The male backlash
By Farah Farouque The Age (Melbourne)
Paul Black is not the sort of bloke to take to the streets in protest. But this week he did something atypical: fuelled by intense feelings of frustration, he got in his car and made the long trip from Mulgrave to Canberra to attend a two-day conference of the Lone Fathers Association.
“I don’t see myself as a radical, I’m not the sort who wants to go ripping out letterboxes or shouting slogans,” says this new recruit to the men’s movement. “But the inequalities that were there for women 20, 30 years ago are now there for men. The pendulum has swung from too many opportunities for men to too many opportunities for women.”
Black has entered the organised men’s movement along a well-worn path: relationship breakdown. There are up to 200 men’s groups in Australia, according to estimates – and many could be called estranged fathers’ groups. They bear names from Dads in Distress to the cuddly sounding Fatherhood Foundation, and typically attract men in midlife. While the groups claim a growing membership, the extent of their support is unknown. The Lone Fathers Association says it helps 30,000 men a year, but their paid-up membership is 9000 nationally. However, La Trobe University researcher Michael Flood says the number actively agitating in the men’s movement would be no more than 2000.
What makes them remarkable is that they subvert the traditional paradigm of social activism in that they represent the interests of the dominant group in society. Or do they? The argument these men’s groups mount, with growing political muscle, is that they are getting an unfair deal, not only when it comes to family law issues but in other areas such as men’s health. There is a growing lobby for free prostate screening, boys’ education – crystallised in a federal push for more male primary teachers – and even domestic violence.
Barry Williams, the president and founder of the Lone Fathers Association, prosecutes some of the familiar themes of the men’s rights movement in a mild tone sometimes at odds with the strength of his rhetoric. “Both men and women are, in fact, equally likely to be perpetrators of violence in relationships, although women are somewhat more likely to be seriously injured,” he declares.
He warns his membership to be on guard against “further development of an ideologically based domestic-violence industry funded by the taxpayer”. “There is a very serious issue of discrimination here,” he says.