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The Hugo Problem
He was L.A.’s most prominent male feminist, a professor of gender studies who used his online presence to burnish his reputation. Then Hugo Schwyzer’s bad behavior—sex with students, substance abuse, and a chilling act of violence—came to light, and Twitter users around the world took him down
- Amsterdam, the Netherlands
- Seattle, Washington
- Newcastle, England
- Riverside, California
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- London, England
- New York, New York
Hugo Schwyzer was back on Twitter, determined to self-destruct. Just three weeks before, the Pasadena City College professor had promised to take an “extended hiatus” from social media, but here he was again in August 2013, apologizing, confessing, declaring himself a “monstrous hypocrite” and a fraud. “I’ve been such a liar. A terrible liar,” he wrote in one of 140 tweets he spewed out over an hour and a half. “Yes, no shit, I’m having a manic break right now.” He was deliberately letting it happen, he said, “so you can KNOW THE TRUTH.”
Schwyzer—a boyish-looking man of 46 with reddish-brown hair, freckles, and an easy grin—had gone off his medications for bipolar disorder. They were right there in front of him, he said, “lined up.” Lithium. Seroquel. Klonopin. Wellbutrin. Lexapro. He’d skipped them all to reveal the “authentic Hugo.” To that end the popular gender studies professor, who’d developed a national reputation for writing about sexuality and female empowerment, began ticking off his sins. “I fucked porn stars I met through my classes,” he tweeted. “I cheated on my wife and pretended to be reformed. I wrote an article in the Atlantic condemning age-disparate relationships the same week…that I was sleeping with a 23-year-old. And sexting a 27-year-old. Not my students at least.”
Or so he said. Should anyone believe him? Now he typed that he was “the most notorious bad boy male feminist out there” and said he had traded on his transgressions to build a narrative of redemption. “I secretly wanted to be THE male feminist,” he wrote. “And I used it sexually too. It was part of my game.” He continued: “I wanted attention so f-ing bad.… I built a brand.… I networked like a motherfucker to get promoted.” When people who knew him began e-mailing, begging him to end his public rant, he refused. “Why should I stop, friends?” he tweeted, assuring everyone his account hadn’t been hacked.
Not everyone was a friend, of course. Not by a long shot. Schwyzer’s antics—inviting porn stars to his class, blogging about past affairs he’d had with students—had drawn controversy and angered many. As his tweeting became more frantic, he seemed bent on addressing all his misdeeds. “I was a shitty writer and I was a fraud and I did try to kill my ex,” he typed, offering no explanation for that final revelation. Days before, he said, he had informed the college that he was going on medical leave: “I can’t be near students.” Meanwhile he’d put himself on another sort of leave: He was done writing about gender and women’s issues, he said. “I’m out of feminism,” Schwyzer promised, “not because I don’t believe in it, but because I’m such a pisspoor example of it all.”
This is about the time when two police officers came strolling down the hallway of Schwyzer’s mother’s home in Carmel, where he was staying, to take him to Community Hospital in Monterey. When he was released a few hours later, he got right back on Twitter. “It is time to return to my original pledge to leave social media, and—without deleting today’s manic rants—that’s what I’m doing now.”
He would be gone three days.
If not for a shift in the relationship between American feminism and media, Hugo Schwyzer might have remained a little-known academic. His rise was fueled largely by Web sites geared to young women who embraced what you might call a sexier brand of empowerment. By 2007, a vibrant feminist presence was emerging online, with Web sites like Feministing, Feministe, and Jezebel generating millions of hits. Unlike Gloria Steinem, who helped popularize the 1970s slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” or Susan Faludi, author of the 1992 best seller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, the millennial feminists were as interested in fashion trends, Lindsay Lohan, and orgasms as they were in “slut-shaming,” birth control, and rape. And unlike Steinem or Faludi, they didn’t need to found Ms. magazine or win a book contract for their voices to be heard. On the Internet they could self-publish and say whatever the hell they liked. The writing was smart, funny, and provocative—and designed to attract page views with such click-happy topics as celebrities, porn, and sex. When it came to that last one, especially, Schwyzer saw an opening.
An ongoing debate among advocates of women’s rights is, Can a man be a feminist? While some women have no problem letting men join discussions of female-related issues—the more allies, the better!—others think men should shut up and butt out. The argument gets stickier still when deciding whose voices to publish in women’s forums. Don’t guys already get more than their share of exposure in print and online? someone always asks. And who wants to hear their condescending views about women anyway?
Against such a backdrop it’s easy to see how a particular kind of man finagled his way into this precious space. That man was adept at wooing well-known editors and writers, gushing over their posts, linking to their blogs. He was a skilled writer—familiar with feminist lingo—who had an eye for buzzworthy topics. It didn’t hurt, frankly, that he was well-spoken and charming and had a compelling back story. Or that he was a master of social media. For nearly a decade Schwyzer used flattery, self-promotion, and guile to step into what he saw as an “unfilled niche.” As he told me in several conversations we had after his meltdown, “There were no men writing intelligently about women in a way that would resonate with a feminist audience. I got a lot of attention for that, for saying something no one else was saying.”
Schwyzer became a gender studies professor by accident when he filled in for a colleague who was on maternity leave from Pasadena City College, a two-year junior college. With his Ph.D. from UCLA in British medieval history, he was hardly qualified. His only background was two women’s studies courses he’d taken as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. In the years since, he had done no research or scholarly papers on gender issues. But the college let him teach the class. Right away Schwyzer discovered that he enjoyed the attention from his young students, particularly the female ones. At the time, the mid-’90s, men who built their identities around championing equal rights for women weren’t exactly prevalent. Sensing this could work in his favor, Schwyzer began creating a persona for himself as a male feminist.
Photograph by Frank Ockenfels 3
The child of divorced parents, he’d grown up in the ’70s with his mother and a younger brother in the seaside town of Carmel. His mom, Alison, taught philosophy at Monterey Peninsula College. She was also an ardent feminist who raised her sons to believe that women should have the same opportunities and rights as men. Schwyzer loved telling the story of seeing Ms. magazine on the coffee table as a boy. He also loved recounting how his mother had influenced his desire to teach feminism.
In the fall of 1995, Schwyzer—then 29 and married to his second wife, a social worker (his first marriage, to an elementary school teacher, had ended in 1993)—says he asked the social sciences department at PCC to let him teach women’s studies as a regular gig. “I was able to sell the interview committee with enthusiasm over experience,” he told me. Indeed, what Schwyzer lacked in credentials, he made up for in energy and chutzpah. His class, “Women in American Society,” was hugely popular. He covered the usual stuff: the suffragette movement in the 1860s, women winning the right to vote in 1920, the inspiration of “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II. But it was his performance that set him apart. As Schwyzer paraded around the room, hopped up on caffeine, his lectures were mesmerizing. “He was a very compelling speaker,” recalled a former female student, who considered Schwyzer her mentor. She asked me not to use her name because she’d been falsely identified online as a student who’d slept with him.
Schwyzer required his students, most of them minority women in their late teens and early twenties, to keep journals. He urged them to share their feelings, their family experiences, and their struggles with sexual identity. One student I spoke to thought this was a little unusual, but she said, “Hugo felt like a very safe person.”
In reality he used the journals to suss out potential sex partners, he told me. If a student addressed him as “professor,” he learned, she wasn’t interested. If she wrote “you,” she probably was. Within months Schwyzer began sleeping with his students—sometimes, he says, conducting several affairs at once. During one student lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in April 1997, he says he had sex with four coeds, three of them at the same time. This was a period when he was also drinking heavily, abusing cocaine and prescription drugs, and swept up in a stormy relationship with a woman in her twenties.
In 1998, Schwyzer, now divorced from his second wife, would see his destructive behavior catch up with him. After a drug and alcohol binge, he landed in the hospital. He went into rehab and got sober and, he says, initiated discussions with Pasadena City College officials about his past philandering with students. As part of his amends to PCC, he wrote the college’s first policy governing sexual relations between faculty and students, and then returned to the classroom. Schwyzer began carefully building a new story for himself, one that came to be known, mockingly, by his online feminist critics as “Hugo’s redemption narrative.”
In 2001, he wed his third wife, a graduate student, but the union lasted just 16 months. In 2003, he started a blog that focused on his past, the lessons he’d learned, and his efforts to be a better man. Although his primary audience was women, he wanted to preach the feminist gospel to men, too. By way of introduction he wrote at the top: “The assorted musings of Hugo Schwyzer: a progressive Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat (but with a sense of humor), a community college history and gender studies professor, animal rights activist, ENFP Gemini, avid marathoner, aspiring ultra-runner, die-hard political junkie, and (still) the proud father of the most amazing chinchilla on God’s green earth.”
Schwyzer described his sexual promiscuity, his crushes on students, and tales of his drug and alcohol addiction—all in the voice of a changed man. One of his early pieces was about the difficulty he had forming relationships with men. “As a shy, unathletic, narcissistic child, I had had a pretty unhappy and rough time in elementary and junior high school,” he wrote in June 2004. “I realized, with that sudden mixture of shame and relief that accompanies such a realization, that as a consequence of these early miserable experiences, I had spent two decades avoiding intimacy with other men.”
The post that first won Schwyzer notice in the blogosphere, in late 2005, was relatively mild for him. By this time he was married to his fourth wife, an entertainment executive he’d met when she was his student, and in an essay titled “A very long and personal post about men, women, childishness, and responsibility,” he mused about the pitfalls of partnership: “As the son of a feminist mom, I was always very big on doing my share of the housework. I was a loyal washer of dishes, a frequent doer of laundry (I actually LIKE doing laundry), and a good grocery shopper. But I thought of what I was doing as ‘doing chores,’ in much the same way I did chores as a child. I did not take responsibility for making decisions about the household, even as I seemed to be—to the outside world—an equal partner in the running of the home.” With its self-effacing tone, the post painted Schwyzer as a nice, supportive guy just trying to learn from his mistakes with women. But it also satisfied his desire to reach men. He exhorted husbands to “help our wives escape the prison of mandated gender roles…by being willing to say ‘Hey, it’s my kitchen too. I can take care of it, and I will take care of it. Let me be your equal partner here.’ ”
The professor seemed to sense that he’d tapped into a lucrative topic. In late 2006, he wrote a post called “Closing the Door: young women, aging men, and ego,” which argued that the reason older men chase much younger women, as he had done, is because they’re afraid of aging. “Attracting a girl barely out of her teens reveals the enduring power of our youthful appeal.” Later he would appear on The Ricki Lake Show to discuss his decision to get circumcised at age 37. Looking handsome and clean-cut in an expensive suit, he said that the procedure had enhanced his sex life, among other medical benefits.
Schwyzer developed a strong feminist profile at PCC. He cofounded the college’s Feminist Club and mentored students. He attended conferences of the National Women’s Studies Association and Women, Action & the Media. In 2008, the student Web site RateMyProfessors named him the “hottest professor in America,” boosting his national image even higher. Schwyzer also continued to peddle his story of reformation: how he’d overcome his narcissism, or what he called his “Hugo problem.” A new wrinkle emerged in 2006, when he began detailing his struggles with mental illness. “Years ago, I was diagnosed with a whole ‘personality disorder cluster.’… I was one self-destructive, self-involved, egocentric puppy,” he wrote on his blog. “One shrink had me pegged as ‘narcissistic personality disorder/borderline personality disorder’ with (drumroll…) ‘psychotic features.’ I don’t think the good doc was far from the mark.”
Schwyzer had always been adept at playing to his audience. His first post for Jezebel, in late 2010, is a case in point. It ran under the headline “The Problem with Being ‘Sexy But Not Sexual.’ ” In it he lamented the sexualization of young women like his students and quoted prominent feminists—Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs—to boost his credibility. After a few more well-received pieces, he pitched Jessica Coen, the site’s editor-in-chief, the idea of doing a weekly column. He was in.
“I think it’s very important for men to be involved with feminist discussions, and I was impressed with Hugo’s credentials and his writing,” Coen tells me, explaining why she hired him. “I thought he would be a very interesting voice to bring into the discussion. I liked that he presented controversial opinions but did so in a manner that was both acceptable and academic. A lot of academic approaches to gender studies feel inaccessible to the mainstream population, and Jezebel is very much a mainstream Web site.” He also, not incidentally, generated two things that drive traffic: attention and debate.
Soon after becoming a regular Jezebel contributor, Schwyzer started writing for The Good Men Project, a popular online magazine featuring positive stories about men. By early 2011, he was posting several times a week and serving as the site’s sex and relationships editor. His profile rose higher still when he cowrote a memoir with Carré Otis called Beauty, Disrupted, a horrifying account of her substance addiction and anorexia during her modeling years, and of her spiritual recovery. “We worked very well together,” says Otis, who was once married to Mickey Rourke and now goes by her current husband’s last name, Sutton. “I didn’t delve much into his past. He brought up a couple of things, and I said, ‘That’s not my business, as long as it’s not an issue in life today.’ I adored him, and I adored his family.’’
During one student lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in April 1997, he says he had sex with four coeds, three of them at the same time. This was a period when he was also drinking heavily, abusing cocaine and prescription drugs, and swept up in a stormy relationship with a woman in her twenties.
Throughout these years Schwyzer portrayed himself as a happy husband and father; he and his fourth wife had had a baby and would soon have another. Viewed through this prism of domesticity, his sincerity was hard to question. But in some posts on his blog, like this one in March 2011, he didn’t sound very sorry about his past: “Though it was a different era, the mid 1990s were not eons ago—and I was notorious on this campus as the young, untenured prof who was sleeping with a great many of his students,” he began, adding that “the administration looked the other way—as long as the women involved didn’t complain, I was golden. I slept with students while traveling to conferences on the college dime, and the most the vice-president for human resources could say when [he heard] that story was ‘Hugo, you’re quite the rascal!’ ”
Gail Cooper, a lawyer representing PCC, says she wasn’t employed by the college at the time and can’t confirm Schwyzer’s account: “Allegations of what he may have done in the 1990s is not something that could relate to his current status. As a general matter the situation can only go back a certain amount of time in terms of allegations of misconduct.”
Though Schwyzer acknowledged the harm he’d caused his “student lovers,” he could justify his behavior, too, as he did on his blog: “All of these relationships, however unethical, were consensual and not in violation of college policy—because the college had no policy against profs and students engaging in ‘mutually desired amorous relations.’ ”
In December 2011, he quit The Good Men Project after the site’s founder, Tom Matlack, wrote a post called “Being a Dude Is a Good Thing.” Schwyzer deemed it sexist and dashed off his own piece. When the editors refused to publish it, he took to his personal blog. He wasn’t a perfect feminist, he wrote, but he couldn’t “remain silent while the site with which I am now best associated took an increasingly anti-feminist stance.” Schwyzer’s willingness to call out other men—and distance himself from their apparent sexism—made him look like a hero. Then, in mid-December, he was interviewed by Clarisse Thorn, the sex and relationships editor of Role/Reboot, a Web site about gender roles. Yet again he talked about the students he’d slept with and how those trysts had made him “keenly sensitive to power imbalances in sexual relationships,” adding that he hadn’t bedded any students since he became sober in 1998. Though he implied that he regretted those years, he said he didn’t have “self-loathing” about them, either. There was nothing in the interview that devotees of Schwyzer’s blog didn’t already know, but for many readers his escapades with students were big news. After Feministe reposted the interview, the backlash came swiftly—and not just from women. Young men who viewed Schwyzer as a role model felt betrayed. As one male reader commented, “Why are you giving this animal a platform?”
This feature originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine