Monday, March 9, 2009

To Touch or Not To Touch

"I don't want your body touching my body on my side of the bed." So begins a very funny dialog between Bill Cosby and his brother eloquently described in the comedy album titled, "To Russell, my brother whom I slept with." Our society is very concerned with self esteem, respect, and personal space. This has led to an international dialog on the subject of inappropriate touching. A quick Google search on the topic yields over 1.3 million references to the topic. When I was a kid the concept of inappropriate touching had more to do with museums, my dad's tools, and the stove at dinner time than another person.

I don't want to minimize the very real topic of harassment, molestation, or even more subtle forms of unwelcome bodily contact; but I do think people can take any issue to an extreme. Some people just don't know when to stop, and use as their justification that the (very real) victims of inappropriate touching don't find any humor in the subject. OK, I'll try to tread lightly. I... said... I'd try.

Oh paleeeze. You signed up for a Martial Arts class knowing there would be contact, grappling, wrist-, arm-, waist-, and throat-locks with other students (by definition - unskilled practitioners) and NOW you want to 'discuss' inappropriate touching? "Mr. So-and-so touched me in a way I was uncomfortable." Really, did you block it? Did you extricate yourself? Did you say "Don't do that again please, or I'll have you left eye ball?" This is not a paint-by-numbers class. What did you honestly think when you signed up - that you would learn how to defend yourself - theoretically? Buy a book and have at it. Let me know how that goes. "Um, yes, I'm a third degree black belt in WikiJudo - I've read all about it, so watch out. I may edit something right in front of you!"

A very good friend of mine (maybe I'm biased), also a martial arts teacher (of another style), was helping a child with her Middle Punch. She was punching too high. So he put one hand on her shoulder to steady her, and with the other hand pushed her punching wrist lower until it was the right height. As he released his hand, she immediately raised her punching arm back to where it was. This is not at all unusual, students frequently need to be shown multiple times before it hits them what signals and muscles to send and control. So he repeated the lesson, with verbal instruction several times. Eventually she corrected the technique. After the class, the child's mommy went to the head instructor to report inappropriate touching on the part of the teacher. Really?

Now picture this for just a moment. You are watching your child being 'instructed' and you perceive that inappropriate touching is going on. Exactly how many killer rottweilers, Navy Seals, and electric fences would it take to keep you from bounding across the room to stop the assault? In this case the mom failed the child either by not stopping a real event as it occurred, or by creating in the child's mind a hypersensitivity to acceptable contact.

As an instructor, I am forever touching my students. Or maybe, more correctly, I should say grabbing, hitting, kicking, throwing, dragging, twisting, poking, and/or assaulting them. In public. To be fair, there is never any doubt that my contact is somewhat gruff. I usually have a smile on my face and use pleasant words like, "Brian, tighten up that fist." With my open palm I'll strike the young man's loose fist several times to emphasize the point that his fist is so relaxed that it is going to cause him pain if he hits anything with it. If someone's knee is supposed to be bent, Ill kick (more like a rough push) the back of it to get it into the right position.

Touching is an integral part of martial arts training. There should be no attempt to soften it up, to make it politically correct. If you just want exercise, go to a gym. If you want to learn how to defend yourself in a parking lot, in a bar, on the playground, or anywhere that bad people may want to hurt you - then you are going to have to practice self defense, which will necessarily include touching and being touched. Roughly. If you have signed your child up to a martial arts class, or a soccer team, or little league, or cheer-leading; and you think you see inappropriate behavior going on, call the assailant on it right then and there. This is no time for 'proper decorum.' Proper decorum? in the middle of an assault? Here is a test, if you're not sure - then it isn't inappropriate. If you are sure, why wait?

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