Responding to a Feminist Professor Kelly Behre’s Perspectives on Men’s Rights Activism

Posted on September 4, 2014

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“I had a false allegation of domestic violence ordered against me on June 19, 2006. It was based on lies, but the local sheriff’s office and state attorney’s office didn’t care that he was a covert, lying narcissist. I doubt they ever heard of the term, in fact. I made the mistake of moving back in with him in September 2008.

“Last year, on July 23, 2013, he, with the help of his conniving sister, literally abandoned me. Left me without transportation and tried to have the electricity cut off. However, the electric company told him it was unlawful to do so. I am disabled, because of him, and have been fighting to get my life, reputation, and sanity restored. It has been over a year, and while life goes on for him, I am still struggling from deep scars of betrayal, lies, and his continued smear campaign against me.

“I thank you for the opportunity to speak out and stand with other true victims of abuse. You see, it isn’t just women who abuse the system, but men, as well.”

—Female e-petition respondent (August 30, 2014)

Contrast this woman’s story with this excerpt from a UC Davis Law Prof. Kelly Behre’s 2014 research paper:

At first glance, the modern fathers’ rights movement and law reform efforts appear progressive, as do the names and rhetoric of the “father’s rights” and “children’s rights” groups advocating for the reforms. They appear a long way removed from the activists who climbed on bridges dressed in superhero costumes or the member martyred by the movement after setting himself on fire on courthouse steps. Their use of civil rights language and appeal to formal gender equality is compelling. But a closer look reveals a social movement increasingly identifying itself as the opposition to the battered women’s movement and intimate partner violence advocates. Beneath a veneer of gender equality language and increased political savviness remains misogynistic undertones and a call to reinforce patriarchy.

The professor’s perceptions aren’t wrong. Her perspective, however, is limited, because stories like the one in the epigraph fall outside of the boundaries of her focus and awareness (and her interest and allegiance, besides).

What isn’t appreciated by critics of various men’s rights advocacy groups is that these groups’ own criticisms are provoked by legal inequities that are inspired and reinforced by feminist groups and their socially networked loyalists. These feminist groups arrogate to themselves the championship of female causes, among them that of battered women. Feminists are the movers behind the “battered women’s movement.”

Those who criticize unfair laws and policies that purport to protect battered women are not “pro-domestic violence”; they’re anti-injustice, which may well mean they’re anti-feminist, and this can be construed as “opposition to the battered women’s movement.” The opposition, however, is to what the feminist movement has wrought. No one is “for” the battery of women or “against” the protection of battered women.

To put this across in a way a feminist can appreciate, to believe women should have the right to abort a fetus is not the same thing as being “pro-abortion.” No one is “for” abortion, and no one is “for” domestic violence. (“Yay, abortion” is never a sign you’ll see brandished by a picketer at a pro-choice demonstration.)

The Daily Beast op-ed this excerpt is drawn from criticizes a group called “Women Against Feminism” and asserts that feminism is defined by the conviction that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” If this were strictly true, then inequities in judicial process that favor female complainants would be a target of feminism’s censure instead of its vigorous support.

The “clash” the professor constructs in her paper is not, strictly speaking, adversarial, and thinking of it this way is the source of the systemic injustices complained of by the groups she targets. Portraying it as a gender conflict is also archly self-serving, because it represents men’s rights groups as “the enemy.” Drawing an Us vs. Them dichotomy (standard practice in the law) promotes a far more visceral opposition to the plaints of men’s groups than the professor’s 64-page evidentiary survey could ever hope to (“Oh, they’re against us, are they?”).

The basic, rational argument against laws intended to curb violence against women is that they privilege women’s interests and deem women more (credit)worthy than men, which has translated to plaintiffs’ being regarded as more “honest” than defendants, and this accounts for female defendants’ also being victimized by false allegations.

(Women, too, are the victims of false restraining orders and fraudulent accusations of domestic abuse. Consequently, women also lose their jobs, their children, their good names, their health, their social credibility, etc.)

The thesis of the professor’s densely annotated paper (“Digging beneath the Equality Language: The Influence of the Father’s Rights Movement on Intimate Partner Violence Public Policy Debates and Family Law Reform”) is that allegations of legal inequities by men’s groups shouldn’t be preferred to facts, and that only facts should exercise influence on decision-making. This assertion is controverted by the professor’s defense of judicial decisions that may be based on no ascertainable facts whatever—and need not be according to the law. The professor on the one hand denounces finger-pointing from men’s groups and on the other hand defends finger-pointing by complainants of abuse, who are predominately women.

In the arena of law this post concerns, the courts typically follow the dictum that the person pointing the finger is right (and this person is usually female). In other words, the courts judge allegations to be facts. In many instances, what’s more, state law authorizes this formulation. It grants judges the authority “at their discretion” to rule according to accusations and nothing more. Hearsay is fine (and, for example, in California where the professor teaches, the law explicitly says hearsay is fine). The expression of a feeling of danger (genuinely felt or not) suffices as evidence of danger.

The professor’s defense of judicial decision-making based on finger-pointing rather undercuts the credibility of her 64-page polemic against decision-making based on finger-pointing by men’s groups that allege judicial inequities. The professor’s arguments, then, reduce to this position: women’s entitlement to be heeded is greater than men’s.

The problem with critiques of male opposition to domestic violence and restraining order statutes is that those critiques stem from the false presuppositions that (1) the statutes are fair and constitutionally conscientious (they’re not), (2) adjudications based on those statutes are even-handed and just (they’re not), and (3) no one ever exploits those statutes for malicious or otherwise self-serving ends by lying (they do—because they can, for the reasons enumerated above).

Attorneys acknowledge procedural abuses are common.

Many critiques of men’s, father’s, and children’s rights groups fail to even recognize that motives for lying exist. What presupposition underlies this? That everyone’s an angel? If everyone were an angel, we wouldn’t need laws at all. Or is the presupposition that women are angels? A woman should know better.

A casual Google query will turn up any number of licensed, practicing attorneys all over the country who acknowledge restraining orders and domestic violence laws are abused and offer their services to the falsely accused. Surely the professor wouldn’t allege that these attorneys are fishing for clients who don’t exist—and pretending there’s a problem that doesn’t exist—because they, too, are part of the “anti-battered-women conspiracy.”

The professor’s evidentiary pastiche is at points compelling—it’s only natural that a lot of rage will have been ventilated by people who’ve had their lives torn apart—but her paper’s arguments are finally, exactly like those they criticize, tendentious.

It’s obvious what the professor’s “side” is.

(She accordingly identifies her opposition indiscriminately. For example, the blog you’re right now reading was labeled the product of a father’s rights group or “FRG” in the footnotes of the professor’s paper. This blog is authored by one person only, and he’s not a father. Wronged dads have this writer’s sympathies, but this blog has no affiliation with any groups.)

The professor carefully prefaces her points with phrases like “Researchers have noted,” which gives them the veneer of plausibility but ignores this obvious question: where do the loyalties of those “researchers” lie? The professor cites, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s equation of SAVE Services with a hate group. An attentive survey of SAVE’s reportage, however, would suggest little correspondence. The professor doesn’t quote any of SAVE’s reports; she simply quotes an opposing group’s denunciation of them as being on a par with white supremacist propaganda.

(What the professor does quote are some statistics generated by SAVE that she contends are dubious, like estimates of the number and costs of false and frivolous prosecutions. Such estimates must necessarily be speculative, because there are no means of conclusively determining the degree or extent of false allegations. Lies are seldom if ever acknowledged by the courts even if they’re detected. This fact, again, is one that’s corroborated by any number of attorneys who practice in the trenches. Perjury is rarely recognized or punished, so there are no ironclad statistics on its prevalence for advocacy groups to adduce.)

Besides plainly lacking neutrality, insofar as no comparative critical analysis of feminist rhetoric is performed, the professor’s logocentric orientation wants compassion. How much of what she perceives (or at least represents) as bigoted or even crazy would seem all too human if she were to ask herself, for instance, how would I feel if my children were ripped from me by the state in response to lies from someone I trusted, and I were falsely labeled a monster and kicked shoeless to the curb? Were she to ask herself this question and answer it honestly, most of the outraged and inflammatory language she finds offensively “vitriolic” and incendiary would quite suddenly seem understandable, if not sympathetic.

The professor’s approach is instead coolly legalistic, which is exactly the approach that has spawned the heated actions and language she finds objectionable.

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