This essay is from January 2012. For my thoughts on Schwyzer as of August 2013, see the final update at the end of the post.
• • •
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.
• • •
August 2, 2013 Update | Two weeks ago Schwyzer announced his intention to withdraw from the internet and from public life. That announcement was followed by a string of blogposts and media interviews that as of yesterday were ongoing.
Others have said most of what needs to be said about the current spectacle, but given the focus of this post, I did want to update it to note a couple of things.
Schwyzer’s overarching narrative, as I mentioned above, has long been one of sin and redemption. In the bad old days, the story goes, he abused drugs and alcohol, slept with his students, and mistreated his wives, but then he got sober, and put all that behind him. Framing his story in this way allowed him to be confessional in his writing without ever being self-critical — the “self” that he laid bare in his most intimate pieces was a self that he no longer identified with, no longer felt represented by. It also allowed him to characterize his critics as motivated by a refusal to let the past be the past, as insisting on holding the new good Hugo responsible for the actions of the bad old one.
That false framing was why I gave this post the title I gave it, and why I took pains in another post to draw lines of connection between his past and his present. But it turns out that the framing was false in another way that I was at the time unaware of.
In his most recent blogpost, Schwyzer admitted to conducting “multiple affairs” in recent months, including one with a woman he identified by name. That he engaged in those affairs doesn’t itself concern me — they’re not relevant to Schwyzer’s public life. What is relevant, though, is that during and after the affairs he was writing at length to excoriate other men for exactly the conduct he was himself engaged in.
In a representative column published in May of this year, Schwyzer declared that the “one tangible thing that men can do to help end sexism — and create a healthier culture in which young people come of age— [is] to stop chasing after women young enough to be their biological daughters.” When older men date younger women, he insisted, they are “eroticizing…a pre-feminist fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative” and in so doing betraying those women and the feminist movement. The peg on which he hung that column was Johnny Depp, who, at the age of 50, had just started dating actress Amber Heard, a 27-year-old “who wasn’t yet born when he made his film debut.”
When he wrote those words, Schwyzer was having an affair with a woman the same age as Heard.
Schwyzer is 46.
In another recent column, Schwyzer insisted — as he has consistently when discussing the subject — that his past affairs with students were confined to women who “were only a few years younger than me (and in one instance, three years older),” but in his latest blogpost — an excerpt from a planned memoir — he reveals that one of his students was eighteen at the time of their affair. He was then in his early thirties.
This is hypocrisy, of course, and lying. But it’s something more than that, too. Schwyzer’s ideological commitments were constantly changing. (He was pro-life, then pro-choice; against porn, then for it.) What he offered in lieu of consistency was a personal narrative, a story about who he was and is. His tale of redemption was simultaneously his raison d’etre as a writer and his defense against his ever-growing list of antagonists.
But feminism never came easy to Hugo Schwyzer. He never found it congenial. It was always a struggle, an act of self-denial, a matter of making himself into a new and better person by force of will. When he described male feminism as a “cold pool” in which “none of us can fully immerse ourselves forever” it struck me as both profoundly revealing and profoundly sad.
It’s not an accident that Schwyzer found so many enemies in both the world of feminism and the world of Men’s Rights, and it’s not a matter of “if everyone is criticizing you, you must be doing something right,” either. Feminists saw a falseness in his writing on feminism, and MRAs saw a falseness in his writing on men. What he was telling other people to do, he could never do himself. And rather than explore that — rather than try publicly or privately to make sense of the impulse to righteously insist on the necessity of following an ever-changing code that he himself could not follow — he kept pounding the drum, disguising his muddled, untenable aspirations as hard-won, clear-eyed wisdom.
I wish him well. I hope he finds a path through his current troubles. And for his sake as well as everyone else’s, I hope he finds a way to just be quiet for a while.