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.