Oddly touching

I recently had the privilege of traveling with two students from my school. We went to Salt Lake City for a Supercomputing conference. It was a fabulous experience. Because one of the students was a girl, it had to be a female teacher who went with them. I shouldn’t complain about this – it meant that I scored an intensely stimulating and rewarding trip in the company of two fantastic students.

And yet… The implicit assumption in that rule really bothers me. Male teachers can’t travel with female students – who knows what might happen? But female teachers can travel with male students.  No problem there.

Every man is a potential sexual predator. Every woman is a potential victim.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

We don’t trust anymore. I know that bad stuff happens. There are stories of abuse everywhere. But our perception of risk has become horribly skewed. Horrifying stories sell newspapers, so the newspapers are full of trauma every day. They repeat the trauma ad nauseam – one dreadful story will appear several times a day for weeks on end, to make sure it is burned into our brains. BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING. MORE BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING. BE AFRAID. THE WORLD IS A SCARY PLACE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO HURT YOU.

Many of the stories screaming out in headlines in our newspapers happened overseas. And the ones that do happen here are so rare that we have to hear the details of them over and over again, just to ramp up the fear and paranoia.

You know what? The majority of people don’t want to hurt you. They’re just getting on with their lives. I’m all for sensible precautions, but when we start treating every man as a predator, I think we are harming the very young people we are trying to protect. We are teaching them not to trust people, especially men. We are depriving them of touch – because goodness knows if I touch one of my students something catastrophic is bound to happen.

I have only been teaching in a high school for two years, but already I have experienced many encounters with distressed students. Many times I have comforted them with touch – anything from a hand on the shoulder to my hand covering theirs. Touch releases oxytocin, which is calming and promotes trust. It is the simplest and most effective way of dealing with distress. It also strengthens the relationship between teacher and student.

Yet if I were a man, I would hesitate to touch a student – in distress or otherwise – given the climate of fear and mistrust we have created around both men and touch. Anything more than a hearty slap on the back would be taking a risk – with my career, my reputation, and my future.

I work with some of the finest men I have ever known. They are wonderful, caring, dedicated people. I would trust them with my life. Yet the system is telling me I can’t trust them with my children.

Imagine you were 15 and in distress. Wouldn’t you want someone to hold your hand and talk you through it? Shouldn’t we be teaching our young people healthy ways of interacting with both teachers and peers? Of course some forms of touch are not ok, but it seems as though we have swung much too far the other way and rejected touch altogether.

That feels like a big mistake.

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5 thoughts on “Oddly touching

  1. Joe

    This is something of the difference between social risk management vs individual risk management. As a medical patient, I can accept maybe a 1/1000 risk of Nasty Outcome and somewhat shrug it off. As a medical practitioner, 1/1000 means maybe I’ll see that Nasty Outcome multiple times every year, let alone the outcomes I have to count as a director of health policy.

    I absolutely agree about the predatory nature of “news” media, that exaggeration of danger and enhancement of fear grabs attention and thence provides profits, and that the exploitation of this is both predictable and reprehensible.

    But I suspect even without that aspect, *policy* makers would be wary of the 1/1000 risk that (by your local assessment) aren’t particularly relevant to you the individual. Assuming for a moment that male sexuality *is* more predatory (which would be born out be actual incident reports I guess) If the *policy* is that any teacher can travel with any student … er … except if someone local has an uncomfortable feeling about that particular teacher… who is responsible? Parents can’t be expected to have enough information about whichever teacher happens to be available to travel, so how do you set *policy* to minimise the population risk?

    I’m also going to go out on a limb here. Speaking as hopefully a somewhat normal male, I’ll confess my sexuality lingers on the edge of my awareness pretty much all the time, and I admit there’s something of a “predatory” element there… call it a hunter’s alertness maybe? It’s actually pretty benign, ruled readily by respect and good sense and social expectation, but it’s also pretty easy to see how it could … go wrong.

    1. lindamciver

      You’re right, Joe. It is a risk. And as a parent I don’t want to risk my kids. But I think our reaction is disproportionate to the risk, and I also think we can achieve a better reduction of the risk by modeling appropriate touching than by banning touching altogether – which inevitably magnifies the effect of any touch that does happen!

      The teacher-student relationship can be intense, and I can quite see how it can get out of hand. And maybe the probability is higher with men (although personally I doubt it). But my point is that by overreacting to the risk we are doing worse damage to everyone.

  2. Miranda

    It’s like those schools that have banned hugging… the message that touch isn’t ok (because we’re scared to get sued)… yet it’s important in our communications with each other. And woman teachers have affairs with their students… just saying it goes both ways. To instil fear is not doing anyone any favours – let alone our kids.

  3. Society has swung so far into fear, with the help of media and lawyers. But for me, the scariest thing is when people don’t believe it can happen within their own homes. That’s what upsets me the most, because I went through it. Parents pound stranger-danger into the heads of their kids, yet don’t believe them when the kids cry for protection against severe long-term abuse within their home.

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