The horrible case of 8 year-old Leiby Kletzky lost on a seven block walk to meet his mother, kidnapped and murdered by a stranger he'd asked for directions, has prompted various forms of outrage and advice. One thing I've seen quite a few places is the recommendation that children be instructed not to ask men for help, on the basis that men are more likely than women to exploit a child. And I can't help but wonder if that's really the advice we should be giving?
How much harm does it do children to make them afraid of men, to be given the not so subtle message that men are by nature dangerous? I can't help but think that childhood lesson produces a lasting impact that is very real, but also hard to quantify. And is the damage done by that lesson given to all children truly less than the impact of the assaults/killings/abuses directed at a minority of children? We can easily say that protecting even one child from abuse is worth just about anything, but that would be a lie. While it's hard to compare these things, as a society we clearly do... All parents could escort their children everywhere they go until they are 18, to ensure their safe passage, but society has decided that the children's mental health requires the risk of them being given independence, accepting the horrible things that could happen when they exercise it. So is a society tainted by the fear that men are likely to abuse them worth the reduced harm to some children? I'm not sure.
And separate from that, does the warning to avoid men when in need not cross (or at least come infinitely close to crossing) a very sexist, stereotyping line? What makes me uncomfortable is that you could use a similar logic to explain to a young daughter that she should stay away from black boys. Statistically they are more likely to commit crimes. This advice would make her "safer". But that would be a horrible message to send a child; I can't imagine any decent parent doing it. It's offensiveness is obvious, the fact is black people aren't genetically more likely to commit crimes, the increased crime rate is explained by socioeconomic factors. And so now we turn to the advice for daughters regarding men. Are men more likely to commit crimes because of genetic/hormones or is it because of other factors (environment, education, culture, etc.)? If it is not genetics/hormones then it would seem wholly "unfair" to discriminate on that basis, just as it would be to warn whites about black people when the root danger is socioeconomic, not race. Presumably one would argue that crime is more common among males for genetic/hormonal reasons, and I'd probably agree that there is some truth to that. But I'm not sure even that is enough to make it an acceptable form of discrimination, when every individual male is being judged with comparison to the aberrant males.
And of course all this relates somewhat to my earlier discussions about SlutWalk and whether or not women advising women to take precautions in situations where their behavior and/or dress could put them at elevated risk constitutes sexism. In that case my argument was that it's not sexist (against women) to make women aware of the risk of assault and mention precautions they could take to improve their odds, as long as those precautions outlined do not necessitate women being restricted in how they dress or where they go, and so long as society does not see those who flout these precautions as no longer being victims, should an assault occur. In this situation with children, I see a few key difference. There is in this case the prejudgment that all men may be potential kidnappers/pedophiles/murderers. In this case the solution is to avoid asking all men for help, and it is the blanket nature of the warning that I think makes it so sexist. If the advice given to children was instead, ask any adult woman or any adult man in some degree of authority wearing an employee's uniform engaged in his duties (e.g., grocery store manager, postal worker, city construction worker, etc.) then I would feel the advice less sexist and more reasonable; I do not know what the right selection criteria would be for men equally unlikely to violate children as the average woman, but I'm sure there are some.