It’s becoming clear that Hugo Schwyzer, a self-proclaimed male feminist leader, has a history of serious sexual abuse, ranging from taking advantage of several students on a school trip to an attempted murder-suicide involving his partner at the time. What’s more, he has attempted to cover up this behavior as well as his rather unseemly reflections on it over the years (including comparing the murder-suicide to a time that he endangered the life of a dog).
I haven’t followed all the debates surrounding these revelations, but it seems clear to me that Schwyzer is continuing in the pattern of his abusive behavior — in this case, he’s abusing feminism for the sake of his own personal redemption. We wouldn’t want someone who’d been part of a lynch mob making speeches at a civil rights rally, nor would we want a former guard at Auschwitz spearheading a charity for Holocaust survivors. I’d say that the sexual exploitation of students and the attempted murder of a domestic partner are similar disqualifiers.
In a sense, there’s nothing more to say — there are some things you do, and you don’t come back from. Whatever redemption you find has to be a private affair. For Schwyzer to expect women to trust him — and more, to expect them to trust him to speak on their behalf — is appalling.
Yet there are women who are defending Schwyzer’s right to be identified as a feminist. As a male feminist myself (or a feminist ally, if anyone out there objects to a man identifying directly with feminism), I can say that in my experience, there is a real hunger for male allies among young feminists. That is certainly understandable on the level of principle, given that feminism is, in the last analysis, about changing society for the better for everyone — and it’s also understandable on the level of strategy, because male privilege, while illegitimate in itself, is a useful thing to have on your side.
What I think that the example of Schwyzer shows, though, is that suspicion is very much still warranted. Already in the 1970s, Ruether was warning of the tendency of male allies to attempt to “take over” — and Schwyzer is a particularly unsavory example of that, hijacking the feminist movement in the service of his own attempt to erase his history of abuse. If he really cared about women, the first thing he would do is leave them alone. If he really felt moved to get involved with women’s issues, he should have put himself in a position of submission, allowing women to direct his energies to where they found it most useful. Imposing oneself on women in order to enact your own personal redemption narrative is just a continuation of the same basic pattern of behavior that you need to be redeemed from.
The standards for any man to become a leader or public figure for feminism must necessarily be stringent, and the men themselves need to have the kind of vulnerability and openness necessary to question their own motives and to take criticism seriously. Very few men are seriously prepared to accept that kind of accountability — indeed, I would hesitate to claim that for myself, as I’ve never really been put to the test in any serious way — and that is one sign that feminism is still urgently necessary.
Thus, while I understand that there are good reasons for women to be open to male allies, I would recommend that their first reaction be to ask, “Oh shit, what’s this guy’s agenda?”