Neely Steinberg and Hugo Schwyzer discuss how their personal histories have shaped their individual world views.
I first got in touch with Hugo via Twitter. He was responding to my recent article published on the Good Men Project, in which I chronicled my debate with Amanda Marcotte regarding the word “slut.” Hugo was on Marcotte’s side, but that didn’t stop us from sharing respectful tweets about the article and other topics, such as dating, sex, and the effect of feminism on men and women. We enjoyed our 140-character conversations so much we decided to collaborate on an article.
After throwing around some ideas, I mentioned to Hugo that I was intrigued by our contrasting positions—his steadfast defense of feminism and critiquing of men versus my critiquing of feminism and steadfast defense of men—not because we disagree in the ideological sense, but because of our tendency to stray from defending our own gender.
I wanted to know what has shaped Hugo’s thinking when it comes to dating, sex, relationships and feminism, since these are topics he’s covered extensively. Likewise, I wanted to share with him how I’ve come to certain conclusions about these important subjects as well, because I’ve been thinking, writing, and speaking about them for several years now. We could then present our contrasting viewpoints to Good Men Project readers. Far too often, we’re dismissive of those with whom we disagree, chalking their opinions up to nothing more than sound bites, propaganda shoved down our throats by evil news networks or talking heads. But that’s taking the easy way out. How often do we take the time to see where a person is really coming from and why they may think the way they do? Listening to other people’s stories may not change our own convictions, but it can make us more thinking, feeling human beings, more evolved. It can give us a fuller appreciation for and awareness of others.
Below is Part 1 of our discussion in which we highlight how our experiences have informed our perspectives.
How does your background and experiences inform your worldview about dating, sex, relationships, and feminism, and the advice you give?
Hugo: What a huge question, Neely! Of course, it informs everything in ways seen and unseen. Though I’m leery of saying that we’re all just products of our environment and our experiences, I know my views about pleasure-centered sex education are very much rooted in what I’ve lived through and what I’ve seen.
If there’s one truth I’ve learned (and seen so many others learn), it’s the idea that contrary to folk wisdom, one mistake—or even a series of mistakes—will not ruin your life. In her wonderful Full Frontal Feminism, Jessica Valenti writes that Sometimes doing silly, disempowering, sexually vapid things when you’re young is just part of getting to the good stuff. That doesn’t seem all that profound until you realize that it’s pushing back against the toxic idea that experiences invariably leave life-long scars.
I’ve been married to four women, been “in love” with twice that many, and for a brief but intense period in my 20s and early 30s, I was very promiscuous. I now live very happily in a monogamous marriage. I’m not haunted by what I did, nor did the tremendous variety of experiences I had when I was younger spoil any opportunity for fulfillment with just one partner in an enduring relationship. Without compromising her privacy, I can say that my current (and last) wife’s life prior to our marriage was not dissimilar to my own. The intimacy we have today is at least partly a consequence of our experiences with other people, not in spite of them.
Experience really is the best teacher, even if not every student learns the lesson the first (or 101st) time. Women in particular need reassurance that their worth is not linked to their number of sexual partners. They need to hear that pursuing pleasure for its own sake when they’re young will not make it more difficult to form enduring monogamous relationships (if they want them) when they’re older. These are lessons I’ve learned, lessons I’ve seen the men and women in my life learn and embrace.
I do regret the pain I caused other people. Rightly so. But what my life has taught me is that insight and compassion are rooted in experience; you can’t advise about what you don’t understand. My own ability to be a patient father, a faithful husband, a decent teacher and mentor isn’t in spite of my wild sexual choices when I was younger—it’s in large part because of them, and the lessons I learned. I’m lucky, but not that unusual.
I don’t advocate self-destructive choices, and for different people, both promiscuity and abstinence can be self-destructive. I want to equip young people to discover their own sexuality and to make informed, pleasure-centered, empathy-centered decisions based on what they discover. I want them to know that they have the inner resilience to recover from the “silly” and “vapid” decisions they may make.
Neely: I agree with a lot of what Hugo has to say, but I think we may have different perspectives on the effects of casual, no-strings attached sex. I also happen to think most women aren’t all that interested in having a lot of it for purely sexual reasons, with multiple partners no less. And I’ve come to believe that feminism’s inability, and at times refusal, to acknowledge differences between the sexes has been disingenuous and has gravely backfired on women, leaving them ill-equipped to discover what really feels good and right to them.
The Samantha Jones (of Sex and the City fame) lifestyle was, in my opinion, a false bill of goods, sold to impressionable young women as glamorous, exciting, and liberating, while ignoring any sort of biological mechanisms that induce women to emotionally attach with their mates. I was told, by the 10% of women who are capable of effectively and consistently compartmentalizing their emotions when it comes to no-strings attached sex, that emotions were overrated, anathema even, and could easily be separated from sexual acts with another human being, to unapologetically unleash my inner slut (there’s that word again). It was our right (rite?) as women, our responsibility as sexual creatures, to show the world we can fuck like men do, have instantaneous orgasms, and feel faaaabulous while doing it in our 4-inch Manolo Blahniks. Countless women bought into this lie, only to realize years later that it doesn’t, in fact, feel so great most of the time, and that actually, there’s nothing all that empowering and liberating about spreading your legs with wild abandon.
Instead of embracing the emotional and biological differences between men and women, or at least considering them, sex-positive feminists buried their heads in the sand, unintentionally creating, in the meantime, a veritable sexual playground for men, often times at the expense of women, many of whom just wanted relationships that were both sexually and emotionally satisfying. Women were told they could have their cake and eat it too, but the dessert in many ways has been a better payoff for men.
I spent the latter half of high school, college (if dating was scarce when I was in college, it’s nonexistent today), and many years post-college, mired in the hook-up scene, which was, mind you, always fueled by alcohol. It’s as if I needed the crutch of Vodka to tell me what I was doing was an awesome idea, because without it I’d know better. I wasn’t alone. It was happening all around me. My friends, female acquaintances, countless women I’d met briefly over the years—we were all in the same boat. Post-college, we could pursue our careers and hobbies and passions full-force but were unable to form lasting attachments, to believe that a man wanted us for anything more than a quick hook-up, to understand what real intimacy was about. We tamped down our emotions and hid our dissatisfaction—how else could we have had our witty Sunday brunches at which we joked about our encounters? In reality, I spent countless nights crying over my dating life. I know my friends (smart, beautiful, accomplished women) felt just as dejected and lonely. And all of a sudden we were in our early-30s. Whereas I once blamed men for my dating troubles, I now began to turn a critical eye on myself and an ideology that didn’t seem to be serving me all that well.
I won’t deny those wild days are tinged with a bit of sweet nostalgia, but I also know that pain has a short memory. Overall, these sorts of trysts usually left me feeling empty and the hollowness I felt had nothing to do with the evil patriarchy shaming or guilt-tripping me. It just felt lacking in so many ways. I remember one night in particular when I was 29 quite vividly. After being totally ignored at a party by a guy who I had hooked up with the night before, I cried hysterically while my friend drove me home. When we pulled up to my apartment, I remember feeling devastated and deflated, yelling, “I’m sick of this! I don’t get it, what am I doing wrong?” as I smashed my hand against the passenger seat window, shattering my bracelet in the process, pearls spewing everywhere. I was tired of making mistakes and not learning from them but felt stuck, like I had just lost myself. If feminism’s goal was to eradicate the falsehood that a woman’s worth is tied to her sexuality, it has failed on many accounts. All I learned from drunken, fleeting hook-ups over the course of a decade was how much I was being viewed as a sexual object by men, as a vagina who happens to think and feel, rather than a thinking, feeling human being who also happens to have a vagina. As Laura Kipnis writes in her book The Female Thing: “Welcome to the new femininity—at least under the old femininity you got taken to dinner.”
I agree with Hugo and Valenti’s point, to an extent, about the importance of making mistakes in your love life and learning from them. If it weren’t for some of the wrong turns (and their attendant lessons) in my life, I wouldn’t have found the wonderful man who I am dating today and be able to appreciate him. But I think I owe that more to the few actual relationships I’ve had with the wrong men and less to vacuous sexual encounters that taught me nothing about intimacy or pleasure. Thankfully, I did the hard work to understand how both my familial dynamics and the cultural winds of the day influenced my decisions. I consider myself lucky to have found the right guy at 34 but worry about other women, no matter what age, who are wedged between a culture that tells them one thing and the voice inside them that tells them another.
Again, while I think women need to make mistakes in order to know what they want, at what point does that end? I understand everyone’s journey is unique, but I think young women today are looking for different, more tempered voices other than the I-am-woman-hear-me-roar variety, for tangible, strategic dating advice (such as, if you want a relationship try developing emotional, spiritual, and mental bonds with a man you like or just started dating by delaying sexual gratification—yours and his). My advice is based on the distilled wisdom that I have gained with age. If only one woman can be spared a night of crying against her pillow and get closer to what she really wants because of something I’ve written or said, then I feel like I’ve made a positive difference.
I understand what the feminist credo and Hugo have to say about pleasure-centered sex education and helping women to understand that it’s okay to enjoy sex outside of relationships (it is!) and to make silly, vapid mistakes, but we should also consider the notion that casual sex and hook-ups may not be for many women and can indeed have long-term deleterious effects (emotional and physical). Moreover, I think this sort of feminist-speak can often seem like highfalutin mumbo jumbo to a woman who, say, has hit her early to mid-30s, already spent years exploring her sexuality, made mistakes ad nauseam, and is now ready to settle down but has unfortunately found the dating pool has shrunk considerably. Lori Gotlieb wrote about this dilemma in her controversial article (and subsequent book) for the Atlantic entitled Marry Him!
And, of course, there’s the ever-present tick-tock of the biological clock. It’s the one factor that feminism and college professors can’t manipulate. This is one such example as to why real-world practitioners are often at odds with academics: A professor sits behind the thick veil of tenure, spouting off theories and philosophies about how the world should be; a real-world practitioner has to deal with the world as it is, to make difficult decisions based on the realities of life.
Based on my experiences and what I’ve seen countless other women deal with over the years, you can see why my approach to dating, sex, and relationships comes from a more strategic, realistic place (another example of this approach: if you want marriage and biological children, you should start taking your love life seriously by the time you reach your late-20s/early-30s), and why I now feel compelled to offer a critique of feminism. I want women to be happy, and to be honest with themselves, without feeling the need to buy into a politically-correct ideology, about what makes them happy. If it truly is lots of casual sex and fleeting hook-ups, more power to you! If not, that’s okay too! For so long I was dishonest with myself, getting swept up in a powerful cultural force that wasn’t there for me when I really needed it. Regarding the feminist movement, we have much to be thankful for, but we must also recognize it has created an unintended set of less-than-desirable circumstances for women that are very real and difficult to confront. We now have to deal with those consequences, honestly and openly and without fear of reproach.