Many years ago, in college, I was a passenger in a crowded car. We had all been to a party, and the driver was nice enough to drop us off more or less near our homes. The gathering had been some distance from town, and so we all spent several minutes crowded together in the car. There was one young woman in the back seat, and she was sitting next to a man she knew who was not her boyfriend. It was late and we were tired. After a few minutes, the young woman leaned on the man and put her head against his shoulder.
It was a minor thing. The young woman put her head on the man’s shoulder. (Life is made up of minor things.) Yet I felt lonely then. For all the talk of male privilege, there are many things a woman can take for granted that a man cannot. Most importantly, the ability to be open with one’s affections without apology, and without arousing suspicion or hostility.
Last week, Nicole Sprinkle wrote a piece in the New York Times, “Tarring Men,” in which she recounted her decision not to hire a 23 year old man to look after her pre-school age daughter in the afternoon, despite his friendly manner, experience working with children, and excellent references, because, she said, “statistically a man is more likely to molest a child.”
I found many things about the New York Times article disturbing, not least of which was the young man’s instinctive deference in the face of her denigration of his integrity.
Here’s Nicole Sprinkle describing the young man’s reaction to her decision not to hire him:
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.
That sounds innocuous enough, until you make the implicit explicit:
I told him I needed to think for a day or two about whether he was going to sexually molest my daughter if I hired him… He very kindly told me he understood I was worried he might sexually abuse my daughter, 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, because I couldn’t be completely sure he wasn’t a sex offender. Again, he pleasantly told me he completely understood that I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t try to sexually assault my daughter if I left him alone with her, but to feel free to call him if it didn’t work out.
We talk about “male privilege,” but women are not asked to apologize for their gender in the way that men are. “You’re worried I might rape your daughter? That’s cool. I understand. No problem.” Some people in our culture expect men to abase themselves in this way.
To be clear, I am not saying that women’s suspicion toward men is always unjustified. Stereotypes often exist for a reason, and in order to go about their lives, clearly women sometimes have to make quick judgments about men based on generalizations and stereotypes. But this wasn’t one of those times. She had vetted this young man, and he passed with flying colors.
But what about her instincts? Couldn’t her instincts have been warning her about something? Well, possibly. But it may also be true that she, like some women, doesn’t want to be able to trust men with her children. Because to do so would be to cede her powerful moral authority as a member of the only gender that can be trusted with children. To trust men would put men on equal moral ground, and would cede a kind of power over men. It may have been this, and not a fear for her daughter’s well being, that was triggering Mrs. Sprinkle’s doubts.
But clearly not all women feel this way, and I was heartened to read, in the comments to the article, many reactions from women saying that men cannot be treated with this kind of distrust if we as a society would like them to be emotionally open toward children. I was truly grateful to see this.