When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple
with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin slippers, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people's gardens
and learn to spit.
I’ve liked this poem by Jenny Joseph since I first came across it a few years ago. It suggests that as you get older you can let go a bit, take a few risks and care a bit less about the societal inhibitions that circumscribe what we can and can’t do, can and can’t think, can and can’t say. Well, 100 editions of CYC-Online is pretty old (and very impressive). So I’m going to wear purple in this column and write about something that we’re not really allowed to write about in child and youth care anymore. I’m going to write about nakedness and sexuality.
Now I know what happens when you mention children and nakedness in the same sentence; it leads to the shrill denunciation of child protection professionals; ‘That is unhelpful’ they will say in morally censorious tones. Anyone deviating from increasingly authoritarian child protection orthodoxies is cast, at best, as an apologist for pedophilia. What I find to be exceedingly unhelpful is the way in which self-professed child protection experts seek to foreclose debate about what is healthy and proper in adult child relationships. The result of this is decidedly unhealthy and at times absurd; we are in the grip of a new Puritanism.
The roots of our fascination with nakedness and sin
go way back of course. When Adam told God that he and Eve had hidden
because they were naked, the concept of privacy was born, out of fear
and guilt. Fear and guilt have formed a persistent strand of the
Christian tradition for demonological fantasy ever since. And it seems
that we are in the midst of a particularly virulent revivalism. As with
most things I blame George Bush for this. It may be apocryphal (although
I suspect not) but I recall reading that that when the neo-cons took
over the White House, one of the things they did was to place drapes
over statues that might be exposing any fleshy bits. The reverberations
of a resurgent religious right ideology are all around us. The wholesale
closure of public toilets across Britain and elsewhere in the
Anglo-Saxon world seems to be due largely to concerns that some men were
using them for more than peeing in. I’m sure there must be a number of
small minded, small town campaigners against homosexual practices who
are basking in a self-righteous glow while the rest of us struggle to
spend a penny when we’re out for the day. Here in the UK there is a
character, given the title of ‘the naked rambler’ by the press. He has
made a number of attempts to walk the length of the country in order to
stake a right to go naked. As soon as he reaches Scotland he gets
arrested on the grounds that his nakedness allegedly places passers by
in a state of fear and alarm. Now if I saw someone walking towards me
wearing only a beard and a pair of hiking boots it might elicit some
curiosity, mild amusement, or even a concern for the guy’s state of
mind, but hardly fear and alarm, especially given what the Scottish
climate is likely to do to male physiology. Equating the human body with
fear and alarm seems to be a particularly dangerous road to go down. And
a costly one; recent press reports suggest that it has cost over
£100.000 to process the naked rambler through court systems and to jail
him. That’s money that could fund three youth worker posts.
Now what have all these ramblings, naked or otherwise, got to do with child and youth care you might be wondering? Well, they take me back to when I started in this work back in the early 1980s when attitudes towards nakedness were entirely different. Working in a residential school, ideas of privacy, which we now take for granted were wholly impractical.
Sleeping, showering and changing were communal activities, done in the presence of and sometimes alongside staff. Not only was this a practical necessity; it was considered to be good practice in terms of fostering healthy attitudes towards sexuality. One of the first books I read on taking up post was A.S. Neil’s Summerhill. Summerhill was a so-called free school situated in the South of England. A.S. Neil, the founder and headmaster came from a psychodynamic tradition, which identified most of children’s problems as deriving from repression, particularly sexual repression. Indeed problematic sexual behaviours and sexual abuse could be attributed to a failure to foster open and healthy attitudes towards nakedness and sexuality. As a result, he advocated relaxed and permissive attitudes towards sexuality. Children and staff were encouraged, weather permitting presumably, to go around naked. Summerhill became the bible for those of us in the approved schools with vaguely liberal tendencies.
Personally, I thought that stripping off routinely for everyday activities was a bridge too far. However, it seemed entirely natural to do so, when showering after sports for instance, or swimming in local pools. Indeed for reasons of health and hygiene I felt we had a responsibility to encourage boys to do so. There was also a sort of ‘rites of passage’ element to kids starting to feel comfortable about themselves. There were always those boys who were initially a bit reticent but in line with A.S Neil’s way of thinking I’d put this down to some hangover from encountering sexually repressed attitudes in their upbringing. Once most boys got over their initial inhibition, they were perfectly comfortable. Personally, I felt that if they were comfortable with their own bodies they were more likely to be comfortable in other areas of their lives.
Looking back there were bits missing from this discourse, particularly the default assumption of heterosexuality on which it was based. It’s funny to think that only 25 years ago we had little idea of the complexity and diversity of human sexualities. I am less convinced by arguments that some of these boys would have been abused and that the experience of nudity might re-traumatise them. In my experience boys who had been abused could feel quite liberated by exposure to non-abusive encounters with other males. There could of course be problems with the bawdy humour of some staff, but again I put that down to their own sedimented sexual repression. So while I can identify some aspects of past practice that might need further thinking through, I don’t believe for a minute they were abusive. In fact I would argue that they were considerably healthier that present day attitudes towards sexuality.
So what has changed? In many respects attitudes 25 years ago still reflected some of the 1960s ideals of hope and liberation. Since then we have witnessed a descent into post-modern uncertainty, where, across a whole range of social issues, we’ve become less certain and more fearful about what the future might hold. The conspiracy theorist in me might suggest that politicians deliberately play on these fears to keep us under control and to avoid us asking questions about the real social and political issues of the day. This is especially so as politics, in the US and the UK in particular, have become increasingly moralistic and socially authoritarian.
Fear needs an object and in the minds of the religious right, paedophilia (rather than poverty, wars or environmental catastrophe) is identified as the biggest threat to the future of humankind. Fear also brings with it a certain loathing, a loathing of the ‘other’ who threatens us but also a self-loathing, a loathing of our shadow selves, generally identified with our sexual selves. This is manifest in some very unhealthy attitudes. A couple of years ago we were in The States where I was teaching summer school. My wife’s friend was with us along with her son who was five at the time. We went swimming at a lakeside resort and were using the changing facilities afterwards. The five-year-old went into the women’s changing room along with his mum and my wife. He was parading about in the nude as healthy five-year-olds do when a teenage girl demanded that his mother cover him up as she found his nakedness disgusting.
This is worrying. When we start to identify what is healthy and natural as disgusting we consign it to the recesses of our psyches; we start to believe we are disgusting. We end up constantly fighting against eros, that bit of ourselves that incorporates not only our sexual desires but also the sensual and emotional bits of our personalities. And whether we admit it or not eros is part and parcel of the caring relationship. It is what drives us to care in the first place. Some educational writing acknowledges this, suggesting that,
The caring relationship, like the pedagogical relationship, is ambiguous and duplicitous, because it is produced out of desire. Moves to separate the ‘good/ethical/unsex’ bits of desire from the ‘bad/unethical/sex’ bits of desire cannot help but misrecognize the nature of eros in the care giving relationship… In the rush to end abuse, we have waged war on eros, with the result that one set of tyrannies has given way to another. The new order is characterised by the safety of blandness… (Mc William cited in Piper and Smith, 2003: 879).
We can all think of examples of this safety of blandness, where our fear of the flesh is manifest in regimes where staff are afraid to give children a cuddle when they are upset (or indeed happy), of all sorts of ridiculous procedures about putting band-aids on kids, of injunctions about keeping doors open and ensuring someone is watching you at all times. And God forbid that you ever cast an eye on naked flesh. Yet injunctions such as these take on the status of ‘best practice’. I remember recoiling at reading student reports stating categorically and with no nod in the direction of cultural context, that the practice in a Finnish children’s home where she was on placement, of boys going around in boxer shorts was a breach of child protection practice. All these ‘examples of good practice’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one) speak more of a primordial fear (on the part of those who come up with them and who are responsible for embedding such assumptions) than they do about the safety and wellbeing of children.
Attempts to deny eros within ourselves or within our relationships impact significantly on how we interact with children. Our relationships with them become predicated on fear. Relationships based on fear become retentive and oppressive. They deny the hope, joy and spontaneity and connection that should inform how we get along with children; they conflate what is healthy with what is truly abusive, and they confuse a risk-avoiding and hectoring moralism with the kind of personal morality that should properly govern our interactions.
But this isn’t just about lifestyle or philosophical preferences. I am coming to a view that our current attitudes towards questions of nakedness and sexuality are deeply unhealthy and actually contribute to the very situations they purport to avert. I’m prompted to say this by a recent UNICEF Report, which shows quite marked differences in child wellbeing between Northern European countries and the US and the UK. Most European countries score significantly higher across a range of measures. Now there are differences in economic and political philosophy between the two, which may explain some of these differences, but there are also marked differences in social attitudes towards questions of nakedness and sexuality. Northern Europeans have much more liberal and relaxed views on such matters. And you know what, they also have lower levels of sexual activity among children, far lower rates of teenage pregnancy and lower rates of divorce. All of this is manifest in subjective accounts of child wellbeing and of adult/child relationships that suggest that Continental Europe is a better place to be a kid than is the US or the UK. Another report published in this past month points to a rise in levels of child pornography, again with the US being to the forefront in its production and use. Of course the response from child protection spokespeople is to call for ever-more regulation to tackle the problem, oblivious to the possibility that they might just be the problem. It is a basic principle of economics that the more you restrict a commodity the more you create a market for it.
What we seem to be witnessing is not new. Martin Luther identified it when he formulated his paradox of purity, observing that
‘the more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get’. What he was implicitly recognising was the fascination of sin — that the more any appetite or impulse is cast into the realm of the unclean by those who pursue purity, the more psychologically compelling it becomes. The pursuit of purity thus actually serves to promote an imaginative obsession with anything that has been explicitly or implicitly defined as obscene. (cited in Webster, 1994)
A conclusion of this way of thinking is that the more we obsess about purity, the more we create conditions where the impure parts of ourselves are likely to come to the surface, a dynamic that any good Freudian would recognise. This being a possibility, it requires that those of us interested in the healthy upbringing of children and youth are prepared to wear purple from time to time and to challenge the orthodoxies that threaten children and childhood, and which do so under the guise of protecting them. It is decidedly unhelpful that child protection agencies are likely to consider this kind of debate to be unhelpful.
Piper, H. and Smith, H. (2003) ‘Touch’ in educational and child care settings: dilemmas and responses British Educational Research Journal 29 (6) 879 – 894
UNICEF report on childhood in industrialised countries www.unicef.org.uk/press/news_detail.asp?news_id=890
Webster, R. (1994) The body politic and the politics of the body: The religious origins of Western secularism www.richardwebster.net/thepoliticsofthebody.html