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Don't let plane panic paint all men as paedophiles


Plane passengersOn a flight from Dar es Salaam to Johannesburg recently I sat near a young Muslim woman who was swathed in a black chador. As we got ready to disembark, her beautiful, expressive eyes smiled at me through the cloth obscuring her face. We had reached the end of a four-and-a-half-hour journey; I was making the long trip home to Sydney, she was headed for who-knows-where.

We were separated by passengers jostling to exit the aircraft and so weren't able to converse, but I got the sense that she was preparing to meet someone she hadn't seen in a while, that she was excited to be making this journey. I also wondered what it must be like for someone so overtly Islamic to travel on a plane surrounded by people who have learned to equate Muslims with terrorism.

Perhaps I was being overly sensitive on this young woman's behalf, for no-one was behaving aggressively towards her. But one never knows what ideas might be populating the minds of the people in one's midst.

Such as the notion that since men have a greater propensity to commit acts of paedophilia than do women, children travelling unaccompanied on planes should be removed from their sphere as a precaution against mid-air sexual assault. This was the opinion expressed by columnist Tracey Spicer in the Sydney Morning Herald's Traveller section on the weekend.

In the article, provocatively titled 'I don't want my kids sitting next to a man on a plane', Spicer asserts that while 'almost 90 per cent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone in, or known to, the family ... stranger danger is a risk and women are perpetrators in only about 8 per cent of cases'. Moreover, a ten-year-old girl was molested by a man on a flight from Kansas to Detroit more than a decade ago.

Men, Spicer deduces, pose more of a risk to children than do women. It must therefore be correct to assume that women are safer travelling companions for unaccompanied children, and airlines should comply with demands for such protocols to be implemented.

Except that in-flight sexual assault — just like abductions or hijackings — is so unlikely that to suspect all those people who bear some of the markers of past perpetrators (reclusiveness, religious persuasion, gender) is to manufacture a hysteria that is almost as morally reprehensible as the hypothetical offenses themselves.

For feminists who have fought for generations against sexism, the argument that men should be excised from children's orbit lest they commit the same atrocities of which a small percentage of other men are guilty is chilling. It rubber-stamps the notion that people's character and behavioural choices are determined by their gender, and presupposes that individuals can be judged on the basis of their group's collective history.

This is a dangerous precedent to set. For men crying 'sexism' — a charge which Spicer herself acknowledges — it both reinforces the painful scourge of gender-based treatment and, more worryingly, gives them reason to question women's commitment to creating a genuinely equal society rather than simply reversing the status quo in which male privilege dominates. If one gender can be so easily and universally smeared, so can the other.

It's an important lesson in the mechanics of societies, how civil liberties need to be carefully balanced in the quest for justice and social cohesion, and the limits that women will accept in the pejorative and knee-jerk labelling of their own fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. It exposes the absurdity of a child-rearing style so precious and demanding it now threatens to disrupt the way an entire nation travels.

Instead of whipping ourselves into a frenzy over our children's right to be safe from predators (a right which is inalienable but which can never, ever be guaranteed), stifling their curiosity about the world and the people who populate it, and elevating their rights above those of men who've done nothing more sinister than book a seat on a flight, let's instead thoroughly educate them in the ways of the world, and then send them out into it.

They might even be surprised: if they smile at the chador-wearing Muslim without presuming her to be a terrorist, and listen to the old man's stories without suspecting him of being a paedophile, they'll discover that the good and interesting people in this world far outnumber the evil-doers.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a mother of three, a journalist and travel writer.

Plane passengers image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, paedophilia, sexism



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Existing comments

An incredibly sane, balanced and insightful article on one of those "minefield" subjects, Catherine. Thank you for writing it. This is the direction in which discourse on the matter should be moving. Otherwise we are in danger of hermetically sealing off our children from a large part of life as you point out.

Edward Fido | 01 May 2014  

I resent the flipside of Spicer's idea. It's not true that all women necessarily want other people's kiddies planted next to them. We're not all maternal all the time. If I'm on a plane on my own I want wine and a book, not implied responsibility for other people's children. There is a business opportunity here for some clever woman (or even a man): Flying Nannies. People who are too busy to fly with their own children, but who like to think they are good parents (note the non-gender specific language), pay for the winged nanny's ticket and for her or his time. I would rather eat vomit though. So please feel free to use the idea, any entrepreneurs out there.

Name | 01 May 2014  

I must admit I hate being anywhere near children while flying and am more than happy if i have nothing to do with them so I agree with the sentiment of not letting children sit next to men.

John | 01 May 2014  

I'm not clear what the chador-wearing woman has to do with the main idea in the article. That aside, there is the legal definition of a child as someone under 18. I would be frightened to sit beside many 17-year olds of either gender for fear they would beat me up.

Frank | 02 May 2014  

I emailed Tracey Spicer informing her that as a man I was insulted by the implications (and sexism) of the story, but that my greater worry was that so many children are flying around unaccompanied because of broken marriages and separated parents. The imagined danger of sitting next to a man is far overshadowed by the real problem of not being supported by parents who love eachother.

David Crowley | 02 May 2014  

Well expressed and well argued. Thank you Catherine.

Father John Fleming | 02 May 2014  

Well spoken. For every man with paedophilia issues there are thousands who are most caring and generous. Anti men is an issue everywhere now. We must have women for equality sentiments everywhere. I prefer a woman for her skills and qualities she has and if those qualities are better than a mans so be it. Most women would agree that being put into a position of authority simply because they are a woman actually undermines their ability to control. A smile from one person to another is sometimes a great break through but it doesn't mean anything untoward.

PHIL | 02 May 2014  

Well said Catherine.

Penny | 02 May 2014  

The 'man ban' on planes is absurd. By the same logic, we shouldn't allow men to work in any professions where they might find themselves in close proximity to young children, e.g. teaching, childcare, paediatrics, dentistry, music tuition, the priesthood, etc. Tracey Spicer’s article is a classic example of paranoia and hysteria taking the place of reason. There is an element of risk in everything we do. Do your children ever catch the bus to school, Tracey? What if they sit next to a man who turns out to be a you know what? What if the hairdresser is a man? What about the football coach? The swimming instructor? Where does it end? Men! They’re everywhere! Better just keep your children at home all the time, Tracey. Also, some very uninformed comments here. It is not true that children fly unaccompanied because of divorced parents. We are an ‘intact’ family and my kids fly unaccompanied to visit family and friends interstate – it’s a great adventure for them, they love it, and there’s never been a problem. And what’s with all the ‘child hating’ comments? Apart from a few crying babies, I’ve never been bothered by kids on a flight.

Monty | 02 May 2014  

Well Monty, funny you should say that - the stigma and suspicion towards men in certain professions actually does mean that men are less likely to become primary school teachers, for fear that even patting a child on the back may be seen as a sexual advance. It's ironic that people who overtly expression affection in an open and tactile way towards children are the one's least likely to even consider children in a sexual way. Most depraved sexual conduct is psychotic behaviour stemming from neurotic repression - and that's what our society is producing more and more of.

AURELIUS | 02 May 2014  

Presumably the woman was wearing chardor because of similar assumptions about behaviour based on gender made by her culture.

chris g | 02 May 2014  

Did I read this correctly? Spicer has one data point for assault on planes, from Kansas of all places, and she extrapoltes to all men? But I agree with her on one point: I wouldn't want her kids sitting next to me.

Simon Crase | 05 May 2014  

Well said indeed, Catherine. Wasn't it good to see that, in the print media anyway, there was little or no support for Tracey Spicer's notion. Perhaps we're not all hysterical yet!

Joan Seymour | 05 May 2014  

Naive in the extreme. I'm a bloke... and I wouldn't dream of sitting next to a child on an unaccompanied flight. I get the stats.

Tim | 17 May 2014  

Only a feminist could come up with "men have male privilege" after talking about how men are treated like child molesters for being born male.

PJ | 10 June 2014  

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