Friday, July 30, 2010

Responsible Parenting and Fathers´ Rights: An Interview With Michael Flood

Ohmy News International by Joan M. Dawson

Dr. Michael Flood is a sociologist at La Trobe University's Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. He received his Ph.D in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Australian National University. He's a researcher on fathering and an expert on gender issues. He's also the coordinator of XYonline, a Web site providing commentary on masculinities, feminism and violence.

The fathers' rights movement began in the 1970s. It's mostly concentrated in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. It's primarily concerned with family law issues, child custody cases and domestic violence.

While there have been many positive and supportive organizations arising to meet the needs of distressed fathers after painful divorce proceedings, there have been other organizations that are less constructive.

Some fathers' rights groups send misogynist messages, use strategies such as harassment, stalking and intimidation, and strive to chip away at programs and services for women and children. They deny the extent of domestic violence and offer sympathy to the perpetrators.

Since many domestic violence laws just came into effect in the 1990s, it is cause for concern when an organized group sets out to attack them. This group is considered to be strong, organized, and likely, well-funded.

Personally, I've been startled to find aggressive, threatening messages directed at feminist writers throughout OhmyNews. I've seen similar comments on the Internet that deny domestic violence, call women evil and make snide remarks about women belonging at home doing household chores. The level of misogyny seems to be rising. And, while many men and women have formed positive networks and groups to deal with abuse and discrimination, these fathers' rights groups are also gaining strength.

I was confused at first, not knowing whether to ignore them or confront them. I decided to research them further. I visited many of their Web sites, did a fair deal of research on them, and, was fortunate enough to receive a positive reply for an interview from an expert in the field, Dr. Michael Flood.

He's answered many of my questions and, while my concerns have not been put to rest, it has reassured me that there are talented, devoted people like him working in the field to promote positive, healthy relationships in families and communities today.

The following is my interview with him conducted via email on March 19.

Which of the fathers' rights groups should we be most afraid of, and why? How strong are these groups in terms of their numbers? How much havoc have they wreaked? Are there any signs of them weakening?

In one sense, the fathers' rights groups we should be most afraid of are the seemingly sensible ones. Some FR groups distance themselves from the "extremists" who make wild, misogynistic claims and threats and adopt tactics of direct action. Instead, these groups concentrate on political lobbying, and they are creating changes in family law. At the same time, their perspectives are still misguided, and their influence is dangerous. FR groups have successfully shifted family laws in some jurisdictions so that fathers' contact with children is privileged over children's safety. Children are being forced into contact with fathers who've been violent to them or their mothers.

FR groups have also encouraged the lie that women routinely make false accusations of child abuse or domestic violence, and the myth that domestic violence is gender-equal.

[See my attached conference paper for other examples of their influence.]

You have said that these groups "mimic the micro-practices of offenders." Can you explain?

They deny the extent of men's violence against women, excuse or justify this violence, and fail to place responsibility with the perpetrators by blaming others such as women or the family law system. While FR groups claim to care about children, some advocates have expressed sympathy for men who murder their children or described this as an understandable response to discrimination against men.

Are these men batterers? What are their characteristics?

Some men in FR groups have used violence. To the extent that FR groups assume that all fathers accused of domestic violence or child abuse are being accused falsely, they fail to protect children from harm. As part of encouraging fathers' positive relationships with children, we should be upholding laws and policies addressing domestic violence and child abuse, not trying to undermine them.

What are the characteristics of the women that belong to such groups?

Some FR groups sometimes have female members and even co-founders, including second wives and other family members of men who have had some engagement with family law.

Typically, hate crime does not include crime against women. However, these groups are clearly hateful towards women, and feminists, in particular. Is it safe to say they are "hate groups"?

Many FR groups offer hateful and misogynist stereotypes of women and mothers. FR groups do little to heal the anger and blame felt by many separated fathers. And FR groups in general circulate highly inaccurate and hostile parodies of feminism. Some FR groups use "softer" and more "reasonable" rhetoric, but few if any are dedicated to building constructive relationships between separated fathers, mothers, and children.

Writeup from my "Supporting Separated Fathers" paper, also attached:

"Negative and hostile depictions of women in general and single mothers in particular are the bread and butter of fathers' rights discourse. As Kaye and Tolmie (1998: 184-190) document, fathers' rights literature routinely depicts women as parasitical, mendacious, and vindictive. First, resident mothers are portrayed as living lives of luxury relative to nonresident fathers, lazy 'sofa loafers' and 'gold-diggers' who are comfortable on government pensions and financially exploiting their ex-partners. As Winchester (1999: 93) found in her interviews with members of the Newcastle branch of the Lone Fathers' Association, group members consistently overestimated single mothers' financial well-being, underestimated the costs and expenses of caring for resident children, and undervalued their ex-partners' domestic work. In fact, recent analysis of those involved in the child support system as recipients or payers finds that while nonresident fathers are poor, resident mothers are even poorer, with 75 percent living on incomes below $15,600 per annum (Silvey and Birrell 2004: 50). Second, mothers are portrayed as dishonest and vindictive, prone to making false allegations of domestic violence or child abuse and arbitrarily and unilaterally denying nonresident fathers' contact with children (Kaye and Tolmie 1998: 186-187). Members of fathers' rights groups also portray their ex-partners as 'tramps,' 'whores,' 'sluts,' 'bitches' and 'adulterers' (Winchester year: 90-91).

Recent public submissions by fathers' rights groups have emphasized their commitment to respecting mothers, and focused on lawyers, judges, and the 'system' as the main oppressors rather than mothers (Rhoades 2005: 7). However, hostile and misogynist discourses regarding single mothers, women, and/or feminism continue to be readily apparent in the newsletters, e-mail lists, and Web sites of fathers' rights groups.

The worldviews of fathers' rights groups will do little to encourage nonresident fathers' engagement in constructive and respectful relationships with their ex-partners. To the extent that fathers' rights groups fuel interparental hostility and conflict, they will have two negative impacts. First, they will lessen fathers' contact with children and increase fathers' use of the courts to enforce contact. For example, in his study of Australian fathers, Hawthorne (2005: 9) found a negative association between interparental hostility and the frequency of fathers' contact and involvement with children. Similarly, in an American study, fathers with greater conflict and poorer relationships with their ex-partners also were the ones who reported difficulties with visitation and more frequent resort to the courts (Lehr and MacMillan 2001: 377).

Second, because of their impact on interparental hostility and conflict, fathers' rights groups will lessen children's wellbeing. Interparental conflict is a leading stressor for children after divorce, and the best predictor of child maladjustment (Braver et al. 2005: 83). As Marsiglio et al. (2000: 1184) note, 'Because conflict is harmful to children, conflict between parents may cancel, or even reverse, any benefits associated with frequent visitation."

How is it that some of these "believers" are able to be judges, researchers, university professors, etc.?

Because the experiences, and beliefs, on which FR groups are based are also widespread. Large numbers of men have experienced painful and bitter separations and divorces, many feel angry and deeply traumatized, and it's easy for this to be politicized into anti-feminist hostility. More generally, sexist stereotypes of women and feminism are widespread in our culture. FR groups can mobilize beliefs which are already readily available.

How can they best be dealt with?

The most important strategy for dealing with FR groups is to offer alternative, positive responses to separated men and non-resident fathers. Responses which encourage constructive involvements in children's lives and respectful relations with ex-spouses and mothers. More widely, we must address the social factors which feed into fathers' separation from children in the first place, the factors which prevent many fathers from being involved with children *before* separation. Key obstacles include parent-unfriendly workplace practices and cultures, policy barriers to shared care, and gender norms and relations which constrain boys' and men's parenting and relationship skills and commitments.

© Ohmy News International

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