Printed on www.theageonline.com.au
The Bogeyman Myth
July 8, 2007
In seeking to protect our children from pedophiles, we are also, sadly, undermining the healthy bonds between men and children.
At my local cafe, which is plain and daggy enough to be family-friendly, children often sidle up to where I'm reading the paper to say hello. They don't actually say hello, of course. They stare at me, seemingly fascinated, or say something random like, "I've got white shoes on", or they show me something they're holding in their sticky little hands.
Occasionally, if I'm on one of the couches, they'll climb on up, placing a steadying hand on my thigh as their feet sink into the cushions.
When I'm with my girlfriend, these moments are amiable and warm. The child's parents are at ease (as much as parents can be). When I'm on my own, though, it's different. Something darker enters the picture when it's just me, a man in his mid-30s alone, and there's a child who has wandered away from his or her parents in search of distraction. I sense the parents' apprehension, even as they try to fight it. Discomfort acts like a contagion: they feel it, I feel it, the child feels it. It's as if the moment can't quite bear the weight of all the things thought and not said.I suspect most men know this dispiriting feeling.
In an age haunted by the spectre of pedophilia, average men do pay a price for the sins of a few. It's in the wariness and suspicion that now attends their interactions with children. A clearly positive imperative — to protect children from a most repugnant crime — has a downside, in the way it has corrupted the informal, healthy bonds between men and children.
Many men today worry (and if you don't believe me, ask a few) about appearing to enjoy children too much, about innocently touching children, about picking children up from school, about photographing children. The natural has come to feel aberrant.
Men have every right to feel saddened by this, and even a little angry. It is not in any way to play down the crime of child sex abuse to point out that, in our response to it, the sensitivities of the majority of men are somewhat trampled because of the actions of a minority.
Nowhere is this sad fact better illustrated than in a policy now common in the aviation industry. On many major airlines, including Qantas, United Airlines and British Airways, men are banned from sitting next to a child travelling alone. News of this discriminatory policy came to light when average blokes began coming forward with stories of their humiliation at being shifted — with suspicious passengers looking on — away from children. (Qantas says it moves the children, not the men.)
British MP and journalist Boris Johnson recently revealed how he was asked to move on a British Airways flight. "We have very strict rules," the stewardess told a confused Johnson. "A man cannot sit with children." Johnson remained seated to allow the children next to him to say something. "But he's our father," they chimed.
Airlines have defended the policy by saying they're simply erring on the side of caution and reflecting the concerns and wishes of parents. But in their efforts to cover (presumably for legal reasons) what is surely a minuscule risk, they stamp all men potentially dodgy, and send a message to children that men aren't to be trusted.
A policy like this does more harm than good. It takes risk aversion to a phobic extreme. It insults men, and cottonwool-balls children. It views all interactions between men and children as somehow poisonous, which actually blurs the distinction between good and bad.
Some will say that if such a policy saves just one child from abuse, it will have been worthwhile. This sounds like common sense, but really isn't. What of the damage — impossible to measure — done to the fabric of society by practices that essentially presume guilt in all men, foster suspicion, collapse trust, and discourage casual bonding between men and children?
Given the social trend towards seeing male interaction with children as potentially suspect, it is hardly surprising that the number of men lining up to work with kids continues to fall. In the past decade, the proportion of male primary teachers in Australia dropped from 23.8 per cent to 20.6 per cent. The younger the children, the less likely a man will be within cooee: in Victoria, about 1 per cent of preschool teachers are male.
A culture of suspicion must also impact on the number of men willing to put their hand up to coach a sports team or help with a school camp. A recent study by a British children's charity found that 13 per cent of men wouldn't volunteer to work with children because they feared being judged a pedophile.
There is a terrible paradox here. Good men are staying away from supervising children for fear of how they will be perceived, and yet at the same time many parents — and particularly single mothers — desperately want their children, especially their sons, to be exposed to good male role models. No parent wants a child's schooling and play to be a male-free zone, and yet society looks with some wariness at men who are keen to mentor and coach children. Messages are mixed, instincts are in conflict.
The sadness of all this is trumped by the difficulty of knowing exactly what to do about it. There are pedophiles in the world, after all, and parents want to protect their children with every ounce of their beings.But we mustn't allow a fear of pedophiles to turn into a phobia that undermines much more than it achieves. All phobias begin with a "what if" scenario that builds on its own logic, escalates in intensity, and turns an unlikely occurrence into something so terrifyingly real that it seems perfectly sensible and rational to shut out the world and bolt the door. It isn't. About 95 per cent of child sex abuse happens within families. The abuser is likely to be someone the parents and the child knows — not the creepy stranger at the park (or on the plane) who looms large in the collective imagination. We may like to think we can lock child abuse out, but the sad truth is we are more likely to lock it in.
Today, most people over 30 can't help but notice, usually with some wistfulness, that children don't play on suburban streets any more. We have become very protective of children, and fearful of neighbourhood threats that, on the evidence, are no greater than they ever were. Perhaps as our own lives feel busier and less certain in areas like work and housing, overprotecting children becomes a means of securing some sense of order and control.
Whatever the case, treating all men as potential predators will do nothing to stamp out child abuse. But it will give rise to horrors — not of bad men touching children in ways that revolt us, but of good men too scared to touch children at all.
Simon Castles is a Melbourne writer.