Confessions of a formerly sexist man

Hugo Schwyzer is an author, speaker and professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.

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.

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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. 

43 comments

  • It's so refreshing to hear someone frame the feminist movement away from "just trying to make women feel better about themselves", to a tangible social shift in how people view themselves and others. Feminism, like the civil rights movement, teaches us about our own thoughts, needs and fears about what is expected from us. Socially-ascribed (gender) roles, like creation stories, can be comfortable because they make life easy - I know what is expected of me based on attributes society pinpoints and defines. I applaud you for being brave in eschewing these expectations and stepping into the real realm of self-discovery

    Commenter
    mk.mac
    Date and time
    October 31, 2012, 9:06AM
    • I'm sorry but Hugo Schwyzer is not a feminist. He committed intimate partner violence by trying to murder his girlfriend and only shows remorse for his actions when it affects him. He is a predator who has repeatedly slept with his students even after his feminist "awakening."

      http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/12/17/sex-drugs-theology-men-feminism-interview-with-hugo-schwyzer/

      Commenter
      Alien from mars
      Location
      The moon
      Date and time
      October 31, 2012, 9:16AM
      • Um. I'm sorry but did you actually click on the link in Hugo's article? The link goes to an interview that talks about everything you just mentioned. In fact, that's kind of the whole point of this piece! He mentions living this double life while teaching gender studies. I have to ask - did you read all of the piece? Because you're not outing anyone here. But you might like to consider if people are capable of change. I think they are and I think this great piece shows that.

        Commenter
        Sheba
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 9:46AM
      • Alien from Mars is right - do a good google search on this complete phony, and then see if you feel the same way. Why are we subjected to this pallid offering, when there are plenty of articulate feminists out there who can speak on what we women have in common- being female. Sorry, but men who go around calling themselves feminists make my gorge rise - it is patronising and paternalistic, particularly as Schwyzer has form for very shabby and morally questionable behaviour.

        Commenter
        M!
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 10:35AM
      • I did click on the link but I didn't think it really explained why there are issues with Schwyzer proclaiming to be (and represent) feminists. That is why I posted the other link.
        People are capable of changing, but it has to be more then lip service because it hurts their chosen career. I freely admit that I do not know Schyzer but from the articles he has written the focus has always been on him, not on his victims and how his behaviour affected them. I do not believe that he is repentant and I do not believe that he is a feminist no matter how much he proclaims to be.

        Commenter
        Alien from mars
        Location
        The moon
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 10:40AM
      • Aliens, the comments on that article are eye-opening to say the least. Wow.

        Makes this all read like a ploy of a very narcissistic and completely unreformed man.

        Commenter
        Yours, Etc
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 10:52AM
      • @M!
        Ah, a separatist. Goodie.
        If men can't engage with feminist discourse then stop wasting your time using said discourse to point out how the behaviour of men holds you down. Would you change your behaviour if prompted by someone who completely ignored you?
        Robert Jenson, RW Connell, Michael Flood, Jackson Katz. All men. All feminists. All offer valid contributions. You live in a social world that is made up of two genders (plus the combination of both, and the absence of one), and as such, men have to be involved. The dominant paradigm will not be overthrown by an army of women. It will fall apart from within.
        And finally: I am a man and I am a feminist. And I love it! Now go and rise that gorge (whatever that means).

        Commenter
        Heisenberg
        Location
        Townsville
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 2:28PM
      • I can understand you guys not warming to Schwyzer given his past, but the sexism you are displaying here is pretty offensive. To suggest that a man isn't capable of being a 'feminist' is such an obvious case of sexism on your part M!. I realise people have lots of different versions on what 'feminism' means to them but I think we all agree that its main objective is to bring about complete equality between the sexes, not so that you can discuss what "WE women have in common being female".

        Men and Women have everything in common, empathy, strength, aggression, arrogance, kindness, the whole lot. By suggesting differently, you are not a feminist at all, and I would rather hear about feminism (equality of the sexes) from a man than someone as sexist you appear to be from your comment.

        Commenter
        cap'n crunch
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 2:42PM
      • No one is saying that men can't have feminist views- or have opinions on women's issues.

        It's just that the pattern of male domination can repeat itself even in a feminist subcuture where you have more men talking about feminism and women that women themselves.

        Hugo is not a respected feminist in the feminist world.

        Robert Jenson, RW Connell, Michael Flood, Jackson Katz are. Please ask them to write something for Fairfax- no some cheap low-brow like Hugo. it's a testament to how little fairfax is aware of feminism- that they put this article here.

        ANd yes- I do think that women may have more accurate things to say about their treatment and oppression than men- because they live and breathe daily.

        Commenter
        Joy
        Date and time
        October 31, 2012, 3:31PM
    • Please spare me your resurrection.

      Had you been respectful and feminist from the start you would have never got layed.

      That's what happened to me. Now I am bitter and twisted.

      At least you get the chance to be happy.

      Commenter
      Iknow
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 31, 2012, 9:22AM

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