate.

Conversely, censoring “scrotum” amounts to giving children an abject lesson in fear, shame, and silence. Makes them dread a word, shame their anatomy, and treat the scrotum like a wandering uterus—the cause of bad things. All the opportunities like this pile up in childhood, either to open a conversation with young people about their sexual anatomy and the great joy of human sexual relationships and pleasure, or to make them fearful and suspicious and snicker at a word that imagines sexuality is evil. Isn’t that how self-fulfilling prophecy begins?

Who are the people who want to prevent The Higher Power of Lucky from getting into the hands of children? Don’t they have better things to do than conjure up new myths that contribute to sexual illiteracy? They are the ones who feel that the word “scrotum” does not belong in a children’s book—or possibly in any book. Already banned in some libraries in the South, the West, and Northwest, the book is now assured the immortal status of a sort of children’s Catcher in the Rye—banned when I was a boy—only this is 2007, not 1960! What is going on? Didn’t we get beyond this sort of censorship after we left the bad old days of the Cold War, when to name a thing (communist) was to incite a panic? And names and things (communists and homosexuals) became interchangeable imaginals? Where is James Bond when we need him? Didn’t he have a wandering scrotum?

The NYT article suggests that the author of the book, herself a librarian in Los Angeles, wanted to help prepare young people for the task of being grown up. Quite right. She noted that learning about language and body parts, was “very important to her.” “The word is just so delicious,” Ms. Patron said. “The sound of the word to Lucky is so evocative. It’s one of those words that’s so interesting because of the sound of the word.”

Who are the overworked and offended librarians? One of them is, as the Times reports, a Ms. Nilsson, librarian at the Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., who is reported to have said that she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her banning of the book. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

Some of the same people who criticize The Higher Power of Lucky probably also objected to the Harry Potter books because they supposedly endorsed witchcraft and Satanism. Doubtful. But they did teach a whole new generation the meaning of words such as friendship, loyalty and truth.

Let’s not recreate the dreadful old days of the censoring Victorians, who disdained women’s sexuality, and women, and their uterus, and sexuality in general. Among the results of that Age of Sexual Illiteracy was the treatment of masturbation as a real epidemic that led to the medical abuse of children by doctors and teachers and parents in ways that inflicted lifelong harm. Victorian women believed to suffer from the wandering uterus syndrome, AKA hysteria, was to be incarcerated and damaged for life, for reasons that amounted to little more than misogyny and the inhumane treatment of people.

I don’t know if those outraged over The Higher Power of Lucky mean well, but they are doing harm to America’s young people by inflicting further ignorance and sexual illiteracy. We have to help this country get beyond this obsession with “Sex” and think about sexuality as part of the whole course of human life in much more humane and loving terms. When you cause a word to have more power than it deserves, it comes back to haunt you, or, in this case, to bite you. And who wants a wandering scrotum in their lives?


Post a Comment

<< Home