The American Library Association (ALA) lists The Handmaid's Tale as number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000". Atwood participated in discussing The Handmaid's Tale as the subject of an ALA discussion series titled "One Book, One Conference".
The book's inclusion in school curricula and assignments has been challenged by some groups in particular cities in the United States:
- 1990: Challenged at Rancho Cotate High School, Rohnert Park, California as too explicit for students.
- 1992: Challenged in Waterloo, Iowa schools, reportedly because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.
- 1993: Removed because of profanity and sex from the Chicopee, Massachusetts high school English class reading list.
- 1998: Challenged for use in Richland, Washington high school English classes, along with six other titles determined to be "poor quality literature and [that] stress suicide, illicit sex, violence, and hopelessness".
- 1999: Challenged because of graphic sex, but retained on the advanced placement English list, at George D. Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida.
- 2000: Downgraded from “required” to “optional” on the summer reading list for eleventh graders in the Upper Moreland School District near Philadelphia due to “age-inappropriate” subject matter.
- 2001: Challenged, but retained, in the Dripping Springs, Texas senior Advanced Placement English course as an optional reading assignment. Some parents were offended by the book’s descriptions of sexual encounters.
- 2006: Initially banned by Superintendent Ed Lyman from an advanced placement English curriculum in the Judson, Texas school district, after a parent complained. Lyman had overruled the recommendation of a committee of teachers, students, and parents; the committee appealed the decision to the school board, which overturned his ban.
According to Education Reporter Kristin Rushowy of the Toronto Star (16 Jan. 2009), in 2008 a parent in Toronto, Canada, wrote a letter to his son's high school principal, asking that the book no longer be assigned as required reading, stating that the novel is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression." Rushowy quotes the response of Russell Morton Brown, a retired University of Toronto English professor, who acknowledged that
The Handmaid's Tale wasn't likely written for 17-year-olds, 'but neither are a lot of things we teach in high school, like Shakespeare. ...'And they are all the better for reading it. They are on the edge of adulthood already, and there's no point in coddling them,' he said, adding, 'they aren't coddled in terms of mass media today anyway.' ...He said the book has been accused of being anti-Christian and, more recently, anti-Islamic because the women are veiled and polygamy is allowed. ...But that 'misses the point,' said Brown. 'It's really anti-fundamentalism.'
In her earlier account (14 Jan. 2009), Rushowy reported that a Toronto District School Board committee was "reviewing the novel." While noting that "The Handmaid's Tale is listed as one of the 100 'most frequently challenged books' from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association's website", Rushowy reports that "The Canadian Library Association says there is 'no known instance of a challenge to this novel in Canada' but says the book was called anti-Christian and pornographic by parents after being placed on a reading list for secondary students in Texas in the 1990s."
In November 2012 two parents in Guilford County, North Carolina protested against inclusion of the book on a required reading list at a local high school. The parents presented the school board with a petition signed by 2,300 people, prompting a review of the book by the school's media advisory committee. According to local news reports, one of the parents said "she felt Christian students are bullied in society, in that they're made to feel uncomfortable about their beliefs by non-believers. She said including books like The Handmaid's Tale contributes to that discomfort, because of its negative view on religion and its anti-biblical attitudes toward sex."