This week was my first week as the new Sex + Relationships editor at the gender-focused site Role/Reboot. 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, and we posted it in two parts: Part 1, and Part 2.
Here’s how Part 1 begins …
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?