Hugo Schwyzer and the male feminist

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?”

15 thoughts on “Hugo Schwyzer and the male feminist

  1. To me, the most troubling aspect is that his engagement with feminism by and large has involved teenagers and undergraduate students, whose initiation into being a feminist is thus (if they then google him and uncover his past) addled by implicit acceptance that sometimes men will be abusive, and that to some extent, that’s okay.

  2. A student once cited an argument of Hugo Schwyzer’s in a conversation about feminism — in particular, about sexual consent! I don’t know if it was for my benefit, given my gender, or if she regards Schwyzer as a trustworthy source in general, but upon reading the post linked above, I sent it to her immediately.

  3. I’ve not heard of Hugo Schwyzer till today; he sounds icky. The rest of your points are well taken. I write about feminism a lot, and I’m often wary of sounding like some guy pronouncing on issues for women.

  4. Not sure I like that “submission”. There must be other possible stances besides self-serving arrogation and meekly tailing around waiting to be given something to do (both of which seem creepy to me).

  5. I used to read Schwyzer’s blog but had forgotten about him until this recent controversy. I do recall that Schwyzer once wrote an blog post to a person who sexually assaulted a woman and then began blogging about gender issues after he got out of prison. Schwyzer’s words:

    “But understand this: the feminist blogosphere isn’t here to encourage and enable your transformation. The feminist blogosphere is not here to dialogue with you as you process through your issues and your past. You are not welcome in the feminist blogosphere now, and likely never will be again. The next right thing for you to do is delete your blog and, to the best of your ability, your archives online. You’ve forfeited your right to be part of this community, and a few months in jail with no apparent effort at real change do not earn you the right to sneak back in.”

  6. “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.”

    Why not?

  7. i think the biggest issue with schwyzer is the fact that (by virtue of his vocal presence in the blogosphere as well as his position as an instructor) he’s come to be seen as something as an “authority” on feminism in a way that doesn’t make direct and clear reference to his “sins” against it. that is to say, i think it’s fine for a guy to discover some sort of quasi “redemption” in feminism. and it still seems fine, to me, for this guy to go ahead advocate or “evangelize” the feminist gospel. but if he’s not going to be clear, all the way down the line, about the extent to which he is a “sinner” (which might offer some sort of logical, or comprehensible, explanation for his passionate feminist fervor)… then he’s not trustable. any kind of authority he might be able to claim, in other words, seems utterly dependent on a pretty comprehensive form of transparency. he appears to have fucked that up.

  8. Adam – thanks for linking my post and bringing attention to this. There are huge warning signs around much of Schwyzer’s behavior, and it concerns me that many people seem to be so drawn to the idea of a redemption narrative that they can’t see or overlook these signs. The lying is the most obvious red flag, but there are many others – like hymenopterans pointed out, the fact that he seeks out positions where he’s mentoring undergraduate and teenaged young women, the way he writes about his sexual history, the repeated writing about former partners who he’s harmed without their consent.

    Bradm – yes, that letter is a perfect illustration of how Schwyzer holds other people to standards that he exempts himself from. By his own argument he shouldn’t be doing any kind of work with women or girls.

  9. If you believe that women should take the lead, why not allow them to take the lead and decide for themselves what response they will make to men who wish to involve themselves with the feminist movement?

  10. This is a little off-topic but what is sorely needed is a public discussion, a high profile one, that invites men into the feminist conversation in a way that for once just lays aside the debates of essentialism, the riot grrl images, and all of the academic discourses for a little while. And then ask: Why is it that in 2012 we still don’t have an ERA? What do we need to do to get there? Why should feminism be a humanist (or, dare I say “religious”) concern for fathers of daughters, husbands of wives, sons of mothers, brothers of sisters, or for concerned and responsible citizens? I guess what I’m asking is why can’t we begin to take baby steps on this to arrive at a very basic and attainable goal, such as the ERA, to just re-inject feminism into the public discourse? For these baby steps to happen, it be from a movement that includes men not elected to office (because those elected to office have proven to have an indifference).

  11. Like Bradm I used to read Hugo’s blog on a semi-regular basis, but it’s been quite a while since I ventured over there. You asked for men “to have the kind of vulnerability and openness necessary to question their own motives and to take criticism seriously.” That’s the way that Hugo presents in an online format, but I was always left with a sense that there was less about openness and more about exhibitionism. His online persona reminds me of people I’ve known in person–dangerous charlatans–and a little warning bell would go off in the back of my mind, loud enough to deter me from reading him consistently. I’m sorry that it seems as though the alarm bell was warranted. He did post some very good stuff, but as you said, There’s some things you just don’t come back from.

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