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Fear of touching hits also students and patients

Marijke Lammers
Translated from
De Volkskrant, 29 oktober 1998

Because of the growing attention to sexual abuse, more and more teachers and professional helpers suffer of 'fear of touching'. Marijke Lammers sounds a warning note not to make more and more severe rules. By so doing, the problem will be hidden, not resolved.

'Teachers suffer of fear of touching', wrote De Volkskrant on October, 16. Also in youth care and other sections of caring work, such alarming sounds can be heard.

When it became clear that passing the limits and sexual abuse were quite frequent in education and in the helping and caring professions, a call for the right policy came up. However, that policy itself is, in my opinion, an important cause of the fear of intimacy and bodily contact with students and clients or patients.

Sexual abuse within institutions is a growing source of concern for the management, but the main source of it is fear. The most important motive of new policy seems not to be the protection of possible victims and the quality of education or care, but first avoiding risks and hedging against juridical claims. 

Rules for behavior and protocols are made, commissions and agents for complains and reports are installed, and then the pressure is off. 'We obey the demands and it is clear what is permitted and what not.' However, such a policy is based on a very naive vision and on the idle hope that making rules should be the same as to be in full control of the situation. 

I do not plea for omitting behavior rules or protocols. Some limits are clear and must clearly be set: sexual and erotic contacts with students and clients must be avoided. It is also good to make appointments about manners and the level of personal involvement. But whoever attaches too much value to rules to combat abuse, only avoids risks and hides reality.

One never can completely catch all contacts in education or caring situations into a protocol. By so doing, one neglects the borderlines of reality which are not always clear, one passes the doubts and uncertainties of the workers, and also the fundamental needs for intimacy and nearness of students or clients. 

Avoiding any kind of intimacy is not only a great loss for the quality of education or care, it also bears great risks. Detailed regulation hinders the development of insight, responsibility and sensibility for the limits in the relationship with students or clients. 

A policy of control will call up fear for incidents; there will come an unsafe climate, in which not may be spoken about dilemmas and unclear borderline situations. By so doing, one unintentionally creates ground for passing the limits and for abuse. 

Prevention of abuse, and responsibly managing relationships, nearness and intimacy ask for a high level of professionalism. This implies that one must have insight and abilities to handle unbalanced power relationships. It also implies consciousness that borderlines and vague limits are always present.

Moreover, it implies that a professional worker must be able to offer warmth and affection, including bodily contacts, but also can keep a certain professional distance. Students and clients may have a need for a hand on a shoulder, an encouraging hug, a tender touching or a comforting gesture - also in a one-to-one situation. 

These are real needs one should not neglect. Imagine what happens if the rule 'be never alone with a client' would become reality: always a looking eye if someone washes you, always open showers, not  any privacy...

Nevertheless, bodily contacts, an atmosphere of intimacy and intensive contacts with students or clients might lead to relationships which are emotionally and sexually loaded. How to handle, for example, the consciousness that holding someone's hand may have a friendly or comporting meaning, but also might have an erotic meaning? In every situation, a professional worker has to explore, to acknowledge, and to handle the limits - including sometimes widening the limits. 

One cannot control this with behavior rules; it always demands a professional judgment of familiarity, bodily contact and intimacy. The starting point should be that relationships with students or clients are different form a friendship or another social relationship, and should not be confused. 

Prevention of sexual abuse and handling intimacy and bodily contacts demand for professionalism, but also for certain conditions: 

a climate in which relationships are established on the basis of respect and equality; 

acting transparent and responsible; 

a clear vision on education, helping and caring;

a methodology for this type of students or clients and their problems.

It also demands a certain style of management: a coaching style for the fieldworkers. And, last but not least, a climate in which

one may discuss intimacy and its dilemmas, 

one is able and willing to talk to each other, and

one is able to constructively give and receive critic,

one may openly speak about 

uncertainty how to act,

dilemmas, and 

feelings of power and powerlessness. 

We cannot completely root out nor completely prevent sexual abuse. Everywhere where power is present, power might be abused. An organization should recognize and acknowledge this risk and should have a basis of respect and equality. By doing so, one is able to realistically handling situations, and not only unrealistically trying to control everything. In that organization, intimacy and bodily contacts will be debatable, including all facets and dilemmas, and one is able to act in openness and responsibility.

In such an organization, passing the limits and sexual abuse will have less chance, or will be seen early, while positive forms of bodily contact will remain possible.

Marijke Lammers gives advise and training in the field of treatment and professional human relationships.

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