All men are perverts until proven otherwise.
That's the attitude British Airways had taken for the past decade or so. The airline's policy stated that no man was allowed to sit next to any child traveling alone or in a row separate from his or her parents. It didn't matter if the kid's parents were right behind him or her on the plane. It didn't matter if the male passenger was traveling with his own family. Nothing mattered except the fact that, by virtue of possessing a Y chromosome, the man was quite possibly a pervert and, hence, had to be moved, which is exactly what happened to businessman Mirko Fischer.
Fischer was on a flight with his pregnant wife, when she asked to switch seats with him so she could lean against the window. Fischer moved to the middle seat, which meant that he was sitting next to a 12-year-old boy. When the flight attendant noticed this, he asked Fischer to change his seat, and when Fischer refused, the flight attendant ostensibly raised his voice.
So eventually, Fischer switched seats. But when he got off the plane, he turned around and sued British Airways for sex discrimination. He told the BBC: "I felt humiliated and outraged. They accuse you of being some kind of child molester just because you are sitting next to someone."
This past week, the case was settled, with British Airways admitting sex discrimination in Fischer's case (not across the board) and agreeing to change its policy. Now it will place unaccompanied children in an area separate from adults, leading one commenter to wonder, "What if there's a REAL emergency and no adult is there to help them adjust their oxygen masks?"
But of course, when it comes to children, real dangers are not the ones we concentrate on. We concentrate on the only one we always see on TV: stranger danger.
Stranger danger is such a compelling story that TV producers will go to the ends of the earth (or at least a beach in Aruba or a hotel room in Portugal) to report on a middle-class child who's fallen victim to a stranger. Shamelessly, they milk these stories for weeks, months, sometimes years, until the victims' names become as familiar as our own: Jaycee. Natalee. Caylee. JonBenet.
We not only feel as if we know these young people but also begin to feel their stories are not that surprising — because on TV, they're not. There may be millions of children getting home every day, safe and sound. But TV shows us only the one who did not. Over and over. On the news. On "Law & Order." On "Nancy Grace."
And precisely because of this skewed picture, we start seeing the world in terms of terror. All children are in danger. All strangers are suspect. All men are perverts ... until proven otherwise.
What does it matter if we make men move away from all children just because "you never know"?
—It means we get used to thinking the worst first: You're a male? We know what YOU like.
—It means we start sexualizing all adult-kid encounters: You smiled at my kid? That is SICK, buster!
—It means we think nothing of substituting paranoia for logic. You bought a plane ticket? You must get your kicks molesting children!
Worst of all, this over-the-top "caution" dehumanizes us. We don't relate to one another as people, but as threats.
It's great that British Airways has stopped treating all men as quite possibly predators. Can't wait till the rest of society follows suit.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.