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Why can't men sit next to kids on planes?

Paedophile paranoia

by LANA HIRSCHOWITZ

There are three very different types of flyers.

There are those who don’t think about the journey at all, they just need to get from point A to B.  Then there are the people who quite like being on a plane, they either understand aeronautics or don’t think about it.

Then there are people like me who are so scared that all they can do is pray. And drink. And sob.

People like me don’t make very good companions on a flight. But people like my husband – who understands how planes stay in the air – make excellent companions.  He is calm, friendly and reassuring. He also loves children so he would be the perfect person to sit next to a child on a flight.

The problem is that he is a man and according to the policies of some airlines – that makes him a potential paedophile.

Statistics bear this out: the vast majority of people who sexually abuse children are male.

In April this year, a 33 year old fireman named Johnny McGirr boarded a Virgin Australia flight from Brisbane, where he sat next to two unaccompanied minors (who he has estimated were aged between eight and ten).

I am not sure what kind of flyer Johnny was but that seemed to be irrelevant.  He was a man and so he was asked by the staff to move away from the boys. Seriously. Just because he was a man.

Fairfax reports:

A flight attendant asked him to move. Mr McGirr said when he asked why, he was told, ”Well you can’t sit next to two unaccompanied minors.”

”She said it was the policy and I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty sexist and discriminatory. You can’t just say because I’m a man I can’t sit there’, and she just apologised and said that was the policy. By this stage everyone around me had started looking.”

Mr McGirr said the attendant then asked a fellow female passenger, ”Can you please sit in this seat because he is not allowed to sit next to minors.”

”After that I got really embarrassed because she didn’t even explain … And that was it. I pretty much sat through the flight getting angrier.”

It turns out that Mr McGirr was not the first man to complain about having his seat changed and being treated like a potential child abuser. More and more similar stories are emerging. And Virgin Australia is not alone in implementing such a policy. The BBC reports that Qantas and Air New Zealand had a similar policy prior to 2005, after a businessman successfully sued British Airways on the grounds of sex discrimination after he was moved away from an unaccompanied child on a flight.

Paedophile paranoia

There are so many issues that get me about this policy.

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So many.

I understand the need to protect children and I believe as a society it is one 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 pedophile.

Sexual abuse of children is heinous and horrific but even though we are on extra alert at the moment because of stories like the tragic Robert Hughes one, it should be remembered that most cases of abuse are carried out by people known to the perpetrator. In fact only 15% of child sexual abuse is committed by “outsiders”.

It would be awful if something happened to a child on a plane. Or off a plane. But surely when you send your child on a plane unaccompanied that child is still your responsibility – not that of a flight attendant. Or the airline.

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 men on earth that saddens me.

Virgin Australia have responded to the public outcry around Johnny McGirr’s case: “We understand the concerns raised around our policy for children travelling alone, a long-standing policy initially based on customer feedback,” @VirginAustralia said. “In light of recent feedback, we’re now reviewing this policy. Our intention is certainly not to discriminate in any way.”

What do you think of the original policy to separate men from unaccompanied minors? A necessary precaution or authorised discrimination?  

Lana Hirschowitz is the Editor of iVillage Australia. You can read more of her work (and you totally should) over at www.ivillage.com.au You can also follow iVillage Australia’s Facebook page here and follow them on Twitter here

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