Writer: Sex Abuse Scandals Lead to a Fear of Men

Recent sex abuse scandals in the news are creating a fear of men when it comes to relationships with children, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Zaslow, who's written on the subject. Zaslow explains why he thinks the perceptions are "over the top."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We like to think of TELL ME MORE as a safe place to have difficult conversations. That's why every week, we try to bring you a conversation behind close doors, where we tackle topics that are taboo or hard to talk about. Today, we want to talk about kids and men. In an era of sexual abuse scandals, have we begun to look askance at men's relationships with children across the board? Is any man who likes working with kids under a cloud, whether Santa or the softball coach? One writer wonders whether our concern over abuse is now turning into a distorted image of men and discouraging them from being involved in the lives of children who need them.

Jeffrey Zaslow is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He's written several columns on this subject and he joins us now from his office in Southfield, Michigan. Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. JEFFREY ZASLOW, (Columnist, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: What made you get on to this subject?

Mr. ZASLOW: Well, I heard from readers. You know, I write about life transitions - whether in people's personal lives or in the wider culture - and I have been hearing from readers, men saying, you know, they feel like people are looking at them funny if they just have a relationship with children. It really is - it's sad to see. You know, airlines will seat unaccompanied minors only with female passengers, as if any male is a potential predator. Many police Web sites tell young people and their parents that if you get lost, look for a mother pushing a stroller or grandmother. You know, they never say look for a father pushing a stroller. It's a little bit over the top.

MARTIN: Really? Because one might argue that that's just common sense.

Mr. ZASLOW: Well, their argument is most people who molest children are males at 80 percent or so. So yes, you can make that argument. But by the same token, virtually all of the time, if a child is lost or in trouble, he'll be safe going to the nearest male stranger. Virtually, all the time he'll be safe. And so we're making our kids afraid men, and why do that? Why set up that fear when, you know, more kids are, you know - we don't want our kids walking to school with some male predator might jump out of the bushes. But there's a greater risk that in our SUVs we'll run over children while we avoid these alleged male predators.

MARTIN: But you've got to talk the kids in sentences, not paragraphs. And I know you're a father yourself...

Mr. ZASLOW: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...so you know this. And if you got to give kids some common sense, simple rules to follow, doesn't it make sense to say go for the mom, go first to the woman instead of going to a single male? Because I mean, frankly, you don't find women dragging kids into cars at the school bus stop. That's just the way it is - by sex.

Mr. ZASLOW: But also the way it is, is you don't find many men at all dragging anybody into cars. Most kids who were abused are abused by their - by somebody they know. And most physical abuse of kids is actually by mothers. And that's mainly because mothers are more apt to be caretakers of kids. But you can look at statistics a lot of different ways, and chances are your kid will be safe walking to school without a male predator jumping out of the bushes, you know, which one of a million chance. What is happening to our children when we tell them, you know, be afraid of Santa, be afraid of men. There was a Virginia public service ad that really angered fathers rights groups, which had a picture of a father holding a child's hand and the quote was, "it doesn't feel right when I see them together," as if a man holding a child's hand is something wrong.

MARTIN: I wonder if this is part of a specific reaction to concerns about abuse or just part of a general sort of cultural transition where males are no longer the undisputed authority figures, like father knows best, or something of that sort, because, you know, it used to be that the male was always the figure of everything, you know, whether it was religious figures, school principals...

Mr. ZASLOW: Right.

MARTIN: ...you know, father knows best. What do you think?

Mr. ZASLOW: Well, it's changing all across our culture because in elementary schools, in 1981, 18 percent of elementary schoolteachers were male. Now it's down to nine percent, we're 25 years up the road. For some of the reason, it's men are afraid to just get involved.

MARTIN: But how do you know that's the reason that men aren't teaching in elementary schools or perhaps that there are other changes like salaries, that they're no longer willing to tolerate.

Mr. ZASLOW: Well, salaries - well, yes, that is an issue, but when I put that in my column, I heard from many former male teachers saying that that's why they got out of it. So...

MARTIN: Really? Give me an example if you would.

Mr. ZASLOW: Well, they said that, you know, I was in the class and a mother would say something to me that she didn't like, and I thought, it didn't happen to me, I haven't been accused yet, but I don't want to be. It's just not worth it. And I've heard from lots of soccer coaches saying the same thing. A lot of soccer leagues have rules now where, you know, that you need a mother on the sidelines to watch the mix with the soccer coaches and touching kids in a funny way.

MARTIN: You mean whether the team is a male team or female team, regardless?

Mr. ZASLOW: Yeah, regardless. Sure. Sure. But, and, you know, in a way, that's wonderful that we're alert to potential problems. But, gosh, if you're a soccer coach walking on the sidelines and a girl is hurt on the field and you're afraid to touch her in a certain way, that makes it uncomfortable being a soccer coach. I - from these columns, I probably got fifteen hundred e-mails from men and from women, too, talking about this. And it was sad to read them all. It was sad to read, you know, from a guy who's sitting at the airport with his five-year-old daughter and a policeman comes up because a passerby had said that her - his interactions with the child seemed suspicious. But, you know, there's this fear and paranoia that's been ingrained in us through the media and we're all, we're all part of that.

MARTIN: And you've become convinced as a result of this reporting and your, and the response you're getting from readers that the society is losing something, that men are just - men who otherwise, in your view, are of good will - are being chased out of, you know, helpful and constructive relationships with kids because of the fear?

Mr. ZASLOW: Completely. I mean, the Big Brothers and Big Sisters, they have background checks from 250,000 volunteers. And they have - you know, they have had problems, and all the problems had been male. But it's literally, you know, one, two, three, no more, in any year, they'd never had 10 abuse allegations in a year. And how many men said I'm not going to get involved because, you know, I don't want them to be suspicious of my behavior and asking a lot of questions and doing background checks. And some men are deciding that's just not worth it.

MARTIN: So what's your thought about how to find the middle ground here between common sense steps to protect your children from legitimate dangers and, you know, tilting the scale so far in the other direction that kids are being deprived of, you know, positive relationships that they could be having? What do you think?

Mr. ZASLOW: Right. Well, I don't know if I would tell my kid only go up to a woman in a mall. I don't think I would do that. I would say, go up to a store clerk, find a policeman, you know, a parent pushing a stroller. I mean, how many men pushing babies in strollers are going to molest your children? You know, so I would tell my kids, yes, you can go. You can go find a male and you're going to be okay.

MARTIN: Okay. Jeffrey Zaslow, joining us from his office in Southfield, Michigan. He's a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Jeff, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ZASLOW: Thanks, Michel.

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