Deconstructing Hugo

Hugo Schwyzer – “Author, Speaker, Professor, Shattering Gender Myths” – was a villain to me. And when I started this article, it was my intent to show this. When I first came across his work as a reader of Jezebel, I found his work to be self-absorbed, and decidedly unfeminist. Over the course of about a year, I continued to hate-read his work, in particular the pieces on “facials,” creeps, and underage porn. I, as well as many other readers of his work, was furious. He tried to kill his ex-girlfriend! (One of the first searches that comes up when you pull up his name is “Hugo Schwyzer kill girlfriend.”) He slept with several students! He wants us to be degraded by facials! He outed his ex-wife! Why was this man with such an unsavory past being touted as the poster boy for feminism? Why was any man? Where we so entrenched in patriarchy that even the feminism movement couldn’t stand to have a woman at the forefront? I wanted to pour my anger in the form of an article in which I would attack and expose him for the villain I though he was. I wanted to probe into the world of Schwyzer to validate my own perception of him. However, what I found out along the way was rather surprising.

Hugo Schwyzer with a question mark superimposed over his face

Schwyzer seems to inspire one of two reactions from people: either blind devotion or intense hatred. If you ask his “haters” about Schwyzer, they’ll paint a portrait of an abusive, racist, murdering misogynist. They see a man who has used his past transgressions to his advantage to co-opt the feminist movement. If you ask his fans, or at how he represents himself on his Facebook page or website, you’ll see a picture of a rabid feminist, a sober rehabilitated man, a loving father and husband. He left the Good Men Project because they supported MRAs (men’s rights advocates). He helped organize SlutWalk and at his speech says things that if they would come out of the mouth of pretty much anyone else, we all would immediately agree with.

Would the real Hugo Schwyzer please stand up?

I decided that if I wanted to get an idea of the real Hugo, I needed to go straight to the source. I requested him as a friend on Facebook. Once he confirmed it, I pored over his posts, the links to his writing and the ensuing discussion. I posted the occasional comment pretending to be a fangirl to maintain some type of facade. At first, I got what I expected. Statuses on crushing on students, facials, posts with links about gender issues and sexuality. Eventually, I started to see beneath the surface. I’d read on many blogs of the nasty responses that people have gotten from Hugo. When an anti-Hugo meme was posted on his Facebook wall, his response was surprising. “Seen worse. Let them be. Really. Not worth the energy! Unless they are threatening the lives of my family, they can mock away.” This was not the Hugo Schwyzer that I was prepared to see. For the first time, I considered the fact that rather than a villain or a hero, Hugo just might be”¦ human.

I started reading his work beyond Jezebel, mainly on Role/Reboot and his own blog. Considering that he has been publishing work several times a month for many years now, there was plenty to wade through. I also viewed a video posted on his website at an LA SlutWalk, and it shows Schwyzer to have a commanding presence. Every time I read or viewed something new of his, my perception shifted. The pieces that struck me in particular were his recent work “On Digging Out My Ex Wife’s Tampon,” a recently republished work, “Even When They Handcuff Me, They Always Call Me “˜Sir’: On Privilege and Policing.” It occurred to me that Hugo’s most popular and reposted posts were certainly not his best or the most insightful.

I ended up more confused about Schwyzer than I was when I started. Was he really the abusive, racist, murdering misogynist that his enemies purported him to be? Or the rabid feminist, the rehabilitated man, the loving father and husband? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the only way to confirm or refute the many perceptions about Schwyzer would be to go straight to the source, the man himself. After a while, I finally messaged him requesting an interview, and he consented. I compiled a list of the most pressing questions that I had for Schwyzer, and sent them to him. This is our interview.

“…my entire career is predicated on the need to change men, and to bring external forces to bear to help them do just that.” What is your motivation? What was the pivotal turning point in which you decided that you wanted to dedicate yourself to feminism?

HS: I was raised by a feminist mom. But it was really in college where I began to see the impact of my acculturation as a man causing harm in my own life (and in the lives of women I loved, more importantly) that I was able to internalize a lot of what my mom had talked about. I remain convinced that feminism is a vehicle both for personal and communal transformation. As Michael Kimmel says, feminism gave me a lens to understand my own experience and a pathway towards a more complete and compassionate life.

One major criticism of your career is that you, a man, are one of the prominent voices for feminism. Do you think that you are equipped to write about the experiences of minority groups considering that you are writing from the perspective of a straight white male? Do you think there are certain feminist topics you are not equipped to write about being a straight white male? Do you think that at some point men should take a step back from being the face of feminism?

HS: I don’t think I’m a prominent voice for feminism, frankly. I’m much less well-known than women writers like Jessica Valenti, for example. Most of my articles deal with some aspect of masculinity, informed by my feminism. It’s not my job to explain women’s experience to them – that’s unacceptable. I’m trying to explain men to women and, perhaps just as vitally, to themselves.

I think it is dangerous to have men in positions of overtly feminist leadership. But writing about gender isn’t always explicitly feminist. I write mostly about men from a perspective informed by my feminism. That’s far from being a feminist leader.

You’ve written about your own father and about raising your daughters. How has fatherhood impacted your work?

HS: It’s given me a much greater sense of urgency. I have one son and one daughter, and I’m anxious to see a kinder world when they hit adolescence. I want them to know that their biology is not a straitjacket, that it’s not their destiny. Becoming a dad has made all of this work seem much more pressing!

Much of your work pertaining to your personal life includes personal details about others, namely your ex-wives and girlfriends. In particular details about one being closeted and an intimate bathroom experience for another. How do you deal with issues that come with using private details of others to tell your own story?

HS: Obviously, you change the names. This is a large issue with all memoir, it’s hardly unique to me. All memoir is story-telling, often about people with whom you have no contact (or in some cases, who may no longer be alive.) There’s an obligation, I think, not to deliberately humiliate. But no one can find the names of my ex-wives, for example, on Google. They never took my name, and our marriage records were confidential. A private investigator doing a lot of legwork could probably do it, but short of that, their identity is well-protected.

What would your response be to claims that you’re “mansplaining,” in particular with the article on facials?

HS: The simplest definition of mansplaining is when a man explains a woman’s experience to her. That article on facials has been severely misrepresented. If you read it, I’m not telling women they need to let men cum on their faces. I’m explaining a couple of different theories about why men like doing it, and how it grew to be so popular. (Worth noting: I never get to pick my own titles or my own images for my pieces.) I say it very clearly in the piece: “No one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else’s longing for validation.” A lot of readers ignored that, perhaps deliberately.

You’ve been sober for over a decade now. How has your sobriety influenced your work? How has the process of getting sober affected you and your work?

HS: Getting sober in 1998 allowed me to start having congruence between my public life and my private one. Sobriety gave me the tools to start living out what I was preaching. Sobriety gave me the chance to make amends (most of which I’ve never written about) for the harm I’d done, and it gave me the chance to start being a productive person. It’s an ongoing process.

Do you ever regret how open you have been about your past transgressions and the effect that it has had on your career?

HS: In the short run, yes. It’s cost me a lot professionally, no question. The controversy has cost me audiences and support. I have certainty that that’s only temporary, however. I’m in this for the long haul – not 6 months or a year, but for the next couple decades. I have to believe it is better to have told the truth than to have concealed it. I have to believe in the power of personal narrative to inspire others, because I’ve been so inspired by other people’s stories of struggle and transformation and atonement.

His responses did answer a lot of questions for me. I do think that the images and headlines on his posts on Jezebel in particular emphasize the sexual nature of his work, and I think that many of his headlines are chosen to be intentionally provocative and controversial (as any reader of Jezebel is no stranger to). Reading these headlines, it’s difficult to not be immediately appalled and form a bias against the article before actually reading it.

While I believe him to be genuine in his response, especially his response regarding him explaining men to women and to himself, it highlights a major factor of why I still continue to be uncomfortable with a lot of his writings: much of it appears to be written from the bird’s eye view of his own penis. He takes the old adage “write what you know” quite literally.

In his recent xoJane article “On Digging Out My Ex Wife’s Tampon,” what could have been an interesting discussion about intimacy between a man and a woman, especially involving bodily fluids, was overshadowed by his description of his raging erection. For me and many readers, this ups the “creep” factor. Even when it is not his penis, it is his viewpoint as a white, heterosexual male, which he intentionally seems to make the point of his articles without admitting to its limitations in most cases. In his post about white privilege in the criminal justice system, “Even When They Handcuff Me, They Always Call Me “˜Sir’: on Privilege and Policing”, he introduces the discussion by relaying it through his own story of a former brush with the law. While it is worth noting that he contrasts his experiences to that of a person of color, it’s too narrowly focused on his own experience. The broader sense and scope of the topic is lost. It’s not about the ill treatment and violence that his acquaintance suffered, it’s about its relation to Hugo as a white man. It is not even about solely his experience but how it feels awful for him to be treated that way when his friend doesn’t.

However, I’m one of many women of color who laments the past and current lack of intersectionality in feminism and it stood out to me that while it’s something that many are hesitant to discuss, Hugo does not seem to be afraid of controversial subject matter. Which leads me to the core of my personal “Hugo Dilemma”: Hugo constantly brings up vital topics that need to be discussed, but they tend to revolve around his own experiences so much that the theme is lost in his own self-absorption.

It was with some relief that I read that as far as disclosing personal details of his former lovers that he took pains to protect their privacy and that it would be difficult to search for their identities. This has always been my biggest bone of contention with his work. I do concede that his story is his to tell, I cringe to think of the reaction that it produces from the people involved. There are no easy answers here. As for his abusive past, I don’t know where a line can be drawn between an addict and someone who simply makes poor decisions. It is something that is never quite clear. Sobriety does seem to have affected Schwyzer, to what extent, only he knows.

There is a lot of criticism of and furor over Hugo regarding his past. The attempt at killing his ex-girlfriend, sleeping with students, general mistreatment of women, the history of drug abuse. Many people feel that as a former abuser, he has no place in feminism. Some think that because he was heavily under the influence of drugs at the time, that his behavior can be condoned. It poses the questions, what IS the place for the rehabilitated? Where do they belong? Can you separate a recovering addict from their past behavior? How far can redemption and atonement go? Our society does not have an answer for that, likely because it is rare to see a reformed abuser who is functional in society. While it’s true that Hugo has been able to reach this point because he is privileged in many ways, I think that that says more about our culture than it does about Hugo. Like anyone, he is playing with the cards that he has been dealt, he just happens to be holding a favorable hand. As uncomfortable as I am with a former abuser being touted as the poster boy for feminism by sites such as Jezebel, I do think that there is some merit in his sharing his experiences with men. Who is an abuser more likely to listen to, a woman? Or a man who looks like him and talks like him who has been where he is? Again, this says more about us as a whole than it does about Hugo.

One thing that I do admire about Hugo is his devotion to the truth. His brutal honesty regarding his past has cost him credibility and support in many feminist circles, but he insists on revealing the ugly details of his life in order to tell his story. I think that if not for his admissions, his career would be a lot more successful, and I can admire that he does not backtrack in his frank admissions of his past transgressions. There is something stubborn in his refusal to back down from controversy, in particular the way he walked away from the Good Men Project, that I both admire and can identify with. I do think that in revealing his unsavory past, it might make it easier for recovering addicts and former abusers to come to terms with their own pasts and have hope for a better future as a better person. I lament that his most high profile work does not include more of this, and less on his sexual proclivities. His body of work does include many sentiments that I agree with, in particular his 2011 article “Real Women Have”¦Bodies,” a post on the “real women” movement in media and advertising. I found that work like this tends to take a back seat to his more controversial or sexual work and that even while him writing from his perspective might have some uses, his style tends to let the good message get lost in the bits about his boner or feelings as a straight white male.

37 thoughts on “Deconstructing Hugo”

  1. I never really liked the idea that people believed he should still be punished for things he did over 10 years ago. I mean, it seems he has made amends, and he’s been struggling to remain sober and healthy.

    I also disagree with the idea that feminism is a discussion reserved for women. I believe that everyone needs to be included in trying to fix our society and make it better for women – and men, and trans individuals.

    Though sometimes I do find Hugo’s writing to be a bit disagreeable, I take issue with the way people have been treating him and why.

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