Sexism, racial profiling and airline travel
As a single gentleman who is rather partial to both aeroplanes and holidaymaking, I was cut to the quick by the recent revelation that Virgin Australia won't allow unaccompanied children to be seated next to a man.
I imagined how humiliated I’d feel if I was forced to move seats at the last moment, as some male passengers have been. Generally, I assume, my fellow passengers wonder enviously about the identity of that debonair fellow is travelling by himself on no-doubt-important business. But if I got moved away from kiddies for their own safety, they’d instead be wondering which watchlist I was on.
As I often do when facing an imaginary slight, I got extremely self-righteous. "Fine, Virgin Australia," I said to myself, although not to their customer feedback line. "If you're going to operate on the assumption that I'm a potential paedophile, I'm going to operate on the assumption that you're a terrible airline. And I shall find another carrier that treats potentially dodgy men with a bit more respect. Or, at least, I will just as soon as I can find a less creepy way to express that sentiment."
Unfortunately it turns out that pretty well all airlines have this policy, meaning that the more dignified alternative for the single fellow is driving or walking.
Clearly, this is sexism. It’s also profiling, the approach that’s proven so controversial in the aftermath of September 11. It’s subjected many non-white travellers to regular, intrusive security checks. Having been on the receiving end of one or two of them while travelling on a US airline as a youngish, bearded, solo male traveller, I can affirm that it’s a truly horrible experience. I can only imagine what it’s like for the people who routinely experience it.
Treating people as innocent until they’re proven guilty is one of the bedrock operating assumptions of a free society. And while I’m fairly comfortable with airlines obtaining confidential information about past sex offenders and adjusting their seating accordingly, I’m bothered, to say the least, by the prospect of a company I’m paying treating me on the basis that I might be a sex offender just because I’m male.
On further reflection, though, I might have firmer grounds for my outrage if the assumption the policy makes about men being relatively likely to be child abusers wasn't quite so thoroughly borne out by the data. The statistics from the Australian Study for the Centre for Sexual Assault say that 98% of sexual abuse against women below the age of 16 is perpetrated by men. Not only that, but around 20% of women have reported experiencing it. That’s a truly horrifying figure. They don’t have data on sexual abuse with male victims, but from the cases reported in the media, it seems reasonable to assume that the majority involve male perpetrators.
In other words, it’s unquestionably true that men are more likely to abuse children than women. Perhaps I’d be better off finding fault with my fellow men than the airlines.
Reading through the data on sexual abuse, though, something else struck me. Such crimes are far more likely to be perpetrated by someone known to the victim rather than a random stranger. In other words, the kids sitting next to their parents – and, let’s be honest, we’re predominantly talking about their father here – are actually more at risk than those sitting next to a stranger. But if airlines started treating dads as prospective child abusers, their markets would collapse instantly – and of course, the vast majority of children are safer with their parents than with anybody else on the planet.
This observation does make me wonder, though, just how far we can obey the data in these situations. There has to be some consistent policy – we can’t just have people who “look dodgy” being moved away from kids, surely? The best solution, I think, for the airline to actively monitor the safety of their unaccompanied minors, no matter who they’re sitting next to.
Our society is now hyper-aware of paedophilia. In schools nowadays, I’m told, no teacher may be alone in a room with a student with the door closed. And thinking about this, I’ve realised that I modify my behaviour on the assumption that people will be suspicious. When babysitting in the past, I’ve found myself clarifying with strangers that I’m my nephew’s uncle, just in case they’re judging me. And the other day, I suggested to a female friend that it might be better if she found an outdoor cafe table next to a playground while I waited in line, just so it didn’t look like I was “lurking”. And I’ve heard lots of stories from friends about how they’ve had to prove to strangers that they were their kids’ father before they’d let the little girl leave with the scary man. We might be overcompensating for society sweeping this issue under the carpet in the past, but I’ll bet the net result is that fewer children are harmed today.
Our systems to protect children certainly need to strike a balance between safety and hurting men’s feelings, but ultimately, the lesser harm in the equation is to people like me. I guess we’ll just have to take that on the chin.
And look, it’s not all downside. Unsupervised children can be incredibly annoying, especially if and they squabble or play noisy games. Under those circumstances, I'd probably ask to be reseated. But if our airlines can find a way to keep kids safe without humiliating men in front of a crowded aeroplane, I for one would certainly appreciate it.