The power of a touch

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a
listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all
of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo F. Buscaglia

Touching is out of fashion. It is seen as predatory. No-one seems to know what is acceptable so there is a blanket ban.

And I understand. I’ve had lots of times when men (especially older men) have felt it’s OK to kiss or touch me and it has felt creepy.

Friends of mine who are in the last phase of becoming foster parents have been told that they should not cuddle any child in their care in bed. And we can see why the rule has come about. But it means they have decided they can’t cuddle their own children in bed because they don’t want to make anyone feel left out. The weekend ritual of hugs in mum and dad’s bed is abandoned.

Teachers and carers are also scared to touch.

Can’t we redeem tender touch as a wonderfully positive experience? There is a big difference between inappropriate touching and touching that is caring and comforting. And by rejecting the latter because of some destructive actions, we are missing out.

Sometimes touch ‘speaks’ human kindness more than any words. Tender touch creates emotional empathy and closeness. Studies show that those who are physically touched on a regular basis experience higher levels of the hormone oxytocin. According to the National Institutes of Health, oxytocin lowers stress hormone levels and, by doing so, plays a part in lowering blood pressure, maintaining good moods and increasing pain tolerances. Maybe doctors should prescribe hugs instead of pills.

Old people suffer from touch deprivation. They may be ‘handled’ by carers – prodded, propped and wiped – but touches of affection are rare. Hugs, holding hands and back rubs have the potential to ease their minds and make them feel less isolated.

Disabled people need touch. They may not be confident about expressing affection with words and we may feel awkward, but stroking, hand-holding, dancing can all decrease stress and increase our physical health too.

Children, especially hurting, vulnerable or angry children need touch. It is such an obvious point – baby massages, tickles, strokes, cuddles all mean love.

Researchers in Sweden have identified c-tactile (CT) afferents which apparently register more than just the physical / sensory aspect of touch – they register the emotion as well. Our forearms and back are especially sensitive to CT and they are 2 places where it is natural to give a caring caress. It seems God made us for intimacy on all levels.

Sometimes touch is a little flirtatious and that can be OK too. If it’s healthy and mutual it can be fun. If the person receiving the attention thinks it’s unwanted or is uncomfortable then the behaviour should stop, but it does not necessarily mean that it is predatory behaviour.

Does that make me sound somehow accepting of harassment? No. But I hope we can all use common sense when we decide what is good or evil.

I need touch and here are some of my favourite touching moments:

* a little child’s hand nestles into mine when we cross the road or he is balancing along a wall

* my grown children give me a generous long hug

* my husband gently kisses the back of my neck

* family ‘group hugs’ (it’s a line from Aladdin)

* the sensuous relaxation of a head massage when I have my hair cut

* holding my mum’s elbow to give a little bit of extra support tells her she is loved

* kissing away children’s tears, tasting the saltiness and feeling the heaving heart grow quiet.

They are all touch moments that make me smile and let me know I am connected to the people in my world.

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So this Christmas caress, stroke, dance, hold hands, wrestle and enjoy an oxytocin moment!

Happy Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crime or culture

The stories pouring out about sexual exploitation and inappropriate behaviour among politicians in the UK, Hollywood directors and in the ordinary experience of women leaves lots of us stunned but not surprised.

The UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned a week ago, admitting his behaviour had “fallen short” of the standards expected of him. At least forty other MPs are suspected of (unnamed) offences. And then across the Atlantic there is the sleaze of young actresses touched, insulted or assaulted by older men with the power to give or withhold a big break.

So little changes. Power leads to a warped sense of entitlement and wrong sexual behaviour towards women, girls and boys.

Some of it is crude and pathetic – a hangover of some 1970s sexist stand-up comedy routine. It used to be excused – ‘boys will be boys’, ‘can’t you take a joke?’, ‘she’s frigid’.

But the #metoo deluge of stories show how commonplace it is for women to be demeaned, patronised and propositioned.

I must admit that I am reluctant to bring up these issues too often because some people roll their eyes – feminists making a fuss again.

And maybe that’s because the instances of tawdry stupidity have been rolled in with much more serious abuse and it leaves some good people feeling confused. Media treatment favours shock exposé over facts and that does not help either.

But if our hearts feel wearied by daily revelations of immoral or criminal sexism, we still need to talk about the need for change. Statistics about the abuse of women and girls have never seemed so plausible – the stories keep coming because the abuse is around us at work, at college, at home and in the church.

Will the media outrage just fade away until the next crisis? Like the furore that surrounded Donald Trump’s boast a year about grabbing “pussy”?

Inevitably, Weinstein’s villainy will become old news, but we must learn some ways of making our girls safer and stronger.

Criminal activity cannot be ignored by the police or bosses. Victims stay silent because they know their stories will be ignored or their veracity brought into question. We need to protect and affirm people who are brave enough to speak up.

Organisations need to have clear guidelines about conduct – not so that a bit of lewd joking becomes criminal but so that it’s clear that such behaviour cannot always be patiently smiled away.

Parents need to keep talking to their sons and daughters about healthy respect for each other and talk about the risks of a Tinder view of life  – which reduces relationships to a pick up line.

We need some sensitivity – we cannot on the left hand use moral anger to blame all men, or on the right hand, tell women they just need to toughen up.

And maybe we need to mention the M word – morality. Behaviour that exploits or demeans is unacceptable. Not because we live in 2017 and are better people that our grandparents who laughed at Benny Hill (we are clearly not!), but because exploitation breaks healthy and the honest relationships between men and women that God intends.

 

 

 

 

Archibald musings

Last time I was in Sydney, the Archibald Portrait Prize exhibition was on. It’s a hugely popular show because of the celebrity subjects as much as the art itself. The critics choose a prize but so do the workers in the packing room and the general public also choose their favourite.

Two paintings of women won prizes this year: the packers chose a portrait of a well known female TV journalist as their favourite, and the critics also chose a painting of a woman.

What is about a portrait that continues to draw us even when selfies and Instagram snaps seem to replace the need for paint. The answer of course is that art is exploring more than outward show – it is looking inside and captures a person’s heart, maybe in a way that does not flatter! And probably in a way that surprises the sitter. One young painter described it in her notes as,  ‘Painting enables me to [explore] the external, diffused intimately through my internal self, into paint.’

I was struck this year by the number of women artists (just shy of 50%) as well as subjects. Some of their works were small, easy to miss, intimate self portraits trying to capture the internal self in the outward appearance.

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There was a painting of a woman 102 years old that struck me. Andrew Lloyd Greensmith’s portrait of Eileen Kramer was beautiful. The artist says of his subject, ‘Eileen embodies beauty as that intangible thing which cannot be fixed on the surface nor defeated by the wear and tear of age.’

I was glad to be reminded in all these portraits that beauty is not confined to youthful stereotypes and the unobtrusive work sings just as much as the bold.

 

 

Away from the buzz of the Archibald in the peace of the main galleries was a Grace Cossington-Smith self-portrait. She looks unassuming – spinsterish is probably how she might have been described in the 30s when she was painting. She was indeed single and stayed living at the family home all her life, free to paint because her father believed in her talent.

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Cossington-Smith was in fact fiercely ambitious as well as talented and had the good fortune to be painting between the wars when women were given space to shine. She captured suburban scenes outside her bedroom window and grand spaces like the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She is recognised now as a leading Australian artist who pioneered modernism but during her lifetime was largely unrecognised.

 

 

 

Other women saw their talent subsumed by their lovers or were allowed to be muses – inspiring talent in men – rather than showing off their own gifts. Alongside the Cossington-Smith self-portrait is one by Stella Bowen, partner of Ford Maddox Ford. Her work bought inconsistent success, overshadowed perhaps by the crowd of famous people in her circle.

Only eight women have won the Archibald Prize in its 96-year history.

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A collective of women artists in the US, called Guerilla Girls, caustically comment on this inequality in their work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. The ‘advantages’ include working without the pressure of success and having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs. Ouch!

Are things changing? I am hopeful that as in all fields of endeavour, women are no longer just the muse, or the assistant to genius, but the creators, the recognised experts and the prize winners.

 

 

And of course, that is as it should be – God’s creativity knows no bounds of gender.

 

 

 

Miss-reading the Bible

We sometimes think that Christians are better than the general population – we don’t swear, watch porn, abuse our loved ones or have affairs.

Sadly the data and research shows that people who identify as Christians are just as likely to indulge in all those things[1].

Behind closed doors, there is abuse. And unfortunately, some Christian teaching about submission and the headship of men in marriage, is interpreted to give permission for abuse.

I have heard from women in the church who accept that it’s OK for a man to hit his wife ‘a little’. I have heard a number of preachers hint that a wife is not being submissive enough if her husband is violent or has affairs.

I have seen wives encouraged to be forgiving of their husband’s affairs to save the marriage. And I have heard of women being counselled to stay with violent or drunken husbands so they can pray and ‘love’ their men into better behaviour

Behind these views are a couple of disturbing thoughts:

  1. that the Bible is used to endorse the dominance of men in marriage (maybe because it is mainly men who teach in churches)
  2. that Christian leaders are not very good at dealing honestly with abuse (maybe because it men who generally lead churches).

Studies show that gender inequality contributes to an environment where men seek to control women, and that can lead to abuse.

So how could some Christian teaching contribute to abuse? There are 2 aspects here – marriage relationships and women as leaders and teachers in the church – but the scriptures get conflated into a general argument about equality.

There is a strand of Christian teaching about marriage (endorsed by a number of respected evangelical leaders) that emphasises the submission of wives and the headship of husbands. This is often linked to rules that say women cannot teach or lead in church.

These are indeed words from the Bible, but we all should know we should test ideas by comparing them to other verses and the teaching of the whole Bible. And we should acknowledge the culture in which Paul was writing. That makes complete sense and does not denigrate the power and authority of God’s Word.

In fact, in all sorts of other verses we see cultural context. Otherwise we would still call for women to wear head coverings, we would follow Paul’s advice and remain single, we would all speak in tongues and we would share all our possessions in radical community. Funny how we see SOME verses as having eternal truth and others, not so much.

I don’t have space to deal with the key verses used to justify male authority in marriage and female subservience. But there are many places you can go to catch the main arguments cogently explained.

For starters, we can look at Jesus’ radical attitudes of acceptance towards women and the role of women as leaders and prophets and in the early church.

Watch:

VIDEO: Pastor and theologian Steve Latham discusses key verses in Paul’s letters

VIDEO: Julia Baird and Anglican priest Michael Jensen discuss domestic violence and the Church.(ABC News)

VIDEO: Various Christian pastors discuss submission

Please read:

blogger Marg Mowczko who writes intelligently and knowledgably about the theology of Christian egalitariansim

Lee Grady’s Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, which is a great book from an American pastor.[2]

The danger is that if men and women are taught, or somehow assimilate, ideas that male leadership is God’s truth – that women cannot be elders or pastors – it does not take much of a step to see men as superior in all relationships with women.

And one or two more steps along that path allows us to see women as subservient and not equipped to lead. Women (ie mums) are praised for many wonderful skills in homemaking and motherhood and are encouraged to complement their husbands, but they do not have a claim to equality when it comes to making decisions, to guiding others or leading men.

Everyday mainstream churches stress ‘happy’ marriages at the expense of caring for single mums, widows, divorcees and families at risk. It’s also worrying that single women seem to have no place in such a worldview.

Another result of seeing women as weaker, is that men blame girls and women for being sexually provocative, for causing men to stumble. In other words, women get blamed if they speak up and blamed if they simply stand next to a man!

Churches should be safe, loving and truthful places for everyone but in too many church traditions, women are still counselled to stay with an abusive husband to see if their submission can win their husband around.

Nicky Lock[3], an Anglican counsellor and academic from Charles Sturt University in Australia has seen the results of ‘mis-teaching’ in her work on domestic violence cases over the last 25 years.

She told the ABC that the use of headship theology is commonly used to justify abuse.

“Anecdotally, teaching of headship has been seen to be contributing to the problem of domestic violence, both in encouraging abusive male partners, and preventing female partners from challenging abusive behaviours, or leaving an abusive relationship.”

So do men and women have different roles? I know a lot of women who are happy having a supportive and caring role in their family. Their role enables their husband to take on all sorts of other responsibilities at work, in the church. But that does not fit all women or all men. And the submission and sacrifice must be equal otherwise it is too easy to exploit the goodwill of women and to ignore their needs. If women are not encouraged to speak out at church, do they forget how to articulate their insights and longings? Do they lose confidence in their God-given giftings?

And what about most of the women I know, women with ideas, women with a life beyond the domestic who want to be recognised as leaders, teachers and inspirers. I am blessed to have a husband who enables and encourages me to be all that I can be in God (and I want to do the same for him).

So if you’re reading this, what can you do? What should we do to encourage healthy views of men and women’s in the church and in marriage?

Talk about the issues and their seriousness – in the church – don’t allow people to dismiss you as extreme or “a raving feminist”. Be respectful!

Know what the Bible really says about relationships between men and women. Don’t just accept ‘truths’ we have been taught in the past.

Use the videos I have made to get discussion started. They are short, easy to understand and have clear ideas. There are 8 different topics covered. They also have great questions to explore.

Find them all here

 

 

[1] BUT please note that abuse is worse among men on the edge of faith.

American research provides one important insight: men who attend church less often or who are the periphery of church are more likely to abuse their wives. Regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.

[2] Grady has been speaking about equality in many cultural contexts across the globe for over a generation. He also leads many conferences for men.

[3] Nicky is a friend of mine who has counselled on issues of heathy relationships with intelligence, balance and humour for many years. She is an expert who should be lauded by all of us, especially Christians.

When tolerance is not OK

In most democracies we proudly proclaim that we are tolerant societies – willing to see the other’s point of view, wanting to reach out to those who are different, not judging.

But tolerance can end up meaning that nothing is sinful – we never say, “this is wrong”.

I’m reminded of the dangers of tolerance by a small paragraph in a story about a champion cyclist, Thomas Dekker, who chose to take decisions that ended with him being branded a drugs cheat.

One of the early steps of dangerous tolerance was taken by his mum and dad who were told by Dekker’s team trainer that doping was necessary if their son, then aged 21, was to be a champion.

Dekker recounts that his mother pressed her lips tightly together but only said, “I hope this turns out OK.” She was willing to support her son’s choice if it meant he would win.

Four years later, Dekker was caught and suspended for two years. He returned to cycling but was never more than a decent professional rider.

Tolerance of illegal behaviour led to a ruined reputation. I wonder whether his mum and dad regret their acquiescence.

What else do we ‘tolerate’ in the cause of short-term or selfish gain?

Guided by nothing but opinion polls and pub philosophy, we fail to talk about morality and virtue, or to think of them at all. We laud our own brand of diversity, tolerance and non-judgementalism but fall into a trap of having no standard of timeless Truth.

Increasingly, in a media of half-truths and rushed, careless reporting, we tolerate what we agree with and hate everything else. We have a certain set of topics that immediately allow us to judge others while hypocritically seeing our own views as fair and open-minded.

I see this all the time around issues of gender equality. The conservatives see gender equality as laughable or extreme – feminists are man haters who push abortion rights and they pay homage to women as equal but different. Meanwhile the left see themselves as champions of equality and all about the rights of women to make their own decisions; those who disagree are dangerously out of touch.

Our ‘tolerance’ ironically only extends to those within our own tribe. I’m pretty sure Thomas Dekker’s parents would have hated the idea of cheating in sport as a general principle, but were willing to tolerate it in the case of their own son.

When we talk about gender, we are willing to tolerate huge inconsistencies. Those who support abortion on demand can never ‘tolerate’ the idea that abortion is not the ideal solution to unwanted pregnancy and that we could have a debate about the lie of sexual freedom and the need for man and women to take responsibility. And people who staunchly oppose abortion on demand can’t bear the idea that all sorts of girls have unwanted pregnancies and that we need a bigger discussion about sexual freedom and responsibility.

So I’m not sure I want to live in a society that misuses tolerance – I want to live in a society where we can debate ideas honestly and where we can accept difference but also be respected for holding firmly to beliefs about right and wrong.

I want to have zero tolerance for self-righteousness, for hatred and arrogance (from the left or the right). And I think the Bible is a good place to start to find those truths.

False Fears

False facts and half truths can make us unreasonably fearful. They make us suspicious and guilty. And women are specially prone to guilt.

Talking to a friend in her late 30s recently, I learnt about the pressure on 20 and 30-somethings to consider freezing their eggs. And then later that week I heard a radio program on the same issue. The guilt comes in because women hear the body clock ticking and egg freezing is being promoted as a simple, practical way to prolong the chance of having children. Inquiries about egg freezing at private fertility clinics in the UK surged by more than 400% between 2014 and 2015, mostly from women under 35.

Apparently,  Apple and Facebook now offer to pay for female employees to freeze their eggs as part of their benefits package. Perhaps their staff welcome such a benefit (maybe lobbied for it) but it also sounds like a corporate ploy to encourage young women (and men) to work hard and not think about taking time off for family.

There are three big provisos that make egg-freezing a rather false solution for singles. Number 1, nobody really knows whether egg freezing works. The ideal is that once a woman meets her man, age will be no barrier to pregnancy. The eggs are unfrozen and the woman goes through IVF to create a much wanted baby. But the older a woman is, the less likely it is that any IVF procedure will be successful. According to the NHS in the UK, around one-third of couples in which the woman is over 35 have fertility problems. This rises to two-thirds when the woman is over 40. Egg freezing is not an answer to issues surrounding pregnancy as we get older.

Even though we might feel entitled to it all, unfortunately, we cannot cheat our bodies and my friend is one of many single women who should not be made to feel guilt about being single. If parenthood happens, it will be wonderful but we should not be pressured into a procedure that is dubious at best, and which cannot guarantee peace of mind.

That brings us to proviso number 2. Women have to fork out big money for this procedure. It costs around £5000 to freeze eggs for 5 years and of course the companies that promote it downplay any doubts about the success rate of IVF years down the line.

Which brings me to proviso 3. We are simplifying and ‘medicalising’ much bigger social and ethical issues around being single, finding a life-long partner and delayed parenthood. There are big questions here that should involve discussion amongst men and women.

We should be discussing the changing shape of relationships in church rather than simply bemoaning the lack of eligible males. We should ask honestly, “Is any age too old to become a parent?” Sarah in the Bible (wife of Abraham) may have been 91 when she had Isaac but do we really think that having a baby when we are 50 or 60 is a good idea. We should also talk about women and men in the workforce, our careers and whether we need to actively encourage a more balanced vision of work and family.

The problem in discussing these big issues honestly, is that false fears and prejudices always end up screaming at women like a tabloid headline – blaming us, whatever happens – a woman is branded selfish if she delays having children and selfish if she does not want children and selfish if she has them too young. We can’t win.

We should not contribute to the constant guilt trips. Why don’t we make men feel guilty for their decision to delay commitment and parenthood?

To my female friends who are single and long for a partner and babies, I have to cling to the hope that God sees our desires and wants us to feel fulfilled. We trust that God will give us good things, just as he did for Hannah and Ruth.

Parenthood is wonderful (most of the time). But that does not mean a single life is second-best. Are women only hanging around in some metaphorical waiting room till they have babies?

Single women (and men) are not failing in some way. It seems to me that apart from a small number of women who will benefit from egg-freezing – maybe they face major surgery or chemotherapy – it is mostly a marketing ‘false fact’ designed to play on women’s  guilt.

Demeaning or just a bit of fun?

This week saw the UK begin the process to leave the EU. A big day with major implications for all of us in Europe. Amongst many potentially messy issues, Brexit could lead to another Scottish independence referendum.

So on Tuesday Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the leader in Scotland met to discuss the future.

TheLegs-it Daily Mail, the biggest selling paper in the country chose as its front cover a picture of the two women, seated, angled to show their legs. The headline hilariously noted, “Never Mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”

There was up-roar as a result. Lots of people who don’t like the Daily Mail were offended by its demeaning representation of two influential women. One politician tweeted, “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back. #everydaysexism”

Others[1] saw the absurdly unequal treatment of men and called for similar photos of male politicians (eek no, not Boris Johnson’s legs!)

Many women and men were offended because the photo and headline WERE sexist and though the full article was actually quite insightful about the two women, we should not have to put up with the repeated references to women’s shoes, legs, sexiness or dowdiness when their appearance has nothing to do with the person’s competence.

It happens way too often. Three weeks ago, Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer with a famous husband, was at the UN with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was a slave of IS and talks powerfully of her horrific experiences. She is incredibly brave to share her story.

But what did the media talk about? That Amal wore a wonderfully fetching yellow dress (Bottega Veneta, in case you want to know) and pulled off “an enviably flawless maternity style as she carries twins.” Some chastised her for wearing high heels when pregnant, however if she had worn sensible flats, she probably would she have faced other critics.

Nadia Murad, who does not wear designer clothes and is not married to a celebrity, was mostly ignored.

Do you see a pattern here? These women have been reduced in value to their outward appearance and even though every parent stresses to their daughter that looks are not important – ‘it’s character that counts, darling and you do not want to go out of the house dressed in a way that is only about looking sexy’ – that is all nonsense if the media continues to fetishise over Amal Clooney’s heels or Theresa May’s legs.

Sometimes the references to a woman’s fashion sense are actually fun and quite admiring, or at least harmless, but when intelligent capable women are judged purely on their looks, it is demeaning.  And if we make a fuss, we are accused of not being able to take a joke, or of being menopausal and a bit erratic.

Julia Baird is an insightful Australian journalist and broadcaster. Fascinated by the pressure on women in politics to be ‘likeable’, she has commented, “What we often fail to portray is the incredible complexity of women in powerful roles, and what we’re capable of. [This is] largely because we are so blinkered by expectations of female behaviour – of what a powerful woman or a feminist looks like.”

So I don’t think it’s good enough to dismiss the sexist headlines as a bit of fun or a light-hearted (can’t you take a joke) look at women of influence.

Such language is part of a bigger picture of discrimination that blinkers us to the rich variety of women in our world – women who wear high heels, women who wear trainers or women who have only enough money for a pair of plastic sandlas. To put us all in a box labelled, #looksareallthatmatter, is not much of a joke.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Like Carol Midgley, in The Times