Why We — More than Ever — Need the Word “Creepy”

My latest at The Atlantic takes another look at a topic I’ve addressed before: “A Defense of the Word ‘Creep’”. Here’s an excerpt:

Congress can’t pass a law requiring people to be delighted by the advances of others they find unattractive. I can get my children to eat broccoli by alternating promises of rewards and punishments, but I cannot do anything to make my daughter love vegetables as much as she loves ice cream. Similarly, no law can compel “Ashley,” a barista at the local coffee shop, to feel the same way about the advances of an older co-worker whom she finds repellant as she does about those of the young hottie who joins her on the opening shift.

Until recently, however, few women could make sexual choices based primarily on physical desire and emotional attraction. In a world where few women had the opportunity to prosper without a man’s protection, marriage was about survival. The more educational and economic opportunities women acquire, the more opportunity they have to choose based on what they want rather than what they need for survival. As Daniel Bergner’s bestselling What Do Women Want? argues, once you level the economic playing field, women are just as likely as men to make sexual decisions based on desire alone.

The same principle works for sexual harassment: the Civil Rights Act of 1965 didn’t conjure the concept out of thin air. Women had always been sexually harassed in public spaces. What the government did was give the problem a name — and a remedy. It also formally recognized a woman’s right to decide for herself what conduct was welcome and what wasn’t.

Men’s rage about sexual harassment regulations and “creep-shaming” may well be rooted in an unwillingness to accept these cultural changes that have given women unprecedented power to say “no” to the lecherous and the predatory. Complaints that unattractive, socially awkward men are unfairly labeled “creepy” miss the point. “Creepy” describes having “the creeps;” it’s a word that centers on women’s own feelings. It’s no more “unfair” for Ashley the hypothetical barista to be “creeped out” by the advances of an older, unappealing co-worker than it is for her to be excited by the same approach from the man to whom she’s attracted.

On “feminist pick-up ethics” at Daily Life

My latest at Daily Life looks at what it would mean to create egalitarian, feminist-friendly “pick-up” ethics. I chatted with Clarisse Thorn, Arden Leigh, Mark Manson and Michael Kimmel for their insights. Excerpt:

If there are to be such things as feminist pick-up ethics, they’ll have to be as much about empowering women to take the sexual initiative as about encouraging men to be honest and respectful. The reality is that getting what you want from whom you want it can be as challenging for women as for men. Just as men need to work, as Kimmel says, on “acting ethically”, women deserve the tools to act boldly…

The worst of the pick-up artists insist that men and women want such radically different things that only the cynical mastery of manipulation techniques will lead to happiness. The good news is the emergence of a different model for men and women alike, based on mutuality, kindness and willingness to prioritise other’s boundaries as well as one’s own pleasure.

To put it more simply, this new model rests on the idea that men and women aren’t adversaries, but collaborators. Even, perhaps, friends.

Men Speaking Up: Jen Kirkman and the MA’AM Blog

I wrote a short piece for Jezebel on Friday about comedian Jen Kirkman’s “twitter strike” in protest against misogyny. Excerpt:

In a Tumblr post last night, Kirkman explained that whenever she’s the target of hatefilled, sexist rants (she shares a smattering of examples), she hears from her male fellow comedians who “DM me or text me or email me or talk to me about how they hate it too but they never speak up.” Private support is nice, but as she makes clear, it does absolutely nothing to challenge a culture that indulges and encourages cyber-misogyny.

Kirkman is understandably frustrated by men who make comforting noises but claim that they “don’t know what to say” to sexist trolls. Men don’t need expertise in anti-sexist activism to stand up against woman-hating; plenty of male comedians openly campaigned for Obama, she notes, without having degrees in political science or public policy. Kirkman doesn’t need to spell out the obvious reason why men don’t speak out: too many “good guys” either don’t take sexist trolling seriously or they’re too afraid of becoming the targets of ridicule from those same bullies if they do step up openly.

She started a Tumblr, MA’AM; it’s doing very nicely.

The Price of Exclusion: a Plea from my Other Daughter

Lauren, one of my former “youth group kids,” has often made a pseudonymous appearance on this blog. She was the “Brynne” in this piece on the virtues of long-distance relationships, she was “Holly” in this post about escaping the perfectionism trap and in this post about kissing scenes on stage.

I’ve known Lauren since she was 12; she’s now nearly 21 and a college student double-majoring in gender studies and English. And she’s not only given me permission to “out” her, she’s asked me to do so and to share this post she put up on her Tumblr today, talking about our relationship and the impact the controversy surrounding me has had upon her. The Price of Exclusion: Why You Should Stop Hating Hugo was not a post I asked her to write, but I’m beyond grateful that she did. Excerpts:

Hugo Schwyzer is my father, for all terms and purposes minus biological, and he has saved my life. Hugo Schwyzer deserves forgiveness, not because of his past actions, but because of his present actions, his sincere atonement, and his inspiring bravery to be painfully honest. And finally, Hugo Schwyzer is an inspiring example of what it means to be a feminist. I have wanted to write this for a long time. Though it almost seems pointless, knowing how difficult it is to change minds, this is something I need to say.

I should explain our unorthodox relationship before I start. I met Hugo when I was 12, at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. With others, he led the youth program. My mother essentially forced me to join the confirmation program my freshman year of high school, but it turned out to be the most influential year yet. At that time in my life, my parents had been divorced for two years, because of my (biological) father’s infidelity. I was the one to find evidence of this affair, accidentally discovering and reading explicit letters written by and to my father, when I was only ten. My father and I thus barely spoke for those two years. I was just starting to forgive him when he suddenly fell ill. Though it took months to reach a diagnosis, we eventually learned he had contracted encephalitis. This is similar to Alzheimer’s; his brain is inflamed, so his short term memory is effectively gone. His long term is somewhat intact, but he might think it’s 1985 one day and 1991 the next. He no longer recognizes me, and I haven’t seen him in over four years.

My point to this is that I was incredibly vulnerable when I met Hugo. I was grieving the loss of my father and struggling to make up for his sudden and complete absence. I battled with extreme guilt and coped by switching boyfriends every month. Though I was only thirteen, Hugo treated me, and every other youth group member, like mature adults, not silly teenagers; unlike most adults, he gave our thoughts and feelings weight and validation. He never wrote us off as stupid adolescents and was always there to listen. He helped me through the most difficult time of my life. I know plenty of people who are just waiting to hear how Hugo took advantage of me, or how he manipulated me: but he never did. I was obviously incredibly vulnerable, and Hugo had every opportunity to take advantage of that. BUT HE NEVER DID. Did I make that clear enough? Hugo wouldn’t even hug me without my explicit permission. Which, by the way, he still does today.

Three quick links: rape porn, redeeming marriage, and another interview

Three links:

At Good Men Project, editor Justin Cascio asked several folks, including me, for our thoughts on “rape porn” and the limits of fantasy. Are some fantasies invariably unhealthy?

At Slate, Amanda Hess hosted a mini-symposium on how best to transform and improve the institution of marriage. I’m quoted along with a series of extraordinarily insightful men and women.

And at The Gloss, I answer the crowd-sourced questions from readers about my life and work. I’m looking forward to being asked different questions about different topics soon.

On politics and friendship, men and feminism: two new columns

Two new pieces up today.

At Role-Reboot, I look at the question of when it’s okay to end a friendship over political disagreements. Excerpt:

It’s almost axiomatic that the lower one’s personal investment in the outcome, the easier it is to banter civilly with one’s political opponents. Growing up, my mother’s family was as ideologically diverse as possible—from card-carrying Communists to evangelical Christian conservatives. The one thing we shared, besides the ties of blood and marriage, was class privilege. As a child, I witnessed heated debates over Vietnam and tax policy at family parties; as a teen, I waded into intense arguments over funding the Contras and divesting from South Africa. Though the discussion was often impassioned, there were rules to how far we could go. “If you can’t speak kindly to each other after the argument is over,” my grandmother said, “you aren’t allowed to argue.” As she reminded us, family unity should always trump politics. My mother’s mother made it abundantly clear that it was very bad manners to allow a relative’s views on policy to impact one’s feelings for them.

My grandmother lived out what she preached. She and my grandfather had a mixed marriage on the atypical side of the gender gap. She was a Republican (from the moderate wing, to be sure); my grandfather was a progressive Democrat. They cancelled out each other’s vote in every presidential election from 1932 to 1968, always with good cheer. According to family lore, the closest they came to cross words came in 1948, when my grandfather’s delight at Truman’s surprise comeback defeat of Dewey briefly crossed the line from happiness to outright gloating. They each had their triumphs and their losses, and viewed their opposite political loyalties as being akin to rooting for rival baseball teams. Nothing, they believed—and taught their descendants to believe—was so serious about politics that it should serve to poison a relationship with a loved one. Growing up in a family that saw politics as a fascinating but ultimately inconsequential sport, I was sheltered from the obvious reality that the outcome of elections has life-changing implications for millions.

My second piece appears somewhere new: Australia’s Daily Life. It’s a personal piece about men and feminism; the editors chose the title Confessions of a Formerly Sexist Man. Excerpt:

I call myself a feminist because I see organised feminism as one of the great vehicles for both social justice and personal transformation. I am a feminist because I want to see a world in which both men and women are free to become complete people. Feminism helped me understand that testosterone and a Y chromosome didn’t destine me to be unreliable, predatory, and emotionally inarticulate – but that buying into sexist myths did.

Feminism is political. It is also much more than that: it’s about making whole people – just, kind, and complete. Based on my past, I know I am a most imperfect spokesperson for a woman-centered movement. But as much because of that past as in spite of it, I feel compelled to make the case that feminism, more than any other ideology, gives all of us the tools to match our language and our lives.

An interview at XoJane

There’s a season for everything, and this seems to be the week of interviews about the controversy surrounding my work. Monday, Persephone Magazine ran a piece by Zahra Tahira featuring an interview with me, and today, XoJane put up a post by associate editor Lesley Kinzel featuring another interview and some more questions. Plenty of heated debate in the comments section.

What do you hope to contribute to feminism, given your complicated history? More than that, what is the role of men in feminist conversations, in general, in your opinion?

I believe men can and should – heck, must – support the feminist project. How we do that is open to debate. For me, feminism provides a lens through which to see the path to a better, more just, fairer world for my children and everyone’s children. Feminism is about liberating both men and women from the restrictive, misery-making straitjacket of gender roles that leave most of us as incomplete people. We’re all invested in that, or should be.

For me, feminism offered me a vehicle with which to match my language and my life. Feminism challenged me to live differently, and it gave me a perspective on how to live kindly, honestly, and empathetically in a male body. Feminists don’t owe me a welcome. But feminism changed my life in countless ways for the better. I’d like more people – especially men – to hear that message.

Excerpt:

Read the whole thing.

Deconstructing Hugo: Persephone finds the elusive middle ground

At Persephone Magazine, Zahra Tahirah shares her story of “friending” me on Facebook with the ulterior motive of exposing me for the “villain I thought he was.” Instead, she found a more complex story, which speaks for itself, and includes an interview with me.

It begins:

Hugo Schwyzer — ”Author, Speaker, Professor, Shattering Gender Myths” — was a villain to me. And when I started this article, it was my intent to show this. When I first came across his work as a reader of Jezebel, I found his work to be self-absorbed, and decidedly unfeminist. Over the course of about a year, I continued to hate-read his work, in particular the pieces on “facials,” creeps, and underage porn. I, as well as many other readers of his work, was furious. He tried to kill his ex-girlfriend! (One of the first searches that comes up when you pull up his name is “Hugo Schwyzer kill girlfriend.”) He slept with several students! He wants us to be degraded by facials! He outed his ex-wife! Why was this man with such an unsavory past being touted as the poster boy for feminism? Why was any man? Where we so entrenched in patriarchy that even the feminism movement couldn’t stand to have a woman at the forefront? I wanted to pour my anger in the form of an article in which I would attack and expose him for the villain I though he was. I wanted to probe into the world of Schwyzer to validate my own perception of him. However, what I found out along the way was rather surprising.

So much of what has been written this year about me has been without nuance. Though I don’t agree with everything that Zahra writes here, I’m so grateful for her willingness to engage with complexity, to hold contradictions in tension, and to work out her response in such a marvelous piece.

Read the whole post.

“I am a good-looking man”: on why looks privilege is as real as any other advantage

My weekly column at Role/Reboot runs a day earlier than normal. How Much Do Good Looks Help People in Our Culture? examines “appearance privilege,” riffing off a superb piece from America’s best writer on beauty, Autumn Whitefield-Medrano. In my post, I look at why it’s so much harder to cop to the advantages bestowed by being good-looking than it is to those unmerited benefits that come with race and class. Excerpt:

Does “looks privilege” function in similar ways in men’s lives as it does in women’s? How much do striking (or merely conventional and modest) good looks help men in our culture? These are two of the questions that jumped to mind after reading Autumn Whitefield-Medrano’s latest essay at The New Inquiry on Beauty Privilege. One of our best contemporary commenters on beauty culture, Whitefield-Medrano notes that this benefit functions as an elephant in the room, a presence everyone feels but few dare name: “…think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one’s ‘beauty privilege,’ and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism.”

As she points out, we live in a culture where responsible people are expected to acknowledge their privileges, often with an almost confessional zeal. If you’ve got white skin, if you’re male, if you come from a middle-class (or more affluent) background, if you’re heterosexual or able-bodied or Christian or well-educated, then you do well to note the myriad ways that those attributes can ease your way in life. If I say, for example, that growing up a middle-class white male has eased my way in life, that my background and family connections have cushioned me from the repercussions of my own poor decisions, few will argue. No serious person could deny that race, class, education, and sex all impact how one is treated in the world. In and of themselves, they may not be determinative, but it is evident that unmerited privileges like color and wealth shape our worldview and ease our passage through public space.

Looks are different, exponentially more difficult to talk about. It shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of us learned about the power of being pretty (or cute, or handsome) in elementary school. Long before we could spell a word like privilege (OK, fine, I still have trouble with it), we figured out that kids who were conventionally good-looking got more attention and enjoyed higher status among their peers—and, sadly, often among parents and teachers as well. Looksism is arguably the first unjust bias many of us encounter in life, particularly those of us who are privileged in the “other” ways like class and race. By the time we’re done with junior high school, we’re keenly, often heartbreakingly aware of how looks open doors for some and not for others.

Read the whole thing.