Among the many televised programs on child abuse, one dramatization stands out more vividly than the rest. In the opening scene, the members of a family are presented as comfortably and lovingly touching one another. Yet once the father becomes deeply involved in making a film about the sexual abuse of children, he is suddenly self-conscious about embracing his own daughters. Distressed, he exclaims, "This thing has put a monster in my head."
Every day the media inform us of the physical and emotional traumas endured by those too innocent, too defenseless or too scared to protect themselves. Like anyone else, I am alarmed by the increased rate of child abuse, and hope it is only our awareness of it that has increased. As a professional who is dedicated to the healing nature of touch, I am also concerned about overreacting.
Highly publicized child abuse cases have already resulted in a "hands off" backlash. Day-care workers, nursery school teachers, parents and even grandparents are afraid their physical attentions will be misinterpreted. Hopefully, this is only temporary.
As a society not given to easy, affectionate touching, we cannot afford to lose the gains we have made, especially in communicating with our hands -- hands that soothe away a discomfort, tension, fear or loneliness, hands that express love, caring and concern. Before we swing too far in the direction of no touch at all, only to be plagued by other consequences, we need to consider how vital touch is.
We are born with the need to be touched, a need as basic as the one for food. The sense of touch is the earliest to develop in the human embryo. The body's largest organ, the skin, is also our first medium of communication and most important sensory system. Even if we can't hear, see, smell or taste, we can survive as long as the skin is performing its sensory functions.
In fact, our very survival depends on being touched because it is fundamental in developing both neurophysiological and behavioral functions. When given the choice between a surrogate mother who provides close body contact without milk or a surrogate mother who provides no body contact but gives milk, baby monkeys chose contact over milk. And institutionalized infants deprived of handling have been known to die of "marasmus," a wasting way.
What does this have to do with sexual abuse? Bonding, that primal connection made between an infant and his or her caretaker (who is not always the genetic mother or father), is first established through physical intimacy. The failure to be closely involved with one's child is generally a forerunner to sexual abuse, say Seymour and Hilda Parker of the University of Utah. Their research indicates that incestuous fathers are more likely to have suffered neglect or mistreatment during their own childhood. Later, they repeat this non-nurturing behavior with their daughters.
Children should not be subjected to an adult's misdirected desires. But neither should we be reduced to interacting with each other at arm's length. Incorporating more, rather than less, touch in our lives can help diminish abuse and pain at all ages.
Too quick to associate touch and massage with sexual gratification, we are less aware of other benefits of touch. Several years ago, I did a session of specialized massage on my friend's 2-year-old daughter. Her parents called the next day with unexpected glowing reports. The director of the childcare center said Sara had been her calmest and most well-behaved self ever, getting along better with the other children than usual. And that night, going to bed had not been an ordeal because she requested, "Mommy, Daddy, do what Mirka did." She even directed them how.
Later, I learned that teachers and aides in special education classes in Santa Cruz County, California, successfully use another form of touching. A five-to 15-minute Jin Shin Do massage at the beginning of the school day results in dramatic changes. Emotionally disturbed teen-agers mend their relations with staff, family and classmates. Cerebral-palsied and mentally retarded children improve their balance, posture and rhythm. Overall, the students show greater self-esteem, task performance and academic achievement.
Similarly, touch -- mostly as massage -- rather than words has been the medium through which some therapists in America and Europe have been able to break through the withdrawl of autistic and schizophrenic patients and finally establish communication.
So important is touch throughout our lives that even when the elderly are cut off from physical contact with their families, they find other sources -- medical professionals, beauticians and barbers. When they can't get touch for themselves, at least they can bestow it -- on pets. Local humane societies even bring animals to seniors for that purpose.
Sometimes touch can be more effective than medication in relieving symptoms. The concern felt through a nurse's hands often has the power to relax the tension of loneliness and fear, which may be causing a physical pain in the first place.
Of course, we need to discriminate among the various kinds of touch for ourselves and for our children -- touch that is kind, loving and comforting as opposed to touch that is intrusive, hurtful and damaging.
That there are misguided individuals whose touch leaves scars is not a reason for us to stop touching altogether. We would only leave different scars.