What role, if any, should men with a history of abuse of women have in feminism? This question is at the heart of ongoing debates in the feminist blogosphere over Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of gender studies and male feminist personality. A close examination of Schwyzer’s record calls into serious question both his narrative of personal transformation and his current credibility as a feminist leader. This raises the question of why Schwyzer was allowed access to feminist leadership roles at all, much less for so long, but also points to broader, entrenched issues around male allies, racism and white privilege, and safe spaces for abuse survivors in the feminist movement.
Schwyzer has written prolifically, and controversially, about recovering from sex and drug addictions, his now 13-year sobriety, and his ”pre-sobriety” predatory behavior towards younger female students – including, at one point, sleeping with four students on a class trip he was chaperoning. The current backlash against him, set in motion by yet another article recounting this troubling history, took on unprecedented intensity after the resurfacing of a post, originally written a year ago, in which Schwyzer admitted to nearly killing a former girlfriend in a drug-fueled murder-suicide attempt.
The subsequent outcry and campaign against Schwyzer has, for the first time, resulted in concrete consequences for him: the pulling of his writing from Scarleteen, a well-respected resource on teen sexual health, and his departure from Healthy is the New Skinny, an organization co-founded and directed by Schwyzer, dedicated to addressing body image issues in teen women and the beauty and fashion industries. Schwyzer did not fully inform either organization of his history.
Some feminists find these responses overly punitive, and a denial of the possibility of personal transformation for former abusers. On the other hand, women’s rights activists critical of Schwyzer have seriously questioned the sincerity of his “redemption,” whether even a sincere transformation would justify his current role as a feminist leader, and pointed to ongoing patterns of female objectification, paternalism, white privilege, and racism in Schwyzer’s “post-sobriety” work as a professional feminist.
The question of what role men should have in woman-centered movements is a complicated one that’s not easily resolved. What is without doubt is that self-labeled male allies aren’t always trustworthy, and in the absence of sincerity or resolve to radically challenge their own misogyny and male privilege, can do great harm to women and women’s activism. Such dubious allies co-opt the language of feminism to gain positions of trust and influence, with potentially devastating consequences.
Take the case of Kyle Payne, a radical feminist blogger who, prior to his 2008 conviction for assaulting an unconscious female student under his care as a dormitory RA and recording images of her breasts, had years of experience writing, speaking, and advocating for survivors of sexual violence. Payne continued to present himself as a women’s advocate right up until his sentencing, and upon release resumed blogging as a feminist. He rebranded himself as an activist for the rehabilitation of male sex offenders, even managing to become executive director of a program dedicated to that purpose.
Like Hugo Schwyzer does now, Payne claimed to understand the harm he had done and to accept that some people would never trust him again after his betrayal. Much like Schwyzer, he asserted sincere dedication to his own rehabilitation and claimed altruistic motives for his continued feminist activism: wanting to use his history to “contribute to a safer society” and more comprehensively address issues of sexual violence. But less than 18 months after his release, Payne was back in police custody for possession of child pornography.
Schwyzer was among many feminists expressing skepticism and anger over Payne’s return to the feminist blogosphere, writing that Payne had not transformed himself or made amends for his behavior, that he was “not welcome in the feminist blogosphere now, and likely never [would] be again,” that the online feminist community “isn’t here to encourage and enable your transformation,” and that real transformation meant “radical willingness to give up everything.”
Yet at the very time Schwyzer wrote this letter suggesting that Payne’s history would make him forever anathema in feminism, Schwyzer himself was in the middle of a years-old lie about his own history of intimate partner violence. Until his 2011 admission that he had tried to kill his former partner and himself, Schwyzer had previously and repeatedly stated that he had only attempted suicide, only “accidentally” endangering his then girlfriend in the process. In recent weeks, some of these posts have been amended to reflect his current story, but without any indication that they’ve been edited, giving the misleading impression that Schwyzer has always been truthful about his past. More recently, the post containing his admission to attempted murder has vanished from his site, further suggesting a tenuous grasp on truth on Schwyzer’s part, despite his claims to living transparently (it remains cached for the time being).
Schywzer has never named his behavior as an act of gendered, intimate partner violence, nor named himself as a perpetrator of violence. This same dishonesty is evident in Schwyzer’s writing about his preying on younger female students – behavior he describes as “neither feminist nor gentlemantly,” but “always age appropriate” and mostly with students in his “approximate peer group” (less than 5 years his junior) – and therefore “perhaps less overtly predatory.”
Disturbingly, what in other contexts would appear to many feminists as a consistent pattern of abuse of women, and a consistent refusal to own up to that abuse or the harm done by it, seems for some feminists to be eclipsed by the fact that Schwyzer speaks the language of feminism and presents himself as male feminist ally, cloaked in an appealing and powerful narrative about the possibility of personal transformation.
The narrative of personal redemption that Schwyzer sells is one that’s uniquely available to him as white man. A man of color with years of illegal drug use and the attempted murder of a woman on his record would quite possibly be in jail, and certainly not as feted as Schwyzer is by certain white feminists. It’s further doubtful that, say, a black man could have his status as feminist ally defended while blaming an ex for making him an “accidental rapist,” soft-pedaling his predatory behavior towards female students, or writing that cisgender men are aroused by ejaculating on women’s faces because it makes them feel their penises are “clean.” Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine even a man of color with no history of abusing women attaining the status Schwyzer has in feminist spaces, given that the male allies recognized and promoted in mainstream feminist outlets are overwhelmingly white.
There’s little question that white feminists’ privilege and unexamined identification with whiteness is a factor in leading some to think it’s a good idea for a man with an admitted and exhaustively documented problem with preying on young women to “make amends” by pursuing projects where he’s constantly surrounded by, lecturing, and “advising” young women. It’s unexamined buy-in to whiteness that makes it seem that a man who habitually seeks out contexts similar to those in which he used to abuse his authority and others’ trust, a recovering sex addict who constantly writes about sex, has been “transformed” and “redeemed” – rather than suspect that he has yet to fully grasp the seriousness of his problem and the radical nature of the accountability it calls for.
This points to broader issues with racism and white privilege in mainstream feminism that women of color have spoken to for decades. In Schwyzer’s case, women of color have been raising objections about his history, and his dismissive and hostile behavior towards women of color, for many years, with little success in getting white feminists in his circle to hold him, or themselves, accountable.
Schwyzer illustrates the ways in which white privilege is institutionalized in the movement: in addition to his own blog, he has access to highly influential feminist spaces, most of which are run by and cater to white women almost exclusively, many of which have a history of marginalizing women of color. White women’s disproportionate access to feminist institutions further affords them the privilege of dismissing the concerns of women of color, often painting their criticisms as “call out culture” or mob “take downs,” capitalizing on sexist stereotypes about female cattiness and racist stereotypes about women of color specifically as angry and irrational, and powerfully illustrating Audre Lorde’s complaint that “the anger of Black women” over racism in the movement is too often met “with excuses and pretexts of intimidation.” Time and again, the weight of the disproportionately white “mainstream” feminist blogosphere is mobilized against women of color who dare to name racism, while women of color only have each other and a handful of white allies to turn to for support.
The continued presence of a manipulator and abuser like Schwyzer illustrates the broader effects and dangers of unchecked white privilege in white feminism. Women of color have long noted that mainstream feminism often seems more invested in white women achieving equality with white men than in really tackling western patriarchy as a system of oppression that is inherently racialized. In the absence of white women interrogating their own whiteness and privileging the voices of women of color over those of white men – white feminists, as Lorde wrote, run the risk of “being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power” – to identify with white men while demonizing women of color, and indeed all people of color.
Survivors and Safe Spaces
The mixed response to calls to eject Schwyzer from feminist spaces also points to the ways in which feminism and other activist communities struggle and often fail to hold abusers accountable and provide safe space for survivors of abuse. Schwyzer has effectively wielded the narrative of redemption to obscure the fact that he has yet to fully acknowledge the ways in which behavior he names “self-destructive” was destructive and harmful to others. Nor does he own the fact that his victims will have to live with the personal repercussions of his actions for the rest of their lives, and conceivably experience emotional fallout from seeing their stories and traumas disclosed, spun in public fora for Schwyzer’s personal and professional advancement. Indeed, most of his writing focuses on the consequences of his past behavior for himself – that he may never be forgiven by or contacted by his exes, and that some people may never trust him.
Schwyzer has used this assortment of stories about the various women he’s harmed to draw in followers who now rally round and defend him as reformed – based on his entirely self-crafted, unbalanced narrative about his past behavior and ultimate redemption. What would happen if one of Schwyzer’s exes were to tell her side of the story? What if she named her relationship with him as toxic and abusive – highly likely, given that he’s written publicly, with potentially identifying details, about at least two of his exes who have made clear that they want no contact with him ever again. Would Schwyzer’s defenders mobilize to silence someone he’s victimized for naming him as an abuser, as they’ve done to other survivors who have stated that his role in feminist spaces, and defenses of that role, further traumatize them and make them feel unsafe? What message would survivors of Schwyzer’s abuse get from seeing his tale of redemption hawked in feminist spaces?
Schwyzer’s self-serving framing of his history is actually fairly typical of the excuses and manipulation that repeat abusers deploy to avoid full accountability for their actions. What’s especially disturbing is that, despite the fact that this is a documented pattern of behavior with habitual abusers, it isn’t recognized or understood by many feminists as abusive. The question of whether redemption is possible is thrown into doubt by the reality that many habitual abusers feign just enough contrition and rely on personal charm to persuade people that they’ve “really changed.” Further, those who defend Schwyzer on the grounds that he’s redeemed himself overlook the fact that the presence of someone with a history of abuse can cause harm to survivors regardless of how sincere a personal transformation the former abuser has undergone.
Intimate partner violence and abuse remain poorly and insufficiently addressed problems in activist communities, even in those that exist in part to address these issues. Activists are not immune from widespread cultural ignorance of the warning signs of abusive and predatory behavior, and systemic apologism for such behavior. Feminism and activism in general still has a long way to go when it comes to creating safer spaces for survivors of abuse. Criticisms that portray survivors speaking out about feeling unsafe as irrational, and engaged in a personal vendetta, fail to recognize the dynamics of power, privilege, silencing and shame that operate around perpetrators and survivors of abuse, even among activists. These responses privilege the feelings and reputations of perpetrator, and a narrative of individual change, over the radical transformative change necessary to create spaces where survivors feel safe and free to voice their needs and experiences.
In response to white feminists who conflated women of color’s anger over racism with destructive hatred, Audre Lorde wrote: “I speak here as a woman of color who is not bent upon destruction, but upon survival.” This is what feminists miss when they dismiss or attack Schwyzer’s critics as taking random joy in the orchestrated downfall of a feminist leader. They miss that this is not about about destroying any individual, but about fighting for the safety and survival of women, especially women of color and/or abuse survivors, in the face of powerful societal forces that habitually undermine, demean, and violate our humanity – all while privileging the feelings and reputations of white men, and abusers.
Lorde noted that when the “tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the same fruits of that patriarchy…only the most narrow perimeters of change are allowable and possible.” Until mainstream feminists are willing to radically examine the ways in which the movement continues to be complicit with racist, abusive patriarchy, abusers like Hugo Schwyzer will continue to gain access to and exploit feminist spaces, all to the detriment of the many overlapping groups of women for whom feminism is supposed to be a safe space.