Unpacking Men’s Rights Activists Part 2: Fathers’ Rights Activists

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

This is the second in a series of articles on Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) and the men’s rights movement (MRM), investigating and dissecting their ideology to help feminists combat their problematic talking points. In this article, I dived into the Fathers’ Rights Movement, analysing the claims made by Fathers’ Rights Activists on Facebook, Reddit, and their official websites, and checking the validity of their arguments.

The Fathers’ Rights Movement is a branch of the men’s rights movement that focuses primarily on issues related to family law and child custody.[1] Groups of fathers and some women (typically partners of the fathers) band together as Father’s Rights Activists (FRAs) to protest perceived injustices of the family court system. Their concerns are typically child custody arrangements that supposedly discriminate against men, giving custody to the mother or no-contact orders for the father. As with most men’s rights activism, claims that are perpetuated by fathers’ rights activists can be deeply rooted in misogyny and are not backed up by empirical evidence.[2]

The claims

So, what are these claims? Why do these myths persist? And why are these small communities spreading misinformation about the rights of fathers?

The legal system is biased against men.[3]

The main myth coming from these groups is that the legal system discriminates against men. This is supported by FRAs pointing to instances of men not receiving a favourable outcome in court cases. Fathers’ rights activists typically paint a picture of every separation ending with an elongated legal battle between mother and father over their children, in which mothers fill their children’s ears with poison against their father, make wild claims, or unlawfully deny access. Fathers are portrayed as kind, caring, and sensitive souls who simply want what’s best for their children and are cruelly denied this by an evil court system favouring women.

The truth is that most separations don’t even end up in court (less than 20% for the 2018 fiscal year in New Zealand)[4] and when they do, the children’s situation and wellbeing is the primary concern of any judge.[5] Reports of widespread discrimination against men in the family courts are unfounded. While it is possible that individual men are treated unfairly by the system, this does not mean that there is rampant discrimination.

Children need fathers/fathers have an inalienable right to contact with their children.[6]

This myth may arise from misinterpretation of legislation which states that children have a right to contact their parents (including the father).[7] FRAs may argue that this means they have a right to contact their child regardless of the circumstance. Men in this position may see no-contact orders as a violation of their rights and proof that the courts unfairly discriminate against them. However, no-contact orders, although rarely used, are vital for the safety of children, especially when they may be put in danger or have explicitly requested not to have contact.

To believe FRAs, no-contact orders are the desired outcome of all mothers who are disputing custody arrangements, and are never objectively justified. However, analysis of (the relatively few) cases resulting in no-contact orders against fathers shows that these orders are reserved for cases involving dangerous and unstable men. In one study analysing these cases, fathers had: [8]

  • Assaulted the mother during the case.
  • Raped the mother’s sister.
  • Gotten drunk and sexually harassed staff at a Children’s Access Program.
  • Destroyed the mother’s home with a sledgehammer and threatened to kill her and abduct the child.
  • Sexually abused the mother in front of the child, as well as having substance abuse issues and other assault convictions.

Those who campaign for these men to have access to their children, or the mother, clearly do not care about the safety of either of them. They only care about men getting what they want. They also clearly disregard the primary principle of family law legislation worldwide, which is the wellbeing of children, especially protecting them from any risk of family violence.

Women fabricate allegations of violence and abuse to deny access to fathers in separation.[9]

This is such a common myth, even family law solicitors reportedly believe it. This misconception is predicated on increased domestic violence protection orders being sought around the time of separation. However, investigations into these orders do not show a pattern of fabrication, nor are they viewed by mothers as a “tactical advantage” in court proceedings. In fact, several studies have found that women only seek these types of protection orders “as a last resort in response to repeat and serious victimisation”[10].[11]

There is a correlation between domestic abuse protection orders and separation, but this is due to the increase in domestic violence at or after separation. In New Zealand, from 2009 to 2012, a committee investigating intimate partner violence found that 50% of intimate partner homicides happened during or after separation.[12] In the same period there were a total of 63 deaths from intimate partner violence after a history of abuse in a relationship. 61 of these were perpetrated by men against women and were not in self-defence. These statistics do not tell a story of women seeking frivolous protection orders against men at or after separation. They indicate escalating violence ending in the murder of women and children, and the inadequacy of protection orders to prevent this.

The link to violence

FRAs say that the system is weighted against them, but they rarely acknowledge what that means for mothers. FRAs say they blame judges, blame courts, blame lawyers, but more than anything else, they clearly blame the women who are “keeping them from their children”. The horrifying conclusion of their rhetoric is violence against mothers from whom men separate. FRA communities imply that if the law is biased against fathers, to get justice, fathers must go outside the law. Maintaining a narrative, as these FRA groups do, that men are owed more, that their rights are being eroded, and they must fight like warriors for what is “rightfully” theirs, may perpetuate views that result in violence against women and children.

We’ve written about Hannah Clarke before. The murder of her and her children is a stark reminder of the destruction that can be caused by male entitlement over partners and children. Hannah Clarke experienced domestic violence and sought protection orders against her partner. Their custody arrangement, although not legally binding, gave her partner joint custody of their three children. This arrangement lasted less than a month before he breached the protection order and his access was revoked. He murdered Ms Clarke and their three children by setting fire to their car with them inside, and then committed suicide. The same rhetoric that permeates FRA communities can arguably be seen in this man’s actions: that men are entitled to exert control over their family, and when they can’t secure control peacefully, they are justified in securing it by any means necessary.

We can absolutely have sympathy for a man who wants to spend more time with his children. Sharing the parenting load should generally be encouraged and men should pull their weight, not only in separation but in a relationship as well. But we can’t pretend that there is widespread bias against men based on their gender in the family courts when there is no empirical evidence to support this.

For the fathers’ rights movement, custody and access appear as prizes to win. They are what men are automatically owed for impregnating women and it is seen as an insult that fathers ever have to fight for them. The consideration of children’s welfare is secondary. “What is best for the child” can be a tool used by FRAs to manipulate public sentiment. Mothers’ needs, wellbeing, and mental health are not considered at all. If anything, they are barriers to men reaching their prize. When FRAs frame every interaction as a battle, the goal ceases to be reaching what’s best for a family, and becomes securing only what’s best for me.

[1] https://fathersrightsmovement.us/about/

[2] Hunter, Rosemary and Melville, A. (2001) “As everybody knows”: Countering Myths of Gender Bias in Family Law. Griffith Law Review, 10 (1). Pp. 124-138.

[3] Hunter et al. (2001), p131.

[4] https://districtcourts.govt.nz/reports-publications-and-statistics/statistics-2018/family-court/

[5] http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2004/0090/latest/DLM317233.html?search=ts_act%40bill%40regulation%40deemedreg_care+of+children_resel_25_a&p=1

[6] Hunter et al. (2001), p133.

[7] https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2004A05014; and Rhoades, Graycar and Harrison (2001), The Family Law Reform Act 1995: The First Three Years, pp 74-76

[8] Hunter et al. (2001), pp 132-133

[9] Hunter et al. (2001), p 127.

[10] Hunter et al. (2001), p 128.

[11] Stubbs and Pwell (1989), p 83; Trimbolie and Bonney (1997 0, p 31; Wearing (1992).

[12] https://www.hqsc.govt.nz/assets/FVDRC/Publications/FVDRC-4th-report-June-2014.pdf

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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