Library Pulls Reading Guide after Complaints over Sex Book

CW: This story contains discussions of mature content.

A handful of community members, as well as several elected officials, are looking for answers this week after a selection guide promoting (among other things) a sex self-help book with a very adult title was placed in bags that went out to library patrons — apparently indiscriminately and without prior review.

The publication in question is BookPage, a Nashville-based circular containing dozens of book recommendations and reviews that is distributed to more than 4,000 libraries and bookstores and hundreds of thousands of readers across the country each month.

The Canby Public Library has subscribed to the publication for more than a decade and, before the coronavirus pandemic, the magazine was available to patrons at no charge in various areas throughout the library.

Since the library’s closure last March due to Covid-19, BookPage has been routinely inserted into the bags patrons receive when they collect requested materials through the library’s curbside pickup program.

According to Mayor Brian Hodson, library staff had never before reported a single complaint about the publication.

But that changed with the March 2021 issue, which contained on its inside front cover an advertisement promoting 10 titles under the headline “Great Books for Every Reader” — including Lick Like a Lesbian, described as a “fun but informative guide to perfecting oral sex.”

Inside cover of the March 2021 edition of BookPage.

The ad originated from three self-publishing presses: AuthorHouse, iUniverse and, the home of Lick Like a Lesbian, Xlibris. (The book itself is not actually available at the Canby library — or any library in the Libraries in Clackamas County consortium.)

After complaints were shared with Hodson as well as City Administrator Scott Archer early this week, the city quickly removed the remaining copies of BookPage from uncollected hold bags — though it was estimated at least 60 had already gone out to the community.

And, by Tuesday, Archer had decided, after several discussions with library staff, to cancel the city’s subscription to BookPage.

“After reviewing this matter, I did make the decision to have the subscription stopped from being handed out,” he later said. “I know there are varying viewpoints on that. For better or worse, that’s my decision. I thought it was the right thing to do for now.”

But that was not the end of it. Things came to a head Wednesday night as several community members appeared during public comment to voice their displeasure about the episode and demand that more be done.

It was a discussion that might (ahem) go down as one of the most unusual in the history of the Canby City Council — which is saying something.

Just last month, the council spent over an hour discussing an alleged visit to a strip club in Bend — but even that episode did not feature a member of the Canby School Board reading passages from an oral sex guide into the public record, which did happen Wednesday.

The book recommendation that caused controversy this week.

The school board member was Stefani Carlson, though she made clear she was speaking only as a private citizen. She said she had learned about the publication from a friend, who’d received it, unsolicited, from the Canby Public Library.

She, like the other citizens and councilors who spoke in opposition to the materials, was concerned about the possibility that it could have wound up in the hands of unsuspecting children — though no one on Wednesday presented any known instances of this actually occurring.

“I don’t know who is in charge of overseeing what the library promotes to our community and kids, but someone is,” Carlson said. “And we can point fingers all day long but someone needs to be held accountable for promoting this. … We must protect our innocent and precious children.”

Carlson then read two portions from the introduction of the book, which — while it was indeed unusual fare for a Canby City Council meeting — appeared to illustrate simply that the book was what it purported to be: a mature yet playful guide to performing oral sex.

“Did I make anybody feel uncomfortable tonight?” Carlson asked afterward. “I know I felt very uncomfortable reading that. Is this appropriate for early readers, for all readers? No, it’s not, and if any of you say it is, you’re out of your mind. It’s wrong to over-sexualize our children, period.”

Kevin Starrett, director of the gun-rights group Oregon Firearms Federation and a longtime Canby resident, expressed similar concerns.

“Library staff and anyone else are free to buy, rent or steal books like this and present them to their children,” he said. “No one is preventing that. But to have this kind of thing actually promoted to our kids in a community resource is outrageous.”

Starrett took issue with the idea that library staff should not be held responsible for the content in the third-party publication that they had distributed, likening it to “slipping kiddie porn in someone’s shopping bag and defending yourself by saying, ‘I didn’t take those pictures.'”

“If no action’s taken other than to mumble something about ‘Mistakes were made,’ then the City Council has tacitly approved of this,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”

Starrett and several others described the blurb as “pornography,” including Dawn Depner, another Canby School Board member who stated she was speaking only for herself.

“As a parent of young kids, I want to know why a leaflet is being handed out to kids with the recommendation to read Lick Like a Lesbian,” Depner said. “Who approved this? What’s being done about it? I hope our council takes this issue as serious as I take my children’s health and their exposure to pornography.”

She said the staff member responsible for the publication going out to the community should resign, and demanded that oversight be put in place to ensure such an incident never happens again.

“We need to stop shifting the blame, and as a community, say, ‘No more,'” she said. “Please make our library a safe place for all children. A library is supposed to be a safe place for community members and children to come and learn, not a place where garbage finds its way into the minds of our own children’s heads.”

And resident Margaret Starrett described the publication as “pornographic by the standards of most reasonable people.”

“I believe it would be a very big mistake to pass this off as an innocent mistake and forget about it,” she said. “And my expectation is that the City Council take steps to hold someone accountable for this.”

The one public comment in support of BookPage came in an email from Lois Brooks, co-chair of the nonprofit Friends of the Canby Public Library, which donates the funds for the annual subscription at the library’s request.

“The Friends regularly adjusted the number of copies we ordered based on consumer demand,” she said of the publication. “When the library reopened for inside hold pickups, we were told that the BookPage was very popular and we increased the subscription.”

Brooks said she herself reads BookPage every month and has done so for years.

“When I picked up the March copy, I saw the review of the book in question and just proceeded to scan other books that might be of interest to me,” she said. “Like the song says, I know how to ‘walk on by.'”

“Over the years, I have found new authors to try, new subjects to read, books for our granddaughters and even new cookbooks to try. I enjoy being exposed to new and different ideas but there are definitely a lot of books in the BookPage that also don’t interest me and I don’t waste my time on them.”

Brooks questioned the decision to cancel BookPage without first checking in with library patrons who use and enjoy it, and asked that the move be reconsidered.

However, several councilors also expressed deep reservations about the publication and the apparent lack of oversight for library materials being offered to the public.

Councilor Shawn Varwig said his problem was with the book’s mature content and the way it was presented, not the title or suggestive cover.

“When you take the title out, it was a how-to guide for oral sex that was potentially given out and promoted to children,” he said. “That’s a problem, and just canceling the publication is not OK. Somebody needs to be held accountable. We need to know why somebody didn’t see that.”

Councilor Jordan Tibbals agreed, saying this was not simply a one-time oversight. Rather, it was “poor policy” and “poor leadership” to have allowed materials to be placed before the public for years without proper review.

“There was a conscious decision made to not look at that,” he said. “I’m never going to be OK with that. Because the innocence of children is something we should all care very, very deeply about, and that was inappropriate. And I would want a decision to be made that reflects the seriousness that we take that as a city.”

Councilor Chris Bangs, however, disagreed. While acknowledging there was a “really good argument to be made that that’s offensive content,” he did not believe it was the responsibility of the Canby City Council to make that judgment call for all of its citizens.

“I don’t believe it is the role of elected officials to censor the materials that come from a library,” he said. “I think that’s the role of the people that use the library, including parents.”

But he got push-back from Council President Traci Hensley, who reiterated that the concern was the potential age of library patrons who may have encountered the material.

“It’s not whether or not it’s offensive; it’s that a publication went out into the hands of children, as far as we know,” she said. “Little Suzy could have gone down to the library to pick up her own books.

“And I think that we have to agree that, whether or not we find it offensive, it is an adult-themed book and it had no business in the hands of kindergarten to high school-aged kids.”

Councilor Greg Parker also argued that it was not the council’s place to intervene, but from a different angle than Bangs, pointing out that the city charter explicitly forbids elected officials from having direct oversight over any Canby employees beyond the city administrator, city attorney and municipal judge.

“We wake up every morning with one decision: Are we going to fire our city manager or not?” he said. “And if the answer is no, he runs the shop.”

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