A reader alerted us to a story we missed while stuffing our faces on Turkey Day: There's a growing storm surrounding British Airways' policy against seating children next to male strangers, even when the child's parents are on the same flight. The policy's impetus? The perceived threat of a man sexually abusing a child.
Just recently, a nine-year-old girl on a British Airways flight was moved from her seat next to a 76-year-old man and his wife. The male passenger, Michael Kemp, was first asked to switch seats with his wife, but his wife refused because of a bad leg that required the added space of an aisle seat. The stewardess ultimately refused to seat the girl next to Kemp or between the pair, because doing so would violate British Airways' "child-welfare regulations." Once the flap was publicized, an airline spokesperson said, "We apologise if Mr. Kemp was offended by our request, but we have to balance the needs of the child with those of the adult."
In 2001, conservative site Townhall raised the alarm about British Airways' troublesome policy when a man sitting next to two teenagers was reportedly asked to change seats. At the time a spokesperson said the policy was introduced in response to "a fear of sexual assaults." Both Air New Zealand and Qantas, an Australian airline, have adopted a similar policy banning children from sitting next to male strangers.
Let's take a step back to survey this misguided tactic. The logic of these airlines' policy rests on the greater occurrence of child sex abuse by men. Men do account for 86 percent of sexual abuse cases reported against boys and 94 percent of cases reported against girls, according to the U.S. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But if those statistics were the basis of public policy, we couldn't have classrooms, sports teams, day care centers or summer camps led by men. The memo delivered to children by BA's policy is: Men are scary and not to be trusted. As Wendy McElroy reasoned on libertarian feminist site iFeminists, "[Kids] may hesitate to approach a policeman or fireman who are, after all, still men...And how is that message being heard by the boys who will grow into men?" Not to mention that preventing kids from being seated next to strangers probably isn't the best way to prevent sexual assault; a mere 10 percent of child sex-abuse cases are perpetrated by strangers.
Most basically, the policy is irrational and hysterical; worse yet, it's sexist. As McElroy writes: "[O]ne thing is clear: some airlines are going to treat your father, husband and son as sex offenders simply because they are male."