Paying Lip Service to Sexual Equality
By Emily Maguire
Sydney Morning Herald [United Kingdom]
July 18, 2006
An English vicar was forced to resign from his position as a school governor last week after kissing a primary school pupil on the cheek. The Reverend Alan Barrett, vicar of Tamworth, kissed the 10-year-old girl in front of other staff and pupils as he presented her with a maths certificate.
The police, social services and the diocese all conducted investigations into claims by the girl's mother that the kiss constituted assault, and although the police and social services found that Barrett had no case to answer, the church saw things differently.
A spokesman for the diocese said the church investigation found that "Mr Barrett had acted inappropriately". This was "not a finding of guilt or negligence, but recognition that in today's climate, previously acceptable innocent behaviour is now subject to misunderstanding and suspicion".
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was embroiled in a similar controversy last week after he greeted a five-year-old boy by lifting his shirt and kissing him on the stomach. "There is nothing behind it," Putin said in response to media and public speculation about his motives. Putin said he simply "wanted to cuddle him like a kitten and it came out in this gesture".
His action was certainly eccentric, but, as with the Barrett case, it is hard to understand how this kiss could be considered an act of abuse. Vigilance in protecting children from sexual predators is one thing, but there is something seriously wrong with a society that sees sex in every physical contact between an adult and child.
Yet acts of public kissing far more offensive than those of Barrett and Putin are committed daily by decent, well-meaning people everywhere. While Putin's kiss was given out of genuine feeling and the vicar's to a person he knew (he had earlier helped the girl with her school work), the same cannot be said for the increasingly popular "social kiss", which is usually given to a near-stranger for no other reason than she is female.
Clearly, a kiss on the cheek is not cause for a criminal investigation or forced resignation; such a reaction would be ludicrous. But although such behaviour does not constitute sexual assault, it often indicates sexual double standards.
Last November, Queensland's Police Commissioner, Bob Atkinson, was accused of sexual harassment after kissing a woman on the cheek at a police function. The Premier, Peter Beattie, described the complaint as "silly" and the Crime and Misconduct Commission agreed, finding "no suspicion of misconduct" by Atkinson.
The commission's finding was fair enough, but other comments by Beattie indicate why social kissing is often not. Defending Atkinson's behaviour, the Premier said that at a recent function he (Beattie) "must have kissed or been kissed by 10 or 15 women".
Try replacing the word "women" with "men" or even "people" and you'll get a clue as to the problem here.
At award ceremonies and on game shows, male winners and presenters kiss female winners and presenters, while other men receive a handshake or a pat on the back.
The same pattern of kissing occurs at social functions everywhere: women greet each other with a kiss; men greet women with a kiss; men greet each other with a firm handshake or manly nod.
The male-to-female cheek kiss is even gaining popularity in the world of business, according to The New York Times. Imagine the boardroom version of the dinner party kissing conga line: each woman forced to meekly offer her cheek to each man while the men greet each other eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand, as equals.
If we are, as it seems, becoming a society of social kissers, we need to think about what such kisses really mean. The social kiss is supposed to be without sexual intent or meaning, yet most heterosexual Anglo blokes would be loath to kiss another man in this way.
If social kissing is really about expressing friendship rather than desire, why not adopt the Latin habit of greeting people of any age or gender with a kiss or two on each cheek?
For that matter, if kissing is about expressing affection, how can a kiss from someone you have just met be anything but insincere? The meaninglessness of kissing is particularly apparent in high society and some parts of the arts world, where air-kissing accompanied by a loud "mwah" is the expected greeting between strangers, friends and enemies.
The gender-specific, illogical nature of social kissing creates real confusion about what such a kiss means. It is in the context of this confusion that well-meant pecks are seen as sinister or "inappropriate".
Emily Maguire is a freelance writer and author of Taming the Beast.
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