Thursday, June 14, 2007

Libraries and lewdness

A report in the Columbus Dispatch talks about increasing problems posed by lewd behavior in libraries. "Based on the reports, no community appears to be immune." Many public libraries, including ours, have seen inappropriate or lewd behaviors, including Internet porn, masturbation, public sex, people exposing themselves. and people who stalk.

Where does this rash of lewd incidents come from? A few thoughts...

  • Societal problems have marginalized more people and weakened social pressures and opportunities for normative behavior. Examples:
    • the growth of poverty
    • the reduction of social services
    • untreated alcohol and other drug abuse
    • a lack of mental health care
    • the increasing criminalization of America
  • Even among healthy affluent people, changing norms and a growing acceptance of lewd & licentious behaviors in context means that "socially acceptable" has changed. By enforcing standards, we're bucking a social trend:
    • the "seven words you can't say on TV" are now down to three or four, but on many cable channels, zero
    • the NY Times reports that in ruling against the FCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York has noted: "If President Bush and Vice President Cheney can blurt out vulgar language, then the government cannot punish broadcast television stations for broadcasting the same words." Our conservative leaders are not helping the cause here.
    • porn on demand is available in many, if not most, motel rooms
    • the AP reported on June 3 that 'more than a third of the U.S. Internet audience visited sites that fit into the online "adult" category' this year
    • Paris Hilton? Britney Spears? Need we say more?
  • Public library Internet access for those without other means of accessing creates a small but disproportionate group of library users with "special concerns." Some use the library only to use the Internet, and some of these use the Internet less for research or for communication than to indulge the sociopathic or obsessive behaviors that some websites pander to. While the vast majority of public access Internet is entirely appropriate, the temptations available online provide a focal point for lewdness. We have to be tolerant of difference, but give some thought to what crosses the line and how to enforce standards.
One perspective is that libraries -- and other public places -- have always had some level of "lewd behavior" problem, and the above factors have accentuated frequency and visibility, helped by media eager to sensationalize. As long as we're a public place, and open to everyone, these problems will continue. We had problems with inappropriate sexuality, fetishism and harassment in libraries where I worked 35 years ago. No surprise that in the current climate we still have these problems.

Since almost all human beings are sexual but not all are well-socialized or possess self-control, we can expect more of the same. This does not make our libraries dangerous, but it does mean we need to be vigilant to enforce standards and maintain a good environment to work in and visit. The really dangerous behaviors -- such as stalking, flashing, etc. -- require us to nip them in the bud.

We can also be careful about how we position ourselves. I was recently taken to task by a patron for not having the HBO series Cathouse in our collection. As far as I'm concerned, they can keep waiting. We may be a popular materials library, but that's no reason to spend tax money on soft-core porn in the guide of documentaries. A reputable study of brothels? OK. But customer reviews of Cathouse on Amazon.com are telling:
This is one Hot show. ... If hookers, sex, nudity, and documentaries interest you..then this no doubt is an entertaining look ... A place like that will put strip clubs out of business.
It's not too surprising to me that few libraries stock this title. We should carry demanded quality titles even if they are edgy and not for all tastes. thus we carry the HBO series Deadwood and feature films like Eyes Wide Shut. Nor is it surprising that some public libraries filter the Internet so their staff doesn't have to deal with so much porn. Most of us don't need security guards, thank goodness. But we do need to keep our values and our wits. And keep our eyes wide open.

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