Erotophobia, Homophobia, and Censorship in U.S. Libraries: An Historical Overview

By Cornog, Martha | Journal of Information Ethics, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Erotophobia, Homophobia, and Censorship in U.S. Libraries: An Historical Overview


Cornog, Martha, Journal of Information Ethics


Recently the Women's Studies librarian at my university was approached by a woman student who demanded that Pat Califia's book Sapphistry be removed from the shelves because the author "promotes violence against women" (her request was refused) [1996].1

Long-standing public stereotype has painted librarians as erotophobic, anti-sex Nazis, so it may seem surprising that Califia's lesbian sex manual with its sadomasochism section was in any library, let alone twenty years ago. Yet from quite early days, sex books have had a place in American libraries. Cannons' Bibliography of Library Economy from 1912 actually has a SEX HYGIENE heading, under which are listed four articles. One begins:

So many inquiries have come for a bibliography on sex education that it seems to me the publication of a short list might be helpful to those who are interested. The demand for knowledge in these matters is continually increasing, and it behooves librarians to have correct information at hand to meet the demand.2

Some librarians of that era even believed in open access for young readers:

Of the books on sexology, I can say only that, personally, I feel we are defeating our purpose in purchasing them if we hide them away from the adolescent boy or girl for whom they are presumably bought [1915] .3

Yet a different Cannons heading, DOUBTFUL BOOKS: LITERARY CENSORSHIP, contains over 60 entries from 1876 to 1920 concerning "improper," "immoral," and "poisonous" books. Most were suspect for sexual content - like Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, works of French authors like Honoré de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant, writings of Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, and particular Latin and Greek classics. "Censorship" in those years was not the dirty word it is now, and could refer to a librarian's civic duty:

The epigrams of Martial are "classics." The question of classic or not is subordinate in importance to the question of dirty or not. It would be no loss to the world if Martial's writings were wholly lost [1885] .4

Some sex education was apparently gaining acceptability in these early years after the Victorian era waned; certain literary works not yet. How can we explain this? Have librarians been erotophobic or not?

Erotophobia: A Definition

An immoral book is one whose tendency is to lower the best moral standards of its reader-...to disseminate the idea of comparative virtue, i.e. everybody's doing it and therefore I am no worse than the next man.... These are the books which the libraries large and small ought unitedly to discourage by refusal to purchase so far as is possible [1915] .5

Take the subject of an illicit love - ...Guy de Maupassant...pictures "a world where every man is a cad and every woman a harlot." Such a book must demoralize [1910].6

"Immoral" books were books thought to promote bad or lawless behavior: "[A] novel is considered immoral if it makes vice attractive, or it separates an act from its consequences" (1928).7 Sexual activities outside of marriage were considered simply a type of sexual lawlessness, no different from other lawlessness:

I found a number of books ... which were thoroughly improper.... One of them was Ainsworth's notorious thief novel, "Jack Sheppard," a book well known to have been a practical primer in crime for boys; a Fagin of novels. [Also] among them were some of Zola's novels.... [T]hese books are a school in ... falsehood, licentiousness, and crime [1885] .8

Why was nonmarital sex in Zola lumped together with theft? Partly because "God's law" forbade both in Judeo-Christian traditions and partly because of feared and not always implausible consequences. Until relatively recently, venereal disease was incurable, contraception unreliable, abortion deadly, and childbirth a social and economic hazard for unmarried women. Victorian fears of sexual lawlessness had some basis in social and biological realities as perceived at that time. …

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