On Friday, a group of men’s right activists met in suburban Detroit to discuss the greatest threat to America’s men: America’s women. To outsiders, the first International Conference on Men’s Issues made an easy target for ridicule. The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse called it a gathering of “mostly white college-through retirement age men” discussing their “second-class citizenship” and their victimhood at the hands of “privileged” and “narcissistic women.” According to the Post, one speaker speculated that women are responsible for domestic violence because “having all the power in relationships, they could simply choose to not marry violent men.” Another argued that “the vast majority of women crying rape on campus are actually expressing buyer’s remorse from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky consent on both sides.” Tales of paternity fraud, false rape allegations, and manipulative exes dominated the proceedings.
But nestled in the outrage, a few reasonable claims emerged. Case in point: Gary Costanza of Long Island, the same man who made the unfortunate statement that men like him are second-class citizens, argued that in divorces where children are involved, “custody should always be split.” Always? Not quite. But Costanza’s argument is not too far from a feminist one: When both parents are fit, men should be equally responsible for and entitled to caring for their children. That setup would afford men more access to the “rights” that women supposedly enjoy and would free women to share a greater part of the childcare burden.
That said, it’s not clear how reducing that argument to “men are second-class citizens” will help change the law (which, after all, was codified by politicians and judges who remain overwhelmingly male). These men all have legitimate gripes with how they’ve been treated by society—all humans do!—but their problems aren’t necessarily evidence of systematic discrimination against men as a class. As the Huffington Post described the dynamics of the conference: “When the personal is the political, the politics are going to be pretty distorted and the ideology somewhat incoherent.”
Luckily for guys like Costanza, the rest of society is already grappling with the most reasonable demands of the men’s rights movement, but without the “narcissistic women” rhetoric. As my colleague Hanna Rosin recently pointed out in Slate, though a preference for mothers still persists in family courts, that’s changing fast. The “vast majority of states” have “moved toward an assumption of joint custody” since the 1970s, Rosin writes. A 2011 study of divorce outcomes in Wisconsin found that the percentage of mothers awarded sole custody dropped from 60.4 to 45.7 between 1996 and 2007, and that equally shared custody agreements doubled in that time period. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers has registered a rapid increase in the number of mothers paying child support. (Rosin—despite writing dedicatedly about many of the "men's issues" discussed in the conference—was dismissed by the group as a "misandrist.")
Still, we’d all be right to argue that equal parenting rights have a long way to go. But hopefully, that effort will be spearheaded by a diverse group of thoughtful people, not just a bunch of angry white men.