Robie H. Harris on “Hot Buttons,” Complaints and CensorshipIt’s not surprising that children’s books about sexual health or any type of sex education tend to be controversial. While many parents see books like Robie H. Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health and her other books on sexual health as providing a helpful way for them to share information with their kids, others feel the topic of sex, and what it should include, is nobody’s business but theirs, and they choose not to use her books. Still, others want to limit everyone's access to Harris's books, as well as any books for kids about sex, whether it's a book about reproduction or sexual health.
When I interviewed Harris, she said, “Families have different values about what information is helpful to kids and teens as they navigate through puberty and adolescence and even earlier in life such as letting young children know about appropriate and inappropriate touches. I am a parent and a grandparent, so my values do come through in my writing, just by the fact of what I choose to include in all four books.
“In the U.S., there are families, teachers, librarians, health officials and clergy who embrace my books and share my values. And there are those who have a different set of values about what information is given to kids and teens. That’s true all over the world. One thing about reading a book on sexual health for kids, no matter what the age of the child, is that it offers the perfect opportunity for a parent or parents to talk about their own family values.”
I wondered about Harris’s views on “hot buttons,” complaints and censorship. Below are my questions and her responses.
Do people who object to your books tend to object to the whole idea of any kind of sex education for children or just specific topics in your books?It varies. Some reject the books outright because my books reflect the fact that the more information children and teens have about sexual health, the easier it will be for them to make healthy decisions for themselves and their friends. In It’s Perfectly Normal, I am clear about the risks and responsibilities that can help kids to stay healthy—so that pre-teens and teens will understand that having unprotected sexual intercourse can lead to a pregnancy before one is old enough and responsible enough to take good care of a baby. And that along with sexual contact comes the risk of being infected with or spreading a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS.
I also talk about how to prevent these kinds of outcomes. That’s why each of my books on sexuality reflects the fact that “education is the best prevention” when it comes to sexual health. Also, some who object may have disagreed with something I have written about or the way something has been illustrated in my books. I have no problem with that. That’s their right.
What topics tend to be “hot buttons” for some adults?The truth is that the topics that are “hot buttons” for some adults are rarely “hot buttons” for kids and teens. Those topics include homosexuality, abortion, masturbation, sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. Also, our kids and teens do not live in bubbles, so they already know something about most of these topics. My worry is that they may have inaccurate, dishonest or dated information about these topics and therefore will make decisions that could be very risky to their health, both their physical and emotional health. That’s precisely why I spend so much time checking out the information in my books with experts and updating the information when necessary.
Sometimes people ask me why I put these topics in my books and if I would consider taking them out. And I answer a firm, “No!’ and go on to say that “Taking out these topics would be dishonest.” and also saying that “If I left them out, I probably would not sleep at night, knowing that I have left out information that kids need and want. If we are dishonest with kids and leave out information, then whatever we write for them or say to them would have absolutely no credibility. And in my case, my books would have no credibility with them as trusted sources to go to for good information that could be helpful to them. Last but not least, these are not the only topics in my books.”
What do you tell people when they tell you that they think the topic of sexual health/education is inappropriate for children or that they think the books should be banned or censored?First, I say that I would never say that every child, or teen, or parent, or school, or library, health organization, or clergy member should have my books on sexual health or any other book I have written. And then I go on to say that in our democracy any child, teen, or parent or school or library or health organization that chooses to have my books has a right to have those books. We live in a democracy and that’s what a democracy is about—the freedom to make choices. If any parent does not want his or her child to have any of my books, he or she need not purchase my book. Or a parent can go to the library with his or her child and decide which books that parent approves or disapproves of for his or her particular child.
When one of your books comes under attack, are there resources that you recommend people use to defend them? Go to the next page to see Harris's response.