The word "banned" can really get people going. In the furore surrounding the interim ban applied to Ted Dawe's novel, Into the River, most negative comment has been directed at the challenge to civil liberties that such a ban represents.

The ban is, however, merely an interim measure while a challenge to a current classification is heard. Following that it will most likely be made available again, either unrestricted or with some level of age restriction. And when the ban is lifted and the novel returned to the shelves it will no doubt enjoy something of a boost on the back of this moment of media attention. By all accounts it deserves it.

What is really interesting is the lack of agreement about the mechanisms and goals of censorship in New Zealand that this case exposes. The novel has already been classified and reclassified, as different parts of the censorship machine (very publicly) challenge each other. How can it be that the underlying principles are unable to guide their users to a reasonable consensus?

Generally speaking, in many societies the justification for censorship has moved from morality to harm, from socially established norms of decency and taste to questions about the supposed effects of reading about or viewing the act.

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It was the representation of semi-public masturbation that saw James Joyce's Ulysses banned shortly after its publication, in 1922. In the thirteenth episode of the novel, Leopold Bloom, the novel's protagonist, covertly masturbates while admiring young Gerty MacDowell from afar. Alert to his interest and excitement (if not his actions), Gerty indulges in some romantic fantasising of her own. The fitness of the work for publication was judged against the Hicklin Test which defined obscenity as a tendency "to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall". A particular concern was held for young women, considered to be those most vulnerable to inappropriate sexual excitation.

Not much was said about how young women could be at once so vulnerable to sexual excitement and yet innocent of sexual thoughts.

I understand that Into the River also features a masturbatory display, and once again this seems to be a significant concern (along with representations of drug use) for the novel's detractors. It is unlikely that a contemporary interpretation of the laws around indecency will allow for the restriction of such content on the basis of disgust or moral disapproval alone. Besides the ability to prominently display advisory notices on packaging will typically make the encounter with any potentially offensive material an "opt in" choice.

If there is to be some limitation placed on who (at what age) is allowed to opt in then there should be a clear rationale that explains how the supposed harms weigh heavier in the balance than the benefits. Such a justification should take stock of the real situation of contemporary youth.

Most have daily internet access in their pockets via their smart phones. Many will have had some exposure to highly explicit representations of sex with minimal context. A significant number will be required to make decisions about drug taking and other problematic aspects of life that we might wish to forestall or prevent entirely. But these will be aspects of their experience that we are not equipped to control.

Novels do not seek to control experience in this way. Young adult fiction plays in difficult territory. The category name says it all: this is the age when youth shades into adulthood. Much literature that really engages people at this stage in life deals with transition and change, the need to leave the comfort of innocence and childhood behind and confront the messy, complex decisions demanded by adulthood.

Novels offer a relatively safe environment for young readers to encounter the range of behaviours that are likely to form part of their lives. Reading is fundamentally contemplative yet it is also more active than it might seem.

It demands that readers think about their position in relation to the characters and events they read about. In doing so, they model decision making processes regarding complex situations without the risks of real life encounters.

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Dr James Meffan is a lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington's School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies.