In early February of 2012, a middle-school in Portland, Oregon banned hugging amongst students.
The principal enforced the ban after it was alleged that hugging had reached viral proportions in the school. Girls were screaming and running to hug each other from opposite ends of the hall. Students were getting to class late because they were lingering in the halls to hug. And worryingly, hugging turned to bullying as groups of students converged on uncool kids and hugged them as a form of public degradation. Groups of girls made a sport of hugging pubescent boys to see how long it took them to get aroused.
I don’t have a solution to fix these problems, but I do believe there are two issues here worth serious discussion: the way we are raised to deal with physical contact, and bullying.
I’ll start this off by stating that I’m not a serial hugger. In fact, I found physical contact so awkward during my teenage years that I would consciously try to avoid hugging my friends (family was ok). I was always secretly envious of the girls at school who would carelessly hug and touch each other without it being construed as something sexual. There was an innocent intimacy about it that I could never emulate, being hyper self-conscious of touching anyone in any way, lest it be misinterpreted. Yet I craved it, because like billions of other human beings, I desired meaningful, non-sexual physical contact without being judged.
I don’t think I’m alone in having experienced uncertainty about physical contact. I believe our attitude towards it is determined in part by the way we are raised and also the way we interpret the values endorsed by media. Many families, despite being deeply loving and caring, are not physically demonstrative towards each other beyond hello and goodbye hugs or kisses. As kids become savvier at an earlier age and are exposed to things which previous generations didn’t learn about until near adult-hood, society as a whole increasingly seems to be laced with overtones of sex. Media outlets are sustained by stories of sex and violence, reinforcing over and over again their agenda of fear-mongering, and strengthening the perception that our society is more perverted and dangerous than it actually is.
Nowadays, men fear going near children to hug or kiss or play with them, because society has made them out to be paedophiles. In western societies, contact between two girls or two boys is readily labelled as gay, albeit often in a joking way. One of my best friends, who happens to be straight and Indian, described to me his amusement one day when an Australian friend told him it wasn’t ok to walk arm in arm down the street with his male cousin. My friend was puzzled, saying that it was his cousin who he loved dearly, and what could be more natural? The Aussie friend was emphatic. Male-male affection: not ok.
Like most teenagers, I lacked the interest and ability to critically interpret the information given to me by mainstream media, and therefore when there was the chance of physical contact with anyone I wasn’t related to, my brain was quick to provide me with the appropriate media-endorsed references: Gay. Pervert. Interested. Feeler. Lesbian. Crush. Dirty. Suspect. The list goes on….and on, and on. I’m sure you could add to it.
When did we lose the ability to experience touch in a non-sexual and non-violent light? This is something I believe there needs to be more education around, particularly for kids. Touch, within safe and respectful boundaries, can be healing, therapeutic, nurturing, empowering, comforting, sustaining, playful, enjoyable and fun. There are branches of medicine founded on the healing capacity of touch. As babies and children we are raised on loving touch, and then BAM! It’s gone, and we are suddenly told it’s not ok and made to feel ashamed of our desires. Banning hugging (the harmless, fun kind) in schools is just one more voice saying that physical contact is not ok and somehow unsafe.
And they’re teenagers for crying out loud. They’re going to want to hug. A lot. Educate them instead of repressing and punishing them. Teach them about respect, responsibility and the positive aspects of physical contact. Surely if we’ve learnt anything from things like the gay rights movement, it is that repressing human nature is a terrible, destructive idea. Educate to promote the behaviour you want; don’t punish the symptom of misbehaviour.
The second point to discuss here is bullying. Bullying exists. It happens in every facet of society, amongst rich and poor, black and white, old and young. That is unfortunate fact. The way bullies manifest their cowardly trade, however, is changeable. The tactic, in this case hugging, is only the outer symptom of the core problem, not the problem itself.
Modes of bullying are like fashion. They come and go in popularity. Like jeans, the little black dress or the tuxedo, some forms of bullying, such as name calling, gossip, violence and manipulation, will always be in vogue. Other forms of bullying, such as malicious hugging, the electric-buzzer hand-shake and lighting a bag of shit on someone’s front porch then ringing the bell and running away, are transient. They can be thrown in the bargain bin along with pedal pushers, rah-rah skirts and men’s denim cut-offs.
The undeniable point is: bullying will always exist, and will always be rampant in schools. There needs to be more education around it, more discussion and transparency, less tolerance and fewer band-aid solutions. Students will find new ways to bully once hugging has been banned, and before we know it, schools will be mini nanny states where self-expression is prohibited and kids will simply adapt their bullying tactics and find new and innovative ways to rebel and undermine the system.
It would be nice to hear about schools encouraging discussion around physical contact, sexual identity and bullying, instead of throwing a big hairy blanket over these issues. In my experience, kids want to learn and talk about these issues. It’s adults that have the problem with it. Enlightenment can only come through education, and if our education institutions refuse to do this, we’re not giving kids the chance to grow into informed, intelligent and responsible adults.
Give them a chance. I promise you they’re more open-minded than you think.
This is a link to a website aimed at youths around 14-24. Amongst other things, it discusses how life and relationships would be different they taught conscious sex education in high school instead of just the mechanics: http://www.sexandconsciousness.com.au/youth-program/