The disastrous effects of political correctness

Will men ever be trusted with children again?

David Aaronovitch in the Times on July 8 - 2014

“If I came across a lost or distressed child I would not hold them by the hand,” texted one man to the morning phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday. “I would roll up a newspaper or use a belt and get them to hang on to that.” The subject under discussion was whether, in light of the slew of revelations about historic sexual abuse, men felt inhibited from interaction with children other than their own. It was simultaneously a mad, crazy thing to say and yet completely understandable. And when something can be both it is time to think again.

For me the trial and conviction of Rolf Harris was the worst of all the post-Savile abuse scandals. Savile himself? Well, that was a sordid, unreal world, the world of pop; all casting couches and alcohol. And if Savile’s crimes went far beyond what anyone might have imagined, well then at least you might have imagined something.

But Rolf? An anodyne favourite uncle for almost my entire male life, from child to crock-kneed late middle-age. Eternally good-natured, preternaturally harmless — an all-season, jolly-song Santa. Look at how our knowledge of one aspect of his true nature taints everything: his silly little ditties and ballads. Jake with the extra leg; two little boys had two little toys; do you want to see me play with my didgeridoo? The most innocent words or actions become seamy and ribald. And not without justice. In sentencing Harris the judge commented on how the star “clearly got a thrill” from sexually assaulting his victims while other people — unsuspecting — were around. While we, the fans and audiences were around.

And if Rolf, why not any of us men? Don’t we all have (excuse me) cocks and desires? Aren’t we, all of us, just possibly prey to certain impulses — should the opportunity arise, should the chance thrust itself at us?

No. No. Of course not. Most men would no more seduce their 13-year-old daughter’s friend than they would have sex with a sheep. Almost all of us know or intuit the answers to the questions about boundaries that we are always being asked. Male teachers rebuff the immature flirtations of their pupils every day of the week. Fathers sense the moment, maybe at six or seven, when their daughters really don’t need to see them naked again. We have to decide when — their mothers being otherwise occupied — they can no longer get into their costumes with us in the male changing rooms in the swimming pool and must be trusted on their own to the mysteries of the ladies’ lockers. Mothers do the same.

But if we can trust ourselves, will anyone trust us? It sometimes seems as though the past 30 years has just been one long shaming parade of male professional infamy. The care workers who took the wrong kind of care, the scout masters who read Scouting for Boysthe wrong way, the leaning music tutors, the unconfessing priests, the murderous caretakers and now — if rumour has it right — the member (geddit?) of parliament. All at it. Or potentially all at it. Which, from the zealous protector’s point of view, comes to much the same thing.

When I was a young boy men just weren’t around children much anyway. We had a grand total of two male teachers at my north London primary school in the 1960s. My nursery school teacher was a woman. The school nurse, of course, was a woman. A male nurse? You might as well ask for a female pilot. In hospital or in clinics, except for a few brief moments with the male doctor, you were looked after by women. Children inhabited the female world, by and large, until they went to secondary school. My father, not an untypical man for his generation, was not present at our births, did not change nappies, didn’t read to us, or even take us to Disney films. Had he had any interest in football I suppose he might have kicked a ball around with us, but he didn’t.

Things changed, thank God. We weren’t happy to be as absent as our dads. I am by no means a model father, but I have taken far more pleasure in my daughters than my dad took in his children. They got read to, swum with, cartooned alongside, nappy-changed and hoisted aloft my shoulders to school. I hardly ever missed a school concert or a parents’ evening — and not because I was virtuous, but because I loved seeing them laugh, dance and play. My youngest is now 17 and I mourn the passing of those days.

I like to see young mothers with their children, but watching besotted young fathers is almost the best thing of all. The gentleness, the softening of the eyes, the unique kind of smile that dads give their small children, is like a sudden crocus in a cold lawn. It never fails to lift my spirits. And if you can cherish your own children and still be a man, it isn’t much of a leap to imagine that you can care for other people’s as well. Providing, of course, pace The Slap, that you are careful about how you discipline them.

This change would, you might imagine, lead to many more men becoming, say, primary school teachers — it is, after all, a spectacularly rewarding job, and you don’t have adolescents to deal with. And yet they’re not. Barely a fifth of those going on to primary school training courses are men. One reason, apparently, being the fear of being thought to be a potential kiddy-fiddler.

On the Radio 5 phone-in a dad related going along to watch his young daughter at a gym class. There were several mums who had turned up, but he was the only man. At one point the instructor stopped the class, came over to him and asked, pointedly, what he thought he was doing there. She didn’t ask the mums.

Most of us would go a very long way, scaredy cats that we are, to avoid such a horrendous confrontation. Not even the accusation, but the perceived suspicion that we could just possibly be one of those is enough to give us sleepless nights. How could you, I wouldn’t, not me, etc, etc. But what else would such a man say? What did Rolf say when he was first accused?

Stranger danger is, for the most part, a fantasy. The reality that we all know (but somehow don’t know) is that most child abuse takes place in the home. But the fact that very few of us are, but any of us might be, predatory, has led — among other things — to an officious carefulness. And not just about men.

I was, for a few years, a parent governor at a lovely London primary school full of excellent conscientious teachers. In that time, though we had to deal with some awkwardnesses, only one incident actually shocked me. A child of about nine had become ill with a tummy upset and had soiled her clothes badly. The school was in an old Edwardian building and had no shower room, and the staff felt that if one or more of them had to clean her up in the teachers’ loos then, if there were any misunderstanding, they would be vulnerable to accusations of abuse. Unfortunately her parents could not be contacted by phone and as a result the girl was forced to sit, for several hours, in her shit-clogged clothing. The governors, to a man and woman, pointed out that this almost amounted to abuse in itself.

I am beginning to wonder what it would take for us to be shocked back into rationality; rationality being when an adult male, finding a lost child, will confidently take its hand and seek to reunite it with its carer.

My mind takes me back to how many of us felt in the autumn of 1993, during the trial of the boy killers of little Jamie Bulger. That was when we discovered that Jamie had been walked, kicked and dragged two and a half miles from a shopping centre to a railway line, without any adult, of the many who witnessed the journey, seeking to intervene. One, Lorna Brown, “cried in the witness box” as she told how Jamie was being treated. But she walked on, and when she looked back, the boys were gone.

Are Harris, Savile and Hall going to make Lorna Browns of all of us? Perhaps they already have.