"Men's Rights" Groups Have Become Frighteningly Effective
They’re changing custody rights and domestic violence laws.
By: Kathryn Joyce
Posted: November 5, 2009 at 7:45 AM
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 of 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.
While MRA groups continue to expand their base of embittered fathers and ex-husbands, they’ve cleaned up their image to court more powerful allies. RADAR board member Ron Grignal, the former president of Fathers for Virginia and a former state delegate candidate, organizes the group’s Washington lobbying activities. In 2008, RADAR partnered with Eagle Forum for a conference at the Heritage Foundation about the threat that VAWA poses to the family. Grignal argues that state interpretations of VAWA are so broad they could cast couples’ money disputes as domestic violence, enabling unwarranted restraining orders that then win women’s divorce cases for them. Politicians, Grignal says, are increasingly on board with men’s rights movement concerns.
“On domestic violence, I’ve had both state and federal legislators tell me they know that this process is out of control,” says Grignal. “They’re afraid if they support [reforms] they’ll be tagged as ‘for domestic violence.’ But I’ve had Democrats on Capitol Hill tell me they agree with everything I say. A member of the Congressional Black Caucus told me that his brother can’t see his kids, and his wife threatened to throw herself down the stairs to ruin his political career.”
Some domestic-violence protections do seem to have unintended effects, such as mandatory-arrest policies that compel police to take someone into custody in response to any domestic-violence call—a policy that has been criticized by RADAR as well as by some domestic-violence advocates, who say it imposes an absurd equivalence between largely nonviolent family spats or insubstantial female violence and serious abuse. But groups like RADAR are criticizing the law for the wrong reasons. In fact, the effect of mandatory arrest in conflating women’s low-level violence with battery, seems very close to RADAR’s campaign for viewing women as equal domestic abusers.
One potent idea advanced by MRAs is the claim that men are equal victims of domestic violence. Mark Rosenthal, president and co-founder of RADAR, makes a very personal argument for the phenomenon. Rosenthal, who doesn’t call himself an MRA, grew up with a mother who he says terrorized the entire family and hit her husband frequently. The true impact of the violence, he says, was more than physical and eclipsed his petite mother’s ability to inflict serious injuries. Rosenthal wants to see an appreciation for women’s nonphysical abuse incorporated into domestic-violence policy. “It’s not about size,” he told an audience at a law enforcement domestic-violence training. “It’s not exclusively about physical attacks. However, it is about a pathological need to control others, and women are as prone to this as men.”
RADAR and other MRA groups base their battered men arguments largely on the research of a small group of social scientists who claim that domestic violence between couples is equally divided, just unequally reported. Most notable are the studies conducted by sociologist Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire, who has written extensively on female violence (and who Dawson saw distributing RADAR flyers at an APA conference). Straus’ research is starting to move public opinion. A Los Angeles conference this July dedicated to discussing male victims of domestic violence, “From Ideology to Inclusion 2009: New Directions in Domestic Violence Research and Intervention,” received positive mainstream press for its “inclusive” efforts.
While some men certainly are victims of female domestic violence, advocates say the number is closer to 3 percent to 4 percent, rather than the 45 percent to 50 percent RADAR claims. Jack Straton, a Portland State University professor and member of Oregon’s Attorney General's Sexual Assault Task Force, argues that Straus critically fails to distinguish between the intent and effect of violence, equating “a woman pushing a man in self-defense to a man pushing a woman down the stairs,” or a single act of female violence with years of male abuse; that Straus only interviewed one partner, when couples’ accounts of violence commonly diverge; and that he excludes from his study post-separation violence, which accounts for more than 75 percent of spouse-on-spouse violence, 93 percent of which is committed by men.
All in all, advocates say that cherry-picked studies from researchers like Straus, touted by the MRAs, amount to what Edward Gondolf, director of research for the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research and Training Institute, calls“bad science.” Statistics suggesting gender parity in abuse are taken out of necessary context, they say, ignoring distinctions between the equally divided “common couple violence” and the sort of escalated, continuing violence known as battery—which is 85 percent male-perpetrated—as well as the disparate injuries inflicted by men and women.
“The biggest concern, though, is not the wasted effort on a false issue,” writes Straton, but the encouragement given to batterers to consider themselves the victimized party. “Arming these men with warped statistics to fuel their already warped worldview is unethical, irresponsible, and quite simply lethal.”
In this, critics like Australian sociologist Michael Flood say that men’s rights movements reflect the tactics of domestic abusers themselves, minimizing existing violence, calling it mutual, and discrediting victims. MRA groups downplay national abuse rates, just as abusers downplay their personal battery; they wage campaigns dismissing most allegations as false, as abusers claim partners are lying about being hit; and they depict the violence as mutual—part of an epidemic of wife-on-husband abuse—as individual batterers rationalize their behavior by saying that the violence was reciprocal. Additionally, MRA groups’ predictions of future violence by fed-up men wronged by the family-law system seem an obvious additional correlation, with the threat of violence seemingly intended to intimidate a community, like a fearful spouse, into compliance.
MRA critics say the organizational recapitulation of abusive tactics should be no surprise, considering the wealth of movement leaders with records or accusations of violence, abuse, harassment, or failure to pay child support. Some advocates call MRA groups “the abuser’s lobby,” because of members like Jason Hutch, the Buckingham Palace fathers’ rights “Batman,” who has been estranged from three mothers of his children and was taken to court for threatening one of his ex-wives.
Contrary to RADAR’s claims, domestic-violence advocates say that not only do abuse accusations not automatically win custody cases for women; there are a rising number of custody decisions awarded to abusive fathers, as judges see wives eager to protect their children as less cooperative regarding custody. More than half the time, studies have found, wives’ accusations of domestic violence are met with counter-accusations from husbands of “Parental Alienation Syndrome”—a medically unrecognized diagnosis that suggests mothers have poisoned their children into making false accusations against their fathers.
In one recent case, Genia Shockome, a Russian immigrant, was fighting for custody of her two children with her ex-husband, whom she charged had beaten her so severely that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and who had told her she “had no right to leave” since he’d brought her to the United States. The judge in the case sided with her husband’s counter-claims of Parental Alienation Syndrome and awarded him full custody (and later sentenced Shockome to 30 days in jail while she was seven months pregnant). When her attorney, Barry Goldstein, co-author of the forthcoming book Domestic Violence, Abuse and Custody, criticized the judge in an online article, the judge retaliated with a complaint, and Goldstein was given a five-year suspension. Goldstein says the sanction represents a chilling pressure on attorneys, who may now fear penalties for criticizing a court’s gender bias that will interfere with their duties to their clients and that could result in women deciding not to leave abusers out of fear they won’t get a fair trial.
If cases such as Genia Shockome’s are the fodder of mainstream fathers’ rights advocates like Glenn Sacks—who ridiculed her claims and loss of custody as an uncredible “cause célèbre” for feminist family-law reformers—what Sacks calls the movement’s “lunatic fringe” is more vitriolic yet.
Within the ranks of the men’s rights movement, vigilante “resisters” are regularly nominated and lionized for acts of violence perceived to be in opposition to a feminist status quo . In a few quarters of the movement, this even included George Sodini, the Pittsburgh man who opened fire on a gym full of exercising women this August, killing three and leaving behind an online diatribe journaling his sense of rejection by millions of desirable women.
Sodini’s diary was republished widely, including on the website of a popular men’s rights blogger, “Angry Harry,” who added his assessment of the case . “MRAs should also take note of the fact that there are probably many millions of men across the western world who feel similar in many ways, and one can expect to see much more destruction emanating from them in the future,” he wrote. “One of the main reasons that I decided to post this diary on this website was because the western world must wake up to the fact that it cannot continue to treat men so appallingly and get away with it.” In a phone interview, Angry Harry said, “Of course there will be more Sodinis—there will be many more,” likening him to Marc Lépine, a Canadian man who killed or wounded 28, claiming feminists had ruined his life, or Nevada father Darren Mack, who murdered his estranged wife and attempted to kill the judge in their custody battle. (Also among this number is John Muhammad, the “D.C. Beltway Sniper,” whose involvement in a Washington father’s rights group and history of abuse is described in his ex-wife Mildred’s newly-released memoir, Scared Silent.) Perhaps, Angry Harry mused, that as the ranks of online MRAs grow, “the threat” of their violence “may be enough” to bring about the changes they desire.
Glenn Sacks dismissed Angry Harry as an “idiot” without real power in the movement, and yet he cautiously defends him. “I want to be careful in wording this,” he says, “but the cataclysmic things I’m seeing done to men, it’s always my fear that one of these guys is going to do something terrible. I don’t want to say that like I condone it or that it’s OK, but it’s just the reality.” The movement seems eager to supply more martyrs. After Sacks wrote about a San Diego father who shot himself on the city’s courthouse steps over late child-support payments, numerous men wrote Sacks, telling him, “They’re taking everything from me, and I want to go out in a big way, and if I do, will you write about me?”
I asked RADAR’s Mark Rosenthal about the ties between groups like RADAR—claiming, however cynically, to have egalitarian motives—and the blunt anti-feminist positions of men’s movement allies like Chapin or Angry Harry. “I’d like to suggest that what you’ve just done is interview Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” he told me. “In any movement, there is going to be a reasonable voice and people who are so hurt, who are so injured by the injustices, that they can’t afford to step back and try to take their emotions under control. But no movement is going to get anywhere without extremists.”
Photograph of a man by George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Creative Images.