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A Carefully Reconnoitering of the Limits
Between Wanted and Unwanted Intimacy

Frans E.J. Gieles, PhD.

Summary of a lecture for the Flemish Association of Orthopedagogues,
Gent, Belgium, 24 November 1995
Published in: tOKK, 
Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, Kinderpsychiatrie en Klinische Kinderpsychologie
(Journal for Orthopedagogy, Child Psychiatry and Clinical Child Psychology),
22-3, September 1997

Intimacy is part of our profession

We do our work, residential treatment of children, mostly by establishing contact, more specifically contact including the shadow side, as I say it in my doctor's dissertation Conflict & Contact. The shadow side is the side of the children (and ourselves) which we prefer to deny, the troublesome side: homesickness, sorrow, anger, recklessness or despondentness. There, in the shadow side, we meet the requests for help. 

Establishing contact with the shadow side can be done by being open for what the children have to 'say' by their troublesome behavior. By that behavior, they 'tell' us apparently important messages we have to acknowledge as meaningful and to understand. Our answer will not directly concern the behavior, but rather the message expressed in it. The languages we need therefore is mostly body language. 

Intimacy is entering someone's or each other's personal area. There are a lot of forms of it and how someone experiences intimacy can be very different. 

To do her or his work, specifically residential care for children, the helper has to try to reach at least the limit of the children's personal area and at least place a part of her or his own person at the child's disposal. In other words: 

intimacy is - between certain limits - a crucial aspect of our work. 

The limits are the subject of this lecture. 

To talk about the limits, I want to place the concept intimacy on a broader scale:


Keeping distance without making the contact

           ================================  limit 1

Communicating from a distance or taking a pause in the contact


------------------------------------------------------  limit 2

Having bodily contact 

------------------------------------------------------  limit 3

Having intimate contact 

------------------------------------------------------  limit 4

Having erotic contact form A

===============================  limit 5

Having erotic contact form B

Having sexual contact 


The limits in literature and practice

The law sets for everybody limit # 5. Some in practice and literature advise to respect 4 or 5. For example the Browndale childrens' homes and the literature about their methods do so. Also De Lange (1991) and, more recently, Claessens in the special issue "Intimacy" of TJJ (1994)

The Commissie Seksueel Misbruik van Jeugdigen (Commission on the Sexual Abuse of Youths), which has much influence in the Netherlands, does not differentiate between eroticism and sexuality in her first report (1994). By so doing, she sets limit # 4. A feeling of lust of the adult is the sign for that limit: who feels lust, commits abuse and has to stop.

In contrast, Van der Doef (1994) accepts the feeling of lust for the adult and sets as the limit: acts you do not dare to report to your partner.

The actual practice seems me to gradually move to limit # 3 or even 2. Limit # 1 is seldom or never mentioned. 

I want to carefully reconnoiter the limits - plural. What is wanted or unwanted? By who? There are legal limits, there are limits set by public opinion, and the child as well as the helper have their personal limits. More important, there are limits by the character, the methodology and the ethics of the helping profession. I will speak about the latter. 

My opinion about the limits

In professional ethics and methodology, the limits (plural) are in my opinion # 1 and # 5, the red ones here above. By so doing, I propose:

to declare only keeping the distance as non-professional, 

to differentiate between eroticism and sexuality, and

to differentiate erotic contact in form A and form B.


I describe having sexual contact as acting with the aim of sexual satisfaction by touching sexually sensitive parts of the body.
I describe having erotic contact as bodily contact that is felt, or meant, as pleasant, 

in form A: without the aim of sexual excitement, 

in form B: with the aim of sexual excitement.


This gives the childcare worker the possibility to use a rich scale of forms of contact and to achieve the level of intimacy needed for this work, adapted to the requests for help and development of the child. This kind of intimacy may be a part of the caring task of the worker and of the climate of the institution. Intimacy must be normal  in this climate, not a special thing, and surely not furtive, but rather discussable. 

To be able to speak about intimacy, something is necessary that contrasts with a trend I observe. Nowadays, much behavior is labeled as "sexual", but it is debatable if that behavior is felt or meant as sexual. Thus, I say:

Do not sexualize what is not felt or meant as such.

Especially sexologists do this. They observe and count behavior of children by gender and age, and they give percentages to know if certain sexual behavior is normal or not. 

However, if I read such a list, for example that of Friedrich 1991, I see behavior that in my opinion not is felt or meant as sexual by the children: "stands too close", "hugs or kisses adults not known well". A rational discussion about meaningful forms of intimacy becomes impossible if one labels as sexual what by the children or the caregivers themselves is not meant as such. Every discussion becomes really impossible if one labels intimate and conscientious acts of childcare workers as pedophilic, as they themselves do not feel or mean it as such. 


They exist. They will come to light if you dare to work with intimacy. Pitfalls may lay within the child, but also in the group's climate -- if the jocks are the heroes. The childcare worker might be confronted with her or his own impediments due to experiences, education or values and norms. A team may lack openness; there may be insufficient respect for the differences between humans. Modern society give lots of pitfalls. I want to highlight the first and the last sources: the child and society.

Hommes (1979) describes the "children one does not easily let go": they ask for a lot of attention and affection... but it never is enough. These children incite a great dedication of involved helpers, but simultaneously they cannot cope with it. The worker may be entangled by this phenomenon. The worker has to draw the line: a clear and well-dosed giving of affection appears to work surprisingly well, but if one gives the same not well-dosed, the child and the worker get stuck. 

De Lange (1991) describes the other side of the coin: for the children he describes, a 'normal' dose of attention and affection is not enough. The worker has to invest much time in romping and cuddling, especially at bed time - more than 'normally' is usual. 

Hillige (1994) advises to carefully observe how children or adolescents handle with their 'request' for intimacy. This may differ, thus the answers will differ - as will the pitfalls.

In modern society acts are frequently labeled as sexual as they are not felt or meant as such. The rare groups that plea for more sexual freedom for youth do this. Also they who combat that idea of more freedom with ardor do this. Sexologists do it and it is bon ton among professional helpers. Public opinion also trends to separate youth and sex. The effect is that granddads and grannies, parents and teachers, as well as childcare workers for surety create great standoffishness. 

This discussion is not new. In earlier days, one spoke about "the pedagogical eros", for instance described by Maasen (1988). He quotes Gustav van Wyneken, who plead for much room for bodily intimacy and close friendship - what I named "form A" of eroticism here above. So, Van Wyneken was suspected to be a pedophile. In those days, Van Wyneken experienced heavy pressure, and so do nowadays the  childcare workers who dare to establish real close contact with the children. This was already the trend in 1983, when I wrote my article "Warmth and Intimacy... How About Them?" I will repeat the end of that article, which is still actual in these days: 


So the point is:

(a) Not to be afraid to give warmth physically as a child care worker; not to give way to the fear of "what people might think of me".

(b) To create and to preserve within the residential group such a climate, that there is room for personal and physical warmth between people intimately, but not in a "naughty" atmosphere.

(c) To create within the team such a climate that as a house parent you can talk about all the feelings of tenderness or love also the feelings you have about your work, the irritations, being crazy about something. Bronfenbrenner wrote "Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about him or her". (Cited by Maier in The core of care, 1979)

(d) If all this is going to work, it must depended on the way of thought of house parents, staff members and supervisors. And on their willingness to pay genuine attention to the experiences of the house parents, and to deal with them in such a way that the house parents can fully realize their feelings.

All this is extremely difficult: our culture, our education, certain theories about child and education, and our language seem to obstruct us. We are swimming against the current. For the children who need our warmth so much, we will perhaps be strong and courageous enough to swim against that current; cautiously, but vigorously.

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