Note: If it sounds as if I recorded this in a cave, I did. Literally. I recorded this on vacation in Santorini, Greece, in a room that was carved from the mountains.
Recently, NPR posted a story about a man who allegedly sexually abused a one-year-old child who was in his care. This was a horrific story that haunts virtually every parent at some point in parenthood. One of the top comments that received as many angry faces as likes, read "I'm sorry but never let a man watch your child. I don't care if it's a family friend. Unfortunately, it [sexual abuse] happens all too often." The commenter said in follow-up comments, "Statistics show that men have higher rates of sexual abuse and molestation than women. Sorry, but the truth is not good." As you might have expected, there were many angry responses to this (from men and women) saying how sexist this was. What do you think? Before you read on, take a moment to critically evaluate this comment.
Let's begin listing some of the issues that need to be considered. These are the ones that I thought of, but there may be more.
As we will see, some of these can be addressed objectively, that is, there is only one true answer. Others are subjective, meaning that our answer is based on our individual evaluation that can legitimately differ from another's. So in case you are waiting for an articulate smackdown or show of overwhelming support for this comment, I will tell you now so I don't disappoint you later—I won't be supporting this idea nor will I be rejecting it, but I will be dissecting it starting with the way the claim was stated.
The commenter said, unambiguously, "Never let a man watch your child." In my experience, most of the time people use absolute terms they don't mean them in a literal sense but use them more as emotive terms to make a point. I would suspect there would be many such situations that this commenter would allow a man to watch his or her child. However, some people do allow irrational emotions to interfere with reason and would not back down when making absolute claims ("yes, I meant 'NEVER,' dammit!") Regardless of where this commenter stands on what was meant by "never," the mere use of the term in this context reduces the credibility of the commenter and associates them with unreason.
Yes. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that "offenders are overwhelmingly male" and about 14% of offenders of abused boys are women and 6% of abused girls are women. Other reports conducted over the decades come to similar conclusions.
Let's use a relatively common definition of sexism: prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex. The commenter is prejudging any one man as being more likely to sexually abuse children than any one woman. This demonstrates a clear stereotype where all men are seen to have the characteristic "more likely to sexually abuse children than women." Discrimination is clearly implied by this commenter never taking the action to let a man watch a child. While this is against a man, it is all on the basis of sex. Recall that we are using a very basic definition of "sexism," and there is so much more that could be discussed here. For example, can't some types of prejudice be warranted? Aren't many stereotypes accurate (i.e., based on statistical truths)? Is it ever acceptable to discriminate? We will address some of this in the following sections.
"Never be alone with a black man." Are you okay with that is a general rule? According to FBI statistics on crime, black males are several times more likely to commit violent crimes than white males (at least in the United States). Statistically speaking, we are safer with a white man than with a black man, yet very few people (outside Neo-Nazi parties) would ever suggest that one should "never be alone with a black man." This is partly due to the fact that blacks are a marginalized group whereas men are not, so claims such as "never trust a man with your child" are not seen as an attack on a marginalized group. However, if we are justifying such a claim based on statistics and data alone, we would need to consider what it would be like if we applied this rule to other situations. Or perhaps, we create a rule that says we are only allowed to discriminate (when the statistics justify such discrimination) when the group being discriminated against is not a minority or marginalized group. But those who argue for equality should have a problem with this kind of allowed discrimination based on a biological characteristic.
The question, should we let men watch children, can be seen as a decision we need to make. We need to look at this question from both a personal and societal perspective. For example, we can personally be against allowing a man to watch our child but never admit such a thing publicly, and never wish for such an idea to become a global rule for others to follow. Yes, this would make us hypocritical, but often as it is with hypocrisy, our decision is made emotionally and goes against our reason. I think most people can relate to this kind of hypocrisy whether it has to do with supporting the idea of recycling but not bothering recycling yourself or admiring health and fitness but continually eating poorly and not getting enough exercise. I would guess that there are many parents who would strongly prefer female caregivers to male ones (personal), but have no problem with or even applaud others for "taking a chance" with a male caregiver (societal). Decision makers conduct a cost/benefit analysis whether they realize it or not. However, not everyone has the facts nor does everyone consider all the substantial costs and benefits of their decisions. Here are some potential costs and benefits of such a decision:
So assuming this cost/benefit analysis is exhaustive (which it is not), how do we decide which is greater—the costs or the benefits? Here is where values come in.
The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has demonstrated that political conservatives and liberals give different decision-making weight to certain values. So for example, liberals are far more likely to give more decision-making weight to fairness than conservatives are. Conservatives are far more likely to give more decision-making weight to safety and security. To be clear, virtually all people value fairness, safety, and security—it is a question of to what degree is each of those valued. There is no way we can objectively say that risking the mental or physical well-being of children is justified in order not to discriminate against an entire sex. Likewise, we cannot objectively say that such a risk would be unjustified. These are judgement calls that come down to subjective values.
According to The National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 out of 5 girls and 1 out of 20 boys are victims of sexual assault. Those aren't great odds, but they are not certainties either. Some people are more risk adverse than others, especially when background information reduces the odds of their child being a victim. For example, a couple might entrust a male neighbor to watch their child—a neighbor who they have known for years. They might have webcams in every room of their house with a live feed. Perhaps one's child is older and knows what to do in a potentially abusive situation. There are many situation-specific factors that can affect risk, as well as the dispositional risk-averse personality characteristics of the parents.
At the start of this article, I asked you to critically evaluate the comment "I'm sorry but never let a man watch your child. I don't care if it's a family friend. Unfortunately, it [sexual abuse] happens all too often." How do you feel about it now? If you say something such as "I can see the commenter's point" and "I can see how people might be agitated by the comment" then I did my job. Although I have a problem with the commenter's use of the word "never," I am willing to give that a charitable interpretation and assume "in most cases" was really meant. I also have a problem with the commenter's apparent inability to see the problems with their argument, and their attempt to impose their opinion on the rest of us as a general rule. So in short, I am not a fan of this comment.
This issue can be seen as a moral dilemma, and moral dilemmas are never easy (otherwise they wouldn't be a "dilemma"). If we agree with the general idea that men should not be trusted with children, we face contributing to injustice as well as legitimate accusations of discrimination and prejudice where many good men are viewed as potential sexual abusers and denied opportunities to care for children. If we insist that men should not be discriminated against when it comes to childcare, then we are not objecting to the statistical certainty that more children will be sexually abused. Be reasonable and acknowledge the dilemma, whether you agree with the commenter's general idea, or disagree. This ability to understand both sides is a critical aspect of civil discourse that leads to reasonable policies.
(Note: I purposely did not disclose the gender of the commenter because I did not want the gender to bias the reader's opinion on the topic. The commenter was a female, and many people responded to her by simply calling her a "crazy feminist" or other derogatory name based on her being a woman.)
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