There is no greater worry for a parent than wondering whether their children are safe. Any scenario where a parent is not there to protect their child, or simply cannot protect them, is a nightmare that no parent should have to face. Perhaps it was this that Tracey Spicer, an Australian newspaper columnist, had in mind when she wrote a column about her children flying as unaccompanied minors. In an article rather provocatively titled I don’t want my kids sitting next to a man on a plane, she stated that she did not want her kids sitting next to men when they flew unaccompanied and her rationale was that since males account for the greatest percentage of pedophiles, males should not be allowed to sit next to children on flights in order to keep the children safe. But is that really the best argument to make? There can be no debate on the safety of children, but how unaccompanied minors should be seated is debatable, and the Australian columnist’s argument may not be the best one either for parents or newspaper columns.
The Australian mother has two children and her column is based on her experience of letting them fly solo. In her short opinion piece she puts forth the idea that because most pedophiles are males, they should not be allowed to sit next to unaccompanied minors upon which they might prey. She also cited cases from Virgin and Qantas, both airlines based in Australia, which have policies that place minors flying without a guardian next to female passengers, other children, or an empty seat. In 2012, Qantas flight attendants actually asked a male passenger to change his seats rather than let him sit next to an unaccompanied minor, which is part of their company policy. But in her experience, Spicer would have preferred the option to choose where her children would be sitting and, by implication, who with.
There is no problem with someone’s personal experience, but when it comes to creating a policy to protect traveling children, the obvious sexism of her view creates a problem. Is it okay to discriminate against an entire group of people? In most cases, it is not. Antidiscrimination laws prevent such things against anyone based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, and a whole host of other categories. So why should it be allowed to happen against men flying on planes? More importantly, will it actually keep children safer?
Spicer’s argument depends on the idea that more men are pedophiles than women. As she notes, this is a statistical fact. But keeping kids from sitting next to men on planes does not just keep male pedophiles away. It could actually make it easier for female pedophiles to get access to unaccompanied minors on planes since their gender is the allowed one to sit next to them and they could actually volunteer to do so. Statistically, the odds of a female pedophile on a plane next to an unaccompanied minor is unlikely. Nevertheless, the odds of a male pedophile sitting next to a child on a plane are also statistically unlikely. So, stereotyping males as pedophiles (which is what Spicer does in her article) does not really make a big impact on the safety of unaccompanied minors flying on planes and could actually make them less safe.
The other problem with the Australian mum’s argument is that, according to statistics on abuse, most sexual abuse is carried out by a person known to the victim. More than half of all sexual abuse instances are perpetrated by either a family member or what is called a “known other,” meaning a person the victim is familiar with and might even know quite well. In other words, kids are statistically in more danger of sexual abuse when they are at home than they are on a plane. In fact, Spicer acknowledges these statistical facts in her article, but ignores them and goes on to make her argument anyway. She says that “stranger danger is a risk,” and she is right, but a stronger argument would be that family danger or friend danger is a bigger risk and something should be done about that.
After looking at the statistics on sexual abuse of children, Spicer’s argument looks less like a reasoned argument based on data and more like stereotyping men as pedophiles. The columnist does offer an example of a case where a male pedophile interfered with an unaccompanied minor on a plane, however. The case is from 2001 and the American Northwest Airlines paid a sum of 10 million dollars to the child’s family. There is undoubtedly a true concern about the safety of unaccompanied minors because of cases like this. But stereotyping men as possible pedophiles is actually the least effective means of protecting children who are flying alone.
Spicer herself holds the solution. As a mother, she would have preferred to have the option to choose where her children sat on the plane. This is actually a good idea, but it is not one that many airlines offer. Despite their policies regarding unaccompanied minors, airlines like Qantas and Virgin do not have a policy that gives parents decision-making control. Instead, they have policies regarding their own decisions on where such children sit. No one protects children more carefully than parents, so why are airlines not giving parents the control necessary to do so?
There are two simple solutions that airlines could put in place that do not in any way require stereotyping an entire group of people, could actually make them money, and would be far more effective at protecting children than current measures. First of all, designated seating for unaccompanied minors could be determined, placed at the front of the plane or close to flight attendant seating, and separated from other passengers. This might involve reserving an entire row of seats for kids flying alone on certain flights, which could be seen as a loss of revenue, but airlines could probably make up at least part of the difference by charging a little extra for unaccompanied minors. The issue with this solution is the balance between profit and child safety. Still, keeping children safe is cheaper than paying millions of dollars when they are not, and in the long run, nothing should be more important than keeping kids safe.
The other solution is to create security checks for pedophiles who are traveling by air. In Australia and the United States, there are relatively few restrictions on pedophiles travelling by plane. In Australia, at least, the only times when pedophiles are required to report their travel is if they are crossing state lines once a month on average. Laws regarding registered sex offenders vary from state to state and country to country, but a law that regulates how they travel would be effective in protecting vulnerable children. Instead of stereotyping men, many of whom are not pedophiles, this measure actually operates on known sex offenders, who are a known danger and not a stereotyped one.
These two solutions work best together because they limit the contact pedophiles have or could possibly have with unaccompanied minors on planes. Stereotyping men as pedophiles sounds like a good idea, but the reality is that it does very little to actually protect vulnerable children. “Better safe than sorry” is what Spicer asks for in her article, but in reality what children need is better safety, not sorry ideas. Most importantly, parents have the power to ask for these things to be done and Spicer has a part to play in this. As a columnist, she can raise the issue of safety measures for unaccompanied minors on planes and as a parent, she has the perfect perspective to do so. What is needed is a real solution to the problem, not a stereotype based on a flimsy interpretation of statistics.
Opinion by Lydia Webb