I’ll be the first to admit I’ve become disillusioned with progressive political causes in recent years. It’s not because my convictions or values have changed – if anything, they’ve grown stronger. The issue is that I do not feel comfortable or safe at local progressive events, and I don’t have confidence that the organizers of those events are at all interested in making them safe for women.
In my late teens, near the beginning of the Iraq war, I did participate in protests and demonstrations. Friends and family would describe me as “outspoken,” and more than one female friend has confided that those conversations are the reason she now proudly proclaims herself a feminist and a progressive.
But along the way, something changed. The beginnings were innocent enough: frustrated with the difficulties of meeting anyone equally passionate about injustice and dedicated to changing the world, I turned to the internet to try to meet likeminded individuals. It’s there that I met a man I would spend two years with, leaving me plagued with PTSD and panic attacks.
“Dave” (not his real name) was an attractive older man: charming, intelligent and charismatic. He spoke eloquently about feminism, peace, anti-racism and animal welfare. I was instantly smitten. But emotionally, he was manipulative and abusive. It took a long time for me to be able to call it what it was – I was only 22, and I didn’t have a vocabulary to explain the defeated feeling every conversation seemed to leave me with. I seemed to do something wrong in every interaction, no matter how hard I tried to do the right thing.
Eventually, I became terrified of saying anything critical about our relationship, or even catching him on a bad day. Either would usually precipitate a “breakup” that would last a week or two before one of us broke down and begged the other to take us back. After the first year, I began to make demands that he communicate better, that he treat me more respectfully – and the relationship would improve, at least for couple of weeks.
After we’d been together for several months, Dave told me about a past criminal charge for possession of marijuana. As someone with a healthy disdain for the “war on drugs,” this didn’t bother me very much. What I didn’t find out until much later was that the drug charge was part of a plea deal to get him off the hook for attempting to murder his ex-girlfriend. It wasn’t until he landed in jail for assaulting another woman, a friend he’d known for more than 8 years, that I realized I wasn’t safe with him in my life.
After I cut off contact, his friends and family members suddenly volunteered information about his past. Every serious relationship he’d ever been in had ended in violence, sometimes accompanied by a restraining order. No one had seen fit to tell me when he introduced us initially. It had occurred to no one to warn me away, although everyone was relieved, for my sake, that I was not speaking to him and that my abuse had “only” been verbal and emotional.
And, tellingly, no one has ever questioned my ex’s claims that he cares about the rights, well-being, and welfare of women. Which begs the question: what does a man who claims to be a feminist have to do to prove that he doesn’t actually care about treating women as equals? If trying to strangle one woman, landing several others in the hospital, and a history of restraining orders isn’t enough, what is?
It’s against this backdrop that I’ve followed the story of Hugo Schwyzer, a gender studies professor, blogger, and male feminist personality. He has a high profile: he’s written for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and Alternet, and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis. He even writes a weekly column for the feminist pop culture site Jezebel, where he discusses tasteful topics like jizzing on women’s faces.
Over the years, Schwyzer has written here and there about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, and how a religious epiphany led him back to the straight-and-narrow. I first became aware of him in 2005 – and found much of his writing wasn’t really to my taste, but appreciated the novelty of a man writing about women’s rights and the sexist behaviors of other men.
I’ve always found some aspects of his writing a little troubling. He’s admitted to a history of sleeping with female students back when he was struggling with substance abuse, which is obviously problematic in light of his interest in working with teens. He wrote an article for the Good Men Project in which he accepted blame for “accidentally” pressuring a college girlfriend repeatedly into sex, saying that half the fault lay with her for not more clearly articulating a “no.” But I’d managed to miss a post from his personal blog about a year ago, in which he described a drug-fueled attempt to murder an ex-girlfriend who had come to him for help after being raped by her drug dealer. (Presumably under legal advice, he has removed the offending post from his site, but you can find more information about it on Student Activism blog.)
Luckily, there are others who follow Schwyzer’s writing more closely, and have launched a concerted campaign to pressure prominent feminist blogs and organizations to stop giving him a platform. And I agree that, even if Schwyzer has truly changed as a human being, his problematic history causes his presence to do far more harm than good in a movement where many women have violent and abusive history.
Like Schwyzer, my ex is active and vocal in my local progressive community. When I must walk past Occupy Denver, I shuffle through quickly, with my eyes to the ground, afraid that he might be among the protestors. As a freelance writer, I rent a desk from a local, green co-working space – and recently spent the entirety of a networking event terrified he might show up after spotting his RSVP on Facebook.
I wish that I could say that abusers were an anomaly in progressive, activist communities. The sad reality is that they appear to be more common than anyone wishes to acknowledge. Over the past few years, I’ve run into several.
During an “off” period of my relationship with Dave, the co-op community I was living in welcomed a new member – a PhD student in anthropology with a quick sense of humor and passionate interest in feminism and social justice. While he could speak for hours about institutionalized racism and sexism, when it came to his actual relationships with women, he was manipulative and pushy. He lied to women he was romantically involved with and slept around behind their backs. He treated his female housemates incredibly poorly. After moving out, he began sending me unsolicited, aggressive messages on Facebook, so I had to block him. For all his rhetoric about respecting women, he seemed unable to put those words into practice.
It’s not only straight men who use their involvement in political movements to downplay and cover up their abuse. At one point, an acquaintance of mine who was heavily involved in the local feminist and queer community was accused of rape and the serial physical and emotional abuse of her partners, who were also members of the same activist organizations. This was a woman with a high online profile as a queer feminist, who had an essay appear in a prominent anti-rape anthology. While she disputed the claims, her protests were a little too eerily reminiscent of justifications I had heard time and time again. I distanced myself from her, unable to maintain a friendship that was so triggering and raised so many uncomfortable questions.
What Schwyzer and these people in my life had in common was an inability to take responsibility for their actions, a refusal to understand how and why their presence was actively detrimental to the political causes they claimed to support. Unfortunately, even when their past deeds came to light, they still had many supporters within their communities.
American society loves redemption narratives – we want to believe that someone can truly transform their life and become a better person. I don’t dispute that it’s possible, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that abusers will always claim they’ve changed. It’s a classic and well-known aspect of how they operate, and how they manage to repeat their abuse.
I rarely attend protests or participate in any political action in person anymore. I have trouble finding the courage to speak up and out my ex by name – I know how convincing he can be when he tells people that any charges are simply lies spread by a bitter ex-girlfriend.
Moreover, I don’t want to open myself up to the possibility of stalking or harassment by drawing his attention to me. And I’ve seen how publically calling out one’s abuser can result in someone’s credibility being dragged through the mud, motives and honesty questioned – even when the only thing the victim wants is to be able to participate in causes they believe in without the constant fear of confronting their abuser.
But I’m not just nervous about running into my ex – I’m terrified of running into someone new, an abuser whose past deeds are covered up or overlooked because of his or her dedication to “the cause.” The way that parts of the online feminist community have rallied around Schwyzer disturbs me, because they are advocating exactly that.
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple question: should women who have been victims of domestic violence and emotional abuse be active members of progressive political movements, or should people with a history of abusing others be allowed the opportunity to grow and change? The latter will always come at the expense of the former. The simple reality is that as long as past abuse is downplayed, excused or ignored in activist communities, there are many people, mostly women, who will not feel comfortable being involved in political action.
So ask yourself this: which is more important to you?
Photo by: Helga Weber