10 October 2023

Welcome to Sex debate reignites with Wagga Library agreeing to move book from the junior section

| Chris Roe
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book superimposed on building

Welcome to Sex has attracted criticism from some residents, who lodged a petition calling on the council to remove the book from the library. Photo: Supplied.

As Wagga City Council emerged from more than an hour of discussion and debate over the book Welcome to Sex, Wagga’s Deputy Mayor Amelia Parkins applauded the community for its enthusiasm to engage in council matters.

“Just imagine what we could do if we had this level of engagement, passion, motivation from the community to inform all of the decisions that we are making,” she said.

A compromise was finally reached this week after the controversial sex education book was put back on the agenda for a second time .

Local campaigners felt that they had been thwarted in their attempt to address the council on the matter last month and sought to find some middle ground.

The drama began in September when Councillor Mick Henderson withdrew his original motion calling for the book to be removed.

Cr Dan Hayes countered with an alternative motion that would prevent the “banning” of books from the library and support the expert staff in managing their collections.

READ ALSO Wagga council votes to keep Welcome to Sex in the city library

The ensuing debate revealed that the Library Act 1939 asserted that the council had no authority to engage in censorship and to influence the decisions of the librarians, and the alternative motion was carried four votes to two.

Some residents opposed to the book felt blindsided by the move and late last month delivered a petition requesting that “Wagga Wagga City Council a) remove from the Wagga City Library, including the online availability, the children’s book, ‘Welcome To Sex’ by Melissa Kang & Yumi Stynes, b) review all children’s books and their appropriateness and availability to children under the age of 18, c) develop a policy and panel around the selection of books made available to children in our public library.

council meeting

Wagga City Council has debated Welcome to Sex for a second time. Photo: Facebook Live.

With the call to “remove” the book rendered moot, the argument shifted to focus on its location in the junior section of the library.

Jenny Rolfe was the first of four residents to address the council and explained her objection to the petition, which she said was “at its core about censorship and controlling the information that local residents have access to”.

“One of the most effective things we can do to protect our children against harm, including sexual abuse, is to provide them with quality, credible, age-appropriate information,” she argued.

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Helen Mundy agreed and said the petition’s signatories represented “less than 0.1 percent of our community” and that censorship was counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In answer to a question from Cr Henderson, Ms Mundy conceded that the book may be better placed in a section for older children.

“That could be a compromise potentially, you know, 12 to 18,” she said, adding that locking the book away was not a solution because “it needs to be on the shelves”.

pages from a sex education book

Welcome to Sex has been a controversial title since its release this year. Photo: Supplied.

Former councillor Paul Funnell led the argument against the book and read out some of the explicit content it contains. He described the material as pornographic and “a groomer’s dream come true” and highlighted a passage that suggests that children “sending nudes” should crop out their faces.

“To think this is freely available in the children’s section of our library is unconscionable,” he said.

“The library is meant to be a safe space and for this type of information to be made available where our children can wander and choose freely to read whatever is in that section of this council-run facility fills me with fear and horror to think this pornography is completely unvetted and open to all.”

Mr Funnell accepted that “the council can’t ban books” but hoped that the original motion would prompt closer examination and a potential compromise.

“We were happy to settle for it to be moved or to be classified … but we didn’t get that opportunity,” he said.

“You’ve got to strike hard sometimes to end up in that position of compromise.”

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Cr Jenny McKinnon questioned Mr Funnell’s decision to read out sexually explicit content at a meeting that was being live-streamed “with no graphic content warning” and could have been overheard by children.

Mr Funnell replied that her concern served to highlight his point that the material should not be freely available in the junior section of the library.

The final speaker, and author of the petition, Kirsty Matthews, pushed back against the use of the term “book banning”.

“Whilst we don’t have the power to ban a book, we do have the power to demand the safety of our children and that council and library perform their duty of care in vetting books and deciding – a) whether they’re suitable at all and b) their appropriate placement within the library.”

She noted that several other Riverina libraries had chosen to place Welcome to Sex in “the youth 7 to 18 year section” and asked why Wagga could not do the same.

When it came time for the council to again debate the matter, Cr Hayes reiterated his argument that censorship was a “slippery slope”.

“This petition calls for that endless possibility by not just asking to ban one book, but wanting to open up the process to ban many books, and that is just wrong,” he said.

Cr Tim Koshel opposed Cr Hayes’s alternative motion at the previous meeting and questioned whether relocating the book was something library staff could do.

“It’s currently sitting in the junior section, zero to 12 years old, and I know that we’re saying that we can’t ban books, but is that something that we can vet or move to a different section otherwise?” he asked.

Director of Community Services Janice Summerhayes confirmed that it could be relocated.

“It’s been in the junior area because it’s part of a series and when we have collections, we put them together in a series, but it can sit in the youth section as much as where it is currently.”

Ultimately, the compromise was accepted with general manager Peter Thompson confirming on Tuesday that it would be relocated from the 0 – 12 children’s section to the youth section.

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