Clean Reader – why censoring adult books doesn’t really protect children

I was only vaguely aware of Clean Reader until I heard Joanne Harris talking about it on Radio 4. Whilst I generally like the idea of making my books accessible to people  who wouldn’t normally read them, I object to this app – partly on the grounds that I don’t want someone changing the words of my books (no ‘you can opt out’ isn’t consent), but also on the grounds that it’s such a misguided idea.

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I’m not a stranger to the idea of protecting kids from unwanted influences. I grew up in middle class Sri Lankan society in the 1980s. Conservative? You betcha. For a while there was no kissing allowed on Sri Lankan TV screens. People moved in for the kiss and then Blip – it was over. There must have been kids who thought that white people kissing (we got a lot of old UK, US and Australian stuff) was some sort of time warp generator. Sex scenes got cut out entirely or you got a short burst of static. I went to an all girls’ school. I wasn’t allowed to read any Sweet Dreams or Sweet Valley High books in case I got ‘ideas’. It was all culturally normal and it was massively pointless. You can’t get away from love stories. Getting ‘ideas’ is what teenagers are programmed to do!

Besides, even if you cleaned up the rude language in books, would you really be protecting kids from anything? I gather that words for any genitalia are replaced with the word ‘bottom’. One of my books (Dr January) contains a date rape scene. Apart from the word ‘nipple’ and maybe the word ‘body’ the app wouldn’t replace any words, so it’s relatively ‘clean’. It’s still a rape scene. It’s horrible and upsetting. It’s meant to be.  Replacing words would have protected no one.

Say the app removed the scene entirely. The ambiguity of date rape is a key plot point. If the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene and feel Beth’s confusion, then Beth goes from being a woman finally acknowledging that she’s in an abusive relationship, to either being a willing victim or plain hysterical – either of which could be actively damaging to a kid who didn’t realise that date rape was a real thing. Without that ambiguity, you’re left with ‘no bruises, no crime’.

If everyone played by the same rules, the world would be a lovely place, but they don’t. Pretending that sex doesn’t happen outside of marriage, or that people who would take advantage of the innocent don’t exist does NOT protect people. It merely makes it harder for vulnerable people to talk about what is being done to them because, if someone manages to get them into bed, to do stuff they’re not entirely sure ‘counts’, then it must all be their fault, right? So, how can they ask for help?

How on earth does that protect anyone?

Sex education is important. It won’t give kids ideas and urges that they wouldn’t have had anyway. But it does prepare them for it. Books are like dreams. They let you practise emotions so that if you have to deal with them for real, you have some idea what’s going on.

If you don’t like rude books, that’s fine. Don’t read them. If you’re worried about your kids reading books they’re not ready for, talk to them about it. Please don’t mess about with books written with care, certainly not without asking the author first.