In January, Mike Buchanan launched his bid for election as the leader of the political party, Justice for Men and Boys, with a lively encounter with feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
Justice for Men and Boys has 20 policy points detailing how Buchanan believes men are assaulted by UK society. He claims, among other things, that men are routinely denied custody or access to their children, and that men are just as likely to be victims of domestic abuse as women. There’s more, including arguing against male circumcision and how men work more hours than women (paid work mind you. All the unpaid work doesn’t count apparently!). Ultimately Justice for Men and Boys take the view that men are disadvantaged by society and implicitly blame feminism for men’s so-called oppression.
As a feminist who campaigns for the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression, it’s a bit strange to be told that in a country where women are killed every 2.85 days by a man; where women do the vast majority of unpaid work and are poorer than men; and there are up to 95,000 rapes every year, that men are the true victims of sexism.
One of Buchanan’s main arguments around how society disadvantages men centres on the family court system and the belief that men are routinely denied access to their children. But this belief is simply not true. All the evidence and government reports have shown time and time again that there is no to very little bias against men in the family courts system. The bias is towards the primary care giver – and in a patriarchal society that labels women as the natural takers-on of unpaid caring work, that tends to be mums.
Looking exclusively at heterosexual relationships, the vast majority of custody cases do not go to court. On average, only 10% of child custody cases ended up in court and in 2010 only 300 of 95,000 litigated custody cases resulted in the father being unable to see his child. A 2008 study by Hunt and MaCleod found that when fathers asked for access, they tended to get it.
So first of all, the premise of Buchanan’s argument that the judicial system is biased against fathers is wrong. The stats show that the courts system is unlikely to deny a father contact, and they are likely to favour the primary care giver whether that’s mum or dad. And this is where I believe Buchanan and his supporters should be working with, rather than against, feminists. After all, the fact that women are almost always the primary care givers is caused by patriarchal expectations of men’s and women’s roles. It’s patriarchy that typecasts women as natural nurturers, and promotes the belief that caring and nurturing are somehow ‘unmanly’.
As feminists, we campaign against the idea that caring is primarily a woman’s responsibility. We argue that more action could and should be taken to ensure parents of both sexes are encouraged to share caring responsibilities – from equalising maternity and paternity leave to promoting positive dad role models. We want to see more men getting involved in their families, more men taking on Marilyn French’s ‘shit and stringbeans’ jobs that have historically fallen to women. We don’t want a system that automatically assigns unpaid caring work for women. That’s patriarchy.
Put simply, the fact that mothers are more likely to get custody of their children is not because the courts are sexist against men and favour women. The courts simply reflect a society which still expects women to be the default primary caregiver.
However, I don’t think Buchanan is really campaigning for men to take on more of the arse wiping and floor cleaning aspects of caring for a home and a family. He wants to have his cake and eat it too – leaving the burden of unpaid caring work on women’s shoulders whilst arguing that it’s unfair that the courts favour the primary care giver. To me, that is the hypocrisy at the heart of his argument against our family courts system.
There is another aspect to Buchanan’s father rights campaign that troubles me. And that is how it refuses to acknowledge that whilst there are a few cases where men are denied access to their children, a far, far greater family rights issue is how so many men refuse to take responsibility for their children post separation – dodging £3.87 billion in child maintenance payments.
I have long believed that the real issue in our family courts, the true scandal, is the huge amount of money not paid in child maintenance. It is a scandal that thousands of men clearly feel they should take no responsibility for the financial welfare of their child (I focus on financial here because it is perfectly possible that a father still sees his child without paying maintenance). It is shocking that across the UK billions of pounds are denied to mothers trying to bring up their children. And, of course, this lack of income can then contribute to poverty (of course not all single parents are poor) whilst single mothers on benefits are blamed for that poverty. Let’s not forget either that these billions of pounds are not for helping single parents to live a life of riley, but to feed, clothe and care for children.
Put simply, it’s cruel. We blame those single mums living in poverty for all societal ills. We blame them for their own poverty. And yet we don’t look to the fathers that refuse to support their child.
I guess it’s just easier to blame the women though, Mike? After all, in a society where there are around 1,500 rapes a week and a conviction rate of 6.5%, we’re already all quite comfortable with blaming women.