Nine Questions for The Controversial Hugo Schwyzer

I didn't even know who Hugo was prior to last month. I've learned a lot since then.
Publish date:
October 18, 2012

I genuinely had no idea who Hugo Schwyzer was prior to late last month, when we published a story about his retrieving a stuck tampon from a woman’s vag.

I mean, I sort of knew he wrote stuff for Jezebel sometimes. I had a vague notion that many people did not care for his work, but if I’m honest I put that down to him being a dude, because I am imperfect and I occasionally assume that most dudes are inherently clueless-bordering-on-offensive 50% of the time AT LEAST. (Kidding. Mostly.)

Part of my ignorance about the specifics of Hugo's story can be easily explained by my not really being actively engaged in the online community part of feminism.

But part of it is really just me being ignorant, full stop. Thus, I decided to do some reading about Hugo Schwyzer, about his troubling history as an addict and about why so many people would rather he simply vanish from feminist spaces entirely, if not from the face of the Earth.

The storm around Hugo centers on the story -- originally on his blog, although the references have since been deleted -- of an attempted murder-suicide that took place in 1998, while Schwyzer was under the influence of drugs. As the story goes, Schwyzer blew out the pilot lights on the stove in his apartment and turned up the gas while his ex-girlfriend was passed out. When neighbors smelled the gas, they intervened (Schwyzer cannot comment directly on this, for obvious legal reasons).

Schwyzer's past also includes other problematic stories of (consensual) sex with his students (he is currently a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College) during his addict years. Although Schwyzer has been sober for the past 14 years and in a monogamous marriage for the past 10, these issues continue to dog him, and it's not all in the past; some of his current work on sites like Jezebel has drawn ire even from people unaware of his history.

And we haven't even touched the criticism that correctly argues that Schwyzer has been privy to a level of understanding and forgiveness following these revelations that would never be extended to him were he not white.

So I started to understand the controversy.

To be totally honest, I struggled with writing this, with composing the questions and with talking about it at all. Schwyzer inspires such vehement responses from people that I was worried, and probably justifiably so, about getting hit with the shrapnel. But I also think it's important to go to the source when I have questions, and to give him a chance to respond.

I went into this undecided about Hugo and his work, and frankly I'm still undecided, although I'll confess I was disappointed by some of the answers below. Nevertheless, in typical xoJane fashion, I’m reproducing them for the incredible, smart, passionate and emphatic xoJane community to read and discuss in your inimitable way. Here we go.

So, I’ve learned that you’re kind of a controversial guy and you inspire incredibly strong reactions in people. What’s that been like?

It’s been painful. It’s been overwhelming. It’s also – given what’s out there – often been fair. It hurts to be misrepresented, and I have often been misrepresented. At the same time, I’ve brought a lot of this on myself. I’ve chosen, in various ways and at various times, to share aspects of my past that are troubling to a lot of people. I can’t ask folks not to have their own varied reactions to finding out these things. Once I made the decision to share these stories, I had to take responsibility for all the different ways those stories would be received.

Most of the controversy stems from a history of abuse and assault that you have generally classified as being part of your “pre-sobriety past.” How long have you been sober?

I have been clean and sober since June 1998, a little over 14 years.

One thing I’ve read several places is that people think you’re not sorry for the things you’ve done as an addict, or at least that you’re not sorry ENOUGH in what you have said publicly on the subject. How do you respond to that?

As most people know, there is an explicit “amends” process in 12 Step programs. And writing online isn’t directly part of that process. If the only amends I’d made were in articles and posts, then of course that would be wildly insufficient. I have made direct amends to the people I’ve harmed, and I’ve done so privately. It’s very easy to be contrite online. It’s harder to live out that contrition in one’s private actions. If I wrote about all the ways I’ve made amends, I’d rightly be accused of grandstanding and capitalizing even more on my own awful behavior in the past. The flip side of that is that by remaining publicly silent about the way in which I’ve worked the amends and restoration process, it allows people to imagine that I haven’t really done any of that work.

Is addiction ever a valid excuse for horrific behavior? Does sobriety mean you get a clean slate? Do you think you have earned forgiveness?

These are great questions. No, I don’t think addiction is an excuse. It’s an explanation, and there’s a vital distinction there. No one is obligated to forgive me, to understand me, to trust me. People who know me in real life, and not just online, can judge me by how I act with them and how I live out my sobriety in my day-to-day choices. It’s easier for them to verify that I am a different man than I once was.

I do believe in second, third, and 97th chances. But I also don’t believe that I have a right to have forgiveness extended to me. If someone – for whatever reason – is so troubled by what I did that they don’t want to read my words or have me as their professor or be my friend in real life, that’s absolutely their prerogative. At the same time, I still have to work my program and live my life regardless of whether I’m forgiven or accepted.

Did you speak to your ex-wife (to ask if she was cool with it, or even just to give her a heads up) prior to telling the tampon story publicly?

No, I didn't. I haven't had contact with her in many, many years. Though we divorced civilly, even amicably, neither of us saw much point in staying close friends. We last spoke in 2004 or so; I heard a few years ago that she remarried and changed her last name. I have no way of tracking her down. Of course this raises ethical questions of the sort that always come up with memoir -- whose stories can we tell? My obligation was to do everything I could to hide her identity. No one can Google "Hugo Schwyzer third wife" and find her name. We have no mutual friends that I know of, and I really doubt she keeps tabs on my writing.

It's worth having a discussion about the moral boundaries of memoirs. But that's beyond the scope of this conversation, I think.

Some of your critics have argued, and if I’m honest I’m inclined to agree with them, that feminist spaces and conversations should prioritize the effort to make room for marginalized voices -- the voices of women, yes, but more particularly the voices of people dealing with intersectional identities which make them even less likely to be heard, such as women of color, poor women, disabled women, trans folks, and so forth.

Mainstream white-lady feminism’s track record on this is pretty abysmal, to be fair. How do you respond to those who would ask you to step back for this reason?

In terms of stepping back from feminist leadership, I’ve done that. I’ve resigned from several organizations I led or co-founded, from my college Feminist Club to the “Perfectly Unperfected Project.” I regularly attended conferences of the NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) and gave papers. I’m not doing that anymore.

But this notion of “making room” in the blogosphere is based on a faulty premise of scarcity. When xoJane ran the tampon piece, for example, it’s not like that story took up column inches that would otherwise have gone to a marginalized voice. Look at most of the people whose work you publish; few are privileged white middle-aged men. People are free to click past me, to ignore me, to move on to the wealth of other writers who appear on sites like yours or at Jezebel. I’m just not sure I buy the argument that by writing about gender – usually about masculinity in some form or another rather than feminism – I’m depriving a less privileged voice from being heard. Respectfully I don’t think that’s how the internet works. It’s not a zero-sum game, and it does a disservice to represent it as one.

What I will say is that I have an obligation to use the platform I have to promote the work of marginalized voices. I do that – in my Twitter feed, on Facebook, and in my writing. Someone in my position does have, I think, a moral obligation to leverage whatever social capital they have to promote those talented folks who aren’t so privileged. I try to do as much of that promotion as I can.

Can women ever fully trust a man who has an abusive history? It is reasonable to expect them to?

I can’t speak for women here. I can say that I’ve rebuilt trust in many of my individual relationships over the years – and been unable to do so in others. No, there is no right to be trusted. Not after 14 years sober, or 140. I still have to do my work whether I’m trusted or not.

Another common criticism is that your presence in feminist spaces can be especially difficult for some women who have experienced abuse, rape, and other trauma at the hands of men, making them feel uncomfortable or even threatened by your contributions. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to respect the boundaries of women who have specific reason to be wary of you?

I’ve heard from people who feel encouraged by my work as well as those who feel very upset by it. It provokes strong positive and negative reactions from different people. At some point – not to throw this back in your lap – this is more an editorial decision than anything else. It’s my job to be forthcoming with the sites that publish me, telling the editor about my past and so forth. It’s my job to be honest, and to accept a site’s refusal to publish me because of my past with good cheer and respect for their decision. But if I’ve been honest, and if the editors find value in my work, then I think they have a right to publish me. They know their readers better than I do. That’s not a cop-out. That’s taking responsibility as a writer and as a semi-public persona. If the controversy is too much for a given site, that’s totally understandable.

I’m also reluctant to accept the argument that major websites that accept advertising and have diverse contributors are somehow safe spaces equivalent to intimate recovery groups. It’s dangerous to force editors into the position of therapists monitoring intimate discussion groups.

What do you hope to contribute to feminism, given your complicated history? More than that, what is the role of men in feminist conversations, in general, in your opinion?

I believe men can and should – heck, must – support the feminist project. How we do that is open to debate. For me, feminism provides a lens through which to see the path to a better, more just, fairer world for my children and everyone’s children. Feminism is about liberating both men and women from the restrictive, misery-making straitjacket of gender roles that leave most of us as incomplete people. We’re all invested in that, or should be.

For me, feminism offered me a vehicle with which to match my language and my life. Feminism challenged me to live differently, and it gave me a perspective on how to live kindly, honestly, and empathetically in a male body. Feminists don’t owe me a welcome. But feminism changed my life in countless ways for the better. I’d like more people – especially men – to hear that message.

Editor's Note: When I published the above I was completely unaware that a similar piece by Zahra Tahirah was published at Persephone earlier this week. I encourage you to read that version as well for far more thorough commentary on these issues.