Forbidden Love (of Reading): Censored and Challenged Books for Valentine’s Day

by Michael O’Neil

The book is a romantic thing. From spotting potential sweeties by the books they’re reading, to the countless authors who have feverishly committed tales of love to paper for the form, books engage the mind and elicit passion, intrigue and a cozy kind of intimacy perhaps unmatched by any other medium.

So to celebrate Valentine’s Day, let’s raise a glass (or perhaps a comically large, chocolate-covered peanut butter heart…DON’T JUDGE ME) to books that have been banned or censored for breaking conventions of love, sex or relationships!

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Let’s kick off with a classic, powerhouse love story that for years was a perennial target of school curriculum challenges. The subjects of sex and young people’s emotional challenges, individually, frequently raise censors’ hackles. Put them together (as you’ll see further on this list), and the angry letters just start flying.

One of the most notorious insults to the Bard’s plays was The Family Shakespeare, published in 1807 by Thomas Bowdler, which replaced Shakespeare’s bawdier bits with sanitized phrases. The family name became forever associated with the “castration of text” through the term bowdlerization.

More recently, the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet was cited in successful arguments to overturn the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, because the law essentially criminalized the star-crossed pair’s love scene. And, speaking of Shakespeare, the current Tucson Unified School District ban on Mexican-American Studies  includes a course that utilized The Tempest to analyze issues of race.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Moving into spicier territory, Henry Miller’s 1938 travelogue of candid sexuality was banned from sale in the U.S. for nearly 30 years, until a 1964 Supreme Court ruling deemed it protected speech. This case was so important that the criteria for evaluating whether a work is deemed “obscene” by the courts is often referred to as the “Miller Test”:

  • Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
  • Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

All three must apply, or it’s protected under the 1st Amendment. Want to make your lawyer or law student crush swoon? Drop that knowledge in casual conversation.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ah, Ulysses. Infidelity, urination, masturbation and much more covered in 18 chapters. This masterpiece of Modernism pulls a hat trick by having faced censorship in serial form (burned in 1918), a novel (banned until 1933), and as a comic adapted for the iPad! That’s impressive, and will surely impress your darling lover of literature.

The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway

Love, wounds, ennui and what might have been. The Nazis (obviously) made bonfires out of The Sun Also Rises in 1933, but the censorship didn’t stop there. In the U.S, the book was banned in Boston, MA (1930), Riverside, CA (1960), and San Jose, CA (1960). (Source: American Libraries Association)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

While not about romantic love per se, if you attended middle school in the last 30 years then you were spellbound by this endearing, Newberry Award-winning, YA classic. It’s a tear-jerker, and a beautiful story of friendship between a boy and girl (and a crush on a hot music teacher, thrown in), so why would anyone want to censor it? Because it promotes witchcraft, obviously. In 2002(!) in Cromwell, Connecticut, it was attacked for just that, along with a claim that it promoted violence.  Earlier, in 1986, Bridge was challenged in Nebraska because it used “Lord” as an expletive. Scandalous.

Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman

Valentine’s Day might be a bittersweet time for same sex couples who want to participate in marriage as recognized by the government, but cannot due to their state’s laws. One of the drivers within the LGBTQI community for marriage equality has been the protection of their rights as parents. Heather Has Two Mommies, published in 1989, has an iconic status for making a positive portrayal of same sex parenting a national conversation.

The ALA ranks it 11th on their list of most challenged books of the 1990s and, in North Carolina, it was described as promoting “a dangerous and ungodly lifestyle from which children must be protected.” In 1993 a Mesa Public Library (Arizona) patron claimed the book was “vile, sick, and goes against every law and constitution.”

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

Vampires, teen lust…the kids love it! One would think that it’s a good thing when youth want to read, and one would think a book that features abstinence until marriage would make conservatives happy. So why has Twilight ranked in the top 10 of the most challenged books in recent years? Religion and violence, mostly. Some are worried that YA books are getting too dark, as if leaving teens unprepared to deal with difficult issues and emotions somehow leaves them better off.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (also known as Fanny Hill) by John Cleland

We’ll finish with a trip back to the old school. This 1749 yarn concerning a lubricious woman’s adventures landed John Cleland in jail for “corrupting the King’s subjects.” In spite of being one of the most prosecuted works in history, it has remained popular for well over two hundred years.

Published openly by Grove Press in the United States, the book was attacked by “decency” groups. The highest courts of New Jersey and Massachusetts declared it obscene; on March 21, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the unfavorable judgments, clearing Fanny Hill for publication.

So have a happy Valentine’s Day! And, while professing love for your Valentine, remember your love for free expression! Just as forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, banned books make for spicy reading.


About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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5 Responses to Forbidden Love (of Reading): Censored and Challenged Books for Valentine’s Day

  1. finette says:

    The Mesa Public Library did not issue the “vile…” quote about Heather Has Two Mommies–a library patron who was challenging it did.

    Please correct this, as it will only further confuse the general public about libraries’ role in fighting censorship.

  2. Tim says:

    Many challenged works can be seen as deeply conservative – for example, Arthur Brooke described his Romeo and Juliet poem, the primary source, as the comeuppance of a couple “thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and suspersittious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; [and] abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts.”

    Similarly, Fanny Hill, for all its indecency, ends with a proper marriage. Whether this is an attempt to avoid censorship or the power of conventionality, I’m not sure.

  3. Pingback: Romeo And Juliet Audio Book | All On Audio Books

  4. Donna says:

    What of corporations (*cough* *PayPal* *Mastercard* *Visa* *cough*) telling booksellers what they can and cannot sell; substantially. censoring what readers can read–by making it unavailable–and what authors can produce–by forcing booksellers to remove all works the corporations find “objectionable” although the subject matter is strictly LEGAL ACTIVITY?

    Specifically, PayPal is currently in the process of strong arming smaller booksellers who distribute erotic works into either removing items designed for not necessarily mainstream audiences (specifically something called pseudo-incest and role-playing fantasies).

    I completely agree that so-called manuals on how to rape a child should be kept off the shelves in the interest of public safety. Amazon finally caved awhile back and removed such a title. I also don’t think non-consensual sex, with a human or non-human, should be provided for titillation.

    I am an incest, rape, and domestic abuse survivor.

    However, when discussing a consensual adult relationship (complete with sex) where there is no blood or other legal relation AND no current relation by marriage, as is the case with pseudo-incest, I take great umbridge with someone telling anyone they cannot read, purchase, or sell such an item.

    Seriously, if an adult decides to pursue an adult relationship with a family member’s ex-spouse who shares no physical or adoptive or foster relationship at the inception of said adult relationship, then so be it. Heck, cousins can marry and have children in some states. Cousin/Cousin relationships are strictly defined as incest, whereas the other is not.

    Frankly, I think it ironic that PayPal (whose parent, eBay, allows sellers to auction explicit items designed for “adults only”) will accept payment for an auction where someone purchased “Hot Anal Lesbian Sisters”, but not allOw that same buyer to even be allowed to shop for the same title in book format, even if the “Hot Anal Lesbians” aren’t related in any way.

    It is a case of First and Fourth Amendment trampling.

    Where will it end?

    Smaller booksellers are currently segregating all “suspicious” titles, not based on content, but rather on titles and keywords, and shifting them to a “sub-page” in order to kowtow to the mightly Internet money changers/credit cad companies. By having all those who don’t pass Corporate muster in one place, they not only make it even more difficult for buyers to find what they want, but it also makes it much easier to make them all vanish in a virtual book burning.

    And don’t think for one second it will stop there. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And who doesn’t believe credit card companies and Internet banks aren’t corrupt.

    Martin Neimoller, a minister in Nazi Germany, summed it up perfectly…

    “First they came for the Communists,
    And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me,
    And there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    The text is chilling both form its provenience and substance.

    I am also a minister’s child (albeit presumably an adult at 46). I may not agree with what people do to and with each other in the privacy of their bedroom (or kitchen floor…whatever), but if two (or more) consenting adults want to play slap and tickle with their Mom’s ex-husband (who is of no blood or legal relation), then GO FOR IT!

    We could all use a lot more pleasure in our lives, especially in times like these. History is depressing enough. Let’s not repeat it.

    After all, freedom of speech is one of the reasons our ancestors made such a dreary, disease-ridden boat ride then thanked their deity of choice for the solid ground under their soggy feet.

    Let’s not allow an inherently corrupt institution (credit and banking) rob us of our hard-earned birthright.

    • Donna says:

      PayPal is forcing booksellers to remove the material, OR PAYPAL WILL FREEZE THEIR PAYPAL ACCOUNTS, effectively choking the life out of the vanishing breed.

      PayPal claims MasterCard, Visa, and whatever other credit or BANK card a customer might use is forcing them into this action.

      Personally, I want Romance and Eritica authors (and whatever adult industry could possibly be involved) to band together with the ACLU and the host of successful First and Fourth Anendment lawyers and take it to court.

      Again, I’m not talking about books that tell some wanker “get-your-rocks-off” story about the (physical or emotional) rape or (physical or emotional) abuse of an adult (non-consensual), child, human, or non-human. That stuff is strictly illegal.

      The genre title “Pseudo (meaning FAKE) Incest” is a misnomer.

      Think Woody Alken and his lovely wife, Soon-Yi.
      Scandalous? Yes! In spades!
      Incest? Absolutely not! (as long as they were both telling the truth that she was 18 when the affair began).

      So far the booksellers I know of who are being affected are and

      I pray they try to slip their tiny manhood in Anazon’s unsuspecting back door, only to find they are now inside Amazon PDK ‘a meat-grinder in a very literary (semi-serious) way. But Amazon doesn’t take PayPal, although they will take PayPal’s credit card slicker than snot on a hot, muggy day,

      Barnes and Noble do accept PayPal. So will they decide to lift a well-deserve finger? Or become even more obsolete than they currently are?

      Wake up America! Don’t let then select your “smutty” librarezzz hidden so your kids can’t fiend out. Like our generation did.

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