This was written for a newsletter published by an organisation* working to make custody decisions in Australia centered on what is in the best interests for children, based on principles of justice and compassion, not in service to abusive husbands and fathers. It is for one woman in particular. May her daughter be returned to her soon, removed from the custody of the man who has abused them both.
*Here is the link to that organisation: www.safety4parentsandkids.org.au
The Heart of Justice
by Julian Real, copyrighted 2010. All rights reserved.
Men have asked over the centuries a question that, in their hands, ironically becomes abstract: "What is reality?" They have written complicated volumes on this question. The woman who was a battered wife and has escaped knows the answer: reality is when something is happening to you and you know it and can say it and when you say it other people understand what you mean and believe you. That is reality, and the battered wife, imprisoned alone in a nightmare that is happening to her, has lost it and cannot find it anywhere.
-- Andrea Dworkin, “A Battered Wife Survives”, in Letters From a War Zone
The issue concerning men's unearned rights and unjust male ownership of women and children is one which continues to exist not only in Australia, the US, and the UK but also the Scandinavian countries. Increasingly, there is a pernicious patriarchal myth that children must have regular contact with their violent fathers/stepfathers. Family court systems refuse to accept that the male partner who commits violence against the female partner cannot be viewed as an appropriate 'parent' when it concerns the welfare of the children. Male supremacist thinking is that issue of violent male partners is separate to the issue of 'the same violent men being granted contact/guardianship of the child/children.'
The dangerous and sometimes deadly belief is that in a household wherein the man commits violence against his female partner, this domination supposedly does not impact on the child's/children's welfare. This is partly due to the unquestioned presumption of public and private male dominance. Even worse, despite efforts to make international legislation concerning the rights of children more just and humane, this harmful impact is commonly ignored; the 'rights of the violent male partner' supersede the rights of the child/children not to be subjected to male violence. Contact with violent fathers is seen as vital because of this misogynist myth that children need the abusive 'male role model in their lives'. We must not question 'violent man's suitability' since mere fact he is male is prioritised over everything other factor. The effects of violence and the rights of children, hand in hand, go ignored. The mother--’the female role model in their lives’--is constantly subjected to the most minute, discriminating sexist male-centered scrutiny concerning their suitability to parent their child/children. Male sex right over children always trumps women's and children's right not to be forced to live or have contact with violent, manipulative, self-obsessed men.
-- Jennifer Drew, UK Feminist Activist and Researcher Challenging Male Violence Against Women
In countries which have national laws that impact people globally, across class, race, ethnicity, and gender what is the moral and political obligation of such a country’s legislative bodies and criminal justice systems to understand, empathically, the experiences of those most marginalised, most disempowered, and most harmed? If laws center the experiences of the most privileged and powerful, the people with the most financial access to those legal systems, and the people with the least likelihood of being arrested due to social position and political clout, what is the impact on those with the lowest social position and the least political clout?
Cases flash before my eyes. A mother appeals to the court to prevent the man who regularly raped her from having custody of the children he also sexually abuses. The court doesn’t believe her that he repeatedly raped her because she’s his wife and finds inconclusive evidence of him having abused his children. Because the court determines her to be a liar they award sole custody to the man who then goes on to sexually assault his children until they leave home. A woman fights for her children’s rights to be free of the man who has terrorised all of them, sometimes with fists, sometimes throwing objects, sometimes with verbal assaults that cut as swiftly as a sharp knife. Or, on the gentler side of things, a man seeks psychological control and power over his family and his spouse decides she wants more out of life for herself and her children than to be dominated in this way. She leaves, with her children. He sues her for custody because he wants her back. The children are less important to him. I knew this father who pretended to want custody to care for his children when all he really sought was to have more abusive access and control over the children’s mother. The mother told me that was his sole motivation. I wanted to believe he was more complex than that, more humane. He wasn’t. He lost his custody case and has done very little to keep in contact with his children, now grown, although he was not legally or otherwise restricted in his ability to contact or visit with them. He lost control of his first wife so he married another woman and had two more children. So much for his court-pleaded desire to raise the first two.
There are so many cases of men using the unjust while socially real power they have to oppressively regulate the lives of women they love, hate, or regard merely as a pawn in their sadistic mental chess game called life. (He may tout that she is The Queen who holds all the power. Sometimes he actually believes his own grand delusions of political impotence.) When seen collectively and compassionately the cases, sorted and stacked, cease being anecdotal and instead reveal patriarchal patterns of men terrorising women and children, using any and all means available to them to attempt to regain the forms of control and dominance that usually escalates with little to no intervention. Misogynist violence is minimised by society generally--or normalised, or naturalised. It is blamed on women; it is seen as a weakness in men, a cause for concern and pity. Perhaps therapy will help (him).
In most cases men’s sexual violence against women can and will be ignored altogether. Most battered women remain silent. Most raped women never speak about it. Most girls violated by their fathers are too afraid to say anything for years, if at all. In my own family of origin, virtually all the female members are survivors of abuse from men in the family. None of them prosecuted. None of them ever accused the perpetrator of assault. The lie is that women make false allegations against men about battery, rape, and incest. The truth is that most women are silent, sometimes due to being killed, sometimes due to taking their own lives to escape the present or past horror and pain. Those that survive and build up the courage to speak out, to confront, to challenge the wrongs of his rights and the legitimacy of his entitlements are seen as scornful and uppity. A woman who publicly challenges a man’s ability to do what he wants and not be accountable to anyone--which is usually how it goes--is presented socially as someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Confused. Irrational. She may speak; but being believed is another matter altogether. Remember: he defines and authors reality; she cannot. That’s how he wants it and that is, too often, how the courtroom sees it.
The reality presented before a judge or a jury is tightly bound to male supremacist beliefs and attitudes, values and practices that do to women what men do to women: make them seem incapable of telling the truth about their own experiences. He’ll do just fine with a misogynist attorney appealing to the court’s patriarchal sympathies. She will need extensive outside verification: corroboration, reports, findings. Compounding the problem is the reality that child welfare and social service agencies are often so underfunded and understaffed that they must pick and choose which cases they can investigate.
My hearts breaks when I learn of yet another case where men are allowed to abuse their children and torture their ex-wives. What I feel vacillates between despair and outrage. Girls and boys are being ordered by court into the homes of their abusive fathers rather than their caring mothers because the fathers have social status and political power, not because they are the best parents. Custody may be determined based on the father having economic stability when a mother is poor for having spent years raising children and finally leaving him without his blessing or access to the financial portfolio he filled because she took care of the family from home, out of love, not for money.
What is horrifying is learning what happens when a woman leaves an abusive man. A woman who worked in the medical field as a technician, assisting a male doctor I’d seen for years, suddenly wasn’t around. I inquired about her absence. Co-workers looked down. I felt dread. They quietly told me she’d been killed by her ex-boyfriend. I felt sick. Only a month or two ago she was with him and alive. Now she was away from him and dead. That’s quite a high price to pay for deciding to be single. The newspapers reported him saying “I realised she wouldn’t come back and I couldn’t bear the thought of her being with another man.” His lethally jealous, irrational rage betrays his truth claim; it’s not like she had the chance. Let’s be thankful they didn’t have children because they likely would have been raised by the man who murdered their mother.
This is more than wrong. It is immoral and unacceptable because it is preventable destruction of human life presented as acceptable and fair by men’s lawyers and patriarchal judiciaries allegedly empowered to protect the vulnerable and the harmed from such abuses. Instead laws and courtrooms conspire to do just the opposite--adding promise to a husband’s threats and force to his fist.
The fact that men dominate, control, and regulate every institution in society is somehow missed when the legal lens focuses in on particular cases argued with spurious logic by attorneys well-paid by selfish and sadistic men. With increasing vigor and determination, Father’s Rights groups are attempting to misuse questionable facts to make it appear that women have all the control and only want more and with that presumed power they only want one thing: to punish the men who hurt them. If that’s how the world really worked the medical technician would be alive today and her ex-boyfriend would be dead. Men’s capacity to project onto women what they themselves feel and do is astoundingly, acidly hallucinogenic and horrifyingly effective in accomplishing their goals of continued dominance.
Centuries of documented despicable patriarchal violence by men against women and children is conveniently kept out of view when the hostile fathers’ attorneys build bogus cases against the women who loved them and were compelled to leave them when unable to endure their hatred and hostility. Wicked is a word applied to step-mothers and women generally. Not to men who have demonstrated a willingness to be wicked in ways women have never been, not necessarily because they lacked the cause. But women’s rage is institutionally impotent while simultaneously demonised. Men’s rage, however, is systemically existent and institutionally enforced. His rage cannot be demonic because he’s always entitled to it as a human quality. Law tries to curb its uglier expressions, but for him to be enraged, in and of itself, is no crime at all. When women rage, they are portrayed as many things--none of them especially human.
Misogynistic Men's Rights Groups are organising to do what they do best: spread woman- and child-hating, utterly self-serving and self-centered portraits of themselves as the Fathers Who Always Know Best. Online and off, they distribute distortions about their own children's testimony against them and about the caricatured characters of their ex-wives, who are, after all, the mothers of their children. The pain she allegedly caused him, actually generated by his own commitment to control and conquest, is played up to epic proportions. He suffers; therefore he is victimised by her, not by inflicting his own inhumanity against her. Meanwhile, her pain, from his outbursts and his beatings, is downplayed, denied completely, or blamed on her decision to stay with him. When are men not socially responsible for their own violent behavior? When the recipient of them is a woman.
His abuses may be emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual. Some may be public but most are expressed privately against the wife and kids, intentionally hidden from public scrutiny so as to maintain his social standing as “a good man”. Because of a socially ingrained sexist assumption that men speak both with greater authority and more accuracy in society-at-large, fictional tales can be promulgated by these male supremacist men and their adoring attorneys who are never paid to be truthful, only convincing.
Consider the following assessments made by a loving father and husband I know who has been studying the contours and conceits of sexist men’s stories. What follows are excerpts on myths about domestic violence, researched and compiled by the sociological specialising on gender violence, Dr. Michael Flood, from Fact Sheet #2: The Myth of Women’s False Accusations of Domestic Violence and Rape and Misuse of Protection Orders.
Women routinely make up allegations of domestic violence and rape, including to gain advantage in family law cases. And women use protection orders to remove men from their homes or deny contact with children.
● The risk of domestic violence increases at the time of separation.
● Most allegations of domestic violence in the context of family law proceedings are made in good faith and with support and evidence for their claims.
● Rates of false accusations of rape are very low.
● Women living with domestic violence often do not take out protection orders and do so only as a last resort.
● Protection orders provide an effective means of reducing women’s vulnerability to violence.
Separated women are at elevated risk of violence by men, whether physical, sexual, or lethal, relative to women in intact unions (Brownridge, 2006), and women are at risk of increasingly severe violence when separating from violent partners (Riggs et al., 2000). The risk of post-separation violence decreases with the passage of time since separation, and is greatest in the first two or three months after the commencement of the separation, at least from homicide data. [...]
Further situational variables influence post-separation violence. Leaving a marital or cohabiting relationship or trying to leave it increases women’s changes of being physically or sexually assaulted especially if they are connected to men with patriarchal and/or sexually proprietary attitudes (DeKeseredy et al., 2004). Women are at greater risk of post-separation violence if they are more ‘available’ for victimisation: if they live in the same city as their former partner, and at riskier times such as court appearances and exchanges of or visits to children (Brownridge, 2006). The presence of a new partner can be either a risk or a protective factor, as can children. For example, joint custody may become an opportunity for conflict and violence, may increase opportunities for violence at visitation and the exchange of children, and children may be used as tools for violence by abusive men (Brownridge, 2006). [...]
The Australian evidence is that protection orders provide an effective means of reducing women’s vulnerability to violence. An early study in New South Wales found that the vast majority of complainants experienced a reduction in violence and abuse from the defendant in the six months after the order was served on the defendant, and over 90 per cent reported that the order had produced benefits such as reduced contact with the defendant and increased personal safety and comfort (Trimboli & Bonney, 1997). Finally, research among young women aged 18 to 23 and subjected to violence by intimate partners found that “preventive strategies for young women at the early stage of a relationship can eliminate, or at least reduce, physical violence by a partner” (Young et al., 2000, p. 5). The severity of violence was reduced after legal protection, but the benefit was not as marked unless women sought help from the courts as well as the police.
Mothers are desperately awaiting the feel of their sons and daughters arms around them, finally out of the psychological and physical grip of their patriarchal parent. So let’s get to the heart of the matter. Women are socially and legally disadvantaged in life and in law due to men's jurisdiction over each. The sexist beliefs and attitudes that are foundational to men's violence against women and children are supported, not exposed, not challenged, not remedied, when judges and juries carry those same beliefs and attitudes into the courtroom. This effectively ensures that at the end of the day, male supremacists win, patriarchal power is bolstered, and abusive fathers and husband regain control and custody. Women lose credibility, if not courage. They lose faith that justice is fair and unbiased. Mothers and children lose trust and hope in systems that are supposed to protect and defend their human rights to not be dominated and violated. More heart-breaking still is the loss of mothers and children’s irreplaceable relationships to each other. They are legally and forcibly separated for months, years, and sometimes forever. This is not justice. This is the tyranny of unearned patriarchal privilege ruling justice systems.
Some of these fathers have controlled, dominated, manipulated, violated, subordinated, raped, and battered the children’s mothers secretly, others have done so in front of the children, also to them, but none of this is appreciably and appropriately factored into who gets custody when parents separate and divorce due to domestic violence. Why are men being given visitation rights to children they abuse? Why is a man who batters his children’s mother being given full custody when the children need to be safely with her, and they all need reliable protection from him? With official rulings such as these, one wonders: where is the heart in justice?
If our choices rest between a woman who has been harmed significantly by a husband’s abuse but who is still standing and speaking out, naming him as the perpetrator of that harm, the best parent available to the children ought never be the abuser. Even if he is rich and she is poor.
The fact of him being male ought not be reason to grant him access to family members he has terrified. Being male doesn’t preclude being a good parent but being an abusive husband and father always does--definitionally--if reality is allowed to be defined by the harmed, that is. Being an abusive husband in a home where there are children means you are unequivocally an abusive father also. To believe otherwise is to deny children have human feelings. To believe otherwise is to deny that everyone in a home with domestic violence is impacted negatively by that violence. We know this is the case with alcoholic homes. We know this about families where there is rampant drug abuse. The same is true in any home with children where misogyny is expressed by domineering men who psychologically control and terrorise women. Whether he appears kind or callous to his children, the fact of him systematically subordinating their mother to his will, regardless of how he directly treats the children, ought to be sufficiently substantiating evidence he ought not parent them.
Overwhelmingly, by all accounts, it is males, not females, who use brutal force, bone-breaking force causing bodies to bleed and faces to bruise beyond recognition. These male supremacist traumas are not only physical. Men humiliate and degrade women with sarcastic ridicule and caustic contempt. Men’s attitudes and entitlements, both interpersonal and institutional, reveal their behavior, their actions, are aimed at women because they are female.
No child is safe when home is a war zone. Ought the safety and care of children and the humanitarian well-being of women be more centrally valued in society and in law than preserving a detrimental father-child relationship when determining where and with whom children will best be raised? If a husband and father has demonstrated his ability to terrorise and dominate other human beings “in his care”, why doesn’t the courtroom see this as just cause to award sole custody of children to the mother, without visitation by the predator?
This would be an absurdly unnecessary thing to say except that it is not routinely believed: criminal terrorists ought not be made legal guardians of those they terrify. Findings of post-traumatic stress due to threats and violence, and symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome due to degradation and domination exacted against the wills and beings of mothers and children ought not be ignored, understated, or deemed irrelevant when custody rulings are rendered in any court of law that calls itself just and humane.
Sources for some of the content above:
Julian Real is a U.S. writer working to illuminate and eliminate men’s social and sexual domination of women. He has also been an activist in support of feminist campaigns for justice for thirty years, largely working out of public view due to death threats made against him by Men’s Rights Activists. He worked collaboratively with Nikki Craft to create feminist websites including the Andrea Dworkin Memorial, Hustling The Left, and The Nikki Wiki. He is the author of dozens of essays published many places online, including xyonline.net and nostatusquo.com. Since the summer of 2008 he has hosted the blog, A Radical Profeminist, which spotlights and challenges white men’s violence against women of color.