There’s been a bit of a fuss recently about seating of children on airplanes in New Zealand. A man who was seated next to a child travelling alone was asked to change his seat, because the airline has a policy against men sitting next to unaccompanied minors. The man objected, the fuss reached the press, the airline claimed that it was only doing what most airlines do on international flights. (Why not domestic flights?) In the fallout, there have been many cogent objections to the policy:
Mr Latta agreed studies of sexual offenders showed somewhere between 70 and 90 percent were male but the airlines’ policy would not help protect children.
“In 15 years of working with thousands of sexual offenders I’ve never treated or heard of a man who sexually offended against a child on a plane.”
New Zealand’s Green Party says the airlines policy banning men from sitting next to unaccompanied children is discriminatory and will take the matter to the Human Rights Commissioner.
Green MP Keith Locke said the policy was an example of moral panic about men posing as potential threats to children.
They’re all quite correct: It is a stupid policy, it won’t help children, it’s discrimination, and it’s moral panic.
It’s also an extremely common and widespread bigotry, although not one usually codified in policy.
Reading about the New Zealand flap, I was reminded of a study by anthropologist Susan Murray that was published in the academic journal Gender and Society. The study’s subject was men who work in child care in the U.S.. From Murray’s article:
In my study, many workers, both men and women, talked about how the men who are child care workers are subject to different unwritten rules regarding their physical access ot children. Specifically, in many centers, men are more restricted in their freedom to touch, cuddle, nap, and change diapers for children. As one worker who I surveyed stated, “I have worked in centers that employ male caregivers. Parents have on occasion been hesitant to accept them. One parent explicitly asked that a male caregiver not rub her daughter’s back at naptime.” […]
…My data clearly showed numerous cases in which parents clearly did not want their children taken care of by a man at all. Sometimes parents requested another caregiver for their children; at other times, parents refused to enroll their children or withdrew them once they discovered a man was working at the center.
The article goes on to recount many other examples of male childcare workers being discriminated against in this exact way – men are not supposed to be in physical contact with children. Murray, in a discussion of the implications of this, suggests that the bigotry against male caregivers is rooted in sexism and in bigotry against gay men (even if the caregiver isn’t gay).
In the case of men in child care, just the act of their caring for children calls into question their heterosexuality. The fact of their sexuality, whether gay or straight, need not ever be confirmed. It is their choice to do child care that arouses suspicion and leaves them vulnerable to homophobic reactions. Men’s actions become suspect because they are choosing to do something that women do and, even worse, because child care is undervalued employment for women. Gay is a sexualized identity. When a man admits to being, is discovered to be, or is suspected of being gay, his gay identity may come to define everything else. He is, then, seen as someone who is guided by sexual practices, thoughts, and feelings in all else he undertakes. Within the child care setting, anything having to do with adult sexuality is strictly off-limits. So, when a person’s identity as a gay person is discovered or even suspected (as may be the case with straight men doing “women’s work”), that person’s competence as a teacher/caregiver gets called into question. To the extent that being gay is viewed as a perversion, it is linked with other perversions, such as child sexual abuse.
Murray also discusses the “glass elevator” effect, in which men in childcare professions are promoted to administrative positions more often and more easily – an advantage to men who want to be administrators, but a disadvantage to ambitious women caregivers who’d like to advance, and to men who’d rather stay in direct childcare positions. The overall effect is to turn many child care centers into places where traditional gender roles are enforced.
[“Jeff,” a male childcare worker Murray interviewed, said:] “You just need to be ultracareful. In San Francisco the men Early Childhood Education teachers can’t have a child on their lap, the women can, but the men can’t. I’m thinking, what kind of a message does this send to the children?”
Murray concludes with the speculation that child care centers may be teaching children traditional gender roles: men as administrators and playmates, women as nurturers. This discrimination is bad for the men being discriminated against, and also bad for the girls and boys who are subjected to gender-discriminatory childcare.