Airline child seating policies: all men are not potential paedophiles

It's an odd experience to log on to a newspaper website and find a fellow writer you admire making the suggestion that you could be a secret paedophile.

And yet this is precisely what happened on the weekend in Tracey Spicer’s Mama Holiday column, 'I don’t want my kids sitting next to a man on a plane.'

The title itself has that sort of breathless declarative sweep – she has instantly implicated 50 percent of the population, after all – that calls to mind other zingers of rhetorical bombast, such as: “All Muslims are terrorists,” and, my personal favourite, “Homosexuals are responsible for social decay.”

It is the sort of title that causes me to go and change into dark clothes immediately, because I know I am about to spill my coffee everywhere.

Spicer’s column comes in response to controversial airline policies about seating unaccompanied minors next to adult males.

Qantas, for example, seats children next to female customers and, where possible, “aims to seat children near crew areas or next to an empty seat.”

She cites a case from 2012 where a male nurse (that is, an accredited medical professional) was forced to swap seats because he found himself sitting next to a small girl.

“It seemed I had this sign I couldn’t see above my head that said ‘child molester,’” the man later remarked.

In an argument that is torturous, hysterical, and libelous to every decent man in the country, Spicer comes out for the policy (and, in so doing, against the nurse).


Her precis comes through most clearly in the final two lines: “Sure, not all men are paedophiles but offenders are predominantly male. I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry.”  

There are many things that could be said in response to this.

I could say, for instance, as many have on Twitter, that as an adult male I don’t want to sit next to Spicer’s children, whom I sure are very nice at times but also loud, smelly, self-centered, restless (i.e. children).

I could also say that her choice to send Taj and Grace alone on a plane to be “plied” with “treats” (obesity?) is an egregious lapse of responsible parenting.

I won’t give anymore airtime to either of these snarky responses, though, because they are unfair blanket statements that do not paint an accurate picture of the situation – are, in other words, on the same knee-jerk reactionary level as the argument Spicer is making.  

Instead, I want to make two points about assuming isolated, if lamentable, cases stand in for a widely applicable truth.

Spicer’s column relies on an irksome use of statistics. “Stranger danger is a risk and women are perpetrators in only about 8 per cent of cases, says the ABS data,” she writes.

Let’s set aside the fact that Spicer essentially discounts this 8 per cent (if she was really being “better safe than sorry,” wouldn’t she account for the risk there as well?) and consider the corollary of this, that 92 per cent of cases therefore involve men. 

This is horrible and depressing – a disgrace, really. But it does not mean the inverse is also true, that 92 per cent of men are involved in cases of child sexual abuse.

“Sure, not all men are paedophiles but offenders are predominantly male”: Do you see the circular logic here? Most paedophiles are men, men go on planes, therefore most men on planes are (potentially) paedophiles. No, that is not how math works.         

Spicer also reaches all the way back to 2001 and a flight route between Kansas and Detroit, to find an example of an airline that paid out half a million dollars after a young girl was molested by a 28-year-old man.

Again, this case is grotesque, but it was 13 years ago, which also means hundreds of million of flights ago (there are nearly 10 million flights in the US alone every year).

Were there no more recent examples to draw on, or does her choice of example speak to the overreach of the entire argument?

“How do we encourage a sense of adventure while ensuring [the child’s] safety?” Spicer asks.

How about by instilling a sense of rational judgement, so your child knows the difference between smart caution and fear mongering?

Which brings me to the airlines themselves. What they are practicing, to assuage the arguable concerns of a few parents, is a variation of racial profiling, a rule that exists in some American states whereby a person’s race becomes the deciding factor in determining a likelihood of guilt: This person appears Mexican, so there’s a good chance they’re an illegal immigrant.   

That is an odious – and deeply divisive – leap of logic. And so it is here, too. There are many things to be worried about while flying these days, but a predatory urge in half the plane’s passenger manifest is not a sensible one. When you start pointing fingers like that, where does the witch hunt stop?