Defining Censorship

What is censorship?

Wikimedia Commons

Though the word “censorship” has a complicated array of legal, cultural, and technical meanings, it is generally thought of to mean any action that limits free expression across all media, intercepting either before publication (regulations by publishers or governments) or after publication (bannings and challengings). The emergence of this type of censorship mainly began with the development of the printing press in the 16th century, where information could be distributed more easily and more than just the ruling elite could write and publish ideas.

Censorship and sexual content

Many of the passages in Glass that the Whittier Middle School parent complainant found inappropriate for students were sexual in nature, and this is completely congruous with the history of censorship. Discussions of sexuality are among the most frequently challenged throughout all of literary history, often more heavily censored than explicit violence, at least in Western literature and media.

Although sex in literature has been historically a subject of controversy, the now-familiar social idea of sex and sexual language as taboo and vulgar did not truly arrive until the Victorian Era of the 19th century, which impacted the United States along with the United Kingdom.

Wikimedia Commons.

While underground means of acquiring pornographic and sexual materials prospered, mainstream Victorian society sought to reject most sexual expression in its literature. For example, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published in 1891, was heavily disputed and often banned due to its descriptions of sex and rape. Just like Hopkins’s Glass, it was challenged despite the fact that the content was meant to be cautionary, not titillating.

Times have changed since 1891, however, and so have descriptions of sexual content in literature. Media of all kinds has a greater capacity to be explicit in its sexual representation, which alters the censorship landscape entirely. The fact that so many of the most commonly banned books of the last two decades were contested due to their sexual content, there is still clearly much disagreement about how much of it is appropriate and for which audiences.

Boyer, Paul S. “Gilded-Age Consensus, Repressive Campaigns, and Gradual Liberalization: The Shifting Rhythms of Book Censorship.” A History of the Book in America. Edited by Carl F. Kaestle, U of NC Press, 2009, pp. 276-298.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. McIlvan & Co., 1981.

Moore, Nichole. “Censorship Is.” Australian Humanities Review, 2013, pp. 45-65.

Image credit:

Amman, Jost. “A Typography of the Fifteenth Century (1568)” Wikimedia Commons, published 1 July 2005.

Original cover of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Wikimedia Commons, published 4 Dec. 2006.

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