How’s that for a title? ‘Our fear of perverts is damaging more children than the perverts themselves’. The word ‘perverts’ is one I rarely use. But since it jumped out of the front page of the Metro this week, I thought, ‘Okay, if that’s what gets people to read articles, then I’m willing to try it.’
Everywhere in the news these days are stories of child sexual abuse. Its not just the UK. It’s the US and Italy and Australia, for starters. You get the sense that ‘perverts’ are everywhere: hiding behind bushes, in Parliamentary offices, in nurseries, in children’s homes, in schools, in Catholic churches, in hospitals, brazenly parading across telly screens. ‘Perverts’ could be anybody: people we liked, people we looked up to, people who made us laugh, people we trusted.
This morning’s front page of The Times informed me and everybody else who read it that police have tracked down 10,000 suspected paedophiles. The sub-header drives home the fear: ‘Teachers, doctors, and care workers arrested’. Precisely my point. These are roles that we instinctively wish to trust. It is genuinely unnerving when the pivotal people in a culture seem no longer trustworthy.
So society is going through a rocky patch: waking up to the discovery of just how many children have been hurt by adults and the life-long consequences of that trauma. We don’t want that pain for our children.
I think, though, that this rocky patch stems from an additional fear. It is one that goes even deeper. What really scares us is the idea that we might be seen as that ‘pervert’. That’s a controversial, uncomfortable thing to say. Good. Discomfort is a helpful place to start. If we can face up to the discomfort inherent in this societal phenomenon, we can make wiser decisions.
We need wisdom right now. If we can’t think wisely, our fear for ourselves will damage our children even further. I believe that is what we are currently doing: we are inadvertently harming many more children than the ‘perverts’ can ever reach.
‘Pervert’ is a term of exclusion. Its use is intended to be demeaning, humiliating, patronizing. It is meant to accuse and exclude. To brand someone a pervert is to classify them as ‘other’. A pervert is a ‘thing’ we would never want to be ourselves, nor is it the kind of ‘thing’ we would want to associate ourselves with. When we use the word ‘pervert’, we intentionally turn people into monsters. Scary, non-human creatures. The whole point of monsters is that we are allowed to hate and demonise them.
How much more scary is the idea that monsters could be hiding anywhere amongst us? As if we are living in a Harry Potter world, monsters can be transmogrified out of the body of that someone we know, we like, we trust, we’ve shared laughter with. And if such transformation can happen for people we know, then it is also possible that people could think the same about us. It is possible that I could be accused of being that terrible, monstrous, despicable thing: a pervert.
That’s why so many organisations are putting in place regulations that try to guard against this possibility. I hear stories all of the time of nurseries who discourage staff from cuddling babies and who make sure two staff members are in the room when a nappy is being changed. Summer camp staff aren’t allowed to put sunscreen on a child. Teachers are instructed never to consider touching children, even on the shoulder, even on the pinky finger, even when they are in tears and struggling to learn. Foster carers are prevented from reading bedtime stories in bedrooms, even if the books came from government-funded literacy programmes, like Bookbug, whose publicity strategy emphasizes the value of a bedtime routine. Looked after children living in residential accommodation provoke staff into using a restraining hold, because it is the nearest they ever get to an affectionate cuddle.
In professional settings, the word ‘touch’ now sounds somehow incomplete. Our ears have become accustomed to hearing the full phrase ‘inappropriate touch’. We have transmogrified human touch into something that is automatically dirty, suspect and fearful.
We tell ourselves that these anti-touch policies have been implemented in order to protect children and vulnerable people. I don’t think that’s entirely truthful. The policies have also been implemented in order to protect us adults. Fear that I, or one of my staff, could be accused of being a monster is fuelling our policy decisions. We need to be able to look into the face of that fear. It too often goes unacknowledged, which leaves us damaging our children in ways we don’t recognise.
Human beings NEED touch. Especially little human beings. We NEED it in order to be physically and emotionally health. Touch is a huge part of the evolutionary history of human beings. Babies don’t walk until a year or more after birth. They can’t run steadily until they are about four. So if young children come up against any danger from predators, they are totally dependent on an adult to sweep them up in their arms to a place of safety. Until about 200 years ago, the only way babies could possibly be transported was in the arms of an adult. We have all become accustomed to technology doing that job for us. Strollers and prams and car seats and travel systems now carry our children. But this is the tiniest blip of time in our evolutionary history! For the last 200,000 years of our history as Homo sapiens, human babies have spent the vast majority of their time attached to the bodies of people who care for them.
That physical closeness to another human body engenders a physiological sense of safety, a sense of comfort, a flood of hormones of calm and peace. This is one reason that childhood sexual abuse is so very damaging. It takes an experience that was designed by evolution to be reassuring and calming and protective — and warps it. Childhood sexual abuse betrays trust. It lines the neural pathways of your brain with distrust. That’s why Jennifer Freyd uses the term ‘Betrayal Trauma’ to describe the effects of childhood sexual abuse.
The professional policies that we are implementing, which discourage adults from touching children, are having the ironic and unintended effect of undermining their development. We are preventing children from seeking safety and comfort. We are making it more difficult for them to build the neural pathways that will enable them to self-regulate distressed emotions in their adult life.
Attachment theory has helped us to understand that children only achieve emotional independence by first learning that other people are dependable. So when we tell ourselves that we are ‘encouraging independence’ by not encouraging touch, we are lying to ourselves. Every time a child approaches a professional carer for a hug and that person holds up their hands as a public demonstration to other staff that they aren’t ‘inappropriately touching’ the child, what we are actually doing is rejecting that child’s bid for connection. The child’s brain codes that as a rejection of the child him/herself. That’s what I mean when I say that ‘babies are born connected’. Our brain learns who we are through the way other people respond to us.
There are organisations all over the place who are trying to confront this societal fear in creative ways. A growing number of nurseries, such as Angels & Co, in Aberdeen, are actively promoting the value of touch and cuddling. The staff at Angels & Co have become so confident about the importance of touch that they agreed (in collaboration with the parents) to have images of their cuddling ‘practice’ broadcast to the world in a forthcoming electronic course that my team is producing. Their decision to be so public about their practice is courageous. It is quietly revolutionary.
Other organisations who are engaging in quiet revolution include the Massage in Schools Programme. They have data showing that schools who regularly employ peer massage reduce bullying and increase pupil concentration. So why are the efforts of the Massage in Schools Programme still regarded as innovative, rather than ordinary? One answer is that it is not only teachers who have to feel comfortable with a peer massage programme, parents have to as well. Some parents remain uncomfortable with the idea, going as far as withdrawing their child from the school. Touch, on which humans have depended for a sense of safety and calm for the whole of our evolutionary history, has become in the 21st century a site of panic and fear.
As I write this blog, I am sitting in a household that is celebrating. We are all gazing at a photo of a brand new baby. She’s not yet 12 hours old. The photo was texted from the delivery room, and it shows a proud daddy with his newborn daughter lying relaxed, sleepy, and naked on his bare chest. This technique, known as ‘skin to skin contact’, is now common within midwifery practice. If we have realised that skin to skin is important for the development of brand new babies’ brains, why do we think that touch stops being important for babies when they are 9 months old in nursery or for 4 year olds in school or for traumatised children of any age living in state care?
I know that the issue of touch is far from straightforward to tackle. I know only too well that adults do indeed harm children, and I accept that adults can indeed be falsely accused of harm. I also know that many of our children now spend more time in the care of paid, professional staff than in the company of their own families. This balance can easily emerge from the age of 9 months, a typical point for putting children into childcare – although even 3 months is not uncommon.
That first year is of course the period of time when children’s brains are growing most rapidly. The key query that brain is working out is ‘what are relationships like’. Young children don’t know the people they are spending their day with are paid to be there. They see them as more like aunties and uncles. They see themselves as making relationships with them. If we teach our children that relationships do not include on-tap safety and reassurance, then they learn that relationships are inherently anxious things. It sounds outlandish, but all of this means that the touch policy of a nursery will have an impact on the likelihood that that child will one day need to seek the help of a marriage guidance counselor.
It is a relief that, as a society, we are embracing the dreadful reality of so many children’s lives. We need to be careful about the solutions that we jump to, though.
It is ironic. We are teaching children that all adults are suspect. We are teaching our children not to trust us.
And then we believe what we teach. We begin to distrust one other. We regard with suspicion our children’s teachers and nursery staff and doctors and camp staff. We wonder where the next paedophile is hiding.
In our desperate, fearful bid to keep ourselves and our children safe, we have transmogrified ourselves. We have turned ourselves, each and every adult in the land, into a potential pervert.
Let us fight fear. Let us not embed it in policy.