The Neighborhood Pornucopia

There was a man who confessed he had become a habitual consumer of Internet pornography in his early teens. With self-disgust and embarrassment, he spoke of his machinations to avoid detection by others, and how he would quickly conceal his activities when others wandered within eyesight of his computer monitor. Even by young adulthood he had not entirely kicked the vice.

This is a sadly common story in our time, but his account has a twist: His first Internet connection was supported by taxpayer money.

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You see, the young man habituated himself to this vice courtesy of the computers at the public library.

This unsettling story came to mind when I discovered an internal staff newsletter for my county’s public library system, which included an uneasy plea from a librarian about patrons viewing pornographic material on the public computers. She reported increasing complaints about such behavior and expressed her discomfort about being around sexually aroused men. She asked, with good reason:

Why must staff and patrons (some young adults and preteens) be forced to accept in their midst sexually aroused individuals who come to the library specifically to attain that level of arousal via Internet porn? This behavior is not socially acceptable in any other public venue.

The poor librarian concluded: “This is not a question of censorship but one of patron and staff safety.”

Her superior’s response is an exemplar of consistency taken to an absurdity. The administrator, also a woman, reiterated library policy requiring “privacy screens” in the event of complaints. These screens conceal the monitor’s display to everyone but the user sitting directly in front.

The administrator urged the librarian to take a professional attitude toward disturbing patrons, quoting library policy word for word: “Because the library offers such a broad window on the world of ideas, it is almost inevitable that some of these ideas will be shocking, offensive, or disagreeable to both library staff and patrons.” The precise ideas at issue are unclear.

While acknowledging that library rules forbid overt sexual conduct from patrons, the administrator insisted sexual arousal does not violate regulations: “We offer lots of materials that patrons might use to arouse themselves; they range from romance novels to photographic works,” she writes. Even in context, this reads more like a recommendation than anything else.

There is an unfortunate consistency to her reasoning. For those grown accustomed to soft-core romance novels and the nude simulations in R-rated movies, it is difficult to object to its more forceful variety. We reckon obscenity to be the normal background noise of our lives. Good citizens of the pornoculture, we raise an eyebrow but not an objection. So when we discover some vacant-eyed lecher propped before a library computer screen, perhaps we’re looking at the result of all the small compromises we ourselves have made.

Of course, there are more proximate causes as for why the library is transforming into a shame-free adult video arcade. The American Library Association (ALA) has a particularly strong influence over libraries around the country and, like many academic institutions, is generally obeisant to free-speech absolutism in obscenity cases. Its corporate connections are not reassuring: Christie Hefner, daughter of Playboy‘s Hugh Hefner, once addressed the ALA convention on the First Amendment, while an ALA group’s newsletter informs us that the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award was given to a group that protested Internet filters on library computers.

The ALA, to its credit, is not blind to the problem. Among its resources is a skit about a mother who has dropped her young daughter off at the library. Her friends warn her that the library is not safe for her child and repeat some breathless charges about the pornography-friendly policies of the ALA. They rush to the library and, sure enough, her seven-year-old is delving into carnal knowledge. The library director is confronted, and the flustered mother asks why the library should be a red-light district. He speaks about the costs of living in a free society and exhorts parents to take responsibility for their children. “Our librarians guide people to information, but they’re not babysitters,” he says.

One wonders: Will the ALA ever compose a skit about how to deal with a lusty creep, or how to attract again the patrons his creepiness has driven away?

For that matter, will it issue instructions informing a librarian how she can file a sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer? Few today expect a professional woman to tolerate a working environment tarnished by open pornography use — outside the library, of course.



  • Kevin J. Jones

    Kevin J. Jones lives in Arvada, Colorado, and blogs at Philokalia Republic.

tagged as: Art & Culture romance

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