You’re sending your daughter to go visit your ex-partner for the long weekend. You live in different states and the most practical thing for everyone involved is for her to fly down.
But she’s only nine years old and you’re worried about her flying alone. Whether she’ll get lost in the airport. Whether she’ll get scared on the flight. What kind of person she might be sitting next to.
The question of how to best protect our children from ‘stranger danger’ is one that is increasingly on the minds of all parents – and it’s understandable. You can open a newspaper on almost any day of the week and read stories about children being attacked. Or assaulted. Or snatched.
Columnist Tracey Spicer wrote a piece for Fairfax this weekend about when she has to let her kids fly alone – and it’s an opinion that some have labelled sexist. In fact, even Spicer herself acknowledges that it is:
I know it’s sexist. But I don’t want my kids sitting next to a man on a plane.
Maybe you find that statement offensive. Or maybe, on some level, you completely understand where Tracey Spicer is coming from.
There have been incidences of children being assaulted by strangers on aeroplanes in the past. Back in 2001, an American airline paid a family half a million dollars after their 10-year-old daughter was allegedly molested by a man seated next to her on a flight.
And it’s with these kinds of stories in mind that Spicer has made the controversial call about who can and can’t sit next to her kids on planes.
It’s because of parental concerns that many airlines have policies in place to protect children as best as they can. The Qantas flight policy states: “Unaccompanied minors are allocated seats next to adult female customers. Where possible, Qantas aims to seat children near crew areas or next to an empty seat. This policy reflects parents’ concerns and the need to maximise the child’s safety and well-being.”
Virgin’s policy on unaccompanied minors explains: “On a space available basis, we will allocate a spare seat next to the child. In some instances, flight passenger loads may prevent this and a female or male passenger will be seated in the vacant seat.”
Both airlines have copped criticism in the past for moving male passengers when they were seated next to unaccompanied children.
But hear this.
According to Spicer, the vast majority of child sexual abuse (90 per cent, in fact) is committed by perpetrators known to the child – someone who is either a friend of the family, or a part of the family. But in incidences where strangers have committed a crime, only 8 per cent are women. Meaning 92 per cent are men.
It would be easy to respond to these statistics by saying that maybe parents should ban their children from seeing their own family members – instead of vilifying men flying on planes. But in lieu of being able to identify child sex offenders within the family – individuals who are often very skilled at hiding their offences and spend time grooming children for the crime – it makes sense that parents want to protect their children in an area where they feel like they might have some control.
Former editor of iVillage.com.au, Lana Hirschowitz wrote about this topic for Mamamia when in April 2012, Virgin staff asked a 33-year-old Australian man named Johnny McGirr to change seats after he was seated next to two unaccompanied minors (reportedly aged around eight and ten).
The reason for McGirr’s move was his gender.
At the time, Hirschowitz wrote about why she disagreed with Virgin’s policy against seating men next to unaccompanied minors.
There are so many issues that get me about this policy.
I understand the need to protect children and I believe as a society it is one of the most important things we can do and indeed should be obligated to do. But to believe that only women can protect children, that is just erroneous and discriminatory. Having a vagina does not automatically make you a good person, just like having a penis does not make you a paedophile.
Hirschowitz also questioned the logical conclusion of this line of thinking.
Where do we stop? Do I request that my child not sit next to a man when he goes to see a movie? At a sporting event? On a bus?
This ‘paedophile paranoia‘ allows us to become gripped by the fear that there are paedophiles patrolling our parks, our planes, our school yards. It’s hugely disproportionate to the danger our kids face and it means that we inadvertently teach our children not to trust men. As the mother of a boy, that worries me. As the wife of one of the kindest man on earth, that saddens me.
In essence, there are no easy answers to this question because policies like these do discriminate against men. And for the men in our society who pose no threat to children – that is, most of them – it would be deeply offensive to have parents and plane attendants alike assume that they are a danger. A sex offender. A paedophile.
But as a concerned parent, it can be hard to balance that rational awareness with the innate desire to protect your kids.
As for Tracey Spicer:
“If you’re worried, request that your child is seated next to another child, or an adult female. Some airlines will quietly comply.
Talk to your child about stranger-danger: not to scare but to inform them.
Sure, not all men are paedophiles but offenders are predominantly male.
I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
What do you think of the original policy to separate men from unaccompanied minors? A necessary precaution or authorised discrimination?