Back to the Future: Book Bans Today Mimic 19th Century Purity Laws

Photo by Axios.


Most Americans connected to the public school system—recent graduates, current students, family members, etc.—are aware of the waves of book bans that have been sweeping school libraries in recent years; however, few realize just how far the movement to ban books goes, nor how malicious its intentions really are. Pen America, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to fighting censorship in American media for over 100 years, published a report on September 21, 2023, finding that book bans have increased by over 33% nationwide since 2021. This spike, coupled with the types of books that are frequently banned (books detailing LGBTQ+, racial, or socioeconomic struggles), is detrimental to students’ abilities to express themselves, to learn about the world, to empathize with others, and much more. These waves of censorship also bear a disturbingly similar resemblance to the Comstock purity age. 

Recent book bans disproportionately impact students in states such as Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Florida, which were home to over 40% of all book bans in the 2022-2023 school year. While these states have undergone the most rigorous censorship, book banning is nonetheless a national issue. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking it’s “not my state”: book banning actually has relatively little to do with a state’s red or blue status, since most decisions made over censorship in public schools are made at local political levels. In fact, these bans are often not a reflection of the government at all, but the efforts of just a few individuals. The Washington Post found that in 2021 and 2022, over 60% of book challenges were made by just 11 people nationwide. Oftentimes, these few people will overwhelm local schools or governments by sending hundreds of book challenges until officials cannot take appropriate time to review every book, and thus they ban many all at once.

 It is shocking that so few people can have such a significant impact on what is and is not allowed in schools based merely on their own definitions of sexual obscenity or offensive language—which, as the American Library Association finds, are the primary motivations for book bans. Unnervingly, the power of just a few people to decide what is “too obscene” for public consumption is reminiscent of the censorship and purity laws of the late 19th century. Indeed, the Comstock era began in 1873 when Congress passed the Comstock Act, making a wide array of “obscene” materials (contraceptives, birthing knowledge and aids, sexual devices) illegal. Government workers—including Anthony Comstock himself—were given permission to search people’s mail, personal belongings, and even monitor their conversations for evidence of impurity. While the act was formally overturned in 1965, many traces remain in American culture, specifically in schools where books are banned based on subjective definitions of “impurity” and “obscenity.” These terms are vague and, in many cases, are just used as an excuse for individuals to ban books that they don’t like. While parents should always have the right to shield their children—especially young children—from material they find inappropriate, the problem arises when these parents then make that same material inaccessible to other children. 

There is no clear set of guidelines on what is “too obscene” for school children, and laws made to clarify often only cause more confusion. For example, educational laws in states such as Iowa, Texas, and Florida command schools to restrict access to—or dump altogether—books that are not “age appropriate” or are “sexually explicit” in any way. However, these laws do not define sexual explicitness or what age-appropriate means. Many schools, such as the Urbandale district in Iowa, which took nearly 400 books off the shelves for the 2023 school year,  have simply resorted to taking the broadest interpretation of the law to prevent disciplinary action. Vague laws instill fear in school employees and motivate individuals to censor themselves before ever being told to by the government. 

Many highly regarded books and stories have been the target of book bans nationwide. For example, many schools no longer teach classics such as The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or even the works of William Shakespeare. Books that are listed on AP Literature and AP Language suggested reading lists are often wholly unavailable to students in certain counties and school districts. As a result, these students are disadvantaged in their education, their exposure to different life experiences, and their ability to find books that express their struggles. 


This article was edited by Matthew Quirindongo and Abigail D’Angelo.