"Men's Rights" Groups Have Become Frighteningly Effective
They’re changing custody rights and domestic violence laws.
- Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2009 7:45am
- By Kathryn Joyce
At the end of October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, members of the men’s movement group RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) gathered on the steps of Congress to lobby against what they say are the suppressed truths about domestic violence: that false allegations are rampant, that a feminist-run court system fraudulently separates innocent fathers from children, that battered women’s shelters are running a racket that funnels federal dollars to feminists, that domestic-violence laws give cover to cagey mail-order brides seeking Green Cards, and finally, that men are victims of an unrecognized epidemic of violence at the hands of abusive wives.
“It’s now reached the point,” reads a statement from RADAR, “that domestic violence laws represent the largest roll-back in Americans’ civil rights since the Jim Crow era!”
RADAR’s rhetoric may seem overblown, but lately the group and its many partners have been racking up very real accomplishments. In 2008, the organization claimed to have blocked passage of four federal domestic-violence bills, among them an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to international scope and a grant to support lawyers in pro bono domestic-violence work. Members of this coalition have gotten themselves onto drafting committees for VAWA’s 2011 reauthorization. Local groups in West Virginia and California have also had important successes, criminalizing false claims of domestic violence in custody cases, and winning rulings that women-only shelters are discriminatory.
Groups like RADAR fall under the broader umbrella of the men’s rights movement, a loose coalition of anti-feminist groups. These men’s rights activists, or MRAs, have long been written off by domestic-violence advocates as a bombastic and fringe group of angry white men, and for good reason. Bernard Chapin, a popular men’s rights blogger, told me over e-mail that he will refer to me as “Feminist E,” since he never uses real names for feminists, who are wicked and who men “must verbally oppose … until our flesh oxidizes into dust.” In the United Kingdom, a father’s rights group scaled Buckingham Palace in superhero costumes. In Australia, they wore paramilitary uniforms and demonstrated outside the houses of female divorcees.
But lately they’ve become far more polished and savvy about advancing their views. In their early days of lobbying, “these guys would show up and have this looming body language that was very off-putting,” says Ben Atherton-Zeman, author of Voices of Men, a one-man play about domestic violence and sexual assault. “But that’s all changed. A lot of the leaders are still convicted batterers, but they’re well-organized, they speak in complete sentences, they sound much more reasonable: All we want is equal custody, for fathers not to be ignored.”
One of the respectable new faces of the movement is Glenn Sacks, a fathers' rights columnist and radio host with 50,000 e-mail followers, and a pragmatist in a world of angry dreamers. Sacks is a former feminist and abortion-clinic defender who disavows what he calls “the not-insubstantial lunatic fringe of the fathers’ rights movement.” He recently merged his successful media group with the shared-parenting organization Fathers and Families in a bid to build a mainstream fathers' rights organ on par with the National Organization for Women. Many of Sacks’ arguments—for a court assumption of shared parenting in the case of divorce, or against child-support rigidity in the midst of recession—can sound reasonable.
But do any of their arguments hold up? Many of the men for whom Sacks advocates are involved in extreme cases, says Joanie Dawson, a writer and domestic-violence advocate who has covered the fathers’ rights movement. The great majority of custody cases, in which shared parenting is a legitimate option, are settled or resolved privately. But of the 15 percent that go to family court—the cases that fathers’ rights groups target—at least half include alleged domestic abuse.
Unsurprisingly, this argument is missing from MRA discussions of custody inequality and recruitment ads, which cast all men as potentially innocent victims “just one 911 call away” from losing everything they have earned and loved. These rallying calls, and the divorce attorneys hawking men’s rights expertise on MRA sites, promising to “teach her a lesson,” serve as what Dawson sees as a powerful draw for men in the midst of painful divorces.
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