Over the past two decades, a swell of disgruntled men have come together to form a movement around the notion of “fathers’ rights” — and the supposed loss of those rights in the battleground of family court, where divorcing couples negotiate the terms of their separation, including custody of kids.
The narrative of helpless fathers falling victim to an anti-male, pro-feminist judicial system has been especially tantalizing for so-called “men’s rights activists,” or MRAs, a broad subculture that includes incels and “Men Going Their Own Way.” These groups have elevated the argument around fathers’ rights as key evidence of their oppression, birthing a cottage industry that’s weaponized child custody fights and made it a symbolic issue of modern masculinity.
Moreover, beyond just being another favored talking point in the manosphere, the notion that men are victims of false abuse accusations is holding true in family courts, too. An Australian study from July found that, between 2012 and 2019, only 14 percent of child sexual abuse claims were deemed credible by Australian family court judges. In two-thirds of all cases, the accused parent had their time with a child increased by the judge. Most of the claims of abuse were made by women, toward men.
The findings weren’t surprising to Grant Wyeth, a researcher and columnist for The Diplomat who studies male bias in family courts. The study acknowledges that child sexual abuse is currently underreported, he says, which makes the findings all the more concerning. “It’s hard to ignore what’s happening when you see radical ideas that were developed in the 1980s now fully entrenched in the courts,” he tells me. “Now, there’s this idea that a lack of normalized contact with a parent is worse for a child than the potential for abuse. So the court has become less concerned with safety, and more concerned with fairness. It presents a lot of mothers with an impossible problem.”
Previous research from the U.S. and Canada has found that women and children rarely fabricate accusations, with men more likely to make intentional false reports in custody proceedings. And the problem of courts ignoring abuse claims and mandating equal time for parental custody appears to be replicating across the world, including in America and the U.K., which released a major report last June detailing how family courts are failing to protect children from dangerous fathers.
It is the endpoint of nearly 40 years of activism that has painted men as victims, Wyeth says, leading to a “pro-contact” mindset in child custody proceedings that exploits a pool of judges that’s overwhelmingly male. And today, the fight is carried by male supremacists who are actively pushing an agenda to “reassert dominance of the household,” Wyeth says.
I recently spoke with Wyeth about why the courts don’t believe women, how a fringe theory about brainwashing grew into the mainstream and what governments are doing to contend with activists who push misinformation into the courts.
What did this newest study of Australia’s family court system show us?
It appears that accusations of child sexual abuse, which this study focused on, seem to upset courts the most [in that they then blame the mother]. If a mother reports physical violence toward the child, she has a far greater chance of being believed. But if you report sexual abuse of a child, she has a far less chance of being believed. The study notes that only 14 percent of mothers are being believed when they report this kind of abuse, while at the same time highlighting that child sexual abuse is far more widespread than we realize.
But the headline figure is that in 17 percent of cases, the study said that the courts are removing custody from mothers and giving them to the alleged perpetrator. That’s a phenomenon we’re seeing in other countries as well. There’s a major study in the U.S. from George Washington University that found that when mothers accuse fathers of child sexual abuse, it doubles the rate at which mothers will lose custody of their children.
So yeah, it appears the courts are in a state of disbelief about this. They would rather throw their hands up and give contact to both parents. And if you bring sexual assault to the court’s attention, it can and will punish you for it.
You’ve written about how Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist with some very fringe ideas, invented the concept of “parental alienation syndrome” — something still argued today. How did he birth the modern fathers’ rights movement?
In short, Gardner believed that claims of child sexual abuse, including pedophilia, were overblown. And one of his big explanations was that when a mother claimed a child had been abused, what they were really doing was brainwashing the child, in order to alienate them from the other parent. Gardner published his theory in 1985, and it started to take hold thereafter. It’s a fascinating part of the Allen v. Farrow docu-series, because Woody Allen tried to use “parental alienation syndrome” as a defense in the early 1990s.
Several courts, including in Spain and Italy, have disavowed parental alienation syndrome as a legal argument. The American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association do not recognize it. But it still has been able to gain traction despite not having credibility, under the guise of the more neutral-sounding “parental alienation,” described as any action that’s taken by one parent to exclude another from the child’s life. But it’s a tool that you can use if you’re accused of violence — by saying, “Oh, she’s trying to alienate me from the child.” And it has a biased impact on women, too.
How does this tie into your concerns about real-world violence stemming from the spread of this movement?
In Australia, last year, there was the sentencing of a man who had, in the early 1980s, killed a family court judge, bombed the house of another judge and bombed a family court building. Leonard Warwick wasn’t captured until 2015, but I really saw him as an early MRA terrorist. He was a man who had an obvious grievance against the family court after fighting with his ex-wife. And I had to juxtapose him with Gardner. I see them as two sides of the same ideological coin.
In regards to a lot of your MRA extremists, they still see the household as a domain where they should have authority. Their fight is a countermeasure to the rise of “no-fault” divorces in the 1970s, in which you could get a divorce without presenting a case to the authorities, and it was no problem. My argument is that abusive men saw how easily they were losing power and wanted a tool to have more control over their former families.
Why did such a fringe idea, with such bias against women, gain traction in the system?
Gardner wouldn’t have been able to gain such traction in the system if he didn’t have sympathetic male judges to work. There are judges working today who still believe in this idea that the household is a space of male authority and that women and children who resist this authority need to be put in their place. And I think as an extension of that, they’re reluctant to set behavioral standards for other men.
It also seems the cottage industry of people playing to this male supremacy energy has exploded.
Yeah, it’s been a huge swell of lawyers and therapists that operate around this demand, and they continue to advocate and push ideas like parental alienation into the courtroom. And unfortunately, I don’t think there’s been enough judicial training to keep up. Family court isn’t a prestigious court, and many judges aren’t taking their role as seriously as they can.
But there are two new bills, one in Pennsylvania and one in New York, called Kayden’s Law and Kyra’s Law — named after children who were killed by their fathers after courts disbelieved that these men posed a threat. And both of these bills have mandated that judges need more training around issues of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and especially around countering what the legislation calls “unscientific theories.” That’s a really positive step.
Do you think, beyond training judges, this is a problem with how the system operates when it comes to divorces and child custody?
The adversarial system in court has a lot of problems. It leads to people being swayed by ideas that are unscientific and not beneficial to children. But it also just means there are two parents trying to discredit the other one. That’s what the game is, now: Going to court to discredit and fight. There’s very little objective assessment of the child’s environment happening here.
And the current system doesn’t really offer men who have been abusive a pathway to treatment and healing. Without that pathway, we’re just creating more disgruntled, extreme men who do things like, well, we just saw the latest U.K. shooting. There has to be some outlet other than online forums where you get angrier and more isolated.
Why should fathers be upset about how the family court system is operating right now?
I’m not a father. But if I was a good father, what’s happening in family court is the equivalent of the state evaluating me and saying that my skills as a good father are worth the same as someone accused of child abuse. That should be offensive, because that’s the state pretending to be a disinterested actor when it comes to good parenting. The government should be valuing good parenting. But the metrics of the family court aren’t about that, at all.
And when systems like family courts are swayed by male supremacy, it feeds into a lot of this men’s rights extremism and becomes a bigger culture for society in the future. There is a real link between the abuse of children and women and how men act out in public and use violence within society. And we need to be paying attention to that.