Comes Naturally #50 (September 20, 1996):
The Fear of Touch; Diary of a Thought Criminal

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Spectator Magazine - September 20, 1996 (c) David Steinberg

The Fear of Touch; Diary of a Thought Criminal

Learning to Be Afraid of Touch
Three a.m. and this is crazy
but I am full and crazy
and I want words for Dylan
asleep on cushions on the floor,
rolling because it's three a.m.
and the lights are still on,

Dylan whose body is still whole
after six years of world,
who loves saunas and hot tubs
and splashes of clod water,
who snuggles in bed and on laps,
who moves toward the touches,
toward the warm,
who jumps free into loving bed
asking in clearest plainsong:
"what's this about,
this lying on top of each other,"
Dylan who goes to school
to learn that farts are to laugh,
that fuck is a word for frustration,
who comes to lie with me in bath
legs around legs,
while we talk warm talks,
soften to the intimacy
that comes with touch...

Learn, my son,
learn the best of me.
Learn deep to remember
through the wars,
learn to remember
somewhere much later
after the tidal wave confusions
that touch is love
and warm is wonder.

Out of nowhere in a peopleful room
he wants to hug: arms reach up.
I stop everything,
sink to my knees to hold warm body,
feel the love in my touch,
in his touch,
surrendering to the flow.

One moment among a thousand hundreds:
chits against the future,
the bombardment of giggles and cools,
of roles and shows.

It comes hard and fast, gentle boy-child. I have been where you must go,
death and distortion on every side.
I will pray for you,
pray that the ground in you
built of the soil of all these times
these warms
these laughs
these wisdoms
that the ground will hold
and not abandon you to the abyss
that splits pleasure from mind.

Slowly, slowly my faith grows.
Faith in the strength of these seeds/
Faith that the body knows all.
Faith that somehow,
through the maze of contortions,
you will flower in your springtime
and leave barren desert behind.

Just Another Sunburn

It is, I suppose, just a minor story, no big deal. But it is one of those minor incidents that carries within it echoes of much larger goings on.

A six-year-old girl goes with her childcare center on a field trip to the beach. Early in the morning, when they drop her off at the childcare center, her parents do not think to put sunblock on her to protect her skin from the sun she will be exposed to later in the day. The girl comes home that evening with a bad sunburn. Why? The childcare center has sunblock, or other children there do, but the center has a policy that staff cannot apply sunblock to the children, so there is nothing they can do.

Let's assume it's not the kind of sunburn that will do some kind of major damage to this child, not cause her to develop skin cancer later in her life that or even make her go to sleep in real pain. Let's assume it's just a minor discomfort for her. Still, when I am told this little tale by a friend, it sends chills up my spine.

It has come to this: Touch -- that fundamental primate need so basic that babies and even chimpanzees deprived of its grace wither and die -- has come to be so feared that a childcare worker in a progressive, openminded California university town cannot perform the simple gesture of applying sunblock to the parts of a child's body that get exposed to the sun on a trip to the beach.

Fear Begins at Home

This is not an isolated incident, and not an issue that is limited to children in daycare centers.

One of the legal tactics that has been in fashion for some years now, among those who do battle in that emotional war zone known as child custody disputes, is for one divorcing parent to bring allegations of child molestation against the other. In some cases, of course, real molestation has occurred, and the custody issue properly centers on protecting children from an abusive parent. But once the general issue of sexual abuse of children blossomed into a form of national hysteria, accusations of molestation began to show up in divorce courts not only in cases of actual abuse, but also in situations where one angry parent misinterpreted normal physical expression of affection of the other parent toward the child. In many circumstances, the accusation of what has come to be known as "bad touch" is brought by parents who know full well that nothing of the kind ever occurred, as a ploy to intimidate the other partner into a custody or financial settlement.

This vicious little game originally was a tactic used by divorcing women against men, but its use has broadened now and, even though men in divorce situations are certainly more vulnerable around this issue than women, mothers are increasingly being falsely accused of touching their children in abusive ways as well.

These are the kinds of accusations spouses make against each other when the venom of divorce flows. People are not at their best in those times. What started out as a legal anomaly has developed into nothing less than a divorce law fad. The fad has become widely publicized and thus part of the culture we call Everyday Life in the Nineties. And you'd better believe that once the threat of someday being accused of improper touch is known to be part of The Way Things Are, parents change their behavior -- consciously and unconsciously -- to protect themselves from ever having to deal with such a possibility or the possibility of being forcibly separated from their children.

We are living in a time when parents are being taught to be afraid of touching their children, and not only in relation to potential divorce litigation. The specter of potential child abuse is so prevalent in the culture that it now haunts every physically affectionate, friendly, loving (and therefore somewhat intimate) contact between any adult and any child at any time. Parents -- not to mention relatives and friends -- are learning to be suspicious of their most natural, wholesome, wonderful, and essential desire to have free, loving, spontaneous, physical contact with the children in their lives. If I scoop my daughter up into my arms and hug her close, or roll around with my son in the grass, or in bed on a Sunday morning -- particularly if I feel warm and good contacting my child body to body -- maybe I'm being inappropriate, harmful, unintentionally -- um, ah -- sexual.

Changing Times

In 1975, well before the current wave of touch-phobia swept into the national consciousness, respected therapist and author Lonnie Barbach warned parents not to physically distance themselves from their children. Here's what she wrote:

"Physical contact is essential for children. Studies show that children in orphanages who received adequate nourishment but were not held, cuddled, kissed, and caressed would often become ill. But in our culture it is frequently customary to discontinue physical contact as the child grows older, especially with sons. Then after marriage, miraculously, people who have been denied physical contact for years are supposed to be able to respond physically and emotionally without inhibitions -- which was natural for them as children, but was trained out of them as they grew older."

The poem that begins this column was written in 1977, when my son, now a well-adjusted (trust me) young man of 25, was six years old. In 1977 it was still possible to take a bath with one's six-year-old son without looking over one's shoulder. It was even possible not to shrink away in horror if he, in innocent playfulness, touched his father's penis. In 1977 it was possible to teach one's child, by the simple act of relaxing in warm water together, legs wrapped around legs, that touch was basically a good, not a frightening, thing. It was possible, by not tensing defensively if a penis happened to touch a leg or an arm, to teach one's child that sexual organs are, among other things, just one more part of the body. It was possible -- by straightforward, unselfconscious touch -- to affirm a child's emerging sensual-sexual sense of him/herself. It was possible to teach one's children to honor their sensual-sexual feelings, even as one taught them to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate ways and times to express those feelings to others.

Now it is twenty years later and as a culture we are afraid to let the adults at a daycare center put sunblock on the children in their charge. We are raising a generation of children to fear touch. God help us.

Good Touch, Bad Touch

For children, being touched is a basic affirmation of their lovability, of their right to exist, of their right to exist in the physical context of their bodies, of their right to feel pleasure. The younger the children, the more this is the case. Deprived of touch, children feel that there is something wrong with them, something wrong with their inherent desire, built into the very basis of the human organism, to make physical and (yes) sexual contact with others. Children do not separate their sexual feelings from their other feelings in the way that adults do. They have not yet learned to treat sex as this special, fearful, dangerous sort of thing. For young children, before they absorb the phobias of the older people around them, feeling is simply feeling. Sensation, sensuality, and sexuality are all part of the same soup. These children do not need to be taught the difference between good touch and bad touch; the difference is obvious: Good touch feels good; bad touch feels bad. What could be more simple.

Now we tell our children that the difference between "good touch" and "bad touch" is not what it seems. We tell them not to trust some the most basic information their bodies give them about the world. We are in the process raising a generation of children who will grow up less touched and more afraid of touch than any children who grew up before them -- and I'm not just comparing the children of the 90's to the children of the unusually touch-friendly 60's and 70's. Children growing up today will be more touch-starved and more touch-phobic than the children of the sexually repressed 50's ever were. The molest fear has grown from a rational concern for children's safety to an exaggerated expression of the national fear of sex itself. This fear surrounds children everywhere; inevitably it infects them. They are afraid to walk home from school alone. They are taught that friendly gestures from strangers are to be treated with suspicion and forcefully rejected. And at school they are taught to carefully evaluate every physical contact with adults -- contact with their parents as well as with strangers, and even contact with other children -- to determine whether it is "good touch" or "bad touch."

The natural difference between good touch and bad touch is the difference between wanted touch and unwanted touch. Being touched in ways that you don't want to be touched is an intrusion, an invasion of privacy, an assault. (This is true for adults as well as for children.) When they are being touched in ways they don't like, children need to be able to say, "Stop that; I don't like it." Children who respect themselves and their feelings turn out to be relatively good at being able to take care of themselves in this way. Children who have been taught to distrust the feelings of their bodies generally have a harder time trusting that what feels bad may actually be bad for them.

But in the avalanche of "Good Touch-Bad Touch" classes that are cropping up everywhere, children are not being taught to distinguish between wanted and unwanted touch, between touch that feels good and touch that feels bad. Children are instead being taught to distinguish between touch that adults say is supposed to feel good and touch that adults say is not supposed to feel good. Children in "Good Touch-Bad Touch" classes are really being taught to suspiciously examine touch for any trace of sexuality and to designate any touch of this sort as bad.

The problem is that, in reality, touch that is sensual and pleasurable does have an erotic component. Not an erotic component that needs to be dangerous to the emotional or sexual well-being of a child, but an erotic component nonetheless. The natural perspective of children is much more accurate about this than the sex-phobic perspective of most adults. Erotic, and even sexual, feeling cannot be excised from the experience of being touched without also excising sensual and pleasurable feeling. There is no clear line to draw in the sand. The spectrum of loving physical contact runs continuously from the friendly to the sensual to the erotic to the specifically sexual. And make no mistake about it, it is the adults who are afraid to admit to themselves that there is any erotic feeling associated with wholesome physical expressions of affection with children who are the most likely to be dangerous and damaging to children in the end.

Quoting therapist Lonnie Barbach again,

"It is important to realize that sexual fantasies about one's children are normal. Many mothers report having some such fantasies at least occasionally. Children are sexual, warm, cuddly human beings -- we can feel turned on and have the fantasies but we don't have to act them out."

Because it may have erotic overtones, touch that feels good between older and younger people is inherently suspicious to adults who see erotic and sexual feeling as something that is inherently dangerous, out of control, and therefore to be feared. And these adults are successfully demanding, more and more, that not all children substitute their unnaturally fearful attitude for what the children intuitively understand: that most pleasurable touch with adults feels right even if, on rare occasions, some does not.

From this touch-phobic perspective, cuddling with one's parents is
suspicious activity; cuddling with anyone else is positively dangerous and forbidden. Tickle games are out. Rolling around and rubbing bodies, even with other children, is strongly discouraged. Sitting on laps, wrapped up in the safety of an adult's warm embrace -- the basis of physical comfort and safety for a child -- becomes suspect behavior. And for an adult who is not a parent to apply suntan lotion to a child's shoulders and belly, chest and thighs, is so fraught with possible abuse that a generally thoughtful, progressive childcare center prohibits any such thing.

The consequences of teaching our children to fear and reject touch as never before are far-reaching and frightening. As psychologist Wilhelm Reich pointed out in The Mass Psychology of Fascism a full fifty years ago, fear of touch, fear of sensory pleasure, fear of sensuality, and fear of sexuality are the emotional basis for a rigid, authoritarian character structure and outlook on the world which is itself the basis of extreme authoritarian political movements. Teaching children and adults to fear touch is a clearer and more effective a recipe for raising a generation of real fascists than anything the Michigan Militia could wish for in their wildest dreams.

Ponder that while you watch the evening news tonight.

Diary of a Thought Criminal

On a happier note, I want to draw everyone's attention to the September 20 release, after long, long anticipation, of the first book of photographer Mark I. Chester's beautiful and powerful imagery, Diary of a Thought Criminal. Mark has been dreaming about, raising money for, and working on this book for years. Now -- after passing through a few final hurdles, including two binderies who wouldn't touch the book once they saw what it was -- the book has become a beautiful, carefully crafted, moving reality.

Now, I have to admit that I have a bit of bias about this book since Mark is a good friend and I am (blush) in the book myself. But carefully putting all that aside (yes, it's possible to do that), and donning the hat of objective critic of sexual art, I can still tell you that this is truly a remarkable work of sexual photography.

As Pat Califia notes in her afterword to the book,

"Mark I. Chester is a pioneer. The outrageous quality of much of his work has pushed back the boundaries for other gay and lesbian photographers, expanded the arena within which queer visual artists may work. He has also contributed an enormous amount to the local, national, and international leather community by making us a gift of so much of his unique perspective on our lives."

What strikes me most about Mark's photography -- aside from its sheer craft and care -- is the deeply personal, intimate, and loving vision that it offers of a radical sexuality whose basis in love and intimacy is systematically denied by mainstream culture. this is what makes real art so important, so powerful, and potentially so subversive to the status quo. Art tells the truth in its own powerful language, a language very different from that of words, essays, and political rhetoric -- a language that is in many ways more complex, more subtle, more honest, closer to the heart of the matter. Mark puts it well in the book's introduction,

"Every story that every non-standard person has to tell is important. When we tell our stories, we heal our wounds, learn to survive and eventually come to consciousness.... In a world where you are misrepresented, where your image is distorted, demonized or appropriated for laughs, it is an empowering experience to reveal who you really are in your heart of hearts."

Diary of a Thought Criminal is an important addition to the world of truthful sexual art. Be sure to check it out.

[There will be a book release party and exhibition of the original prints at Mark I. Chester's studio, 1229 Folsom Street, San Francisco, on Friday, September 20th, 7:00-11:00, $5 donation. The exhibition will also be open Saturdays and Sundays, 1:00-6:00, through October 13th ($2 donation), with a special showing during the Folsom Street Fair, Sunday, September 29th. For information call (415) 292-3223. Information on Diary of a Thought Criminal and photos from the book are also available at Mark Chester's website: <>.]

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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