Seen and Obscene

Season 7, Episode 2

The birth of obscenity laws in the 1870s provides a cautionary tale for the present moment, when far-right conservatives incorrectly label books “sexually explicit” as a way to provoke outrage in communities nationwide. This episode, we delve into the parallels that history can reveal and hear from students in Texas fighting for their freedom to read.

Our call to action for this episode:
  • Be an ally and an advocate for the teens in your life. Start a conversation about what matters to them, and how you can help.
  • Support getting more LGBTQ+ affirming books into classrooms: Rainbow Library is a program created by GLSEN that allows school staff to request a set of 10 free LGBTQ+ books for their own classrooms. 
More resources:

Check out this list of books recommended for this episode.

Episode Transcript

Cameron Samuels Education has always been so important to me, where in kindergarten I asked my classmates, why couldn't we have school year round? I loved school, and I still very much do.  

Virginia Marshall This is Cameron Samuels. Now, Cameron is a college student in Massachusetts, but they spent their entire K-12 education in the suburbs west of Houston, Texas, at Katy Independent School District, or Katy ISD. 

Cameron Samuels Katy had amazing schools. It was a destination school district. And it was for a while, until recently. 


Virginia Marshall When Cameron entered high school, they started to encounter challenges. Specifically, an internet filter that prevented them from visiting LGBTQ+ resources on the web while at school, websites like The Trevor Project and The Advocate, a news site covering LGBTQ issues. 

Cameron Samuels I was shocked. Just — it was unfathomable to me that the district had a category called "alternative sexual lifestyles" and in parentheses "GLBT" that justified blocking websites that provided crucial resources to queer youth like myself. I noticed the filter my freshman year of high school. It wasn't until my senior year that I went to the school board. 

School board member At this time, the Board of Trustees will give members of the public an opportunity to speak in accordance with Katy ISD Board policy ... 

Adwoa Adusei If you’ve never been to a school board meeting, imagine a fluorescently lit room with a tall wooden bench at the front. Board members, mostly wearing suits, sit behind the bench. There’s a podium facing the board members, and behind the podium, rows of chairs for the public. School board meetings are open to everyone. Anyone can register to speak about any topic at the podium for three minutes. 

School board member If you're not finished speaking at the end of your three minutes, your audio will turn off. 

Adwoa Adusei This is a recording from a school board meeting in Katy, Texas in November 2021. It was there that Cameron brought up the internet filter for the first time. 

Cameron Samuels I want to bring to light a disturbing discovery that several students and I have found. Katy ISD has an internet filter policy basend on ...

[Recording fades out]

Cameron Samuels The school board room has about 200 seats. When a speaker walks back to their seat, the room is typically in a roar of applause. But whenever I went up to speak and walked back to my seat, not a single clap was made and I just saw people staring at me. As the only student, I felt like I wasn’t being heard.

Adwoa Adusei Cameron wasn’t the only person to speak at the board meeting that day in November. Six women – many of them mothers of children in the school district — read explicit excerpts from Young Adult books they said were in school libraries and called for their immediate removal. 

Speaker 1 We need your help and an immediate plan of action to clean up the obscene, vulgar and pornographic books that are currently in Katy ISD libraries.

Speaker 2 I’m reading from Forever for a Year by B.T. Gottfred.

Speaker 3 ... pornographic materials in our schools. I will read from the following book called All Boys Aren't [Blue].

Speaker 4 I have never read such vulgar, explicit material until now. And I expect immediate action, including an audit of our libraries.


[Theme music starts] 

Virginia Marshall What happened in Katy, Texas is not an isolated event. Across the country, school boards are becoming places where books are labeled "pornographic," where librarians and teachers are being accused of pedophilia and indoctrination … 

Newscaster 1 School libraries could be put on notice if a student ends up with a book deemed to have obscene material. 

Newscaster 2 Librarians could be held criminally responsible if the content they’re using in schools is considered obscene.

Virginia Marshall And, these challenges have a focus: According to PEN America, which tracks banned and challenged material in schools, 40 percent  of the more than 1,600 titles banned in in the 2021-2022 school year contained LGBTQ+ characters and themes. 

Adwoa Adusei The reasons cited for their challenges? That the books are “obscene,” “pornographic,” or “vulgar” ... similar language to what you just heard at the Katy ISD school board meeting. 

Virginia Marshall All of this made us wonder: who gets to say what’s “obscene” and what’s not? Because in Katy, the parents and school board members seemed to be the ones making those calls. 

Cameron Samuels The following day after the board meeting, they listened to all the parents that were there calling books sexual and pornographic, and they removed those books from school libraries, within 24 hours of that meeting.

Adwoa Adusei To be clear, we at BPL respect the right of parents to choose what their own kids read. But we won’t remove access for all because of the demands of a few. 

Virginia Marshall We’ve seen what happens when censorship reigns. We’ve been here before. On this episode, we’re going to track America’s relationship with “obscene” material ... to the present day. I’m Virginia Marshall. 

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. From Brooklyn Public Library, this is Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series that tells the story of America’s ideological war with its bookshelves.  

[Theme music out] 

Adwoa Adusei As we were trying to figure out how to talk about what’s happening in libraries and schools, we kept coming back to this one word: obscene, and words like it: explicit, lewd, gratuitous, and vulgar. Those words come up again and again when we read about book challenges and bans. You heard them in the Katy ISD school board meeting. But what do those words even mean?  

Amy Werbel That's a really great and important question. "Obscene," the Latin root of that literally is "off stage," things which should not be in the public sphere.

Virginia Marshall This is Amy Werbel, Art History Professor and writer. Five years ago, she wrote a book about the man who is referred to as the father of obscenity laws: Anthony Comstock. Anthony Comstock was the first professional censor in the United States. And, he had a very long career. 

Amy Werpel For 44 years, he policed American morals, which included everything from actresses wearing tights on stage to materials used for abortion.

Virginia Marshall But of course Comstock wasn’t always the chief censor. He grew up on a farm in Connecticut, raised in a sect of Christianity that traced its roots back to the New England Puritans. 

Amy Werbel From an early age, he saw his role as being the roundsman of the Lord, literally God's police officer. And carnal sin is one of the easiest ways to get yourself sort of burning in the fires of Hell. And what carnal sin for Comstock means is any sexual act outside of marriage for the purpose of procreation. And Comstock even believes that you have a chamber in your heart in which all of your sins are carried for life. So if you even saw one pornographic image, you would carry that sin in your heart forever and be judged.

Virginia Marshall Comstock fought in the Civil War – and when he returned from the battlefield, he moved to lower Manhattan.

Amy Werbel And that's where he was really introduced to the vice that he would spend the rest of his life fighting. 


Adwoa Adusei Imagine, someone who believes even glimpsing one suggestive photograph tarnishes your soul forever … is plunged into the debauchery of 19th-century New York City, from the Bowery’s saloons and brothels to the infamous poverty, crime and prostitution of the Five Points neighborhood. And Comstock wanted to put a stop to all of it.  

[Record scratch] 

Adwoa Adusei He eventually moved across the East River to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. 

[Sound of horses clopping] 

Amy Werbel This was kind of like the Greenwich, Connecticut, of the 19th century, in the sense that before the Brooklyn Bridge opens, people are taking the ferry back and forth from Fulton. 

Adwoa Adusei Clinton Hill was once the home of oil barons, the Wall Street workers of the 19th century. They were a conservative, religious bunch. 

Amy Werbel They were philanthropists and they gave money to establish all these beautiful churches and museums and gardens and so forth. And they funded this vice-fighting organization.

Adwoa Adusei In 1873, Comstock and these wealthy Brooklynites founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose aim was to suppress the trade and consumption of obscene material. 

Virginia Marshall Within a year of its founding, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice lobbied congress to pass a series of acts later referred to as the Comstock Laws. The law prohibited the production, sale or shipment through the mail of anything “obscene, lewd or lascivious and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing print, or other publication of an indecent character.” 

Adwoa Adusei This is when Comstock became the chief censor—or the official government title of "Special Agent of the Postmaster General." With his newfound power, he conducted raids without the need for warrants, seized and burned several tons of literature: everything from medical textbooks to pamphlets on family planning, and books. He even went as far as melting down engraving plates to guard against future publication. 

Virginia Marshall Comstock kept meticulous records of all the “obscene” material he censored and destroyed. And it wasn’t only publications.  

Amy Werbel He burned like tens of thousands of condoms, hundreds or thousands of dildos, you know, tens of thousands of newspapers that advertised contraceptives.

Virginia Marshall If it sounds pretty wild, it is. And one of the reasons that Comstock had the power to enforce these raids is because the law itself was far-reaching in its vagueness — an obvious challenge to free speech. Even in Comstock’s lifetime, there were attempts to appeal the law as a violation of the first amendment. 

Adwoa Adusei I keep coming back to that interpretation of “obscene” as that which is off stage. Not scene. Out of the spotlight. Private. The tools to help you understand your own history, culture, race, gender expressions, or sexuality are gone ... all in an attempt at what, precisely? 

Virginia Marshall Professor Werbel pointed out that despite the many people Comstock jailed and prosecuted, and all the material he confiscated and burned ... his aim to censor America’s cultural and intellectual production ultimately failed. 

Amy Werbel America was so much filthier at the time of his death in 1915. He made obscenity, as he defined it, chic and modern, such that american artists start to paint huge nudes, the floor shows get much more risque, theatrical promoters are advertising “Come see the show Comstock doesn’t want you to see.” And he also really can be credited with creating a First Amendment bar. Meaning a huge group of lawyers who know how to defend the targets of his investigations. Those lawyers found the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union. And I think you can absolutely credit Comstock with all of that. 

Virginia Marshall Another result of the backlash to the Comstock Laws is that we now have a narrowed legal definition of “obscenity.” The 1973 supreme court case Miller vs. California decided that for something to be considered “obscene,” it had to “lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” … when taken as a whole.

Adwoa Adusei So, you have to read the whole book, and consider its context before making a decision about whether it’s obscene, or if the work has literary, social, or cultural value. 

Virginia Marshall What we’re seeing now, though, is that legal definition of obscenity is being ignored. The books that are being challenged across the country are being challenged for one or two scenes that include a sexual act, a nude drawing in a comic, or a book about sexual health or puberty that contain diagrams of sex organs.

Adwoa Adusei According to PEN America, rhetoric about “porn in schools” is increasingly being used to advance state laws that would bar any books with sexual content. And, as we mentioned earlier, often the target of those “sexually explicit” and “obscene” challenges are books with LGBTQ+ stories and characters. In Florida, the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” which some refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law prompted school districts to remove all children’s books with any LGBTQ+ content on the grounds that they were too sexually explicit ... books like And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo raising a baby penguin together and Everywhere Babies, a picture book about babies that contains one illustration that suggested a same-sex couple. 

Virginia Marshall In many ways, what happened during the reign of Anthony Comstock is happening again. Policies and laws are being enforced in ways that reflect the power structures that exist in society. 

Leigh Hurwitz Having access to things that tap into your own desire and pleasure, especially as a queer person are radical. And restricting access to those things is a way of trying to make people stay in the closet, basically.

Virginia Marshall This is Leigh Hurwitz, a librarian and the collections manager at Brooklyn Public Library.

Leigh Hurwitz One of the criteria that a book needs to fulfill to be considered legally obscene is that it "appeals to the prurient interest." Which means that people will be aroused by it, for example. Do we have books like that in the library? Yes, we do. And there's nothing wrong with that because it's part of natural human experience. There is nothing dirty or disgusting or transgressive about that. 

Adwoa Adusei A lot of this narrative of protecting kids and teens from these topics discounts that young person’s agency. Here’s how Leigh put it:

Leigh Hurwitz Kids and teens, if they don't if they are made uncomfortable by something they're reading, they will put it down. And we should be trusting them to be able to do that and to make up their minds about what they want to read. They're smarter than we are. 

Virginia Marshall When we launched the Books Unbanned e-library card for teens last year, Leigh and their colleagues were flooded with requests from young people across the country who were seeing their access to reading material cut off. 

Leigh Hurwitz And we were so inundated that I think at one point there were like over 2,000 unread emails in the inbox. It was bananas. It was really hard to keep up. Majority teens who are queer, especially Trans or non-binary. And also hearing from BIPOC teens. You know, it's not really about the books. It's about the people that they represent.

Virginia Marshall At this point, over 7,000 teens have applied for and are using Books Unbanned library cards. A lot of them come from areas like Katy, Texas, where their schools are taking away access to books and information they desperately need. And, the teens are fighting back.

Adwoa Adusei We haven’t finished the story in Katy, Texas. When we left off, Cameron’s voice at the school board meeting was outnumbered six-fold by adults who believed LGBTQ+ and other Young Adult books were obscene. The school board listened and removed the titles. But Cameron didn’t back down. 

Cameron Samuels That school board meeting in November was a catalyst for a student-led movement against censorship. I brought together students across the district to lead a FREADom Week effort, FREAD, the Freedom to Read. And during that week we received books from publishers and nonprofits and distributed them during afterschool clubs. And the following Monday was a school board meeting that we packed almost every single seat in the room, waving Pride flags and wearing Pride stickers. We were holding the books that were being challenged. And we defended our freedom to read.

Adwoa Adusei And the momentum continued. At the February school board meeting the following year, the tone had definitely flipped. There were more students and community members speaking in defense of books than those against them. And, their speeches were followed by applause.  

Speaker 5 It is honestly astonishing that here in 21st century in the United States of America, elected government officials are so corrupted by their personal values that they would be willing to ban books containing perfectly appropriate themes of diversity, inclusivity, and communal healing from past atrocities.

Speaker 6 Knowledge and empathy are developed through experience, and for students, books allow access to a multitude of countless important experiences that would be otherwise directly unobtainable. Diversity in literature is a benefit, not a detriment.

Speaker 7 Kids should have a choice to read the books they want to read. No one is forcing kids to read books. Let them choose.


Cameron Samuels In the following months, we continued that at every school board meeting. Books were reconsidered and added back to shelves. Books that were challenged were not removed.

Virginia Marshall People outside of Katy were listening, too. Cameron’s initial activism around the internet filter in schools caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas – one of the organizations that Professor Werbel credits Comstock with unintentionally creating. The ACLU of Texas filed a complaint against Katy ISD in April of 2022. By the fall of that year, the internet filter was removed in high schools and some middle schools. 

Adwoa Adusei It was a victory, for sure. But the fight isn’t over. Since Cameron graduated, more books have been challenged in Katy. But students continue to show up at school board meetings and draw attention to these issues.

Virginia Marshall And, their movement is growing. Cameron and fellow students founded a student activism group focused on defending intellectual freedom. It’s called SEAT: Students Engaged in Advancing Texas.

Da'Taeveyon Daniels They reached out and they were like, do you want to get involved with SEAT? I was like, yeah, why not? Ever since then, we've been fighting the good fight essentially. 

Virginia Marshall This is Da’Taeveyon Daniels, a sixteen-year-old from the Dallas Fort-Worth area. The high school he started out at didn’t have any book challenges … because they didn’t have a school library at all.

Da'Taeveyon Daniels I felt like we were being censored in that way, not only intellectually, but on a more personal level because I come from a lower income background. So I felt that because I wasn't able to read books in my school ... so there was no pleasure reading from the school library. 

Virginia Marshall Da’Taeveyon arranged a silent protest at his school and advocated for a school library, which they eventually got. And then he realized that the problems that existed at his high school, and at high schools like those in Katy, Texas … were because of decisions made by adults in power. The school board members. The politicians at the state house. 

Adwoa Adusei Da’Taeveyon joined the National Coalition Against Censorship as a Student Advocate for Speech, and he joined SEAT, with Cameron, just in time to fight a bill that had been proposed by the Texas legislature. That bill would ban “sexually explicit” materials in school libraries … and it went further. 

Da'Taeveyon Daniels HB 900 more nationally known as the "book banning bill." It essentially requires vendors to rate any books that they vend to schools, that are put in circulation. And if it's any form of sexual content, "sexually explicit" ... but the language of the bill was so vague, it can be left up to interpretation of the districts. And so that allows for discrimination against BIPOC communities, LGBTQIA+ communities.

Adwoa Adusei Da’Taeveyon, Cameron, and other students involved with SEAT .. they sprang into action.  

Da'Taeveyon Daniels We were emailing every single senator. We were making posts on social media, we were going to the capital, spending our own money. We were trying to lobby. And we're like, this bill will hurt us. And nobody wanted to listen. We fought tooth and nail. And it was just hard. And like at 10 o'clock that night when it passed on the Senate floor. it hurt. It really hurt. 

Adwoa Adusei In anticipation of HB 900 going into effect in September of this year, some schools closed their libraries as librarians reviewed and rated every single title for sexual content.

Da'Taeveyon Daniels Fort Worth ISD closed their libraries and in they've been closed for a while now, and they took off the shelves Mike Curato's Flamer. And it was like, wow. It's actually happening. It's been taken off the shelves. 

Adwoa Adusei At the very end of August, a Texas judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law in response to a lawsuit from a number of organizations including the American Booksellers Association, Association of American Publishers, and Authors Guild. We’ll wait to see what happens with HB 900, but in the meantime, Da’Taeveyon said that members of SEAT are focusing on growing their student membership. They’re running workshops on how to talk at school board meetings, and training for speaking to the press. They want to build a grassroots network of students so that the next time a bill like HB 900 comes across the governor’s desk … they will be ready. 

Virginia Marshall But, they can’t do it alone. After over a year of activism and a disheartening result, these students are tired. 

Da'Taeveyon Daniels we're focusing on our education, but we're also out here fighting a fight that your generation was supposed to fight. And it's like, it's crazy. Honestly, we're fighting y'all's fight. Now we're facing the consequences. Now we're facing crazy people who've been elected, and we're trying to ramp up voter registration in order to make sure young people are informed and they can get these people out of office. 

Virginia Marshall So, that’s our call to action today. Talk to the young people in your life. Find out what they care about and ask how you can help them. 

Adwoa Adusei Read the books they’re reading, the Young Adult titles that are being pulled from school library shelves across the country for “obscene” content. Defend those books, and defend the young people those books represent. 

Da'Taeveyon Daniels We need adult support. That's the message I want to get across. We need allies. So listen. Just listen. 

Virginia Marshall If you want to support getting more LGBTQ+ affirming books into classrooms, Rainbow Library is a program created by GLSEN (spelled G-L-S-E-N) that seeks to do just that. School staff in 31 participating states, from New Hampshire to Nebraska, can visit Rainbow Libraries [dot] org to request a set of 10 free LGBTQ+ books from GLSEN for their own classrooms. If you don’t work at a school, you can visit the website to find out other ways to support.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant. 

Virginia Marshall The National Coalition Against Censorship connected us with Da’Taevyon Daniels, who was one of their Student Advocates for Speech, and he is this year’s Youth Honorary Chair for Banned Books Week. The Student Advocates for Speech program provides advocacy training and opportunities to engage in the national conversation about censorship and free speech. You can visit NCAC [dot] org to learn more.

Virginia Marshall This episode was written and hosted by me and Adwoa Adusei, and produced with help from Goat Rodeo and our BPL team, including Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton, Damaris Olivo, Ashley Gill, Jennifer Proffit, and Lauren Rochford. John Snowden designed our logo. 

Adwoa Adusei The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel.

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant and Goat Rodeo.