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Holly Walker - Uncomfortable, Dunedin

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stranger danger

I've been mulling over this business with Air New Zealand and Qantas banning male passengers from sitting next to unaccompanied children for the last few days, and I'm finding it problematic.

To be clear, I think it's a stupid, discriminatory policy that shouldn't be implemented. Not only does it demonise all males as potential paedophiles (a New Zealand Herald editorial defending the airlines tells us "most paedophiles are male", to which the obvious response is "most males are not paedophiles"), it implies that all female passengers are lovely jubbly maternal types who won't mind helping out an annoying kid during their flight. And it stupidly implies that the fact of being male is a higher risk factor for criminal behaviour than any number of other factors - such as ethnicity, income level and mental health - which is patently ridiculous. We would never ban Maori or Pacific Islanders from sitting next to unaccompanied children because there is a higher instance of violent crime amongst their population. At least I hope we wouldn't.

Also, the assessment of what possible danger these children are in during their flights has been lacking. Let's say 1 in 1000 male passengers are unsavoury types who you wouldn't really want your kid sitting next to. What are they actually going to do to them during 1 hour domestic flight? Unaccompanied minors are highly supervised by airline staff - accompanied on and off the plane and regularly checked during the flight. What's the risk? That they will be kidnapped by a madman? Sexually assualted right there on the plane in front of the other passengers and airline staff? These scenarios strike me as pretty unlikely.

So why was my gut reaction to the news "good idea"?

I'm not pleased with myself for thinking it, but there is something about the idea of an unaccompanied child and a strange man which makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps its the "stranger danger" message I had drummed into me as a small child. I distinctly remember being grilled by my mother after talking to an unknown man on a raft I had swum out to at a beach one summer holiday. Watching powerless from the shore, she had wanted to know what he had said to me, in minute detail, when I eventually swam back in. Aged about 9 at the time, I couldn't understand what the problem was. Now, I think I do. If it was my own child - or, for a more realistic frame of reference - my 13 year old sister, I'd be inherently concerned and suspicious as well.

I'm no doubt influenced by the unfortunate attitude which has prevailed in New Zealand since the Peter Ellis witchhunt. I totally decry this attitude, wish there were more male teachers, and support the men (even the crazy one who climbed into a tree for 22 hours) who are protesting against this policy. But for whatever reason, I must have bought into the rhetoric somewhere along the way, because I'm left with a yucky taste in my mouth. Is it unjustified? Yes. Am I the only one? Definitely not.