On Sex, Drugs, and Feminism: A Q&A With Hugo Schwyzer (Part I)

Role/Reboot regular contributor Hugo Schwyzer is a male feminist writer and professor of gender studies living in Los Angeles; he’s also the Sex + Relationships editor at The Good Men Project. He has an extremely controversial history that includes four marriages, substance abuse, and sexual behavior that he has since described as compulsive and destructive until he got clean and sober and turned his life around, beginning in 1998.

I first encountered Hugo on the internet a couple years ago, and although we’ve got some serious disagreements, we’ve always liked talking to each other. I once had the privilege of guest lecturing in one of Hugo’s classes, after which we had a dialogue in front of the students, and that experience sealed my admiration for him. He’s clearly a principled, passionate teacher who works hard to provide thoughtful feminist guidance for his students. Yet he has such an interesting history—and, occasionally, he has such different opinions from mine—that sometimes I can’t resist poking at him. So the minute I became the new Sex + Relationships editor for Role/Reboot, I decided that my first project would be a Q&A with Hugo. It went long … so we’re going to post it in two parts.

Here’s Part 1:

Clarisse Thorn: Can you give a quick rundown of your history for our readers? In particular, what got you interested in gender studies?

Hugo Schwyzer: My mother was a second-wave feminist. I was raised in the 1970s with “Ms. Magazine” on the coffee table and strong feminist values. But I was also acculturated as a typical American boy. The disconnect between the values of my home and the “guy rules” I lived with as a young man was painful. I took my first women’s studies course early in my college career, largely out of tribute to my mom and to see if I could reconcile that “disconnect” between feminism and how I lived as a man.

I fell in love with women’s studies. But I was leery about majoring it in in the mid-1980s. I didn’t know any guys who did that. So I took a lot of gender-themed classes and majored in history instead.

CT: You have a somewhat controversial sexual history. You’ve openly acknowledged doing things as intense as chaperoning a class trip on which you slept with four of the students. How does this influence your thinking about sexuality today?

HS: Hah, I love the ambiguity of the word “intense.” In terms of my sexual history with my students (which for the sake of clarification ended abruptly when I got sober in ’98), the key word is simply “unethical.” Though my promiscuity was hardly confined to my own students, that behavior stands out as deeply and profoundly wrong. Even if it was consensual, and involved students who for the most part were my approximate chronological peers, it was still a boundary violation. In the broader sense, that aspect of my past has made me keenly sensitive to power imbalances in sexual relationships. It’s made me mistrustful of the possibility of consent in those instances where one person has so much more experience and authority than the other.

But I also had a lot of sex with women—and men—who weren’t my students or in any way under my supervision. And some of that was joyful, fun, and life-affirming.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy my promiscuous years. But for me, much of my sexual behavior when I was younger was tinged with a grim almost dutiful compulsivity. I don’t look back on that time with much fondness, but I don’t have self-loathing about it either. It’s done now. Its legacy is, I hope, a scrupulous attentiveness to boundaries.

CT: Because of your sexual history, you are sometimes a focus of envy or anger from other men who feel that you do not understand how much some men struggle with feeling unattractive or unwanted. How do you respond to that?

HS: Well, if you’d seen me when I was a chubby, geeky 15 year-old, you’d know I’m hardly the poster-child for alpha maleness. I was convinced as a teen that I was fat and ugly; so much of my “acting out” sexually was part of the frantic effort to prove otherwise.

I do understand why some men who have found it difficult to meet women are angered by what I’ve shared. When I write about my destructive past, even in passing, some guys hear me saying something like “You shouldn’t even get a chance to try the naughty things I spent so many years doing before I came to my right mind.” That’s true for anyone who shares a story of redemption.

In the end, though, no one is “owed” sex. Other people do not have a moral obligation to get naked with you. And what bugs me most is that the envy, if that’s what it is, is so often tinged with a sense of entitlement.

CT: Your sexual history also makes you a controversial figure with some feminists. How do you respond to that? You consider yourself a feminist — how does your sexual history influence your feminism today?

HS: I learned early on in the amends process that some people would never believe my conversion was real. They would never trust that the leopard had changed his spots, as it were. You can’t prove a negative; I can only live the life I do now as best I can and live it openly. I’m a pretty open book.

My behavior with students from 1996-98 was unacceptable for a male feminist and, for that matter, an ethical person. The question is whether the penalty for that ought to be a lifetime ban from teaching gender studies, or writing about the subjects I write about. Some feminists feel yes, it should be. I disagree, but only because so many wonderful feminist mentors of mine have encouraged me to stay in this work.

Biggest takeaway: I need to be accountable. If someone on campus or elsewhere sees me do something that doesn’t seem kosher, as it were, he or she can come speak to me. I have an “accountability team” of men and women whom I count as my friends (many are feminist academics). I’m willing to listen to hard criticism from them, without insisting that they parent me. If you’re gonna be a male feminist you need those accountability partners in your life.

CT: During what you sometimes refer to as your early, “compulsive” sexual behavior, you also had some experiences with substance abuse. How do you think that history of substance abuse has influenced your feelings on both sexuality and masculinity?

HS: They are heavily intertwined. I wasn’t always using drugs when I was acting out sexually; I was always able to have sex without drugs or alcohol. But they were linked because my consistent drinking and drug use compromised my boundaries, and because I used the substances to cope with the guilt over what I was doing. That allowed the destructive behavior to continue. Was I more of a sex addict or a drug addict? I don’t know. For so many years they were closely linked in my life. Since I began recovery from both at the same time, I have a hard time distinguishing which was the greater influence on my behavior.

To be continued…Check back tomorrow for the remainder of our interview with Hugo, which includes discussion of marriage, sexual predators, and Christianity.

Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.

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