Archive for August, 2012

My blog Discrimination, Plane and Simple appeared on the Independent this morning, and this afternoon I was invited to discuss it on BBC Radio 5Live. Almost immediately after I received this email from a listener. He provided me with full name and contact details but I won’t share them. I reproduce his email here with permission.

I am a 46 year old male company director with a four year old a daughter.

Around 10 years ago I was returning from LA on a Virgin Atlantic flight alone and I was put into a seat next to a boy of around 10. Once I had sat down the boy proceeded to enthusiastically tell me about his new games console and game- I politely showed interest.

After about 10 minutes a stewardess came over and said: “we have found another seat for you, you shouldn’t be sitting here”. I asked why and she said that there had been a mix up in seat allocations (and frankly she was quite rude). In truth I was not too bothered because I was hoping to get some sleep rather than discuss computer games for 10 hours- so I moved!

However, once I had sat in my new seat I started to feel that I had been treated very strangely and wondered what other passengers had thought- it was humiliating and it only began to strike me once I had had a chance to reflect on the situation. The stewardess had been so rude and uncaring about any thought or opinion I had on the matter. It was more a kind of : “Come on! come on! Hurry up! Move!” so I did not think about the implications of what happened until afterwards.

The reason I write this is that I agree with what you have said in the article and the things you said on the radio. Moreover, if you are contacted by Virgin or have any further dealings with them on the matter, please pass on that it put me off flying with them again and that when I have the choice I always go with BA (and have since joined BA’s Executive Club!).

This is significant, as it is the first I’ve heard of the policy being applied on a Virgin Atlantic flight – albeit about ten years ago.

I was also very taken by this comment on the Independent, from Richard Blacklock

“This brings back a flight I took a few years ago from Rio de Janeiro to Toronto, it was something like 18 hours with a stop in Sao Paolo. I sat next to a young boy of perhaps 10, who was travelling alone. He was a wonderful kid, and we had a great flight together. As a father of two, I basically looked after him like I would my own children. Right near the end of the flight, the head flight attendant came up to me and asked me if I had been sitting next to him the whole time, and told me that they had made a mistake, and that I wasn’t allowed to sit next to him. It was absolutely ridiculous, and I certainly felt discriminated against.”

I’ve left a message for Richard asking if he can recall which airline he was on at the time, and will update you if there’s any news.

In the meantime, if anything similar has happened to you, do please let me know in a comment or contact me through the contact page

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Can airlines have any justification for a policy of not seating male passengers next to unaccompanied children? It’s an old controversy, reignited this week by the case of firefighter Johnny McGirr, who blogged about his recent experience on a Virgin Australia flight.  After taking his seat next to two unaccompanied boys, McGirr was asked by a flight attendant to swap seats with a female passenger for the safety of the children. In the consequent media firestorm, Virgin Australia announced they would be reviewing the policy in the light of “feedback.”

The company insisted the policy was not intended to discriminate, which reveals a rather shaky grasp of the English language. A policy which allows – or even encourages – one gender to do something while forbidding the other to do likewise is discriminatory by definition. The real question is whether such discrimination could be necessary or justified.

Airlines have been here before. The policy first attracted headlines for British Airways back in 2001, and in 2010 the company abandoned the policy after a sex discrimination suit ruled it unlawful. Other airlines around the world, including Qantas and Air New Zealand, have faced complaints, claims or sporadic bursts of controversy over the years. Even fathers travelling with their own kids have been known to face embarrassment. In 2006 a certain Boris Johnson had to prove his paternity to British Airways staff before being permitted to sit next to his own children. (Yes, countless punchlines spring to mind, but it’s hardly the place.)

In any organisation serving young people, from the small playgroup to the largest multinational, child protection policy is rightly considered to be of paramount concern. It is true that over the decades there have been a handful of reported instances of children being sexually assaulted on board flights. Some of these did involve unaccompanied children being molested by the passenger sat next to them, but in others the child was accompanied by a parent at the time, and in most, the attacker had moved seats to get close to the child.

In other words, the number of recorded instances which would have been prevented by such a policy is a fraction of an already infinitesimal number. It is also impossible to quantify how many instances of molestation might have been prevented by an adult male seated next to unaccompanied children, rather than the empty seat which could tempt a predator. Rather more seriously, French pilots have warned about the risks of such policies leaving unaccompanied children without assistance, such as help with seatbelts or oxygen masks, immediately to hand in an emergency.

Child protection policies should be based on expert advice and evidence of best practice. It is a dubious policy that can be abandoned at the first whiff of negative publicity or customer discontent. The brief statement announcing Virgin Australia’s change of heart made no claims as to their previous policy being based on expert advice, instead saying it was based on “customer feedback.” Four days ago I emailed the company’s press office asking for clarification of the historical basis of the policy. So far they have declined to reply. I shall therefore take them at the word of their statement, and assume it is based not on expert risk assessment, but on the preferences of the parents who booked their children onto the plane.

Speaking as a father of two young boys, I can confirm that we parents can be highly irrational, paranoid and risk-averse when worrying about the welfare of our own. That doesn’t mean we should always be indulged in our paranoia or prejudice, particularly when it is actively harmful to society as a whole. The airlines’ policy is a salient crystallisation of the widespread and corrosive belief that adult males represent a significant danger to children. This myth shields us from the true nature of child abuse, a crime overwhelmingly committed by family members, trusted adults or professional carers – a significant minority of whom are female.  It also breeds cynical suspicion of men who wish to work with children, especially at pre-school and primary level. There is little dispute that such stigma contributes to the paltry proportion of male applicants for child-caring and teaching roles. This in turn reinforces social values which, from the earliest age, teach each generation that childcare is fundamentally women’s work.

I sympathise with men like Johnny McGirr who are publicly humiliated by air cabin crews enforcing an irrational policy, but their wounded pride is not really the issue here. Much more significant is that policies like these, and the toleration and indulgence of the prejudices behind them, drive a wedge of caution between men and children in our societies. Such attitudes deprive men of rewarding career opportunities, and deprive children of a less gender-rigid future, while at the most immediate level, they deprived a couple of young boys of the chance to have a spontaneous, unscripted chat with the real-life firefighting hero sat next to them on a plane. That, perhaps, is the biggest shame of all.


First published on the Independent

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This blog first appeared at the Independent. I’ve reprinted it here as it follows on nicely from a discussion in the comments on my last piece. 

When a man was beaten or abused by his wife in 17th and 18th Century England, his community would call upon a traditional intervention. The victim would be ritually humiliated, sometimes by being strapped to a cart and dragged through town, or by the whole neighbourhood surrounding his house and beating pots and pans and singing songs of mockery. The tradition was known as the Skimmington Ride, and it was echoed in many other countries. In France, a man would be forced to ride through town backwards on a donkey, holding its tail.

The Skimmingtons are now a detail of history. So too, for the most part, are the comic stereotypes of a hen-pecked husband, cowering in fear of a rolling pin, which long formed a staple target of club comics and saucy seaside postcards. It would be tempting to think the attitudes underpinning them have faded too. Unfortunately this is not the case.

In recent weeks, Coronation Street has featured the volatile relationship between lovable lad Tyrone Dobbs and his heavily pregnant and abusively violent fiancée, Kirsty. The storyline has followed a familiar pattern from both fiction and case study: sporadic but increasingly violent incidents, the abuser balancing mornings of apology and remorse with moments of coercive menace; the victim self-blaming, justifying and excusing the attacks, hiding the bruises and their explanation from friends and family. It’s an old story, the only quirk here being the genders of the protagonists.

Debates about the precise prevalence and severity of female on male intimate partner violence, compared to its male on female equivalent, can quickly become dehumanised and demeaning. It should be sufficient to note there is a wealth of evidence that men make up a notable proportion of domestic abuse victims and that in some cases, the abuse can be severe or even deadly. Last week Ian McNicholl talked to the media about how his own horrific experiences had informed the Corrie cast. His ex-girlfriend is now serving seven years for grievous bodily harm.

This is classic soap treatment of a sensitive and controversial topic, and seems to be performing as expected. Mankind Initiative, the charity which has advised the producers on the issue and which is running the helpline advertised at the end of each show, say they have been inundated, and have needed to install an extra phone line to cope with the calls.

The other valuable service of such soap opera plots is to raise awareness among the public at large.  If social media is any guide, Corrie has succeeded in getting the nation talking about the subject. The majority of the messages are sympathetic, but they are interrupted by a substantial minority which veer from the depressing to the downright disturbing.

When Tyrone was assaulted for the first time, I collated just a tiny sample of the tweets from viewers on Storify. They make for grim reading. Two distinct trends emerged. The first was to urge Tyrone to hit her back (often in more colourful language). Leaving aside the morality of using defensive violence or retaliation against anyone, far less a heavily pregnant woman, it must be noted that this is extremely bad advice. The Mankind Initiative and other charities explicitly warn against it, not least because it is likely to result in the arrest of the man, not the woman. There have been too many cases of male victims being arrested when the police arrive, even without making efforts to defend themselves.

The other second running theme was rather more blunt. It could be best summed up in three little letters: L, O and L. Of course laughing at the misfortune of others is one of the engines of the internet, but it is striking just how many such messages specifically attacked Tyrone’s masculinity. Tyrone is a “pussy” or a “faggot” who needs to “grow a pair.” Thus we see the ancient tradition of mocking and shaming male victims of domestic abuse, the brutal policing of patriarchal norms, brought bang up to date; the 21st Century reboot of the Skimmington Ride.

Of course Tyrone is fictional, his woes dreamed up by scriptwriters. The one man in six who will face partner violence at some point in his life is all too real. Many of the mocking tweets will be read by someone who has faced or will face a similar situation. The reactions may go a long way to explaining why men are less than half as likely to report their abuse as women, and indeed why the Mankind Initiative report that many calls to their helplines come not from victims themselves, but from their concerned mothers, sisters and daughters.

Awareness of, and attitudes towards male victimisation have improved considerably over recent years.  Resistance to the issue, from an unholy alliance of gender traditionalists and certain strains of feminism, is thankfully on the wane. Coronation Street is performing a valuable role in getting us talking about this topic. Let’s hope viewers are willing to listen.

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