Hands off, hands on

July 18, 1997

ALISON Utley's report on child abuse and Thomas Sambrook's book review on aggression (THES, July 11) make an interesting combination.

Many social workers seem to hold the view, which probably has religious origins, that sexual behaviour is primarily reproductive. In many primates, especially the bonobos mentioned in Sambrook's review, sexual or sexually derived behaviour is used as a signal of friendly intentions, between adults and young animals, of the same sex as well as adults of both sexes. In addition, most young primates play at sexual behaviour in the same way as they play at other adult behaviour and adult sexual behaviour makes use of affiliative signals from parent-offspring behaviour.

Primate "sexual" behaviour is therefore complex and ambiguous, and needs careful interpretation. Human behaviour is unlikely to be less complex.

This ambiguity means that adults can misrepresent sexual approaches to children as friendly. However, as Sambrook's review and your leader suggest, the cost of forbidding all behaviour which is ambiguous may be that children learn hostility because they are prevented from learning affection. As one example, despite DFEE Circular 10/95, many student teachers are not prepared to touch children at all. This is likely to create a cooler relationship with their classes and increase any difficulties in class management. Students report that some highly successful experienced teachers often use touch, but are not willing to risk copying them.

Sean Neill

Senior lecturer in ethology

Institute of Education

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