Many years ago, a boyfriend who subsequently became my husband gave me a book about touch and its essential place in human well-being. At the time, touch was a delightful dynamic in our new relationship. Within the boundaries of our Christian ethics, we explored physical intimacies, one of the expressions of our deepening love.
Then and now, I’m grateful for the men of my life who have touched me in honourable, life-giving ways. I’m grateful for my parents who taught and modelled healthy boundaries, and for each of my siblings who respected such teaching. I’m grateful for the many friends who know just when to fold me in a warm hug, give my shoulder an encouraging squeeze, or in other ways communicate their affection and respect through touch. And I’m grateful for a life unscathed by sexual assault or abuse.
Along with the gratitude, I feel deep sorrow for the many who have not been similarly spared. The last couple of years have been particularly troubling, as an enormous wave of revelations has put sexual abuse before us daily, publicly. Across society, in politics, entertainment, business and education, the great unmasking of sexual wrongdoing has brought “open secrets” into the open air. Christians, too, have their own sobering task to recognize and hold responsible the clergy who have crossed sexual boundaries.
Some of my discouragement comes with a long view. For more than 25 years, I’ve been tending the sexual wounds of others. Part of what sustained me in the early years was a belief that we were making progress. With more teaching and more awareness, we would create healthier, stronger families and communities. I imagined all children would be safe in camps and clubs, and at sporting activities. I imagined women would go out for a walk or to a party without fear of sexual assault. I imagined that people who seek spiritual, emotional healing would be cared for by pastors and counsellors who honoured such sacred trust.
My previous, possibly naïve, hope flickers with each new account I hear of an athlete molested by a coach; of a young woman assaulted on a date; of actors or business people threatened with career destruction unless they “cooperate”; of a congregant wounded by a pastor’s disturbing attention. Jesus’ condemnation, as recorded in Matthew 18, of those who harm children or cause little ones to stumble, strengthens my flagging resolve.
Recently, I reviewed my personal history, this time adding in several uncomfortable incidents:
- As a young teenager, sitting in a darkened movie theatre when a stranger stroked my neck; I moved quickly out of his way.
- The co-worker who patted my bum repeatedly, in spite of my clearly stated objections.
- A co-worker in another setting who joked frequently about having an affair with me. I imagine he didn’t mean it, and that he thought it was funny. But I didn’t. It was demeaning and disrespectful; it was gender-specific harassment.
Perhaps the great reveal occurring now will usher in a new era. Perhaps the safe, respectful policies being implemented in workplaces, businesses and churches will ride the heels of #MeToo, and substantially change the oppressive power dynamics that have for too long permitted sexual abuse to occur.
Two probing questions from Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan may guide us into deeper, more wholesome understandings of touch. Berrigan asks (and I paraphrase): “Whose flesh are you touching and why? Whose flesh are you violating and why?”
Of course, there’s much more that could be said. Even so, such questions might call us to account . . . and to holy touch.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.