If you haven’t been tracking Hugo Schwyzer’s crash and burn, this post probably isn’t relevant for you. But for those of you who have been following it…
I’ve been thinking a lot about how everything went down for Schwyzer ever since his meltdown. It’s taken me a bit to sit with what I’ve read and what I’ve heard because there’s just so much of it. And every time I think things have gone as far as they’ll go, they keep getting worse.
I feel a lot of anger about what Schwyzer has done. Like many others, I hoped that his contrition for his past actions was genuine and that his behavior had changed. Like all of those other folks, I was wrong.
The last direct contact I had with him was when I spoke at his class this past April. To be honest, I had mixed feelings about associating myself with him. By that point, I knew that he wasn’t everything he presented himself as, but I decided to go ahead with my talk because I thought that I had something valuable to offer the students in his Navigating Pornography class. Given my background discussing gender and masculinity, I wanted to open up a discussion with them about how porn both reflects and shapes masculinity, and to offer alternative ideas of how we can define what it means to be a man. I volunteered my time for the sake of the students and while I had a fine experience a guest speaker and bringing some different perspectives to the class, I still felt unsure about being connected with Schwyzer. I should have listened to my gut on that one. I didn’t realize just how big a chasm there was between how he presented and how he acted.
I recently read a good definition of “trustworthiness.” We decide that someone is worthy of our trust when we believe that they will take our best interests into account. That doesn’t mean that they’ll do what we want. It means that they’ll consider our best interests and will take them seriously. Unfortunately, some people are good at putting up a front and convincing others that they deserve that trust. When we get conned, it’s hard to let go of that, even in the face of direct evidence. I wish I could say that I hadn’t been taken in, but I was. And as a result, I didn’t see the damage Schwyzer was doing, despite having been told about some of it. The inability to let go of the illusion that we want to see, and the tendency to throw good money after bad because we can’t admit our error both got in my way, and I deeply regret that.
I’ve been sitting with the question of why part of me wanted his stories to be true. Some of it is that I do genuinely want to live in a world in which we can trust people when they do their best to change. I don’t buy into the confession-and-redemption model that so many others do, but I do think that people can make amends and change. That made it easy for me to focus on the parts of Schwyzer’s story that I wanted to.
Some of it is that he was very charismatic. We spoke on the phone a few times when he interviewed me for pieces he was writing and he really seemed to get it. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, but in conversation, he seemed more clued in. I’ve seen enough people write to generate controversy to have assumed that was what he was doing. On the two occasions when we met in person (one of which was when we chatted before I spoke to his class), his charisma was even more compelling. I don’t know how to describe it, but if you’ve ever met someone with charisma, you know how it can draw you in. I’m willing to bet that he could turn it up when it was directed at someone who had something he wanted, like say, a student he wanted to have sex with.
Some of it is that I have less direct experience with the kind of manipulation that he was doing. I was talking with a friend who faced a lot of that growing up and they recognized his bullshit early on. That’s a difficult thing to see when you don’t have those particular filters.
I’m sure that there are other elements to it, but those are the three big ones that I’ve come up with so far. The thing about a con artist is that they get you to want to believe them. They can get you to overlook the most glaring inconsistencies, which is what makes the con so successful. I don’t know if Schwyzer was buying into his act himself, how much of it was the result of his mental illness, or what else might have been going on. It doesn’t really matter to me because whatever the root causes, he conned me and he conned a lot of other people. I wish I’d been able to see it sooner.
Unfortunately, his lies and his actions have made it that much harder for all of the men out there who want to be allies to women, whether we call ourselves feminists or not. By convincing folks to trust him and then betraying that trust, by lying about what he was doing for years and pretending to be acting from integrity when he wasn’t, and by using the language of feminism and social justice as a smokescreen, Schwyzer has made it even more difficult for us to demonstrate our desire to be worthy of the trust of the women in our lives and our communities.
Far worse, Schwyzer’s betrayal of the women in his classes, as well as in online and in-person communities, adds insult to injury. There are women he hurt directly and indirectly, and I don’t think we have a complete tally, yet. While I feel some anger over how Schwyzer conned me and others, that pales in comparison to my anger about the ways in which he has injured and betrayed women while lying to our faces.
I’m glad that Pasadena City College is taking steps that I expect will result in his losing his position as a professor. Wherever he ends up, I can only hope that he is no longer in a position of authority over anyone. And I hope that he is no longer able to influence or contribute to the ongoing discussion about gender equality and sexual politics. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.