This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot, where I became the Sex + Relationships Section Editor on December 15, 2011. For more of the Role/Reboot Sex + Relationships section, click here.

Do we actually believe that people can change? If so, how do we want them to show us they’ve changed? Is absolution possible? Who decides the answers to these questions?

I very rarely weigh in on Internet Scandals. This is partly because I’ve got lots of stuff to write that I believe has longer-lasting value than the latest flavor of the moment. It’s also because I have much less time and patience for internet flamewars than I once did. I seem to recall that at some point flamewars were kind of … fun? But these days they just feel predictable, tiring and unproductive.

As it happens, though, I unintentionally found myself in the middle of one this week. I feel exhausted and trapped by the whole thing. But I hope I can dim the flamewar into a lantern to illuminate issues that actually matter.

Specifically, I interviewed Hugo Schwyzer, a prominent writer on gender issues, who identifies as a male feminist and teaches gender studies in southern California. Hugo has a very complicated history that includes incredibly problematic behavior: drug addiction; compulsive and destructive sexual behavior, including sex with his students — and one attempt, over a decade ago, to kill both himself and his girlfriend during a drug binge. He has since, in his own words, “cleaned up”; chosen sobriety; recommitted to his religion; confessed his history; and attempted to make amends to the people he feels that he wronged.

Because of Hugo’s history, a lot of people really don’t like him. When I posted the interview at Feministe, one of the top feminist blogs, the comments exploded. Pretty soon, the comments had nothing to do with the interview at all. Some commenters were making amateur psychological diagnoses of Hugo, and other readers were emailing me privately to express shock at how ugly the discussion had gotten. So I closed down the discussion, making it impossible to continue commenting in that particular forum. As a result, I have now received more hate mail from other feminists than I ever have from anti-feminists. (Note: I have not received a small amount of hate mail from anti-feminists.)

In this situation, people seem to expect me to take a position that is primarily political. People seem to believe that I can either “prove my loyalty to feminism” by throwing Hugo under the bus — or I can “prove my loyalty to Hugo” by claiming that everything he’s done is A-OK. Like many political problems, neither of these options are fully human. Both of these options are stupid, limited, and do not get us any further in our lives.

I certainly do not always agree with Hugo, and I have occasionally pushed him to reconsider certain things. But, full disclosure: my experiences with him have been incredibly positive. Hugo was one of the first high-profile bloggers to promote my work — and occasionally, he took heat for doing so when I wrote about controversial topics. Hugo invited me to guest lecture in his class when I passed through Los Angeles, and he’s given me extensive feedback on and encouragement about my work. Even though I don’t always agree with him, and I believe that a lot of feminists’ critiques of his work are valid … a number of Hugo’s pieces make me want to cheer, like his article “The Paris Paradox: How Sexualization Replaces Opportunity with Obligation”. Perhaps ironically, when I once wrote an agonized post about moral accountability and how to deal with friends who have done really bad things, the most thoughtful and nuanced response came from Hugo. (He’s also written about the problem of how too many people will excuse some sexual predators, even within feminism itself, just because those predators do good activist work.)

Other feminists have been angrily emailing me, Tweeting at me, etc with things like “FUCK YOU FOR PROTECTING THIS WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING.” But I have seen no evidence that Hugo hasn’t made an honest and sustained effort at recovery and accountability. I have seen no evidence that Hugo’s religious re-conversion was dishonest. And I have seen no evidence that Hugo continues problematic behavior.

I am telling you this partly to explain where I’ve been coming from during this particular Internet Scandal. But more importantly, I’m telling you this to lend shape to the ethical problems I see underneath it — problems that are intimately intertwined with how I think about gender and sexuality. I’m actually not very interested in picking apart Hugo himself, whether positively or negatively. I believe that the politics of this situation are mostly a cheap distraction from truth and honor.

For me, the interesting and important questions that emerge in cases like this are:

How can we create processes for accountability? Feminists often discuss crimes like partner violence and sexual assault. Our focus is on helping survivors of these crimes, just as it should be. I personally have been trained as a rape crisis counselor, and I have volunteered in that capacity (if you’re interested in feminist activism, then I really encourage you to look into doing the same). And the history of feminism includes convincing people to actually care about and recognize the trauma of rape: Rape Trauma Syndrome was first defined and discussed in the 1970s.

But perhaps because of our focus on helping and protecting survivors, I rarely see feminist discussions of how to deal with people who have committed crimes. In fact, I rarely see any discussions of how to deal with that, aside from sending people to jail. Let me just say that problems with the prison-industrial complex are their own thing — but even aside from those, the vast majority of rapes and assaults and other forms of gender-based violence go unprosecuted.

So, frequently, jail won’t even enter the picture. Yet communities and individuals often know that gender-based violence is going on. How do we talk about the people who have done those things, and how do we talk to them? How can we create community structures and norms that enable people to change the behaviors that led to those crimes? How do we interact with and judge someone who has committed to change, as opposed to a person who has not?

“Accountability teams” are one way I’ve heard of for dealing with this: whether support groups of perpetrators who share their experiences with making amends and changing their ways, or groups of friends who assist a perpetrator with those processes. I would like to see more and larger discussions about those teams, and more acknowledgement that change is possible. If we can’t create this kind of process, then how can we expect to create real change around these crimes? How can we expect perpetrators of violence to work on themselves if we can’t give them the space to work? Why should someone work for forgiveness if they know forgiveness can never come?

On another note: are there crimes where we draw a bright line? Are there things we cannot or should not forgive? If some crimes are unforgivable, then how do we deal with the perpetrators? In some areas of the USA, sex crimes are punished legally by restricting the movement of perpetrators, but this law has had significant unintended consequences. And the legal question doesn’t even cover the dimension I’m most interested in, which is how friends and social circles can deal with these situations. If there are unforgivable crimes, then how do we handle the unforgiven people involved?

And: have you thought about these questions in your own life? I don’t mean abstractly, as an intellectual exercise. Concretely, and with intention. What would you do if, tomorrow, you found out that your best friend was a rapist? Your lover? What would you do if your sibling came to you to confess a terrible crime? To request absolution? To request accountability?

These questions are not just applicable to an individual like Hugo. They’re applicable to all of us, in all kinds of situations. And I think it’s wise for us to give them some thought before they come up … because in the heat of the moment, we can be overwhelmed by questions we could have thought our way around if we addressed them beforehand.

Do you believe people can change? And if you do believe it, then how would you help someone change?

Note from early 2012: This piece kicked up a huge controversy, and I learned a lot from the ensuing debate. If I were writing this piece today, then I would not write it the way I did above. My favorite response to this piece around the internet was posted by Maia at Alas, A Blog. It’s really good and I later requested that we be permitted to cross-post it to Feministe, a request that Maia gracefully granted.

Another update: In late January 2012, I posted about some stuff I’ve been reading on transformative justice.