Are We Teaching Our Kids To Be Fearful of Men?
Jeffrey Zaslow, online.wsj.com, August 23, 2007
When children get lost in a mall, they're supposed to find a "low-risk adult" to help them. Guidelines issued by police departments and child-safety groups often encourage them to look for "a pregnant woman," "a mother pushing a stroller" or "a grandmother."
The implied message: Men, even dads pushing strollers, are "high-risk."
Are we teaching children that men are out to hurt them? The answer, on many fronts, is yes.
Child advocate John Walsh advises parents to never hire a male babysitter. Airlines are placing unaccompanied minors with female passengers rather than male passengers. Soccer leagues are telling male coaches not to touch players.
Child-welfare groups say these are necessary precautions, given that most predators are male. But fathers' rights activists and educators now argue that an inflated predator panic is damaging men's relationships with kids. Some men are opting not to get involved with children at all, which partly explains why many youth groups can't find male leaders, and why just 9% of elementary-school teachers are male, down from 18% in 1981.
People assume that all men "have the potential for violence and sexual aggressiveness," says Peter Stearns, a George Mason University professor who studies fear and anxiety. Kids end up viewing every male stranger
"as a potential evildoer," he says, and as a byproduct, "there's an overconfidence in female virtues."
In Michigan, the North Macomb Soccer Club has a policy that at least one female parent must always sit on the sidelines, to guard against any untoward behavior by male coaches. In Churchville, Pa., soccer coach Barry Pflueger says young girls often want a hug after scoring a goal, but he refrains. Even when girls are injured,
"You must comfort them without touching them, a very difficult thing to do," he says. "It saddens me that this is what we've come to."
TV shows, including the Dateline NBC series "To Catch a Predator," hype stories about male abusers. Now social-service agencies are also using controversial tactics to spread the word about abuse. This summer, Virginia's Department of Health mounted an ad campaign for its sex-abuse hotline. Billboards featured photos of a man holding a child's hand. The caption: "It doesn't feel right when I see them together."
More than 200 men emailed complaints about the campaign to the health department.
"The implication is that if you see a man holding a girl's hand, he's probably a predator," says Marc Rudov, who runs the fathers' rights site TheNoNonsenseMan.com. "In other words, if you see a father out with his daughter, call the police."
Virginia's campaign was designed to encourage people to trust their instincts about possible abuse, says Rebecca Odor, director of sexual and domestic violence prevention for the state health department. She stands by the ads, pointing out that 89% of child sex-abuse perpetrators in Virginia are male.
Mr. Walsh, host of Fox's "America's Most Wanted," began advocating for missing children in 1981, after his son was killed by a stranger. He knows some men are offended by his advice to never hire a male babysitter. But as he sees it, if a teenage boy wants to experiment with sex, you don't want him using your kids.
"It's not a witch hunt," he says. "It's all about minimizing risks. What dog is more likely to bite and hurt you? A Doberman, not a poodle. Who's more likely to molest a child? A male."
Airlines use similar reasoning when they seat unaccompanied minors only with women. They are trying to decrease the odds of a problem. Certainly, many men would be safe seatmates for kids, but sometimes, especially on overnight flights in darkened cabins,
"You have to make generalizations for the safety of a child," says Diana Fairechild, an expert witness in aviation disputes. Airlines have had decades of experience monitoring the gender of abusive seatmates, she adds, quoting a line repeated in airline circles: "No regulation in aviation takes effect without somebody's blood on it."
Most men understand the need to be cautious, so they're willing to take a step back from children, or to change seats on a plane. One abused child is one too many. Still, it's important to maintain perspective.
"The number of men who will hurt a child is tiny compared to the population," says Benjamin Radford, who researches statistics on predators and is managing editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer. "Virtually all of the time, if a child is lost or in trouble, he will be safe going to the nearest male stranger."