Do We Really Need Sex-Gregation?

An airline is separating men and women on their flights. Columnist Lucy Vine says the idea is just plane stupid and regressive

Air India

by Lucy Vine |
Published on

When I was in Year 8, I went to a Valentine’s Day disco, where all the boys stood on one side, and all the girls stood on the other (I say stood, but it was the day after Take That announced they were formally splitting up, so a lot of the girls were literally lying on the floor crying). That whole evening, not one person crossed the divide between us. I was only 12, and I still thought it was stupid.

But now an airline thinks my 1996 school disco is the answer to sexual harassment.

On Monday, Air India announced that, starting this week, female passengers can buy tickets for a women-only section of their planes. In fact, every domestic flight they run will now have a row of seats just for the laydees.

‘We feel, as national carriers, it is our responsibility to enhance comfort level to female passengers,’ Air India said in its statement. ‘There are a lot of female passengers who travel alone with us and we will be blocking a few seats for them.’

I understand their point and I understand that they’re trying, BUT COME THE FUCK ON BRIDGET.

I admit there is a problem on planes. We’re seeing increasing numbers of women come forward about mid-air incidents – Jesus, even the brand new President of the United States was accused of touching a woman inappropriately during a flight (who’s surprised by that?). And in October, the New York Times did a big, horrifying piece on the subject, confirming the FBI had opened 58 in-flight assault investigations in nine months of 2016, compared to 40 throughout 2015. The feature quotes Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants as saying, ‘Sexual harassment and assault is happening on aircrafts, and we believe it’s happening more often because of the conditions on board.’ She blamed the cramped quarters, the flow of alcohol, fewer flight attendants and night flights, where women can be vulnerable as they sleep alone in dark cabins.

But acknowledging there is a problem doesn’t mean sex-segregation is in any way the answer. If we say putting men and women on different sides of a room is the answer, how do we move forward from that? Do we just keep dividing up the sexes in more and more areas of life? Harassment can happen anywhere, so do we start having women-only houses? Women-only offices? Women-only roads? This move is completely reductive, and not just for us – it’s incredibly damaging and unfair to men too, because it says they can’t be trusted.

Are we OK with teaching girls that? Are we OK with telling them they should be afraid of men? Are we OK with saying that the way to deal with harassment is to hide victims away?

Dealing with problems like this should never be about telling a victim to stop doing something normal – like being around men in a public place – to prevent a crime happening to them. That idea is such a small, awkward step from telling women not to dress a certain way if they don’t want to be raped. Something which I think I’ve said before literally every day of my life SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

Firstly, we need better systems in place for dealing with this stuff when it happens. Air India have discussed having plastic handcuffs on board, which is one possibility I guess, but the trouble is – right now – there’s no specific, universal system across airlines. Certainly, in real life, if you reported an attack, you wouldn’t then be forced to sit next to the perpetrator for the next ten hours. But that’s often what happens on board flights. You can’t throw a handsy lech out the emergency door, can you? (Unfortunately) (JK!) And what if the flight’s full? Often, flight attendants say they have to resort to simply asking other passengers if anyone would mind switching seats, and hoping someone will volunteer.

Whatever we do next, separating sexes is definitely never the answer. If anything, we need the opposite – we need to come together as human beings to tackle shitty problems like this one. Not just on planes, but everywhere that sexual assault and harassment happens. We need more education to ensure predators understand what they’re doing and don’t fucking do it. One of the case studies detailed by NYT is a reverend, arrested in 2014, who claimed he thought sexually assaulting a sleeping passenger was ‘consensual because she did not reject his touches and he interpreted her silence, because she was asleep, as “coyness”.’

It sounds ridiculous, but this is a real problem. A lot of people out there still do not have a basic understanding of consent, and we need to fix that.

And for those who already understand what they’re doing and want to do it anyway, being seated in a different row isn’t going to stop them.

Follow Lucy Vine @lecv

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