men, masculinities and gender politics

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When it comes to keeping children safe, cutting corners doesn’t cut it.

Want to ensure that your child never encounters a pedophile?
 

You can’t.

The terrible reality is that pedophiles live among us. They may be our neighbors. They may be our coworkers. Our fellow political activists. Members of our family. The people who coach or teach our kids. The ice cream man. The man who dresses up as a clown to entertain the little ones. The church youth minister. The priest. The lonely guy seated on the bench at the mall who stares at all the little kids just a little bit too long. The young neighbor who babysits your children. The guy who sits next to your kid on an airplane.

And until they get caught, we simply cannot tell who the pedophiles are.

And even after they do get caught, many pedophiles will never be punished.

And even if they are punished, many will still never stop trying to abuse children.

This is the reality that we live with.

So how do we keep our kids safe?

Virgin Australia Airlines has a policy that they claim is aimed at doing just that: keeping kids safe. And while in theory this should be a good thing, the company wants to do it on the cheap.

And that’s a bad thing.

Presumed guilty. This past month Virgin Australia was transporting two unaccompanied children on one of its aircraft. This is a common enough event for most carriers. But this time it turned out that the kids were going to be seated next to a man whom they did not know. (In fact, there was no adult on the plane whom the kids did know.) So what did Virgin Australia Airlines do? They simply followed their company’s policy and asked the man to switch seats.

And then they asked a woman passenger (who was also a stranger to the children) to volunteer to take the man’s place next to the kids.

When the man asked why he was being moved, he was told that whenever the airline had experienced incidents of child molestation on aircraft, it had always been male passengers who had done it. So the company policy is now to bar men from sitting adjacent to unaccompanied children.

This man, who happens to be a firefighter, was embarrassed and offended at the presumption that he might be unsafe around children. Writing about this incident afterward, he mentioned that no one seems to find his being near children to be problematic when he is risking his own life to save them from a burning house. But as a passenger on an airplane, his proximity to youngsters was suddenly considered unacceptable.

(In 2010 another man was subjected to a similar policy -- this time by British Airways. He sued that airline and won, forcing a change in that company’s practices.)

Imagine the finger being pointed at you. (Or at your father, or at your brother, or at your boyfriend, or at your husband, or at your son…) Ever since hearing about this story, I have been asking myself how I would feel if I were ever asked to move away from a child on an airplane. A large part of me wants to support this practice. After all, John Shehan, Executive Director of the USA’s well-regarded National Center for Missing and Exploiting Children, supports Virgin Australia’s policy. He believes it is worth implementing if it keeps even just one child safe from harm. So I keep trying to be okay with what Virgin Australia does.

But I’m just not. At the end of the day, I think it is a bad policy, and here’s why:

This policy of removing men says to everyone – but to children most of all -- that men are simply not to be trusted.

Have the predators among us so managed to warp our world that we no longer make a space for men who, like the majority of men, do not molest kids? Are all men now to be viewed with suspicion, no matter how innately nurturing, loving, kind, and healthy we may actually be?

(I know a Puerto Rican man who says that whenever he travels on the North American mainland he has to remember to turn down the loving warmth and great affection that he, like so many other Puerto Rican men, typically shows toward young children. Otherwise, he says, we Norte Americanos will look at him like he is a pedophile – simply because he is so effusive around kids.)

And if all men are suspect, does this mean that I should automatically question the motives of the young man who works at my daughter’s daycare? He seems nice enough. And he works all day with the kids. And he has passed a criminal background check. But on Virgin Australia Airlines, this young man, a certified daycare worker, would be moved away from any children. So am I to take it that men simply do not belong in childcare roles?

(And I can't help but wonder if the airline would enforce this policy on co-founder Richard Branson? I kind of doubt it.)

This policy is more about saving money than it is about saving kids

There is a far better way to keep unaccompanied children safe on airplanes (and anywhere else, for that matter). It simply involves providing competent, accountable, and continual adult supervision. And I don’t for one minute believe that the Virgin Australia practice of moving male passengers is at its heart truly about protecting children. I just see it as a way for them to keep the airline’s liability low while keeping its profits high.

Whatever one thinks of this airline policy, we have to recognize that it is cheap to enact. For Virgin Australia, it is essentially the no-cost option for child safety. Because rather than take it upon themselves to pay for extra staff or to use surveillance technology to ensure the safety of the children in their care, the airline merely passes the burden of child protection on to its women passengers. The company just locates a paying female customer and asks her to switch seats with the suspect male.

(Maybe there is some pittance, some small token, that the woman is offered in exchange for agreeing to her new role as in-flight nanny -- but if so, it is no doubt of relatively negligible value.)

Earlier I asked readers to imagine being the man who was being asked to move. Now I would like you to imagine for a moment being the female passenger who suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a request from a flight attendant to do childcare duty on the plane.

Would you have it in you to say “No”?

Even if it were phrased as being “for the safety of the children”?

This policy exploits women’s goodness.

The situation stinks. It stinks for the man who is removed from sitting next to the kids because it tells everyone that he is presumed to be a safety risk. It stinks too for the kids who are given the message that all strange men are unsafe. But it also stinks for the woman who now finds herself seated next to the children simply because people of her sex are less likely to molest kids.

I suppose the old quip that “No good deed goes unpunished!” really is true. Virgin Australia’s policy says to women: “Since you are generally lower-risk around kids, you get to be the one to take care of them! Now enjoy the flight!”

That seems like a pretty crappy way to treat a paying customer. And it seems like a crappy burden to give to someone simply because she is less likely than a man to do any harm.

This policy does not guarantee safety.

The justification for this policy is that the kids need to be safe. But does this policy really keep children safe? Not necessarily. Although it is comparatively rare, molestation by women does occur. So while removing a strange man and replacing him with a strange woman no doubt greatly reduces the risk, it does not completely eliminate it. And what about issues other than sexual molestation? We know nothing about the woman’s background. Is she good around kids? Has she ever had involvement with child protection agencies? Has she had children removed from her care? What is her approach to dealing with children? Is she sober? Is she able to pass a criminal background check? Is she psychologically stable? Who the hell knows?

But she has been asked to watch over your kids even so. With no screening whatsoever.

Even though the average woman is statistically a lot less likely to sexually molest children than is the average man, that numerical fact alone does not make someone a fit caretaker. Where is the guarantee that these kids will in fact be seated alongside an appropriate, positive adult during the flight?

(And if the airlines aren’t supervising closely enough to prevent men from molesting kids, then you can be damn sure that they aren’t supervising closely enough to ensure that there will always be positive and appropriate interaction between the woman and the unaccompanied kids, either!)

Children’s safety is worth paying for. I have been thinking a lot about this issue, and I have come to the conclusion that asking a strange man to change seats with a woman on an airplane is acceptable only in an urgent situation when you have no other options. But guess what? We do have other options:

Airlines could always leave the seat next to the kids empty.

Airlines could have special seats reserved for unaccompanied children. Seats that are near the cabin crew, or -- dare I even suggest it? -- up in First Class! (Not that rich people don’t molest kids… they do… It’s just that there is a far higher level of attention from the flight attendants up in First Class! And free ice cream sundaes for the kids, too! Let’s turn one-half of the First Class seats into the kiddie section of the airplane!)

Airlines could also hire extra crew members to provide the appropriate level of enhanced supervision. Because, after all, the real issue here is not the gender of the molester. It is the fact that adults (regardless of sex) have been able to get away with harming children on aircraft. People who abuse children are opportunistic predators. And since we can’t tell who they are, and since we know that they can be female as well as male, then the only way to truly prevent abusers form acting out is to deny them any opportunity to do so -- by providing adequate supervision that not only prevents bad things from happening, but also promotes a positive travel experience for the kids. And adequate supervision does not rely upon randomly-selected volunteers.

So just what is the priority here? Providing additional supervision of children no doubt requires a commitment of financial resources. When questioned about the situation, a spokesperson for Virgin Australia said: ”In our experience, most guests thoroughly understand that the welfare of the child is our priority.”

Well, I haven’t been a “guest” on Virgin Australia Airlines, but I don’t see the “welfare of children” as actually being the airline’s priority. It seems to me that their real priority is (like that of any corporation) to maximize profits. And finding the cheapest possible way to try to ensure child safety (move a paying male, replace him with a paying female) protects the bottom line a lot more than it protects kids.

Merely switching out male passengers for female passengers is offensive. But more to the point, it is totally inadequate.

Our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who are willing to fully commit themselves to child safety. And that includes airlines. But to my mind, Virgin Australia Airlines is failing that test.