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Go Ahead ... Reach Out and Touch Someone

Sex harassment is odious, but rigid codes of conduct can block proper interactions.

August 07, 2003|Crispin Sartwell | Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His book "Extreme Virtue: Leadership and Truth in Five Great American Lives" is scheduled to be published in the fall.

The Episcopal Church is to be congratulated for confirming V. Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop in the face of a stupid, vicious attempt at character assassination.

The accusation of "inappropriate touching" was ridiculous on its face, but it also shows something about the moment in which we find ourselves.

At various colleges where I have taught, I have undergone seminars and workshops on harassment. Usually, it is lawyers who conduct these events to explain policies designed to protect the institution and its faculty from lawsuits. Don't cuss, they've told us. Don't tell dirty jokes. Under no circumstances touch a student, for any reason.

I cuss a blue streak in ordinary conversation, and I often cuss in the classroom to wake my kids from their classic student stupor. Students occasionally sit in my office sobbing, describing their emotional crises, up to and including suicide attempts. I have been known to hug or even to hold. I would rank many of my students and former students as my friends, as people I love.

A guy I know is coaching girls soccer. He was told that even in the throes of triumph, he should hug a player only from the side. Camp counselors have been prohibited from putting sunscreen on their young campers. Anyone who works with kids -- especially men -- has got to be aware at this point that almost any normal human interaction could surround him with the stench of pedophilia.

As a teenager, I experienced sexual abuse and harassment, and I take them with the utmost seriousness. But put this matter in the hands of people who write manuals that are supposed to govern your behavior and you've got a form of totalitarianism: the idea that people's actions -- down to the finest points of gesture and speech and the most confidential matters of relationship -- are subject to policy and punishment.

Relationships between students and teachers, coaches and players or priests and parishioners are relationships between human beings. They are free-flowing and multifaceted. They are not matters of policy but of personality.

They are matters, finally, that ought not to be and cannot be codified. "Inappropriate touching" is something that involves what the perpetrator is thinking, what the relationship is and what the person on the receiving end is experiencing. It cannot be a matter of mechanical definition, a map of the body or a prohibition on affection or expression. Human gestures have meaning only in particular social contexts in which intentions are formed and expressed.

Of course, there can be misunderstandings and disagreements about what's appropriate and what's not, about what means what. But these cannot be sorted out by policy: They are matters of heart and mind and relationship.

You can't ban comfort, love or authentic expression. If you try, you're evil.

Certainly we've got to do something about real cases of sexual abuse and harassment. As in most other crimes, however, that means we have to evaluate the frame of mind as well as the physical act of the perpetrator.

For the rest of us, it is our ethical responsibility to act as though these little codes and their enforcement mechanisms do not exist.

Ask yourself, with as much honesty as you possibly can: When I touch this person, am I trying to communicate something sexual? If not, don't ask too many other questions. Just give that person what he or she needs.

Celebrate, mourn, cuss, cuddle, comfort, tell, touch.

Maybe they'll have the sense to make you a bishop.

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