Hugo Schwyzer was a passionate advocate for women's rights. But when he revealed his personal history of addiction, violence, and sex with students, he sparked outrage -- and raised questions about a man's role in the feminist movement.
On December 24, 2011, feminist writer Hugo Schwyzer was banned from participating in Feministe, an influential feminist site. The outrage was sparked by an interview in which Schwyzer discussed his own checkered past, including consensual sex with his students. Underneath the post, Feministe commenters drew attention to an even more astonishing admission -- in a year-old post on Schwyzer's own site -- that in 1998, while intoxicated, he had attempted to kill himself and an ex-girlfriend.
"Why are you giving this animal a platform?" demanded one Feministe commenter. "There are three-and-a-half billion women on this planet with inspiring, thought-provoking stories and insights to share, and you choose instead to promote the self-serving rhetoric of a narcissistic sexual predator."
Oddly enough, this outrage came just days after Schwyzer had proclaimed his solidarity with the feminist movement by withdrawing from an online magazine called The Good Men Project. As its name suggests, the site was built around a simple question -- "What does it mean to be a good man?" -- and Schwyzer had welcomed the opportunity to preach his brand of feminism to a mostly male audience. But on December 14, 2011, the site's founder, Tom Matlack, published a piece called "Being a Dude Is a Good Thing" in which he argued that men and women were fundamentally different, and that women refused to "accept men for who they really are." It wasn't "ethically possible," Schwyzer wrote on his site, "to remain silent while the site with which I am now best associated took an increasingly anti-feminist stance."
Schwyzer's two sudden and very contrasting departures reflect broader issues about men and feminism's boundaries. Men have long been involved in agitating for women's rights. Men attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, an early landmark in the history of American feminism, although they were asked to remain silent. In 1869, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote (with his wife) The Subjugation of Women, a classic of what would today be called liberal feminism. Both Schwyzer and his critics approvingly cite the "three Michaels": Michael Flood, Michael Messner, and Michael Kimmel, all academics who call themselves feminists, writing about violence against women and combining scholarly work with public advocacy.
Still, as Schwyzer's case suggests, men's participation in feminism is complicated and often raises the following questions: Can men be feminist leaders? What role -- if any -- should men's personal experiences play in feminist discussions? And how should feminists treat repentant former abusers?
Schwyzer's case helps clarify feminism's boundaries in part because he has always straddled both sides. He was raised by a feminist mother who kept copies of Ms. magazine on the coffee table and claims that he "fell in love with women's studies" in the mid-1980s. But he couldn't quite bring himself to major in it, so he went on to study history while taking gender-study classes as electives.
Today, Schwyzer holds a Ph.D. in Medieval history and teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He has produced little scholarly feminist work but is a prolific popular writer: Since 2003, he has written several long essays a week, mostly for mixed-gender audiences. He uses feminist jargon in his writing (including such terms as "rape culture," "slut shaming," "male privilege," and "reproductive justice"). His own site features interviews with other established feminists and includes approving links to feminist sites.
Schwyzer's feminism also extends beyond the written word. He helped organize Slutwalk L.A., one of many anti-sexual-assault protests worldwide arranged after a Toronto police officer stated that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." Before the recent controversy, he worked for Healthy Is the New Skinny, a organization that promotes positive body images, especially in the fashion industry. He is pro-choice, and his site advocates for abortion rights.
Because he writes through the lens of his personal history, Schwyzer often explores masculinity and men's experiences: how men feel, what they think about gender, what they need to change. In a non-academic approach that attracts both praise and disdain, Schwyzer frequently uses his problematic past to derive present-day morals.
By his own admission, he spent much of the 1990s addicted to various drugs and alcohol. His sobriety began after his attempted murder-suicide in 1998. In the interview that sparked controversy on Feministe, he said that his sex with students (including four on one school trip he chaperoned) had been "deeply and profoundly wrong," but added that it made him "keenly sensitive to power imbalances in sexual relationships." He makes much of having (as part of his amends) written Pasadena's policy on consensual relations between teachers and students. Depending on how you look at that reversal, it's either inspiring or creepy.
Schwyzer presents himself as a liberal feminist, concerned more with individual agency than with fundamental societal structures. He prides himself on counseling male students who are ambivalent about feminism, and he often criticizes what he calls "the myth of male weakness," the notion that men cannot control or change their behavior. He was able to change, his argument goes, and so can you.
Schwyzer is also a religious Christian (he has written of "a return to Christ following my near-death experience in 1998") and leads a Christian youth group, so the language of redemption comes easily. Many of his posts read like sermons, with their smooth writing, literary panache, and attention to language. He is the sort of writer who, when telling a penitent man that he needs to be humiliated, discusses the Latin root of the word, humus, meaning earth or ground.
But some argue that behind Schwyzer's feminism lurks traditional patriarchal authority. On January 11, Jezebel ran a piece by Schwyzer entitled "He Wants to Jizz on Your Face, but Not Why You Think," in which Schwyzer argued that men crave this sexual act not to denigrate women, but to feel accepted. Flavia Dzodan, a Latina writer for Tiger Beatdown, wrote an impassioned response beginning with the question, "Exactly how is this defense of the act feminist?" In an email, Dzodan explains that Schwyzer "systematically presents feminist issues, but his proposed 'solutions' to the problems he posits almost always involve the feelings, status, and outcomes for men."
Schwyzer notes men's intentions weren't the only question in his piece (though he wishes he'd emphasized this point more). He acknowledged that regardless of men's intentions, the act might feel degrading to women, and "no one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else's longing for validation." Still, the fight over facials reflects a broader disagreement about which writing counts as feminist. Schwyzer thinks that "men are inextricably bound up with feminism. That doesn't mean they should be at the center. But they cannot be excluded. ... Feminism isn't just about liberating women; it's about liberating men."