Otago Daily Times
June 14, 2001

'No touching' may create more problems than solutions

Touchy Subject: Teachers Touching Children
Edited by Alison Jones
University of Otago Press, pbk, $34.95

By Warren Palmer
Warren Palmer was previously a secondary school teacher and is now a teaching fellow at the University of Otago .

Touchy Subject contains nine articles which discuss a "new social taboo" - the issue of touching children within educational settings. Many of the articles are based on presentations given at a symposium "Hands Off! Teachers Touching Children", which was held at the
University of Auckland in November, 1999.

As Alison Jones indicates in her introduction, the issues are complex. Within the past two decades, a wide concern for the safety of children has developed within
New Zealand society. Parents and educationalists have become increasingly aware of the need to protect potentially vulnerable children from abuse of all types, particularly sexual.

This concern is accompanied by a "new" risk for adults, the risk of being falsely accused of carrying out abuse.

As one contributor,
Queensland university lecturer Gordon Tait, puts it, there has been a recent shift in focus away from "dangerous" individuals (such as sexual abusers of children) to an emphasis on categories of persons likely to put children "at risk". This means that while it is "impossible to try and detect in advance a `dangerous' teacher, it has become `effective' to categorise every teacher (particularly but not exclusively male) as `at risk' of carrying out abuse".

This means a particularly large "at risk" section of our society consists of males who are leaving teaching as a profession, or simply not considering it as a career option. Other potential current "at risk" groups include "children at risk of fearing all physical contact" and "boys at risk of having no gentle male role models".

Tait points out the proportion of child sexual abuse cases which occur at school is tiny. The current "no touch" policies being instilled into teachers and trainees may even be creating more problems than solutions, especially for very young children who often want a quick "cuddle", but will not have the opportunity in many schools.

As one male teacher trainee remarks in an article by the editor Alison Jones, "Hands in pockets. They grab hold of your hands, so you fold your arms". This trainee has developed a "regulated masculinity" strategy, the "required expression of correct masculine caring in the contemporary primary classroom".

Possibly the article in the collection that will evoke the widest public interest is Lynley Hood's contribution, The Christchurch Civic Child Care Centre abuse case: How was it possible? . Hood is a Dunedin-based writer who has recently written a book (in press) on this notable case involving Peter Ellis.

Hood traces some of the history leading up to the case. Prominent in this history is the development of feminist groups from the early 1970s. She relates how "initially, women's liberation was for all women, and for men as well", but, by the late 1970s, men had become "demonised" in a stereotyping process similar to the witch-hunts which pervaded early American society.

Hood likens the 1970s slogan, "All men are rapists", to the 1486 claim by a group of American priests that "All witchcraft is caused by carnal lust which is, in women, insatiable". Both are examples of stereotyping by gender, and both became accepted as "orthodoxy" (or "dogma") by a proportion of society.

She goes on to say the "extravagant claims about the prevalence of rape and the identity of the rapists were wrong". Rape constituted less than 0.5% of recorded crime in
New Zealand and, despite the rhetoric about patriarchal, white, middle-class men, those convicted of rape were usually "poor men from racial minorities".

Child abuse was a different matter. Hood calls the rising awareness of this issue in the 1970s "an idea whose time had come". From 1976, the American Humane Association began to record an astronomical rise in suspected child abuse. At the same time, there was also an "astronomical rise in false allegations", while the number of children who died each year at the hands of their caregivers "stayed virtually constant".

At the end of the decade, "lesbian-feminist psychologist" Miriam Jackson, also known as Miriam Saphira, brought the issue of child abuse to the attention of the
New Zealand public. She did so in a way which would make an excellent example of "how not to conduct a survey" in a first year university course on statistics.

She asked the 220,000 readers of New Zealand Woman's Weekly to respond to a questionnaire on the sexual abuse of children. This ignored the million or so
New Zealand women who did not read the magazine at the time. Moreover, there were only 315 replies (a response rate of 0.14%). To complicate the situation further, Jackson "burst into print" before the results had been analysed, with some general conclusions in the November 1979 Broadsheet magazine seemingly based on "one woman's harrowing account of childhood incest".

Jackson presented her findings in New Zealand Woman's Weekly . The question she asked ("Is she safe with her father?") and the implied answer ("children should be kept away from adult males"), have sunk deep into the core of our society, and we are living with the results today.

Hood goes on to say that "with witchcraft, as with child sexual abuse, perpetrators and victims were rarely obvious. To identify them, special investigative techniques had to be devised". She then looks at the 1993 conviction of Peter Ellis in the light of this background.

There are several other thought-provoking articles in this collection. If you want to read about how Santa is trained, or how Te Hohanga Reo is "working towards touching our children in healthy and safe ways", then you will find worthwhile material on every page of this challenging and stimulating book. Important reading for teachers and parents alike.