It was at Sunday School that someone told me either Adam or Eve (I don’t remember which) invented Original Sin, which I eventually understood to mean anything involving two bodies getting within touching distance of one another; especially if a certain kind of touching was involved. Superficially, I took in old, cracked oil paintings of unclothed Eve chastely holding hands with unclothed Adam, or of the chilly pair an olive tree’s width apart, their dignity preserved by gravity-defying fig leaves. I didn’t really absorb the lessons of those early days, so I did not question them – only later, when things were beginning to happen to my own body, did I pause to wonder why my school lessons in Religious Instruction slipped deftly past the ‘virgin birth’ – ‘Jesus Bar Joseph’? – and wonder why an elderly Jewish carpenter would give his only son a Greek name? Original Sin. Ah, yes, of course!
I came late to my sex education, partly because I was shy as a child and did not share in some of my less inhibited friends’ experiments, and partly because my angelic pipes were insufficiently tuneful to place me in the church choir, so I never got to wear one of those convenient cassocks wherewith Father Flannigan demonstrated his personal immunity to Sin. Weekday school playground was rich in anecdotes of choristers, both boys and girls, who learned to hit the especially high notes with the good Father’s able help, while those with artistic flair illustrated his endeavours on the school toilet walls. I had to make do with hearsay.
This is not to suggest I missed out on that essential ingredient of childhood in any way. I had my share of experiences with ‘kiddy fiddlers’, from the sad, bent little man in the public toilets to the frustrated, lonely mother of one of my friends in my teenage years. I will not elaborate too much, other than to say I was exposed to minor encounters in which neither birds nor bees played any poetic part, long before I became ‘of age’; and I gained from those experiences, rather than anything I was taught in a classroom.
In more adult years I would all too briefly brush with actors and actresses, an altogether more sensitized and tactile world of shared art and shared misfortune. There is a phrase from the conclusion of Arthur Wing Pinero’s play ‘Trelawney of the Wells’ when Rose Trelawney realizes that, as an actor, her lifestyle sets her apart: she describes her Company as “Splendid gipsies.” Despite the play’s undeniable vintage, that description remains steadfastly true. Joining a community of artists, as I was privileged to do, is gaining membership of a society with limitless generosity and untrammelled freedom of expression. It also possesses an extremely healthy Bush Telegraph impregnated with a wealth of tales. You could not pass a single beer-sodden Green Room evening without learning who was ‘a bit strange’ and who was not; whom to love, whom to indulge for their eccentricities, and whom to avoid. The director who was ‘a bit affectionate, but an absolute darling to work with’, or the famous and immensely talented female singer with a very aggressive sexuality: ‘don’t get caught backstage with her, sweetie’. (A warning to other females, not males, BTW).
There were no victims in those Green Room discussions. A fairly balanced distribution of ages and members of both sexes, yes, and true, there was always alcohol and usually an element of fatigue, but if you were seeking an ingénue, you were in the wrong place. All were professionals, and I would say all knew exactly how far they would be prepared to go to secure a prestigious role. I recall particularly an aspiring actress’s assessment of a director with whom she was due to audition: “Darling, the job’s absolutely mine. I can play him like a fish!” (which proved to be right).
For myself, I emerged from those days with a palette rich in colour and a wealth of education about human diversity and resilience. Experience, that which the academically imbued choose to rather patronizingly label ‘The School of Life’, taught me tolerance of others, their personal tragedies, their insecurities, often, and their perpetual alone-ness. I learned to be at home with their differences, and where there were lines, personal lines, I needed to draw. My real qualifications for life were gained in that Green Room, or from Father Flannigan’s choir practice, in that bar, or on that street.
I guess my education was no different from those of others, so I wonder at the apparent epidemic of outraged innocence that pervades everything media at this time concerning ‘inappropriate touching’ or minor assault. We do not arrive at the essential signposts in our lives without having first learned how to read a map. So ‘the rules have changed’. No. ‘Rules’, if we insist upon calling them such, must at least be written down; otherwise they are not rules, they are fashion. Similarly, offences, if they are to be called such, must be proven. Otherwise they are hearsay, otherwise they are gossip, otherwise they are anger, or envy, or greed. If someone’s entire life is to be ruined, their career ended, their achievements set at nought, the very least requirement should be proof. It should not depend upon an etiquette of constantly-evolving signals that are too easily misunderstood.
The truth? Most of us, male or female, are touched inappropriately, spoken to suggestively, or affronted clumsily in some way, several times in our lives. That does not make us victims. That does not make us lose sleep at nights, throw ourselves into lives of addiction or quake every time a member of the opposite sex comes near us. If it does, that says more about our own mental stability than anything else and yes, there will be the odd few to whom this will happen. But most us could – should – simply smile, write it down to experience, and move on.
I used to be an advocate of the world-wide-web. I gladly espoused its freedoms, joyfully joined in its crusades against corruption and falsehood. I still do, but my mind is beginning to change. I see how the distribution of power is beginning to be reversed; how easily those in positions of responsibility can become prey. In the absence of a moral code, this medium, and its instigator, the gutter press, must exercise restraint or be restrained. If moral democracy cannot survive, moral dictatorship will take its place.
The corollary to this is, of course, to say that there are a number of genuine cases of assault which are serious in nature, proven and should face a court of law, especially where the offence involves a child. Whether names should be released before a trial is another issue, but there is a danger that these cases can suffer if a welter of copycat accusations follow each one.
Now, I will conclude with a slightly sideways shift – I ask you to please consider this.
A few years ago the town of Middlesbrough, here in England, was visited by a doctor claiming to have evolved an entirely new way (known as the ‘anal dilation method’ – need I elaborate?) for proving child abuse. Within a couple of weeks, during which children under scrutiny were hauled about like chickens, two hundred – yes, two hundred – children were adjudged to have been subjected to severe abuse. Two hundred parents (mostly fathers) were placed under investigation, public hysteria spread and court lists began mounting up, before somebody had the presence of mind to stand back and question this sudden epidemic. The cases were reviewed and the doctor concerned was ‘moved away’ to a practice where she was not directly involved with children’s backsides.
Shortly afterwards, social services in Scotland tried to prove that an entire Scottish island was a nest of paedophiles. This was unfounded, too, but not before the island’s people were exposed to the attentions of the media pack.
It does seem to me that quite intelligent people can be subject to zeitgeist in such a way that they lose all sense of proportion; maybe in a hunt for publicity, or reward? I don’t know. But that might be food for educators who are ever more intent upon narrowing and focusing the business of learning. Maybe the fetters of specialisation are not a good thing. Maybe we should distance ourselves from rampant progress and just take our time.