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Are we too afraid of touch?

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"Our aversion to innocent physical contact has gone a touch too far"

Julia Neuberger

Look around you, there are notices everywhere: “Be careful: keep your eye on your possessions”, “Swim at your own risk — no lifeguard on duty”. We are told by government to be alert to the risk of terrorists. And we are watched by CCTV wherever we go. But all this advice to be watchful makes us fearful. It makes us shrink into ourselves. We become unkind, unconcerned for others, and our children become terrified of the outside world.

These days, you have to have a Criminal Records Bureau check before you volunteer to work with anyone described as vulnerable — children, anyone over 65, and a whole lot of others besides. That makes many young men, especially, nervous about volunteering at all, and others deeply irritated that they are being asked for a CRB check to work, say, in hospital radio.

If a young man has a criminal record, but now wants to help others who are younger still — just getting into trouble with the police and at risk of worse — he has to be incredibly determined not to be put off by the marathon of bureaucracy.

Hospital staff are often told not to put an arm round patients to comfort them lest it be viewed as assault. So it tends to be the porters and care assistants who give a bit of comfort, while the nurses only touch the patients when they have to carry out some kind of intervention. Many people, especially older people, don’t want too many interventions. What they want is human contact, a bit of tender loving care.

We are all so terrified of child sexual abuse that we have outlawed taking photographs of children at nursery school without parental consent. And adults are terrified that their motives will be suspected if they talk to a child or, even worse, hug one. So, a few years ago, when Clive Peachy, a bricklayer, saw two-year-old Abigail Rae walking down the road after she had escaped from her nursery school in Warwickshire, he did not stop and help her because he thought people would think he was trying to abduct her. The result? She drowned in a pond.

Young male volunteers in primary schools describe feeling like pariahs, viewed with suspicion by many staff — when all they are doing is trying to help. And children want comfort if they fall over in the playground, yet teachers have been told never to touch the children in their care. So you get 12-year-olds with broken legs crying for their mothers, with staff unable to give them a hug, and five-year-olds putting sunscreen on each other because the teachers have been instructed not to touch them. The mess that ensues, and the visits to hospital because cream gets in their eyes, would be funny were it not so ridiculous. Equally absurd are the letters informing parents that children should not bring home-made birthday cakes into school in case of food poisoning — a position that results in children being less likely to share.

So what is all this about? First, there is a real fear of being sued, far greater than the actual numbers of cases would warrant. Second, there is a fear of what others might think. We have begun to internalise the messages that people might think we are abusers when we are not. Third, we are fearful of our children being injured, being killed, being abducted. Yet, in terms of ordinary accidents happening to children, the numbers have gone down dramatically rather than up over the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, our children are frightened to go outside because, as the think-tank Demos and the Green Alliance demonstrated a few years ago, they fear the outside world. They think the streets are full of terrorists, murderers and child-abductors. Worse, they think they know what they look like. They are white, male, middle-aged, wear horrible clothes and have a funny look in their eyes.

But children would not feel like this if adults did not encourage them. It is adult fear, stoked by government and insurers, by risk assessors and hospital and school managers. If we aren’t careful, the next generation will consist entirely of wimps. They will go off on adventure holidays abroad, but they will not walk down the street or get on the Tube alone for fear of attackers. The net result will be not only a lack of life skills, but overwhelming fear: of predators, of accidents, of life itself.

Meanwhile, the sexual predators will carry on just as before — largely in the family — because no system of checks will root them out completely. And we will have created a whole generation of unhappy people. We need to be sensible, not risk-averse; we need to look out to see where we can help others. And, sometimes, we may even need to touch them.