CA school district bans the dictionary. Seriously.

Picture of a dictionary

Uh oh, I see the word ‘vagina’  *faints*

I know we covered this in yesterday’s What We Missed, but I just had to give it a bit more ink.  The Menifee, California school district has pulled all copies of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary because it contains definitions for “oral sex.”

And now, the school district is forming a committee to decide whether dictionaries that contain sexual terms should be permanently banned from classrooms.

The decision was made without consultation with the district’s school board and has raised concerns among First Amendment experts and some parents.

Other parents and Menifee residents, though, have praised the district’s decision, saying a collegiate-level dictionary is inappropriate for younger children.

A memo from the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction this week called the Merriam-Webster dictionary a respected resource but noted district officials found that “a number of referenced words are age-inappropriate.”

Goodness knows we wouldn’t want children learning the accurate definitions for words they’re probably hearing all the time from their peers. Better that they stick with “blow job” and “fucking.” Information isn’t dangerous, overzealous parents and schools are.

Via Shakesville.

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30 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I think parents fail to understand that their children are far more sexually aware than they want to believe, and as such, they need accurate information. I don’t think a parent can honestly start too early with educating and informing a child about sex and sexuality.

  2. cattrack2
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I don’t know…My mother started giving me the talk in 4th grade as I recall & that’s a good thing (it was much earlier than any of my peers). On the other hand in this specific case, it was a collegiate dictionary and it was pulled just from the K-8 elementary school, not the middle school or high school.
    So I guess the question is if “oral sex” is age appropriate discussion for K-4 graders. My mother and I had a number of talks beginning in the 4th grade but a whole lot went over my head in that first discussion. If this were middle schoolers we were talking about I’d be a lot more incredulous but for elementary kids its something of a toss up. They have lower level dictionaries which don’t have those terms.

  3. that girl
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    The thing is, it’s likely these K-4th graders will encounter terms like “oral sex” pretty soon if they haven’t already. Older siblings, TV, internet…it’s hard to avoid. It’s better that they get their first exposure from a dictionary, rather than a site an older sister accidentally left in the browser.

  4. Athenia
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Do these schools have computers with internet in the classrooms though???

  5. kandela
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I thought ‘oral sex’ meant kissing until I was in my 20s (yes, seriously). Perhaps stumbling across this dictionary might have helped me.

  6. rhowan
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Merriam Webster’s definition of “Oral Sex”

    Main Entry: oral sex
    Function: noun
    Date: 1973
    : oral stimulation of the genitals : cunnilingus, fellatio

    Now, this isn’t from the Collegiate Edition, but I imagine the definition is the same (and almost certainly not any more “sexually graphic”)
    The article mentions that the district officials found that “a number of referenced words are age-inappropriate.” I’m guessing they’re objecting to the presence of the words cunnilingus and fellatio. Because do you know what’s even worse than the word oral sex? LATIN synonyms for it. Everybody knows that Latin is just plain dirty. :)

  7. analog
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    But you need to look at how children use dictionaries. This is a collegiate dictionary, which means it has something like 200,000 words in it. Really, 200,000. Most people do not go through a dictionary page by page reading the words. Especially not a dictionary like this (keeping in mind this isn’t a 50 page kid’s dictionary with cute illustrations). They use it to look up words they have ALREADY heard and have questions about.
    So if a child is looking up the term “oral sex” it probably means he or she has already heard the term. And if they have already heard it, wouldn’t you prefer they get a definition from Merriam-Webster than anywhere else? Like TV, their peers, or even the web? Of the available options, the dictionary is clearly the best choice.
    It is possible that a child could just be flipping through the dictionary (which most kids don’t do) and encounter “oral sex.” But that is unlikely. How many “objectionable” words can there be out of 200,000? Let’s say there are 1,000 (probably high), that is less than 1/2 of a percent of the total words in the book! You are not just going to randomly come across it.
    Additionally, I would argue that “oral sex” IS an appropriate conversation to have with a child of almost any age. You don’t have to go into graphic details. But what is wrong with telling a 4th grader (or even a 1st grader) that oral sex is the “oral stimulation of the genitals?” Which I just looked it up in my copy of the same dictionary. That is all it says. It isn’t like there is a picture or something. What is wrong with that?

  8. paperispatient
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    In elementary school, I remember hearing that oral sex meant saying naughty things to someone. At that age, I didn’t quite understand what those naughty things might be, but I was pretty certain oral sex mostly had to do with talking.

  9. Toongrrl
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Jenicole627
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    As a middle school teacher, I can tell you that the 6th graders are already WELL-AWARE of what oral sex is, among other things. Unfortunately, in my state, sex ed doesn’t happen until 8th grade. And by then, we already have pregnancies happening. So far there is only one confirmed pregnancy, but at least two more are suspected and one of them is in the 7th grade. And this is just in MY school, and I live in a major metropolitan area. We have already caught students engaging in sex in the bathrooms, as well.

  11. The Boggart
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Unless the kids happen to be randomly browsing/looking up “oral” or some variant, I doubt that of the nearly 200,000 words in the English language they would be likely to stumble across (whisper it) oral sex. If anything, in order to look a word up in a dictionary, you generally have to know it exists first…
    Compromise solution: if it bothers the school that much, they could always just censor the offending definitions.

  12. Honeybee
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Nonsense like this just infuriates the hell out of me. I don’t understand how they can get away with this. I am positive this could not happen where I live as parents and others would be outraged at the very idea.
    Also I honestly think in their attempts to shield children they accomplish the exact opposite. The more forbidden you make the more people are interested. And even worse, would you rather you child read a factual dictionary definition of these terms or have them look it up on the internet and view the acts themselves and/or read the slang and dirty talk that goes with them. It’s idiotic to think that hiding this terms in any way helps children. What are they thinking???

  13. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t figure out what “oral sex” was until I was in Junior High School – from the time I first heard the term (on an episode of “the Phil Donahue Show” I saw when I was 8) I had assumed it had to do with really passionate kissing or something.
    When I was in 6th grade, one of the boys in my class came to school one day with one of his father’s Hustler magazines – that’s how I learned the actual definition (or at least Larry Flint’s version of it).
    I would have been a lot better off it I’d learned from a dictionary – as I’m sure these kids would have been had their school not banned it.

  14. _Maeowin_
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    i wish i could “like” this comment a million times… what a bunch of noobs, these kids prolly know how to use the internet better than their parents too

  15. zes
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    My brother learned what sex was from the dictionary, aged 8 (parents gave us the talk aged 9 or 10 unless we asked sooner, so he got in there early). He had heard the word at school and looked it up. Later he proudly informed our sister that “I know what sexual intercourse is.” She said, “Oh?” He said, “It’s the insertion of the penis into the vagina.” She said, “Right. So how do people do it then?” He said, “I don’t know.” It turned out he didn’t even know that it was a thing two (or more) people do, he just heard the words, grasped that it was important and headed for the dictionary, very enterprising in my view. He got playground cred from telling all the other kids. However not a one of them understood what they were hearing, or saying. He also had no clue what a vagina was. He wasn’t even clear on what a penis was, because people usually refer to little boys’ bits by some appropriately infantile desexualising word like willy, and because he wasn’t a good enough speller yet to pronounce it right, he said it, “peh-niz”, so he hadn’t clicked it was the same thing. And because the idea of wanting to insert one’s penis into someone else is totally creepy to most small children, so why would he leap to that assumption?
    Based on that story and on rhowan’s post, that the oral sex defition means “oral stimulation of the genitals”, I bet you that many 4th graders don’t know what genitals are, what stimulation is in that context, or what oral is. So they cannot possibly be enlightened or corrupted by reading that dry, factual description.
    So my feeling is that these parents have grossly, and naively, and in a totally non-empathic manner that pushes an adult perspective onto a childlike mind, overestimated their children’s precocity.

  16. rhowan
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Heh. I’m loving the story about your brother.
    I remember in the first grade one of my (male) classmates would run around the schoolyard telling all the girls “You have a fat vagina” in a taunting sing-song voice. I don’t think he knew what a vagina was, he just knew that a) girls had them, and that b) being fat was “bad”. So naturally A + B = schoolyard insult gold.
    My parents gave me an illustrated How-Your-Body-Works book as soon as I could read, and I remember being completely disgusted by his ignorance (and bad manners). :D

  17. TopHat
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I was 16 when my mom realized she left oral sex out of the “sex talk” from when I was 12. We had a second sex talk in which oral sex was described as, “If what you’re thinking about is gross, that’s it.”
    Um… Yeah…
    It would have been better for her to hand me the dictionary.

  18. Liza
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    They may have firewalls and content blockers on them, though.

  19. katemoore
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d find the words to comment on this, but my teacher won’t let me. Sorry.

  20. paperispatient
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I think I was in fourth grade when my mom got me a book all about the body and sex and we read it together; I was encouraged to ask any questions I had. The book mentioned that some couples have oral and anal sex but didn’t go into any more detail, so of course I inquired. After she gave me brief definitions, I remember blurting, “DO YOU AND DAD DO THAT???” It seems I’ve blocked out her response.

  21. paperispatient
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Even so, there are ways around things like that. I remember feeling very proud the day I figured out that running a page through a translation website got me around my high school’s content blockers.

  22. Velderia
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    I read the definition of “oral sex” several years before I turned 18… I was 15, I think? At first I was like “OMGWTFGROSS” but 5 minutes later the “OMG” passed away and in the end, it was just a word.
    Even being 20 years old now, I haven’t had any sort of sex. I never even kissed anyone.
    Does looking up the word “murder” in the dictionary make kids go out and shoot people? No. Does reading Hamlet make kids want to drown in the water? Um… No.
    This ban surprises me a bit.

  23. cattrack2
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I never suggested waiting until Jr. High, but I’m pretty certain that Kindergarten is too early for the sex talk…In my personal opinion the right age to have it is the year or so before puberty, so say 5th grade. You do it any earlier than that & as a general rule it would be over the heads of the kids & not even relevant. Now if a specific kid is physically & mentally mature for their age then its entirely appropriate for their parents to engage sooner (thats the reason my mother had the talk w/ me in 4th grade). But that’s up to the parents not the schools.

  24. NapoleonInRags
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t heard of a firewall yet (not even the crazy, unremoveable Focus on the Family ones) that blocks the dictionary.

  25. NapoleonInRags
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t think a dictionary with blacked-out words is a compromise solution. A scene out of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, yes. Compromise, well, not so much.

  26. paperispatient
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    According to the LA Times, the dictionaries will be returned to the classrooms and parents can decide via permission slips whether they want their children to have access to them or to use “alternative dictionaries.”
    You can read more here: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-dictionary27-2010jan27,0,5566022.story

  27. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    But what if the parents don’t do it?
    And trust me, a lot of parents won’t do it – or they’ll do it in an unhealthy way.
    Which is one of the reasons we have a school system in the first place!

  28. cattrack2
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    “What if the parents don’t do it?”
    You’re asking what if parents don’t teach 4th graders about oral sex? Really??? Because I’m specifically talking K-4 here, not middle school.
    Public schools are not a panacea. Parents have to do their part. Public policy is a one size fits all approach, hence all the so called “zero tolerance” policies out there. Its up to parents to address their kids’ unique needs.
    Its absurd that K-4 children need to be taught about oral sex. Full stop.

  29. FLT
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    What is absolutely wonderful about this ban is that it can (and will) be used to show how arbitrary “banning” can be.
    My experience in a public library has generally been that if the word or book is too much “above” a reader’s experience, brain power, or comfort zone, the person just says, “Ick,” and moves on.

  30. paperispatient
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t argue that they NEED to be taught about oral sex; but I also would NOT argue that all steps must be taken to prevent the knowledge that such a thing exists from reaching them. As other people have mentioned, they likely have internet access both at school and at home. Censoring the dictionary just seems completely absurd to me.

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