11.19.09, 10:30 AM ET
Earlier this month DoubleX, Slate's short-lived female-oriented publication (launched six months ago and about to be folded back into the parent site as a women's section), ran an article ringing the alarm about the dire threat posed by the power of the men's rights movement. But the article, written by New York-based freelance writer Kathryn Joyce and titled "Men's Rights' Groups Have Become Frighteningly Effective," says more about the state of feminism--and journalistic bias--than it does about men's groups.
Joyce's indictment is directed at a loose network of activists seeking to raise awareness and change policy on such issues as false accusations of domestic violence, the plight of divorced fathers denied access to children and domestic abuse of men. In her view, groups such as RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) and individuals like columnist and radio talk show host Glenn Sacks are merely "respectable" and "savvy" faces for what is actually an anti-female backlash from "angry white men."
As proof of this underlying misogyny, Joyce asserts that men who commit "acts of violence perceived to be in opposition to a feminist status quo" are routinely lionized in the men's movement. This claim is purportedly backed up with a reference that, in fact, does not in any way support it: an article in Foreign Policy about the decline of male dominance around the globe. Joyce's one specific example is that the diary of George Sodini, a Pittsburgh man who opened fire on women in a gym in retaliation for feeling rejected by women, was reposted online by the blogger "Angry Harry" as a wake-up call to the Western world that "it cannot continue to treat men so appallingly and get away with it." But does this have anything to do with more mainstream men's rights groups? The original version of the article claimed that Sacks, who called "Harry" an "idiot" in his interview with Joyce, nonetheless "cautiously defends" the blogger; DoubleX later ran a correction on this point.
Sacks himself admits to Joyce that the men's movement has a "not-insubstantial lunatic fringe." Yet in her eyes, even the mainstream men's groups are promoting a dangerous agenda, above all infiltrating mainstream opinion with the view that reports of domestic violence are exaggerated and that a lot of spousal abuse is female-perpetrated. The latter claim, Joyce asserts, comes from "a small group of social scientists" led by "sociologist Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire, who has written extensively on female violence." (In fact, Straus, founder of the renowned Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, is a pre-eminent scholar on family violence in general and was the first to conduct national surveys on the prevalence of wife-beating.)
Joyce repeats common critiques of Straus' research: For instance, he equates "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." Yet these charges have been long refuted: Straus' studies measure the frequency of violence and specifically inquire about which partner initiated the physical violence. Furthermore, Joyce fails to mention that virtually all social scientists studying domestic violence, including self-identified feminists such as University of Pittsburgh psychologist Irene Frieze, find high rates of mutual aggression.
Reviews of hundreds of existing studies, such as one conducted by University of Central Lancashire psychologist John Archer in a 2000 article in Psychological Bulletin, have found that at least in Western countries, women are as likely to initiate partner violence as men. While the consequences to women are more severe--they are twice as likely to report injuries and about three times more likely to fear an abusive spouse--these findings also show that men hardly escape unscathed. Joyce claims that "Straus' research is starting to move public opinion," but in fact, some of the strongest recent challenges to the conventional feminist view of domestic violence--as almost invariably involving female victims and male batterers--come from female scholars like New York University psychologist Linda Mills.
Contrary to Joyce's claims, these challenges, so far, have made very limited inroads into public opinion. One of her examples of the scary power of men's rights groups is that "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.'" In fact, the conference--which featured leading researchers on domestic violence from several countries, half of them women, and focused on much more than just male victims--received virtually no mainstream press coverage. One of the very few exceptions was a column I wrote for The Boston Globe, also reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Whatever minor successes men's groups may have achieved, the reality is that public policy on domestic violence in the U.S. is heavily dominated by feminist advocacy groups. For the most part, these groups embrace a rigid orthodoxy that treats domestic violence as male terrorism against women, rooted in patriarchal power and intended to enforce it. They also have a record of making grotesquely exaggerated, thoroughly debunked claims about an epidemic of violence against women--for instance, that battering causes more hospital visits by women every year than car accidents, muggings and cancer combined.
These advocacy groups practically designed the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, and they dominate the state coalitions against domestic violence to which local domestic violence programs must belong in order to qualify for federal funds. As a result of the advocates' influence, federal assistance is denied to programs that offer joint counseling to couples in which there is domestic violence, and court-mandated treatment for violent men downplays drug and alcohol abuse (since it's all about the patriarchy).
Against the backdrop of this enforced party line, Joyce is alarmed by the smallest signs that men's rights groups may be gaining even a modest voice in framing domestic violence policy. She points out that in a few states, men's rights activists have succeeded in "criminalizing false claims of domestic violence in custody cases" (this is apparently meant to be a bad thing) and "winning rulings that women-only shelters are discriminatory" (in fact, the California Court of Appeals ruled last year that state-funded domestic violence programs that refuse to provide service to abused men violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection, but also emphasized that the services need not be identical and coed shelters are not required).
To bolster her case, Joyce consistently quotes advocates--or scholars explicitly allied with the advocacy movement, such as Edward Gondolf of the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research and Training Institute--to discredit the claims of the men's movement. She also repeats uncorroborated allegations that many leaders of the movement are themselves abusers, but offers only one specific example: eccentric British activist Jason Hatch, who once scaled Buckingham Palace in a Batman costume to protest injustices against fathers, and who was taken to court for allegedly threatening one of his ex-wives during a custody dispute.
The article is laced with the presumption that, with regard to both general data and individual cases, any charge of domestic violence made by a woman against a man must be true.
One case Joyce uses to illustrate her thesis is that of Genia Shockome, who claimed to have been severely battered by her ex-husband Tim and lost custody of her two children after being accused of intentionally alienating them from their father. Yet Joyce never mentions that Shockome's claims of violent abuse were unsupported by any evidence, that she herself did not mention any abuse in her initial divorce complaint, or that three custody evaluators--including a feminist psychologist who had worked with the Battered Women's Justice Center at Pace University--sided with the father.
More than a quarter-century ago, British feminist philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote, "No feminist whose concern for women stems from a concern for justice in general can ever legitimately allow her only interest to be the advantage of women." Joyce's article is a stark example of feminism as exclusive concern with women and their perceived advantage, rather than justice or truth.
Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine and columnist for RealClearPolitics.com, is the author of Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. She blogs at www.cathyyoung.wordpress.com.