Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Trend Piece Tuesday: Men Are Scary

Since trend pieces -- particularly of the New York Times variety -- tend so be so laughably presumptive and over-generalizing, I think we ought to dedicate Tuesdays to making fun of, ripping apart, or hell, even expressing enjoyment for them. If you see one that you'd like to see highlighted, feel free to send 'em our way at ethecofematgmaildotcom. Today's Trend Piece Tuesday will be dedicated to yet another manifestation of the belief that all men should be viewed as a potential danger to children.

Nicole Sprinkle, a guest poster on the New York Times parenthood blog, used an entire article to relay a story about how she discriminated against a young man for being a male. In Seeing All Men as Predators, Sprinkle explains that she was searching for a part-time babysitter or nanny for her small child, a 3-year-old girl. There were few candidates available for part-time work, but she had found the perfect candidate:

...[T]here was also this 23-year-old young man who responded to my ad on our neighborhood’s Listserv. He was well spoken and exuded a quiet friendliness over the phone. He was studying to become a paramedic (great to have around in case of emergencies), lived his whole life in the neighborhood, had a mother who owned a local daycare, and worked as a summer camp counselor at the very preschool my daughter was now attending – and got rave reviews from his supervisor there.

She's afraid, though. Because he's a male. And males abuse and rape children.

Wait, what?

Sprinkle makes it clear that she knows better, that she knows deep down inside that it's rather ridiculous to assume this of all men, but that her emotional reaction, rather than her intellectual one, was the driving force behind her ultimate decision not to hire this young man, who was, as she said, the best candidate for the job.

I also told him that I felt really awful about having to feel this way, and that it was such a shame that society forced us to discriminate against kind, competent men as caregivers for our kids. Yes, I know that statistically a man is far more likely to molest a child than a woman but, really, what is the likelihood of it happening to your child when the potential caregiver comes replete with recommendations that you trust and a personality and career path you admire? I told him I needed to think about it for a day or two.

He very kindly told me he understood and would wait for and respect my decision. Two days later I called him to tell him I was so sorry but I was going with the local mom. Again, he pleasantly told me he completely understood but to feel free to call him if it didn’t work out. I hung up the phone feeling sheepish.

(emphasis mine)

The young man was incredibly understanding of her hesitation to hire him due to his gender. This is very kind of him, considering that he was actively being discriminated against by a potential employer. And I know guys just like that, who are kind and understanding about our society's widespread belief that children are dangerous when left with men. My husband and I live in a townhouse complex with a bunch of families with small children. A couple months ago, we were watching our niece (who we live with, along with my sister and mom) at the playground in the courtyard, playing with other children between 3 - 5 years old, and a 4-year-old girl asked Jesse to help her reach a horizontal bar-thing that she was too short to reach herself. In order to help her, he'd have to lift her up. He told her that he wasn't sure if that would be okay with her parents. She went and asked, got the OK, and helped her. Of course, if it were me, I'd have just lifted her up, and no one would have been suspicious of anything. But as we'd just moved in, he wasn't sure if the little girl's parents might freak about a "strange man" touching their daughter.

On the one hand, I understand the concern. A stranger of any gender in close proximity to a child without visible caregivers can look suspect, and since men are primarily the gender who gets the (public) bad rap for being child abusers and molesters, it's easy to see why many women (and even many men) might be more afraid of seeing their child with an unknown male than female. On the other hand, when my husband and I have kids, I don't want him to get suspicious looks, or have people questioning his right to be alone with our children simply because of his gender.

Which brings me to my next point. Sparkle's confident and un-cited statistic that she whipped out of nowhere about men being "far more likely" to molest a child than a woman isn't even accurate. For one thing, recent studies have shown that women are more often the perpetrators of violence against children than men are, and the majority of the cases of child abuse (80%) are perpetrated by parents of the children. While Sprinkle admits that she acted in an unfair manner and felt "sheepish" after turning the young man down for the job and that, as a result, her daughter may have "missed out on a chance to have a great caregiver and our family a friend," she maintains that she acted in a way that made her feel more comfortable.

Additionally, she tries to give herself an out by saying that it's a shame she has to feel this way, and that society forces us to discriminate against men like him. Here's the problem: she is a member of society. She feels bad about the way that the society that she is a part of discriminates against men in this situation. What is she waiting for? All the other mothers to stop treating them this way first? Ending this kind of discrimination is her responsibility, too. How many other parents in her circle of friends and elsewhere will read this article or hear her story and feel a renewed dedication to discriminating based on gender? How many more children will grow up afraid of males alone with children because this message is drilled into them growing up? And how will women ever stop being expected to be homemakers and full-time parents if we as a society refuse to allow men the same opportunity?

I want to give Sparkle credit for being frank about her prejudices. It's difficult to admit a bias against and generalized group of people, and she risked a great deal of pushback and criticism, which she has thankfully received in the comments on the post, and elsewhere in the gender-thinkers section of the blogosphere.

But, credit for candidly admitting her prejudice against men and admission of guilty feelings about said prejudice aside, this is seriously problematic. We as a society, and we as feminists and people committed to equality between men and women cannot continue to turn a blind eye toward discrimination against men in the domestic sphere. As Archivist of the False Rape Society blog wrote in response to my comment on his post,

Women have made a lot of progress breaking down barriers that once confined them to the domestic sphere. Women will never be able to truly "have it all" unless men are freed up to move from the work world to the domestic sphere. Right now, there is a terrible social stigma for men to adopt a significant role as nurturer. (A woman who tells her fiance that she wants to take time off from work when they have children is called a normal woman; a man who tells his fiance he wants to take time off from work when they have children is called "an ex-fiance.") This sort of thinking is scarcely consonant with the notion that women can do what was formerly considered men's work, and men can do what was formerly considered women's work.

While the priority of any parent is surely on doing everything in their power to keep their children safe, the idea that men are inherently more likely to molest and abuse children is false, and, just as I'm not about to go around telling people it's totally okay for me to be afraid of black men who walk past me or get into elevators with me (or men in general who talk to me, period) and expect sympathy and understanding, it shouldn't be okay for her to feel justified in making decisions based on an unsupported and demonstrably irrational fear of the entire male sex. We can't expect to gain equality to men in all areas of life, but save domesticity for ourselves. This isn't fair, it isn't right, and it's damaging to everyone involved.

It does seem, though, that her piece, sympathetic as it was, has gotten a lot of attention and sparked necessary discussions. For this, perhaps it was a good piece for the Times to post.

h/t Jim.