Gabriel Aubry is being a bad dad. Well, we don't know that for a fact; all we know is that actress Halle Berry, with whom the model had a daughter, now 3, is claiming that he's been neglectful. She may be right, she may be wrong, but in the eyes of much of the world, Aubry's already guilty.
People can -- and do -- say anything they want in a nasty custody or divorce battle. And as a society, we often tend to assume the worst about men. But what if we're wrong?
We're used to men being violent. Literature, movies and video games are full of heroes and antiheroes who kill and maim their way into our hearts and nightmares. At the same time, we tell boys to "suck it up" instead of expressing pain, leaving them few emotions but anger. Then we chastise them when they actually get angry -- or live in fear of their anger. And sometimes we use the one emotion we've allowed them to our advantage.
Men, of course, aren't the only ones who can do damage; statistics show that women can be just as violent as men. But while the Violence Against Women Act provides millions of dollars for shelters for abused women, you don't see too many shelters -- any, actually -- for abused men. "It's often been taken for granted that women can't really do that much damage, so it's OK to maybe slap your boyfriend or do something of that nature," says Kellie Palazzolo, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's Hugh Downs School of Human Communication who is overseeing research on how college students perceive female and male perpetrators.
That may be why so many women applauded Elin Nordegren's alleged golf club attack on then-hubby Tiger Woods -- we just don't like to think of women being violent except in self-defense. He cheated on her; he made her do that!
And in the "he said-she said" of so many marital breakups, like that of Hulk and Linda Hogan, where she claims he was violent and abusive and he says she's "delusional," or of actress Meredith Baxter, who claims in her memoir, "Untitled", that she was physically and psychologically abused by ex David Birney, while he says her book's "an appalling abuse of the truth," whom do we believe?
Same when it comes to sexual violence. In the "he said-she said" of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was released from house arrest last week, and the 32-year-old hotel maid he allegedly raped, the maid has a history of lying and Strauss-Kahn has a history of sexual predation. Whom do we believe?
Hélène Périvier, co-director of the gender program at Paris' Institut d'Etudes Politiques, worries the fallout of the DSK case may hurt women; while false reports of rape and sexual violence are statistically rare, she says, "it suffices to cement doubts and discredit the word of women going to the police in the future."
But women, like men, lie, and the results can be devastating. And false reports of rape and sexual violence are not as statistically rare as Périvier and others may believe, according to many experts, including Dr. Warren Farrell, chair of the Commission to Create a White House Council on Boys to Men, who details the results of numerous studies in his books "Father and Child Reunion" and "The Myth of Male Power." In fact, they occur often during divorce.
As Farrell writes:
"Men are about 19 more times more likely than women to say they have been falsely accused of sexual abuse. About 85 percent of these abuse allegations are made by women during battles over parent time, during the throes of divorce, or when a live-in situation is failing. ... "(A) sex-abuse charge -- even if false -- often costs the father his job, his health, his friends, his reputation, and his relationship with his child."
Like the hotel maid who allegedly discussed the possible benefits of pursuing charges against Strauss-Kahn, we're all -- men and women -- able to exploit each other. When it comes to custody cases, however, the odds are often stacked against dads. "Some women are coached to make false allegations of domestic violence, rape and child abuse," says Dr. Tara Palmatier, the no-nonsense founder of A Shrink 4 Men, in an email exchange with me. "Their attorneys may file baseless restraining orders to raise the stakes on men in the divorce or custody cases. These tactics don't just hurt men: they create widespread cynicism about the family court and the efficacy of the justice system."
Oregon took a bold step to address that last week when Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law HB2183, which comes down hard on anyone knowingly making a false case of child abuse. The key is "knowing," says the bill's sponsor, Rep. Wayne Krieger, who acknowledged that false accusations often arise between divorcing couples.
But, how often is that? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Administration for Children & Families says of the percentage of the 3.3 million referrals for child abuse and neglect in 2009 it investigated, "Two-thirds of reports found all allegations to be unsubstantiated or intentionally false (64.3% and 0.1%, respectively)." But child abuse or neglect is just a small part of false claims in custody battles.
Many high-conflict custody cases don't start out that way, Farrell says, because most about-to-be divorced moms recognize that kids need their dads, too. But divorce offers a chance to start over -- maybe move closer to one's parents or to a new love, or relocate for a new job. If a savvy lawyer informs a woman that her ex could get equal custody, thus putting the kabosh on her plans, and then asks if she ever feared him, whether he ever cursed at her, called her names, raised his voice or screamed in a fit of rage, "I'm so angry at you, I could kill you" -- and what marriage doesn't have some sort of anger, yelling or threats? -- well, there's a false case of abuse in the making, he says. Divorces can become high conflict if a dad, realizing that his ex's plans may cause him to lose his kids and he doesn't want to lose them, cries, "No way!"
In the custody battle between champion fighter Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell and his ex, Lori Geyer, over their 12-year-old son, accusations are flying on both sides. Who knows who's telling the truth? But one thing Geyer may have on her side is fear; she says Liddell tried to intimidate her by "pacing back and forth and staring her down." And fear is enough to raise the shadow of a doubt, Farrell says. Most judges would rather take the safe route -- after all, who wants to make a mistake and put a child or woman back in an abuser's control?
And so men walk around somewhat guilty until proven innocent. And sometimes, no one's too interested in proving them innocent.
Farrell is. He gets weekly calls from men who say they're being falsely accused. So is Palmatier. The clinical psychologist has worked with numerous men in abusive relationships who feel unheard. Men, she tells me, are often default scapegoats. A woman hits a man and we assume he did something to her to justify it. A father doesn't see his kids so he must be a deadbeat dad, even if the truth is that his ex has done everything in her power to keep him from them. A woman screams and neighbors call the cops who arrest the husband when it was the wife who assaulted him.
"As a society, we don't typically think of men in the role of a victim. We can't even recognize it when we're confronted by physical evidence," Palmatier writes. "On the other hand, we're inclined to believe accusations about men."
Not only is it unfair and dishonest, she says, but it's "damaging to boys and young men, gender relations, relationships, families and 'the best interests of the children.' And it gives the women who are predators a free pass."
Automatically assuming the worst of men is a form of discrimination, she, Farrell and others say. And they're right.
Halle Berry says Gabriel Aubry is being a bad dad, just as many women say about their exes. Whom do you believe?
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