This week, reports that the Tennessee State Senate had voted to ban handholding in schools swept the internet, provoking disbelief and outrage amongst readers. The disbelief was warranted, to some degree—early comments were overblown, making it seem as though the body had moved to block the activity itself. While this isn’t true, the reality is equally depressing and significant. In this post, we’ll clarify the situation, and offer insight on the public response.

The legislation in question is Tennessee Senate Bill 3310, which renders it legally actionable for teachers to demonstrate what it calls “gateway sexual activities” to students during (the state’s abstinence-only) sex education, or recommend them as alternatives to sexual intercourse. The bill, then, was presumably intended to prevent teachers from suggesting the use of oral sex or mutual masturbation to replace sex. But it defined gateway sexual activities very broadly and vaguely, such that, depending upon interpretation, they could refer to almost any non-sexual social contact.

The huge response to the bill seems to have followed an article on local news website wmctv.com, titled “Bill would define holding hands, kissing as ‘gateway sexual activity’”, an overstatement of the actual situation. Daily Kos picked up on the story with a similar title, “Tennessee senate warns ‘hand-holding is a gateway sexual activity’”, after which a number of other news outlets followed suit in similar or even more misleading terms. It was generally represented as a targeted attack on handholding itself.

While this isn’t true, it is within the realm of legal possibility, and the bill does present a couple of interesting sexual and physical contact issues. First, as Planned Parenthood has pointed out, even when conservatively interpreted, the bill seems ill-advised. The state’s sexual education program is already based upon strict abstinence policies, but Tennessee has a higher than average rate of sexually active middle school and high school students. Trying to go further in this direction seems unlikely to improve matters. But, that’s not within our area of specialization.

Second, the overwhelmingly angry response to the perceived threat to handholding underscores just how strongly people feel about non-sexual social contact. A commenter on ThinkProgress’ coverage wrote, “So if I help a child cross the street — and hold the child’s hand — that makes me a potential pedophile? Maybe Tennessee is simply proving that we are not all evolving. Some are actively devolving — back to the slime from whence they come.” A post from a blogger going by Sherrie Questioning All is on the first page of Google returns for “tennessee handholding” and consists of a similarly-inspired rant, arguing for her beliefs in non-sexual social contact.

The reaction to this vote demonstrates, more than anything else, that people take our social contact very seriously. We have strongly negative feelings about the suggestion that touch need have sexual overtones or connotations. People already know that touch is an important part of all relationships, romantic or no—but sometimes society’s rules and perceptions are slow to catch up. (As a sidenote, I would argue that the reaction demonstrates our present lack of faith in government to a nearly equal degree: we expected so little of it that a bill banning handholding seemed entirely plausible. That realization is a sad one, but absent people’s strong emotional reaction to an anti-handholding agenda, the response would likely have been considerably weaker.)

In any event, we feel the response has offered strong evidence of the importance of our mission to advocate for an increase in polite, responsible social touch. And we’ll use it as motivation for taking our actions to the next level. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts, please let us know in the comments below!