To date, the controversy has centered on Schwyzer’s history of gross personal misconduct and on the content of his writing. (Schwyzer’s disclosure last year of a 1998 attempt to kill his girlfriend and himself sparked the current clamor, drawing new scrutiny to his earlier admissions of sexual activity with his students and to various troubling statements he’d made.)
In his defense, Schwyzer and his supporters regularly contrast his reckless past with his sober present, couching their arguments in the language of forgiveness and redemption. Schwyzer’s bad acts are behind him, they say, and the controversies over his current writings are properly understood as debates within feminism, debates among friends and allies.
To fully understand why so many remain so hostile to Schwyzer, though, we need to look beyond his past misdeeds and his problematic writing, and examine the ethics of his recent public acts.
A week ago Healthy is the New Skinny, an organization Schwyzer helped to establish in 2010, announced that they had decided “to end all ties” with him. In a statement, the group declared that Schwyzer had not fully informed them of his past when he became involved with their work. Similarly, the sex education organization Scarleteen recently announced that they would be removing several pieces Schwyzer had written for them from their website.
This weekend I asked Scarleteen executive director Heather Corinna whether Schwyzer had made the group aware of his past before coming on board with them. She said that he had not.
When Schwyzer was approached to write for Scarleteen in 2009 he knew that he had for years engaged in sexual activity with his students. He knew that he had a personal history of domestic violence. But he withheld these facts from Scarleteen — a group that provides sex education and crisis counseling to young people — and in so doing deprived the organization of the chance to make an informed decision as to whether to be affiliated with him.
The question of which elements of his past a person like Schwyzer is obligated to divulge to a group like Scarleteen is a thorny one, and if he had simply concealed facts from them that he had similarly concealed from the rest of the world, the ethics of his choice could perhaps be debated.
But when Schwyzer started writing for Scarleteen his history of sexual misconduct with students was, though unknown to them, a matter of public record. He had first admitted those relationships online in 2005, and had written about them extensively since. And when he later described the attempted murder of his girlfriend in a blogpost, he again chose not to notify them.
Schwyzer’s failure to reveal such potentially explosive information was an act of appalling recklessness. As a small non-profit working in the field of teen sexuality, Scarleteen relies on fragile networks of financial and institutional support — support that is precarious in the best of circumstances. (As a group co-founded by Schwyzer himself, Healthy is the New Skinny was compromised even further by their association with his name.) By acting the way he did, Schwyzer put feminist organizations, organizations he has championed, at serious risk.
I’ve previously discussed the fact that Schwyzer has quietly taken steps to scrub from his blog statements that pose difficulties for the rehabilitation of his reputation. I’ve suggested that his behavior has needlessly exacerbated the damage the current controversy has done to feminist communities. And the ugly revelations just don’t seem to stop.
This is the third blogpost I’ve written about Schwyzer. I expect it’ll be the last. I have no interest in condemnation for condemnation’s sake. But because Schwyzer’s best writings and best acts have moved so many people, I do think it’s important to be clear that this isn’t just about whether a person can be redeemed. It’s not just about the role of men in feminism. It’s not just about folks not liking some of what he has to say.
It’s about the fact that he continues to behave recklessly and dishonestly. It’s about the damage he’s done, in the very recent past, to causes and principles that he claims to value. It’s about the fact that despite his promise to withdraw from feminist spaces, the harm he’s doing to feminist institutions is ongoing.
That’s a problem. And it’s not going away.
Note | In an email to me, Heather Corinna said she regrets not vetting Schwyzer more thoroughly before he started writing for Scarleteen. The organization has long had policies in place requiring disclosure of relevant past conduct by those volunteers who do direct service work with Scarleteen’s clients, and the group is now extending those policies to cover guest writers on their website.
Update | A friend just pointed me to a January 17 video interview, posted online this afternoon, in which Schwyzer made the following remarks:
“I wrote many pieces for Scarleteen.com, a well-known, wonderful site that teaches young people about sex ed — I think it’s the best sex ed site for teens there is. Scarleteen dissociated itself from me, and actually took down many of the pieces that I’d written, acknowledging that the pieces themselves were valuable, but that my past so thoroughly compromised those pieces that they could not stand behind them.”
I asked Heather Corinna about this, since it was my impression that he’d only written a handful of pieces for them over a period of years, and she said my impression was essentially correct. He’d written two posts for their website and contributed content to two more. (They took one of those four pieces down before the current scandal broke, after deciding it didn’t meet their needs.)
Schwyzer was never a regular volunteer at Scarleteen. He never did direct service work for them. He wrote three or four pieces for them. That’s it.
And because of that marginal relationship, they have been the target of some anger and confusion in recent weeks, from clients and friends with legitimate questions about how they wound up affiliated with a man with a history of domestic violence and sexual predation. And how does that man respond? By exaggerating the extent of his relationship with them. By wrapping himself in their mantle. By pulling them close at a moment when to do so can only compound the trouble he’s already caused.
Oh, and what did Scarleteen actually say when they took down his stuff? They said this:
“Previously unknown information about this writer and his history has recently been made available to Scarleteen, information and history with which we have very serious conflicts. For the benefit of the safe environment we always aim to create for our users, and in accordance with the ethics and practices of our organization as a whole, we no longer wish to be associated with him or his work, which is why his contribution here was removed. He had contributed to two other pieces, one of which was removed, and the other of which is down while we create a new piece instead. We apologize for the loss of content any of our readers found of value, and intend to make up for that loss with new content.”
Second Update | Much more here. And on the subject of ongoing harm, here’s a discussion of Schwyzer’s habit of following women who mention on Twitter that he makes them uncomfortable, and even favoriting the tweets in which they do so.