A sharp intake of breath. My peripheral vision catches the first flail of the loose rope, then the sudden grab and snatch as her hand is yanked upwards. We stand our bells and wait in silence for the tower captain to seize back control of the escaped number three. She hovers sheepishly to one side; I know her knees must be trembling. Turning to meet her wide eyes, my instinct was to reach across, place a firm hand on her shoulder and squeeze.
That was last week at bell practice, where a novice ringer got her first unpleasant taste of ‘missing the sally’, a potential catastrophe that lurks, even now, at the back of my thoughts as I pull on the bell rope at the beginning of each peal. Suddenly, a worry about ‘touch’ joins up with another about ‘Consent’ and they have a little party in my head.
It’s fine. As it happens, she wasn’t triggered by my reassuring gesture and I’m not writing from a cell, but since the whys and wherefores of physical interaction between us have come under increasingly close scrutiny, and while I’m quite comfortable with being a tactile person, I would be mortified if anyone thought of me as ‘handsy’. I’m a little baffled about what kind of touch is permitted these days, and what is considered an infringement of civil liberty. Accepted social behaviours have taken a meandering path in the past five decades of my lifetime, steered in no small part by a meddling modern media. If you believe all you see and read it would be safe to assume that all physical contact between two humans is likely to be entirely motivated by a base carnal instinct and unbridled sexual desire. Touch has become a dirty word. While tech companies fine tune a growing fleet of silicone sex bots, trillions of free online pornography web pages are uploaded every day, and social media heaves with bondage-clad twerking celebs, we are in turn becoming ever more buttoned-up about real-life, wholesome human encounters.
As seven year olds at my 1970’s village school we knew that if you had a bothersome wobbly tooth, you would be sent to see Mrs Headon. She was a mother hen, a sweet little Welsh lady who like a ninja, would take your head in her hands and, in the blink of an eye, whip out the offending gnasher, without even so much as a signed consent form or medical grade latex glove in sight. Then she’d gently pat your bottom back to its wooden seat. Innocent times.
Meanwhile, in the dark corners, pervs, creeps and wierdos everywhere were busy spoiling it for the rest of us. Taking advantage of the vestigial Victorian notion that children, and women, should be seen and not heard, they swelled a tide of destructive twisted ‘norms’ and things got steadily more complicated.
On a geography field trip to Italy in 1987 I had my lady-garden grabbed by a strange man on a busy Rome street, and thought almost nothing of it. (It’s just an Italian thing…?) But back in the UK, people were at last starting to cotton on to the fact that the likes of Jimmy Saville were, to say the least, a bit iffy.
By the time I finished my A Levels, teaching staff in schools had become terrified of getting too close to us, and not just because of the B.O. Kids found new superpowers, legal rights, helped in part by the founding of the Children’s Rights Alliance. We had become ‘untouchable’ and we knew it.
The welcome crackdown on child abuse was timely, but there followed a surreal period when many schools and childcare institutions made it forbidden for their staff to touch a child, even when they needed comforting or restraining. Skinned knees were the responsibility of the owners to self-administer Savlon and plasters, and a maternal hug from a bosomy dinner lady was strictly out of the question.
Suddenly teaching staff faced the very real and career-dissolving prospect of a false sexual abuse accusation. The number of male teachers in schools began to plummet, and a wary distance grew between child and professional. At the same time complicated codes of conduct between colleagues were being legislated everywhere. I was employed seasonally to work as a Visitor Host in a shiny new ‘Historium’ in Dover’s market square and how we girls laughed at the management memo advising male staff, among other things, to refrain from touching their belts too much, in case it was misconstrued as sexual harassment.
I went on to be an assistant in a kindergarten run by a no-nonsense Yorkshirewoman. Her phlegmatic approach meant that I was permitted to scoop up injured soldiers and plait the hair of fairy princesses without fear of recrimination, or a prison sentence. I still get an annual Christmas card from the family of one of those little people that I was allowed to cuddle, but today, if I met him socially I might think twice before touching him on the knee in conversation, unless I had sought his prior consent.
I spent early adulthood unselfconsciously schlepping about in ripped vintage Levis, and paint-stained knitwear. Despite my dishevelled carefree appearance, student life was for me a thrilling, sexually charged adventure but when my burly Design Technology tutor had to untangle me from a lathe or my textiles technician leant over me assertively with a rubber squeegee, it was never an ‘issue’. I vaguely recall some ‘inappropriate touching’ with the proprietor of an Italian restaurant one late December night, but I couldn’t say for certain which one of us was actually the guilty party. Anyway, all concerns I might have had regarding ‘consent’ failed to surface.
In my first management job, the boss was a lecherous old goat, but we shop girls had the common sense to keep him at arms length without incident. It never occurred to me that my career development would be adversely affected by my reluctance to indulge him.
Rarely in my days of singledom, did an impromptu amorous encounter begin with a prelude of formal consent-seeking, and up till now, I’ve relied solely on my inbuilt natural instincts to keep me safe and to inform my relationship decisions. Touch wood, (no pun intended) this has served me well so far, and on occasion given my life’s tapestry a richness shot through with experience. Je ne regrette rien.
Still, there is the possibility that the owner of a bottom I squeezed in a nightclub in 1995 might yet track me down and file an allegation of sexual assault against me. Teenagers at parties are hyper vigilant about accidental fondling in case they end up on a sex register. Boys are no longer permitted the right to solve their differences with a scuffle behind the science block, and as a result are struggling to comprehend the modern definition of masculinity. I wonder at the dramatic change in the way we interact physically with one another. Is it just me, or is everyone waaay too twitchy, touchy even? In the interests of self-preservation, are we ironically steering towards a global No Touch Rule, and ultimately the extinction of the human race altogether?
I heard part of an interesting programme on the radio recently, where actors rehearsing for a stage play containing ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ worked with an intimacy coach who helped them establish, with mathematical precision, how many of the buttons on the man’s trouser fly could be safely twiddled by his on-stage partner. I wondered if the setting of such strict and clinical boundaries would make the eventual performance contrived, and without a spark. Then I found an interview by Daisy Buchanan for The Independent where Vicky Jones talks about rehearsing her play The One;
‘…Jones adds that sex scenes can come with a sense of jeopardy, and so – just as in a fight – you need to choreograph with care. In the end, having an intimacy director “made everybody freer. In art and in the theatre, conversations keep coming up about how you can’t always legislate [these things], that sometimes there will be intimacy that you can’t make rules for. But if you watch an intimacy coach in action, you realise you absolutely can,” she insists.’
Fair enough. But it got me thinking that, when it comes to real life, are we in danger of removing ourselves from what instinctively comes naturally, and with that we lose our innate ability to communicate and read non-verbal signals?
Back in 2010, in a startling act of common sense the then Education Minister Michael Gove decided to tackle the ‘No Touch Rule’ in schools. He promised to ‘shrink and clarify’ the Department’s 500 pages of guidance on the subject, and it was made official: little children were no longer expected to apply their own sunscreen, which in turn meant no more sports days where participants resembled greased up cross-channel swimmers. Teaching staff were once again permitted to treat their charges like regular human beings.
And then last year my son had his blazer lapels grabbed by a geography teacher in a fit of wrath. This incident had a startling affect on me; I became a snarling tigress, outraged that another adult should dare to touch my (6’3”) baby cub in that way. Scouring the rulebooks for affirmation of my self-righteous indignation, I realised that an over-reliance on official guidelines about precisely how, and how not to behave might, in fact, be a contributing factor in problems and misunderstandings around physical interaction. Frustratingly at the time, school decided that no further action should be taken, and, being built like a tank, my son appears to have suffered no lasting side effects, unless you count a hatred of oxbow lakes and a marked improvement in timekeeping. The passage of time has allowed me to reflect and find perspective. It was, after all, a storm in a teacup. In the heat of the moment, who has time to check the rulebook for clarity? Instead, the responsibility lies with each of us to be more in touch with our own emotions and those of the people around us, so that our ability to deal with and, if necessary avoid, such contact, can allow us to process and file the experience more effectively and move on.
A friend’s husband I know has a dark humour. At a function where there are lots of strangers, perhaps a wedding, he scans the room deciding on a likely murder victim. The rest of his evening is spent in the pursuit of making accidental physical contact with the victim. The murder occurs at the moment of touch. It’s a very fun game to play in your head when an event is particularly awful.
On a Greek island holiday last year I was touched no less than ten times in a week by perfect strangers, and before you get excited, I don’t mean that they were specimens of perfection. Mostly they were walnut-faced waiters, hirsute waitresses, boatmen or shop keepers, but each time I felt the strong, good-humoured biff ‘n’ squeeze of a welcoming palm on my bare shoulder I was delighted by the comfort and reassurance it brought. These demonstrative acts of kinship, nothing more, reminded me how uptight and standoffish we Brits tend to be. An accidental collision between two anonymous passengers on a jolting tube train is enough to make them both want to die on the spot. A sane person would never contemplate touching a stranger on purpose, unless it was absolutely necessary, and maybe only with the tip of an umbrella. This makes me sad.
When Nintendo launched their first DS electronic pocket toy in 2004, I was mystified why children went mad for a game that mostly involved using the end of a plastic stylus to stroke a pixelated puppy. At that point, real, flesh and blood dogs up and down the country began contemplating suicide.
More recently I have noticed a You-tube trend for vaguely obscene close-up videos of ‘slime’ being molested. These unwitting bowls of frothy chemical cocktails, sometimes dosed up with generous sprinkles of lurid glitter are poked pummelled and squeezed noisily for our viewing gratification. ASMR (look it up) is a big deal, apparently. Instead of snogging behind the bike sheds, kids are getting their rocks off watching, on tiny screens, the various disembodied female hands slowly slicing bars of soap with a Stanley knife or squeezing the heck out of a ‘squishy’ (Don’t even ask, it’s another tween fetish I can’t go into right now). It seems that the sensual pleasures of touch are becoming digitised, along with everything else.
It is gratifying to note however, that the Kindle, and it’s like, is in steady decline after a worrying few years when, as an introduced species, it threatened to push the delightfully print-scented, ruffling, paper book into extinction. (Humanity one, Science nil.)
I was absentmindedly browsing John Lewis yesterday (NOT buying clothes) and I found myself in the Ted Baker concession stroking a gorgeous silk georgette dress in a deep shade of magenta. Moments later, having reluctantly left it where it hung, I tuned in to the radio news in my car to learn that Ray Kelvin, Ted Baker boss and founder, had, after 31 years, resigned because his staff found his culture of ‘forced hugging’ intolerable. Apparently the Ted Baker HR department did little to address his habit of administering long unsolicited shoulder massages to colleagues. I wonder how many communicated to him directly, with actual words if necessary, that they didn’t want to sit in his lap and have their ear kissed. (Hilarious flash-back to the episode of Non PC Friends where Chandler’s boss keeps slapping his arse) Kelvin might well be a creepy lech, or maybe, just maybe he was being friendly, and I can’t help thinking that if I’d known he was dishing out free shoulder rubs, my CV would have been on his desk marked Next Day Delivery.
So, we’ve established I have a visceral longing for touch. A new sign in the hairdresser’s window reading Back, Neck & Shoulder massage £10, has me digging in my purse for notes like a rabbit. Am I alone? Perhaps I was a domestic cat in a former life, retaining in this one an innate desire to be stroked. Maybe it’s genetic; my mother and sister also purr during ‘neck tickles’. But I am very aware of a growing number of humans who, for various reasons, prefer not to be touched unless they are completely at ease with the toucher, and are physically and mentally prepared for the contact. A friend of mine has conducted exhaustive (and likely exhausting) research through workshops on the subject of touch and consent. As a result I am waaay more cautious about my ad hoc tendency towards accidental groping when I am around him. In truth, the subject is endlessly fascinating and he has opened my eyes to different ways of looking at this subject that might never have even occurred to me. But going back to those friendly Greeks, I would hate for them to feel that they have to keep their hands in their pockets for the sake of our new wave of touch-averse neurotics.
If I stopped to imagine how many times I must have inadvertently given the wrong signal, or made someone feel uncomfortable with my uninvited touch, I would probably need to breathe into a paper bag, but the truth is, I’m starting to feel a little depressed at the prospect of this sterile landscape of controlled prescribed behaviours and the complete suppression of instinctive human contact.
I’m now writing this in a table seat on the 08.31 LNER train out of York to Kings Cross, wedged between two men, their laptops, elbows and knees splayed unapologetically. The effort required to avoid eye, and physical contact, will turn me inside out, but it’s necessary to ensure the safe continuity of our collective British phobia of touching strangers. I’m not suggesting that the alternative is mass mutual grooming, and nit-picking like our close cousins the apes, and to be absolutely clear, now that I am older and wiser, I do not advocate random bottom pinching as a way to get a person’s attention, but I can’t help wondering if some of the anxieties of modern man could be eased with the occasional unsolicited shoulder squeeze.