Using Massage to Teach Safe Touch

By Hannah Rivenburgh


Minnesota has a strong history as well as a revived focus on the prevention of child sexual abuse and exploitation as foundational to the prevention of sexual violence throughout the lifespan.  The history in Minnesota and nationally has included the concept as well as the tool of the Touch Continuum.  The Touch Continuum provides opportunities for dialogue with all ages about:


  • the lack of touch on both the positive end of the continuum (setting limits and boundaries) and negative end (neglect of the positive that leads to somatosensory deprivation)
  • healing and positive powers of touch,
  • what to do when touch is confusing
  • abusive, exploitive and violent use of touch


In addition to supporting the efforts for encouraging environments that support positive touch, prevention advocates have worked against “No Touch Policies”.  Our history is based on trying to promote the positive (e.g, touch, sexuality) while preventing the harmful.  Our guest blogger Hannah Rivenburgh provides further examples of ways to teach positive, helpful touch and remind us of its importance in our prevention work:



A friend of mine was recently witness to the power of young people to create their own experiment in negotiating positive touch. What resulted were countless beautiful, difficult acts of communication and teamwork, all in the service of strengthening healthy relationships and practicing safe, consensual touch.


The group of young people, from all over Ireland, gathered for a retreat at Boghill Centre in Kilfenora, County.  They convened a discussion about teen-specific issues, and then quickly branched out to healthy relationships and sexuality. They talked about the pressure to use harsh language and the limited models that mass media were offering, and about the lack of positive language to describe physical contact.


Then someone joked, “Let’s give massages to each other.”


The group took up that challenge.


They began by asking, “how can we experience some sort of touch that is safe, and develop ways to talk about it?”


Here are the ground rules they established:

  1. Pair up with a person you feel comfortable with. Take turns massaging your partner’s forearm. Practice setting conditions. Let your partner know if you want something different, if a certain touch doesn’t feel good. Let them know if it does feel good. Ask and answer questions.
  2. The group will be randomly paired up. Boy/boy or girl/girl pairs and two participants who don’t get along are valued. Work on communication.
  3. Debrief. What was your experience? If it was positive, did you have ways of expressing that? If it was negative? How did it feel to say those things? Why was it hard? If a touch felt neither bad nor good, how did you communicate so that the experience became better? What did it feel like to give a massage?


The youth had budgeted 30 minutes for discussion before dinnertime. My friend, working in the kitchen, kept dinner warm for over two hours as the youth talked about their experiences. Most identified with the difficulty of speaking for themselves; some found it daunting to try to translate what their partner was asking for into how they moved their hands; many saw parallels in their own relationships.


In the words of my friend—Kristin Johnstad of the Search Institute ( —this exercise “allowed young people to experience and try out language as a way to be able to set limits, to feel good about your body, and to express desires.” When youth can practice the language of limits in a safe situation that their peers are also navigating, they build confidence about their boundaries and bodies and a skillset that will serve them in future relationships.


This youth group in Ireland is not the only one using massage to teach each other safe, positive, nurturing touch. The Massage in Schools Programme (, of Sweden, Canada, and the UK, “is an effective tool for improving child mental health and has had positive benefits for the children participating, such as improved concentration and increased confidence. Children are empowered to make choices and they develop respect for the needs and feelings of others.” Built for children ages 4-12, the program is designed so that students experience good touch. Through exercises such as drawing the alphabet on a partner’s back—done only with permission of both children, and with a “thank you” exchanged at the end—students learn to relate to their peers and find joy in nonviolent communication.


Many schools in the United States have decided on an opposite track: “No touching—ever.” “Keep your hands to yourself.”  As a result, children are not provided an opportunity to learn how to ask for, and receive safely, physical contact. What if every child received positive and nurturing touch, every day? As one child is quoted on the MIS website, “Massage makes me happy and I have loads more friends.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: