Confessions of a formerly sexist man
Hugo Schwyzer is an author, speaker and professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.
I was raised by a single mother, a Second Wave feminist who had gone to an all-women’s college before earning a doctorate in philosophy. A college professor as well as an activist, my mum raised my younger brother and me to believe that women were our equals. We grew up with feminist magazines on the coffee table, and with League of Women Voters meetings in our living room on Friday afternoons. My mother taught her sons that boys and girls could be friends, and that with a very few exceptions (like giving birth) men’s and women’s roles were interchangeable and flexible. All of that excellent education, however, was little match for the socialisation I got from my peers, who taught me that signs of weakness were loathsome – and that boys and girls were far more different than my mother had insisted.
At the risk of hyperbole, I grew up to be a bit of a fraud. I intellectually assented to my mother’s feminism, eventually taking university courses in women’s studies. But in my private life, beneath the ever-more sophisticated patter of egalitarian ideals, I was very much a sexist. As a teen, I wanted to live out the ideals with which I’d been raised. At the same time, my libido and my ego wanted release and validation. Though promiscuity isn’t incompatible with a belief in women’s equality, chronic dishonesty to the women you claim to love is. I wanted the reassuring comforts of a relationship - and endless sexual variety with different people. I wanted to be validated for being hot, sexy, masculine - and that validation only seemed to work with “new skin.” It was the late 1980s; I didn’t know that polyamory was a possibility. I doubt I’d have had the courage to ask for it if I had.
By the time I was 25, even as I was beginning a career teaching gender studies courses, my substance abuse and womanising had already cost me both my starter marriage and the respect of those who knew my secrets. The self-absorbed, drink-and-drug fuelled recklessness of my 20s and early 30s (revelations of which erupted into very public controversy earlier this year) very nearly cost me my life, others’ lives, and my freedom. I was extraordinarily fortunate to get sober when I did, at age 31, with relatively few permanent consequences.
It’s a messy, ugly story, the details of which have led some critics to see my “case” as unique. But the reality is that in addition to counselling and a 12-Step program for getting sober and making amends, feminism is what really helped me transform from fraudulence to accountability. While religion taught me that my behaviour was a problem of sin, and therapists suggested that my struggles were rooted in my childhood experiences, feminism helped me see that my self-destructive and reckless behaviour was linked to a deep-seated misogyny that had more to do with the broader culture than with anything my mother had said or done. As the sociologist Michael Kimmel told me, “feminism is the lens through which men can get to understand their past behaviour.” I had learned the language of feminism early, but until I got sober, I didn’t have the courage to look through that lens and begin to change my life.
This doesn’t mean that I get to blame a sexist culture – with its cruelly straitjacketed expectations for male and female behaviour – for my destructiveness. Feminism, as I understand it, doesn’t absolve any adult of any sex from responsibility for their actions. What it helped me do, and what I’ve seen it help other men whose acting-out was less awful than mine do, is learn how to stop being “half-people.”
When we shut down women’s anger, women’s desire, women’s impetuousness — we create half-people. When we shut down men’s tenderness, men’s vulnerability, men’s empathy — we create half-people. Half people alternately long for a partner to complete them, and resent the hell out of those partners for being able (or, unable) to do for them what they could not do for themselves. It makes for a miserable existence, characterised by the strange and odious way in which men and women simultaneously long for and loathe each other. That’s not nature, that’s a social construct that needs to be dismantled. I lived in that misery of that construct for years.
I call myself a feminist because I see organised feminism as one of the great vehicles for both social justice and personal transformation. I am a feminist because I want to see a world in which both men and women are free to become complete people. Feminism helped me understand that testosterone and a Y chromosome didn’t destine me to be unreliable, predatory, and emotionally inarticulate – but that buying into sexist myths did.
Feminism is political. It is also much more than that: it’s about making whole people – just, kind, and complete. Based on my past, I know I am a most imperfect spokesperson for a woman-centered movement. But as much because of that past as in spite of it, I feel compelled to make the case that feminism, more than any other ideology, gives all of us the tools to match our language and our lives.