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Weekly Alibi Battling the Birds and the Bees

An Interview With the Author of The Curiosity Book

By Jessica English

AUGUST 17, 1998:  Talk shows exploit sex. Even the more conservative ones pander to carnivalesque displays of guests in fish nets and leather, appearing on national TV to admit that they were once men, or to showcase 12-year-old kids in sexual overdrive.

But last spring when author James E. Hunter appeared on a talk show panel about early sexuality, the host told him that he didn't feel comfortable using Hunter's newly released book for children and parents on the show. In fact, it seemed that many people were uncomfortable with The Curiosity Book, subtitled "An Owner's Manual on Positive Body Awareness for Young Children and Their Parents." Hunter's publisher couldn't get a distributor for the book, and after a couple of booksellers started to sell it on the Web, it mysteriously disappeared.

Hunter has been using a slightly different version of the controversial book for years in his practice as a licensed social worker in therapy with children. As a tool for parents to open discussion with their children, The Curiosity Book is divided into two sections: one strictly for parents and another for parents to read with their children. The text among the photographs in the children's section is purposefully spare, separating the information from a specific set of values so each parent can discuss ideas about sex and the body with their children as they see fit. Most of this section is composed of striking black-and-white photographs of people of both sexes, all ages and all cultures, clothed and unclothed: National Geographic-like scenes of indigenous tribes, children swinging from ropes into a river, a mother breastfeeding, a silhouette of a pregnant woman. Herein lies one controversy surrounding The Curiosity Book: that naked children are shown, though in poses from everyday life.

"There's a sense that nakedness is pornography," Hunter said in a telephone interview with Weekly Alibi from his home in Lincoln, Maine. "There is the idea that information is dangerous. ... What provides safety for children is communication between a child and his parents or caregivers."

The children who appear in the photographs all had releases signed or are now adults who consented to appearing in the book, Hunter said. The inclusion of these photos in the book is necessary to its agenda, which Hunter said is to separate shame from curiosity, to open communication and to create positive body image.

The single biggest controversy over The Curiosity Book, according to Hunter, is that masturbation was mentioned in the parents' section of the book. There is, however, no direct reference to sexual feelings or acts within the children's section of the book.

Hunter believes another reason this book makes people uncomfortable is because it proposes that children have sexual feelings. But they do, he contends, and extensive research has proven that children begin to have significant sexual feelings by age two or three. "By the time kids are six or seven, they think (sexual) feelings are bad or shameful. It's the norm."

Because of the bombardment of sex in our society--on television, in advertisements and music--the "birds and the bees" talk comes much earlier. "If parents don't discuss these issues with their children ... it causes shame about one's body. It impacts a person's self-esteem and (causes) shame about curiosity." Most of what parents would traditionally find in the library or bookstores about sex and the body, Hunter said, avert the issue, which is what pushed him to write The Curiosity Book. "Most (of the books) were cartoons and drawings, which made it seem like a joke, too tongue-in-cheek to deal with the issues, or medical journal-like pictures, which made the body look like a disease."

As far as sexual education goes, Hunter believes that Americans are more repressed now than they were even in the 1950s and that the level of hysteria about sex is higher than it was the generation before. "It's the continuing Puritanism that the country was founded on," he said. "We're caught between two extremes. ... One camp says Eros is nasty; the other has the excessively liberated idea that ... sex is recreation, (which) separates it from attachment."

Still, Hunter believes that both liberals and conservatives have a piece of the truth about how sexuality should be approached with children. "Such discussions don't happen without a bit of tension." It's the kind of tension that a little healthy curiosity can create. (Five Corners, paper, $24.95)

The Curiosity Book is now available in local bookstores, on the Web or from the publisher at (800) 972-3868.

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