In his book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, Barry Glassner discusses how Americans have become unnecessarily fearful of many things, thanks in good part to opportunistic politicians, single-minded advocacy groups, sensationalist news media, “news magazine” programming and so on. Such irrational fear complexes can do profound and unjustified harm not just to the directly affected individuals and groups, but to society as a whole.

When a segment of society has been unjustifiable tarred, it often takes dedicated activism to raise people’s consciousness to the injustice and perniciousness of such discrimination. My consciousness was recently raised by blogger Justin Trottier with regard to a branch of discrimination that does not seem to receive much public acknowledgement: discrimination against men.

Discrimination against men. It happens. Like in education, where simply being male apparently constitutes Strike 1 with regard to pedophilia. The fear of male teachers engaging in sexual contact with young students has become a major source of anxiety in education systems around the world. Below is the story of my brush with this phobia.

I’m a 26 year old male from Canada teaching English to children in Seoul, South Korea. Less than two weeks ago I had been teaching for my second last day at a school I had been at for 9.5 months. Everyday during my time at this school, I spent 1.5 hours with a class of four/five year olds. I really like kids, and I try my best to be sensitive and responsive to their concerns. I want them to feel comfortable, loved, accepted, taken care of, and so on.

I’ve always been affectionate with my students. However, for the first few months, the affection was displayed via high-fives, pats on the back and small hugs which were more often than not initiated by the students. I myself was resistent to becoming too affectionate with them because of concerns of it “looking suspicious”. Sometimes one of my 4 year old girl students would want to give me a kiss on the cheek and I would not allow it.

But as time went on and my students and I bonded, I started giving each of them hugs regularly, would let them give me a kiss on the cheek if they wanted and would sometimes give them a kiss on the cheek. I tempered my affection for kids based on such things as how long they’ve been at the school, whether or not they’ve initiated a hug with me in the past, their current state (e.g., are they crying?), and so on. I also take into account such considerations as not wanting some kids to feel like I like other kids more than them, so one way or another, I try to make sure each student – new or not, affectionate or not – knows that I care about them. And I always offer to give hugs to scared and tearful new students who are leaving their home for the first time; but it’s their choice whether or not they walk into it.

So, the incident. On my second last day at the school, a fellow male teacher – slightly older than I and who had been at the school a few months longer – said to me in private, very earnestly, that he had seen me kiss one of my students. I responded by saying “Yeah.. On the cheek…”. He responded saying that it was very inappropriate. I dead-panned “they’re five”. I could have also added that this was the last time I would ever see them (they didn’t have class on my last day), but I did not as this was not the first time I had ever kissed one of the four/five year olds on the cheek. He responded that it’s very inappropriate. They’re not your kids.

It’s really hard to receive this sort of communication and not feel personally insulted and not-so-implicitly accused of being some sort of weirdo or deviant. In all honesty, my day was ruined. Being connected with pedophilia can have that effect.

It appears that there is a broad distrust of male teachers. Yes, some male teachers have sexually assaulted students. But look what our fear of this presumably statistically infrequent event is doing. Just about any professional who deals with children or education will tell you, I imagine, that many children are affectionate, that many adults are inclined to be affectionate back, and that the relationship between teacher and pupil is a very important part of education. And now, because of a small collection of undesirable conduct, we are handcuffing all teachers – though with far greater suspicion directed at males – and undermining relationships, freedom to consensually express affection, and education. I have friends in teachers’ college in Ontario who have told me about how they’ve been specifically taught how to successfully avert a student-initiated hug by tactfully turning it into a socially-awkward handshake.

I’m not denying the reality of the need to protect children from sexual advances from teachers. But what a crude way of going about it. This is a case of fear about one of the things that could go wrong greatly interfering with educators’ ability to see that things go right. And, really, it’s just plain disturbing in my opinion. Does anyone else not find it disturbingly dehumanizing that we are constructing a culture in which teachers and students aren’t allowed to develop and enact warm and supportive relationships with one another? And that we’re teaching distrust and social distance? This is not a reasonable, helpful or proportional response. Wouldn’t it be better to simply make students, teachers and everyone aware of the simple reality of the situation – that sexual abuse does sometimes happen – and to teach students what sexual abuse is, what their rights are, how to go about addressing concerning situations, and simply creating a culture where actually inappropriate appropriate behaviour – e.g., sexual advances and unwanted nonsexual acts of affection (e.g., hugs) – can safely be reported?

Pedophilia in the classroom is a legitimate cause for concern. But so is preserving the humanity of the student-teacher relationship. And so is not sexually profiling male teachers.