"Men's rights" groups go mainstream

Once seen as a lunatic fringe, reactionary anti-women groups are courting respectability

Published November 5, 2009 2:06PM (EST)

When "Quiverfull" author Kathryn Joyce interviewed blogger Bernard Chapin, he insisted on addressing her as "Feminist E." You see, Joyce explains, "he never uses real names for feminists, who are wicked and who men 'must verbally oppose … until our flesh oxidizes into dust.'" Now, Chapin's slight isn't particularly unexpected coming from a voice in the "men's rights" movement, a loosely organized coalition of individuals and organizations that believe feminist-influenced society is oppressing men.

But the movement's bizarre fringe is nothing new, as Joyce reminds us in an in-depth Double X article. What's really frightening is the impact men's rights activists (MRAs) are having on mainstream politics. As more reasonable-sounding leaders and organizations emerge, groups arguing "that false [domestic abuse] 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" are facing unprecedented success. Joyce reports that a group called RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) claims responsibility for blocking four federal domestic violence bills. And with the help of organizations like Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, MRAs are beginning to find a place under conservatism's big, reactionary tent.

The more moderate men's rights movement also features some high-profile "converts." Joyce introduces us to Glenn Sacks, a popular fathers' rights radio host and writer who she describes as "a former feminist and abortion-clinic defender." Dismissive of the Bernard Chapins of the world, he's working toward the comparatively modest goals of increasing shared custody and lightening divorced dads' child-support obligations during the recession.

What's so wrong with those goals, you may well wonder. As Joyce illustrates, the issues MRAs are pushing are much more complex than they seem. For instance, divorcing parents are  usually able to work out custody agreements on their own. Only 15 percent of cases go to court, and, of those, half involve domestic abuse. Tragically, even in those instances, mothers don't always have the upper hand. A common family-court defense of fathers whose children testify that they are abusive is something called "Parental Alienation Syndrome," "a medically unrecognized diagnosis that suggests mothers have poisoned their children into making false accusations against their fathers." Joyce tells the story of Genia Shockome, a woman who spent 30 days in jail and whose husband was awarded full custody of their children, despite the fact that his abuse had left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Incredibly, Shockome's story doesn't end there: After criticizing the judge's decision in print, her attorney was slapped with a five-year suspension.

As for MRAs' accusations, inspired by deeply flawed studies, that men and women are equally likely to commit domestic abuse, well, the numbers speak for themselves: "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." Toward the end of her piece, Joyce makes a particularly fascinating point about MRAs' domestic violence arguments:

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.

So, what do we do about the increasingly mainstream men's rights movement and the worrisome gains it has made? Personally, I'm torn. It's certainly chilling to hear Sacks empathize (albeit ambivalently) with men like George Sodini, the deeply misogynist Pittsburgh gym shooter, telling Joyce that "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." But I also realize that the more marginalized these groups feel, the more extreme (and potentially violent) they become. With that in mind, do we go to war, or do we try and hear MRAs out? Is there common ground to be found, or is the new men's rights movement nothing more than the old men's rights movement with a fancy haircut and a flashy suit?

UPDATE: Glenn Sacks wrote to tell us that he feels misrepresented in our post and Kathryn Joyce's article. He wants to clarify that he does not defend George Sodini.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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