While many librarians welcome and propagate their sexualization, what is their response once it expands outside of their control? At some point, sexualization becomes explicit objectification, and a certain danger lies in cultivating an unhealthy sexual perception of female librarianship.
There is a large amount of literature published over the last forty years that deals with sexual harassment of female librarians. However, much of this focuses more on sexual discrimination in terms of career advancement, than on actual physical or emotional assault on the grounds of gender. Christina Baum’s Feminist Thought in American Librarianship describes sexual harassment as “unwanted, unreciprocated, unsolicited advances of men to women” (Baum 48). While this excludes the very real occurrence of sexual harassment of men, that topic will be covered in our discussion of male librarians, thus leaving this section to address unhealthy sexual attitudes towards female librarians specifically.
There are well-documented instances of sexual harassment coming from within the library institution, the same cannot be said for external sources of harassment towards female librarians. Multiple surveys of the profession have shown that female librarians are exposed to sexual harassment from library patrons. In Will Manley’s sex survey, 78 percent of the female respondents indicated that they had been sexually harassed by a library patron. What exactly constitutes harassment is not clarified, and though his survey process is far from scientific, that number is alarmingly high nonetheless. A more recent study, the Survey of Academic Librarians: Satisfaction with Library Employment, found that 11.35 percent of respondents had been sexually harassed either in their current position or in a previous library job. While this number is significantly lower, it is important to point out that it sampled only academic library staff members, and not public library staff. Academic libraries are much more formal and exclusive than public libraries, where patrons arguably have more freedom to interact with the library staff.
As disturbing as Manley’s findings are, a little discussed trend in publishing has pushed this negative sexualization even further. There is a large number of librarian-related erotic novels, and with e-book publishing exploding, these can be purchase off websites like Amazon.com for a very low cost. Candi Strecker provides synopses and commentary on several of these works. She explains that “part of the arousal factor seems to based on the paradox that a woman might be brainy and slutty. And even I am not immune to the erotic potential of the library setting, especially the dim and quiet seclusion of the stacks” (Strecker). Strecker’s summaries suggest that many of these works are somewhat positive in their portrayal of female librarians. The librarians are characterized as overworked and underappreciated, reclaiming their identity through their sexual exploits, which are presented as empowering and rewarding.
While the distinction between erotica and pornography is complicated by semantics, erotica is generally considered sensational, with the sexuality serving the plot, whereas pornography is considered to be exploitative and extremely graphic. Strecker presents the novels she studies as erotica, but the novel we chose to examine would likely be considered pornography. Heather Brown’s The Librarian’s Naughty Habit describes itself as a “chronicle of our times… the story of a woman trapped in a tide of social change” (Brown 3). Protagonist Samantha is presented as a woman of ambition and sexual liberalism, but this is misrepresentation. What initially begins with consensual, normative sexual encounters, soon turns unsettling. Samantha leverages the power of her sexual relationships to obtain her desired position as the children’s librarian, but then engages in sexual activity with 13 year old patrons. When she is removed from her position as children’s librarian, it is not even on account of her illegal behavior. Equally disturbing are a series of encounters which are not consensual on Samantha’s part, but which the author presents as otherwise. Finally, Samantha blackmails her supervisors to regain her position as children’s librarian, and the book’s final chapter suggests that the only way to get ahead in a field dominated by authoritative men and tightly wound old maids is to use your sexuality.
Fiction such as this perverts the sexualization of librarians. It is exploitative, and outside the control of librarians to normalize and promote. While the erotic fiction seemingly presents librarians in a somewhat positive manner, this work is degrading and dismissive of the profession, not to mention women in general. It is in situations like this that the sexualization of female librarians is no longer seen as a benefit to their self-consciousness, nor is it a method to encourage discourse on stereotypes; instead, it reinforces stereotypes, not only about sexuality, but also about the professional nature of female librarianship.