Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I don't talk to children: Is fear of sexual predators reinforcing gender roles?

I've been reading "There's a good girl" by Marianne Grabrucker, in which she describes her attempts to raise her daughter in a sane way free from gender stereotypes, and the difficulties she faces.

One of the recurring themes, especially at the start of the book, is that men ignore children. When a child sits down next to a woman on the train, the woman will often engage it in conversation, and the parent present will look on approvingly. On the other hand, a man will simply pretend the child is not there at all.

If he's forced to interact with it, he will do so very distantly, in a condescending voice and a minimum of words. To quote Grabrucker:

"So a man is apparently permitted to ignore someone; he is in control of the situation and decides who he will talk to and when. When he does address children, he adopts the tone he will later often use with women."

(page 34f)

Now, the fun thing about examining societal attitudes is that you can just look into yourself to figure them out. A thought experiment with an imagined situation can yield quite surprising results.

In my case, I have realised that I just don't talk to children!

For example, let's say I'm over at some friends', who have a little girl. They're busy making dinner. I have offered to help them, but there is nothing for me to do. The little girl is bored, and bothering her parents.

I could go and entertain the kid - ask her to show me her toys, tell her a story, chase her around - do something to get her out of her parents' way so they can cook in peace.

If the parents ask me to, I will happily do this. I like children. But I would never take the initiative: talking to or touching a child who isn't family feels like a huge transgression to me. So unless prompted, I just stand in the doorway and chat.

A woman, on the other hand, would be expected to entertain the child. Women are supposed to help others out, and to take care of children. Men are not expected to do the former, and are societally prohibited from doing the latter.

Another scenario: A little boy is running across a big park, and falls flat on his face, right next to me. He starts crying. I stand rooted to the spot and wait for his mother to run across the park to pick him up and make sure he's OK. I behave like that because interacting with a kid I don't know at all feels like an impossible transgression.

The same kind of attitude also extends to women, if to a lesser degree:

About two years ago, on the bus home, I noticed this young women and her kid come onto the bus, carrying a bunch of plastic bags. The little girl was pretty hyperactive and kept zooming around the bus, despite being repeatedly told off by her mother. Eventually, I noticed that the mother was crying. I had another look at the (translucent) bags, and noticed that they were haphazardly stuffed with lots of clothes and personal things.

I might have jumped to conclusions there, but to me this looked very much like the two had just been thrown out of wherever they had been living. For all I knew, they didn't have anywhere to go.

So of course, I did nothing.

What should I have done? Gone up to the woman, and asked "Pardon me, it looks like you've just been turfed out on the street. Do you need help carrying your bags? Would you like a cup of tea? Do you need somewhere to sleep? We have a sofa."

But I'm a pretty tall guy who's dressed mostly in black. The last thing she needed at that point (turfed out or not) was having to deal with a random stranger, trying to figure out whether he could be trusted. If I had been with my girlfriend we might have done something, but alone, I worried I would just look too threatening.

The whole encounter left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable with myself.

So a few months ago, when I was cycling down the road, I noticed a young woman sitting slumped on the verge, crying. As such things go, any number of cars and pedestrians had passed her already without taking notice. I cycled past her too, but twenty metres down the road, I remembered my previous experience and turned around.

She was not in a happy place, though she refused to tell me any details. In the end - and after consulting with my girlfriend over the phone - I called an ambulance and let them take care of her.

I'm not telling this story to trumpet my own credentials as a Samaritan, but to point out that it took quite a lot of mental effort on my part to override my conditioning to ignore her as well.


When I ask myself why I don't interact with children - or women in distress - the reason that comes to mind most readily is that as a man, I'm a potential child molester and rapist.

Of course I want to scoop up that kid and make sure he's all right. But I don't want to panic his mother as she sees a strange man touching her child. If I were female, I think I would appear much less threatening, and this wouldn't be a problem.

But the mind readily makes up rationalisations, so I don't know if that's the real reason for my behaviour. I may well be just following the rules society has instilled in me and justifying it after the fact.

The moral panic about child molestation is mostly misdirected. Most such transgressions happen within the circle of family and friends. Your dear uncle Bobby is much more likely to interfere with your child than a random stranger on the street. So is your aunt Susan. And even a stereotypical crazed child-rapist would be unlikely to grab your child in broad daylight and run off with it, cackling.

The idea of men as potential child molesters does seem to be a popular one - I've heard it as the received wisdom that there are nearly no male primary school teachers because all it takes is a single accusation of molestation to end their career. I don't know if that's true, but the attitude does certainly exist. But is it, again, a rationalisation of traditional gender roles?

Certainly the worry about child molestation has resulted in some strange things: parents get in trouble for taking photographs of their children taking a bath, and in one case, they are banned from the playground. The justification for such insanity?

"Sadly, in today's climate, you can't have adults walking around unchecked in a children's playground."

So there you go. This is why I don't talk to children, don't smile at them, don't comfort them if they're hurt. And what does that teach them? That taking care of children is women's work.

What am I going to do about it? I will try to push at that boundary a little, at least. Smile at little kids on the street. Offer to entertain my friends' children. What else? Suggestions are very welcome.


  1. Great Post mate, any chance of a loan of the book when you're finished plzkthx?

  2. The issue with a lot of these gender stereotypes seems to be that they are overgeneralisations of real, yet far less pronounced differences.

    The idea that women take care of children, and men don't, is of course ridiculous. I know loads of women who hate kids, and loads of guys who are very comfortable around them. However, it is also true that, at least for the vast majority of human history, a child absolutely requires a women to care for them during the first few months of life. This is enforced through all sorts of behavioural and hormonal controls, resulting in a tendancy for women to like being around children.

    Notice the word tendancy. As highly intelligent beings, we can override and even reverse all sorts of behavioural tendancies. With sufficient societal conditioning, we could no doubt raise a generation of baby-coddling men and indifferent women.

    The reality, of course, is that society tends to condition people to fall into stereotypes, rather than counteract them. This is not the result of anybody being deliberately malicious, it's simply about drawing conclusions based on incomplete information. The thousands of generalisations we carry around in our head all add up to reinforce existing biological biases. This creates a social bias which then feeds back into our generalisations, reinforcing the cycle. This is pretty much annavoidable, and pretty harmless on its own.

    The harm arises when we apply generalisations to individuals. Based on my own experiences, I've noticed a general tendancy for women to like babies more than men. This is a harmless conclusion, and may even be useful if I find myself in the unlikely situation of having to anonomously distribute a box full of babies. If I was to go around telling women that they MUST like babies, or enact a law that women MUST look after all babies, then that would be evil.

  3. I agree with you up to the point where you state that the social bias towards women taking care of children is harmless.

    We can't stop ourselves from applying generalisations to individuals. In a sense, this is what culture is: people who are in a particular category are assumed to work in a particular way. People rely on such generalisations as shortcuts to knowing how to treat others. So we can't expect people to stop applying generalisations altogether - they are too inherent to our social behaviour.

    As long as the social idea persists that women take care of children while men ignore them, this will happen:

    A woman wants to become an engineer, or a scientist, or a doctor, or whatever else she wants to be - but at each step in her life, she will be confronted by an expectation that she exists to take care of children. Yes, no one may outright forbid her to become an engineer, and there is no law against it. But a thousand little nudges and discouragements have the same effect!

    Equally, a man may want to stay at home and take care of children, but if he tries, he will be seen as weak and despicable.

    Which is why I think it's important to go against the grain. It's not enough to simply declare that something harmful ought to be harmless. It must be actively resisted.

  4. Came from Feministe and really like the post. Very thought provoking, and good luck and encouragement in going against the grain!

    I remember as a (female) child being very intimidated by men, including my friends' fathers. They always seemed a little scary. Though I never felt that way about my own father or other male family.