Aug. 27, 2007 -- A controversial Virginia public service announcement aimed at preventing sexual abuse -- including billboards featuring a male adult holding a child's hand and provocative radio ads -- has some local men worried that the campaign is teaching children to fear men.
But the PSA may be in keeping with general child safety measures across the country. For example, airlines place unaccompanied minors with female rather than male passengers, and child safety groups advise lost boys and girls to seek out low-risk adults, like women with children, as first reported in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal.
"You are talking about singling out a large group -- almost half the population -- for stuff that in fact involves a small number of people," said George Mason University history professor Peter Stearns.
Stearns said actual incidents of male sexual predators seeking out children is less common than many think.
"Very few kids are at risk of sexual predation," said George Mason University history professor Peter Stearns. "We have definitely hyped it."
However, the vast majority of predators in the United States are male.
Rebecca Odor of the Virginia Department of Heath said the billboard and radio ads reflect such alarming statistics and were created to help fight the problem.
"This campaign isn't targeting children," she said. "This campaign is targeting adults in the community to learn the warning signs about child sexual abusers and to take an action step if they suspect something is wrong."
Yet some local men fear that the panic over predators also may affect the way men relate to children.
"You need to be able to let kids feel comfortable with men and vice versa," Stearns said. "And in a few cases I think men really do feel confused by the kind of signals that are being sent out now."
The controversy has left father of two Barry Pfluger in an uncomfortable situation. "My reaction is we have gone too far," said the girls' soccer coach of eight years.
Pfluger said now men have to question whether or not they can even give children a hug.
"It should be something that we just do that's human nature and we shouldn't have to think about the liability associated with it," he added.
It's exactly that type of response Stearns said he wants to prevent.
"I want children safe, too, but I also want children raised in an atmosphere where they don't feel unnecessary levels of fear and get distorted impressions about the world around them," Stearns said.