Frances Kemp booked an aisle seat on a recent British Airways (BA) flight because she had a bad leg that required extra space. Her 76-year-old husband Michael occupied the middle seat. A nine-year-old girl took the window position.
When a stewardess asked Frances to switch seats with her husband, she declined. The stewardess explained that the seating arrangement breached the airline's child-welfare regulations and moved the child.
Michael is a retired journalist with no criminal record; he made no contact physical or verbal with the girl; no complaint or request to move was received; the child's mother was elsewhere on the plane. The girl's welfare was deemed to be in peril solely because Michael was male.
BA has openly joined the ranks of airlines such as Air New Zealand and Qantas that view all men as a danger to children. It is difficult to know how many other airliners share this policy as it is rarely announced and can be enforced invisibly when seats are booked.
Indeed, BA itself has been quietly instituting the policy since at least 2001 when another 'seat rearrangement' drew attention. In answering a complaint from the humiliated man, BA explained, "We introduced the policy . . . in response to customers asking us to make sure their children are not seated next to men. We were responding to a fear of sexual assaults."
It is not clear why parental worries cannot be resolved by carefully booking seats in advance or notifying attendants of a need to be extra watchful. But one thing is clear: some airlines are going to treat your father, husband and son as sex offenders simply because they are male.
And the airlines show no sign of relenting.
For example, in 2005, Mark Worsley had to change seats when a Qantas steward informed him that only women could sit next to unaccompanied children. When he registered a complaint, a Qantas spokesperson replied that the airline intended "to err on the side of caution" by continuing to act as though all men were dangerous.
More recently and in the UK, Boris Johnson, a Member of Parliament, was asked to move from his seat by a BA stewardess. She retreated when he explained that the adjacent children were his own progeny. Johnson memorialized the experience in an article entitled "Come off it, folks: how many paedophiles can there be?"
If an airline restricted the seating of blacks because the 2004 Department of Justice data states "blacks [are] disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders", there would be a backlash of rage. It would make no difference that the parent or loved one of a white passenger had requested the "safety" measure.
But, over the course of decades, Western culture has so thoroughly identified maleness itself with violence and abuse that major airlines feel free to openly treat them as predators.
In response to the Qantas incident, Worsley stated, "Men are being demonized in the media for a long time now. I think probably this is just society's reaction -- they think, 'We'd better start tightening up on everything.' It's getting to the stage when all men are viewed with distrust."
The airlines' policy is rooted neither in fact nor common sense. There doesn't appear to be any hard data or statistics to support the notion that children seated next to men aboard an airline flight are in any particular risk of being sexual assaulted.
Moreover, it is difficult to believe that in-flight child molestation is a real problem. A plane is not a secluded spot in the woods; it is an extremely public place where attendants and others constantly patrolling the aisles. Nevertheless, if a problem does exist, if there is more to the policy than parents concerned about things that haven't occurred, then it would make sense to ban unattended children or to seat them in a separate section.
As it stands, the policy seems rooted in little more than a dangerous tendency to paint men per se as predators.
Why is the tendency dangerous and not merely insulting? Because men are becoming increasingly reluctant to help a child in need, to act as teachers and caregivers, or to offer protection.
A heartbreaking example of the consequences of their understandable reluctance occurred in England in late 2002. 2-year-old Abigail Rae died by drowning in a village pond; a man who saw her in the street earlier on had wanted to help but he had been afraid of being labeled "a pervert."
The policy harms children in a more subtle manner; they may no longer trust men per se enough to ask for help when they need it. They may hesitate to approach a policeman or fireman who are, after all, still men. That is the message airlines are sending to children. And how is that message being heard by the boys who will grow into men?
Seating men as though they were sexual predators is a vicious and discriminatory practice that has no basis in fact or logic. Indeed, if the illogic of the policy were consistently spun out, it would mean "women and children only" flights and the restricted seating of men at theaters or concerts.
Stop segregating children from men!
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.