Essay by Barry Goldstein
I grew up in a sexist country as a typical sexist guy, not particularly more or less sexist than most boys and men. I benefited from my male privilege even while being oblivious to the unearned benefits it brought. I might have remained ignorant had I not agreed to serve on the board of a battered women’s shelter in Westchester County, New York. One of my best decisions was to keep my mouth closed and listen to the women. The experience changed my career and my life.
An even bigger learning experience came when I interviewed Phyllis B. Frank for my first book and accepted her invitation to work as an instructor in a New York Model Batterer Program. We taught the classes based on oppression theory which we used in class discussions and in fitting into the role as instructors.
Oppression involves dividing groups of people and giving one group unearned privileges and the other group undeserved disadvantages. We often spoke about racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism. One of the most important lessons I learned was that most offensive behavior based on the “isms” are not the extreme behavior like unwanted touching or the most offensive language. Instead, more often we witnessed unintentional offensive behavior often based on myths and stereotypes. This is important in child custody because court professionals often harm mothers and children by subconsciously relying on popular stereotypes like the vindictive woman.
Victims of oppression understand an oppression used against them because of the harm they suffer and their need to pay attention to the behavior of the privileged group for purposes of survival. Research about batterer narratives found that abusive men say it is wrong to assault a woman, but then create exceptions.
A common exception is if she is a (insert the slur). Abusers give themselves permission to assault their partners if they call them or think of them with this language. I will not use the language in this article as we have all heard the words too often. Many have a literal meaning of a woman having sex outside of marriage. The equivalent words for men doing the same thing are far more benign. Men might believe that it is no big deal to use these words, but women have experienced that it places them in danger. Court professionals almost never treat this dangerous language as significant in custody disputes.
Instructors and staff in the program often repeated that it wasn’t the intent of the offender but the impact on the victim that was important. A person from the marginalized group is in a far better position to recognize offensive behavior. It was important for the offender to respond in a way that encouraged feedback about his offense. They needed to listen to what the victim said instead of jumping in trying to explain what they meant. They did not need to apologize, but just listen, accept responsibility and commit to avoiding a repeat of the behavior. A sign on Phyllis’ door said no chastising.
Politicians and the general public often respond with wording that undermines responsibility. Language like “mistakes were made” and “I’m sorry you were offended” is unacceptable because the problem is that the offender did something rather than focusing on the effect on the victim. Similarly, I’m sorry if my statement hurt you. Victims have heard these offenses repeatedly, so again the point is to focus on the offender’s behavior. Very significantly, a member of the marginalized group understands the issue better than the privileged person so we should not argue that the behavior was not offensive or that the victim is too sensitive. Many abusers respond by saying can’t you take a joke, but that was unacceptable in the program. We were very careful with humor because a lot of humor is hurtful.
An important lesson was not to think we were better because we recognized a wrong. In many, if not most cases, we would not have recognized it months or years earlier. Good people who wanted to work in the program sometimes behaved in an offensive manner. When someone in the marginalized group told us about our offense, we were taught to understand their response as a valuable gift. In our racist and sexist society, it can be dangerous to tell someone from a privileged group that they had offended. I received these gifts while working in the program and am grateful to my colleagues for trusting me enough to help me learn to work against my sexism and racism. As we often said, this is hard work.
Why I Left the Stop Abuse Campaign
I am writing about the importance of treating women respectfully because it is an important subject. It is especially important in a movement seeking to change sexist practices that cause enormous harm to women and children. I am also writing this article because I thought that friends who follow my work are entitled to know why I am no longer working for the Stop Abuse Campaign.
Let me start by saying that the Stop Abuse Campaign does good work. There are good people working with them who have made enormous sacrifices to try to protect children. I continue to support their goals- especially the passage of the Safe Child Act. In this movement, we must have a high standard for treating women respectfully. In the batterer program, it was important to model respectful behavior for the men in the program, and in the protective mother’s movement, we must model respectful behavior to a court system that too often is biased and disrespectful towards the mothers that children depend on. Men in the movement do not have to always agree with women who are our allies, but we need to listen to them and always treat them with respect.
I will always remember a discussion I had with Phyllis B. Frank while I was an instructor in the batterer program. A female law guardian was treating my client badly and I disagreed with her approach. I asked Phyllis how I – as a man – could claim to know better about women’s issues than an experienced professional woman. She explained that we take leadership from the collective voices of women, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t respectfully disagree with an individual woman.
The leaders of the Stop Abuse Campaign were working on a plan to collaborate with other organizations that are our allies in this work. The goal was to work together in an organization authorized to lobby for legislation. The purpose was to pass the Safe Child Act. The executive committee sought to structure the new organization so that we could take control of the new organization if there was a dispute. The other organizations are all led by wonderful women. I told them that an organization led by men cannot seek or take control from women allies. When they used a power play to insist on this approach, I felt ethically bound to resign.
Good News Moving Forward
My articles have started appearing on the website for the Center for Judicial Excellence. This is the organization that keeps records and research about the child murders related to the failed custody court system. They have been doing wonderful work promoting legislation in California and nationally. I will now be serving as a consulting expert for the Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE).
CJE Executive Director Kathleen Russell and I recently submitted a funding proposal to an angel who has a strong interest in our movement, and particularly in passing the Safe Child Act. We plan to add a Policy & Advocacy Director to help nurture a national network of protective parent advocates to pass the Safe Child Act and other child safety legislation. This means that when opportunities appear in different states, we can provide important assistance. We hope to travel in order to lobby in person when that is what is needed.
All of this is exciting. Getting the first state or two to pass the Safe Child Act is critical because once other legislators see that we can protect children effectively, it will be much easier to pass this vital legislation everywhere. We don’t have to endure courts that assume that any child sexual abuse report must have been coached, and we can minimize the harmful outcome cases that researcher Dr. Saunders from the University of Michigan found to always be wrong. And hopefully soon, the Center for Judicial Excellence can stop counting child murders because family courts have stopped giving access to the killers.
In the batterer program I taught, we often discussed racism as one of the oppressions because it was easier for men of color to recognize racism than sexism. We believe the oppressions are connected. White men often objected to why we would discuss racism in a program about domestic violence. Sexism is the cause of domestic violence, and we cannot stop sexism and domestic violence unless we also stop racism and the other oppressions.
Imagine a black man who hates racism and understands the enormous harm it has had on his life. And then he engages in sexism when he mistreats his wife or girlfriend, which undermines the work to end racism. Then imagine a white woman who hates sexism and understands the harm sexism has on her life. And then she acts in a racist way to people of color and doesn’t realize that in doing so she is helping to keep sexism alive.
Many of the men in the batterer class attacked political correctness just like the worst politicians do. Protective mothers face a backlash of the abusers just as haters have promoted a backlash whenever any progress against racism can be made. Oppression works only when people harmed by racism, sexism and other oppressions fight each other instead of working to stop all oppressions.
In my work in the batterer program, I needed to model respectful behavior to demonstrate how men should talk about and treat women. The same is true in my work in the protective mothers’ movement. This is an ongoing process and I need to think about how my behavior impacts my clients and my colleagues. This is difficult work, which is why it is all too easy for good people to get it wrong. I had to leave the Stop Abuse Campaign because I could not be involved in mistreating women who are my friends and colleagues. I am grateful to leaders in the protective mother’s movement like Kathleen Russell, Catherine Campbell, Connie Valentine and many others who consider me an ally. I hope to be worthy of their support and confidence. The only effective path towards protecting children includes respecting women.
Barry Goldstein is a domestic violence author, speaker, advocate and expert witness. He is the author of six books concerning domestic violence and child custody. Barry is the author of the Safe Child Act which is a comprehensive plan based on current scientific research that can fix the broken court system and make family courts safe for children.