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Three days after causing a huge uproar by calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut,” a “prostitute,” and a “feminazi,” Rush Limbaugh has apologized. But his statement makes clear that he has absolutely no clue what Fluke said in her testimony to Democratic members of Congress, or what her arguments on the subject of contraceptive coverage actually were. Either that, or he’s intentionally smearing her again by misrepresenting her position.

Here. Take a look. Judge for yourself:

Limbaugh: “I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress.”

Fluke made no reference to her own sexual history in her congressional testimony. She spoke not on the basis of her own personal experience of birth control use, but in her position as past president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

Limbaugh: “I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities.”

Fluke was not advocating for public financing of contraceptives, but for a policy mandating “contraception coverage in [the Georgetown] student health plan.” There was no contemplation of a government contraceptive entitlement program in Fluke’s testimony, or in the Obama administration proposal she spoke in favor of.

Limbaugh: “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line?”

As Fluke made abundantly clear, coverage of contraceptive services is a matter that affects students who do not use the prescriptions for birth control. She spoke movingly and at length of a friend at Georgetown who “has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries.” Her insurance claim “was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted the birth control to prevent pregnancy,” despite the fact that she is a lesbian.

Limbaugh: “If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?”

Again, the question at hand is not what “taxpayers should pay” for, but what services will be covered under insurance plans established by institutions for employees, students, and other beneficiaries. There’s no issue of taxpayer funding on the table at all.

Limbaugh: “In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom…”

Actually, Mr. Limbaugh, you not only discussed Ms. Fluke’s sex life — a subject which she had made literally no reference to in her testimony — at length and in graphic detail, you also demanded that she “post the videos online so we can all watch.”

This is worth underscoring. Sandra Fluke made no reference to her own sexual behavior in her congressional testimony. She said nothing to indicate that she has ever had heterosexual sex in her thirty years on the planet. Mr. Limbaugh’s extensive, repeated, prurient allegations and speculations as to her history and her proclivities had literally no basis in anything she had said to the members of Congress she addressed.

Limbaugh: “…nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.”

The president’s February 10 announcement of his contraceptive coverage policy made no reference to anyone’s sexual behavior. In fact it, like Ms. Fluke’s testimony, emphasized the importance of contraception “as a way to reduce the risks of ovarian and other cancers, and treat a variety of different ailments.”

The president also recognized the significance of prescription contraceptives as a method of birth control, of course, but given that — as he noted — “nearly 99 percent of all women have relied on contraception at some point in their lives” — the prudent course for those who are uninterested in public discussion of “what is going on in anyone’s bedroom” is to make contraception universally available to those who need it.

Limbaugh: “My choice of words was not the best…”

“She must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception … she’s having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk.”

Limbaugh: “…and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

Cool story, bro.

April 2013 Update | A federal judge this week ordered the Obama administration to end its opposition to over-the-counter Plan B. In response, White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated the administration’s position.

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February 2012 | President Obama’s daughters are just thirteen and ten, but the guy just can’t stop talking about the possibility they’ll be romantically inclined someday, and about how much that fact freaks him out.

Just yesterday, when he was visiting the Master Lock factory in Wisconsin, Obama joked that the company’s industrial “super locks” might “come in handy” for him as “the father of two girls who are soon to be in high school.” For now, he added, he’s “counting on the fact that when they go to school there are men with guns with them.”


And this isn’t the only time he’s made that kind of joke.

Two years ago, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he told the Jonas Brothers  that his daughters were “huge fans.” He then warned the singing group not to “get any ideas” because he controls an arsenal of predator drones.

Last year, speaking at a Tennessee high school’s commencement, he noted that the school’s principal’s daughter had chosen to go to a different school because she “was worried that the boys would be afraid to talk to her if her mom was lurking in the hallways.” Because of this, he said, he’d decided to announce that his “next job will be principal at Sasha and Malia’s high school — and then I’ll be president of their college.”

A few months later a reporter, noting that he’d given the girls a puppy when he first won the presidency, asked what he’d get them if he won re-election. He replied that he’d “be getting them a continuation of Secret Service so that when boys want to start dating them, they are going to be surrounded by men with guns.”

These jokes are freaking creepy. Set aside the fact that Obama’s predator drones are estimated to have killed more than a hundred innocent children. Set aside the fact that Obama was joking about three men aged seventeen, twenty, and twenty-two “getting ideas” about girls who were then eight and eleven years old. Set aside the inappropriateness of a father meddling in the romantic decisions of his college age kids. (And set aside as well the casual, ugly assertion that his daughters will be interested in, and only interested in, “boys.”)

The biggest problem with all these jokes is that at their core they’re not really jokes.

When the Obama administration overruled the FDA’s scientists and policymakers on expanding morning-after pill access for teenagers last December, he said he endorsed the decision “as the father of two daughters,” and claimed that “most parents” would agree with him. Though he claimed that the decision was based on the possibility of “a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old” being able to “buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect … alongside bubble gum or batteries,” the fact is that drugstores are filled with over-the-counter medications far more dangerous than Plan B, any one of which any ten-year-old can buy without restriction.

What makes the morning-after pill different is that it allows teenage girls to take control of their own sexual decisions and those decisions’ consequences. The mentality that says that “most parents” would want to deprive their daughters of that agency is the mentality that assumes that most parents fantasize about being the gatekeeper of who their daughters talk to in high school and college. It’s a mentality that jokes about using violence and the threat of violence to keep your daughters from becoming sexually active.

These jokes aren’t benign. With them, the president is normalizing a patriarchal, sexist, adversarial take on parenthood — and on fathering daughters specifically. (It’s not an accident that Michelle Obama doesn’t make these jokes, or that she instead jokes approvingly about her daughters’ crushes on the Secret Service agents who protect them.)

If Obama’s children were sons, he wouldn’t be talking about using industrial super locks on them when they got to high school. He wouldn’t be musing about his plans to keep his kids from talking to girls when they got to college. He wouldn’t be threatening Selena Gomez with predator drones. He just wouldn’t.

Being the father of daughters is complicated. It can be difficult. But a father’s job is to help his daughter to develop a strong, healthy sense of her own desires and her own boundaries, and the confidence to express them. A father’s job is to teach his daughter that she can and should be brave, and fearless, and take risks. A father’s job is to let his daughter know that he’s got her back. A father’s job is to let her know that what she’s going through is normal, and appropriate, and isn’t going to be a barrier to him continuing to be there for her. His job is to make it clear that his desire to protect her and keep her safe doesn’t mean that she needs to sneak around behind his back, to make it clear that she doesn’t need to stay a child forever, that she can and should and must go out and explore the world for herself.

I suspect Obama is a pretty good dad. But his blind spot on this stuff is doing real harm to other people’s daughters, and quite possibly his own.

He should cut it the hell out.

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.

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As regular readers of this site know, professor and blogger Hugo Schwyzer has been the subject of mounting criticism from feminist activists in recent weeks.

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, 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.

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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.

Early last year, women’s studies professor Hugo Schwyzer disclosed on his blog that he had attempted to murder an ex-girlfriend in the course of a 1998 suicide attempt. That admission first attracted broad attention a few weeks ago, and has since sparked considerable controversy regarding Schwyzer’s position in the feminist movement.

In his 2011 account, Schwyzer said that he called a friend to warn her of his plans before he slipped into unconsciousness, describing this as the successful effort of “the small sane part of me” to ensure that help arrived in time to rescue them.

But in a 2007 blogpost, republished in 2010, Schwyzer — who at the time described the incident exclusively as a suicide attempt, and the woman as his girlfriend — made no reference to any phone call, and declared that it was only his neighbors’ noticing the smell of gas that saved their two lives.

Earlier this week Schwyzer edited the 2007 and 2010 posts to remove the reference to the neighbors and acknowledge that the attempt to kill the woman was intentional. As I write this on January 7, the original version remains in Google’s cache of the 2007 post. The relevant passage reads as follows:

My last episode of drinking and drug use ended on June 27, 1998; my body filled with massive amounts of alcohol and prescription pills, I blew out the pilot lights on the stove in my old apartment and turned on the gas, trying to kill myself. I not only nearly took my own life, I came close to accidentally taking the life of my girlfriend as well. Had the neighbors not smelled gas and called 911…

I just wanted to get that in the public record before the cache went away.

August 2, 2013 Update | Yesterday Schwyzer posted to his blog a new retelling of the story of the murder-suicide attempt — his fourth or fifth, by my count. It’s longer than the previous accounts, and intended, he says, to correct the original version, which he now describes as “sloppy” and “terrible” in the course of suggesting that it was the cause of much of his recent trouble.

I don’t, however, see much that’s new in it. The claim that the murder-suicide was thwarted by his drugged decision to call a friend is still there, as is the oddly eroticized tone. Neither does the most recent account address Schwyzer’s past refusal to understand the murder attempt as a gendered act of domestic violence. But as he describes this version as “the final record on that sad story,” I thought it would be appropriate to reflect that here.

January 19, 2012 Update | Hugo Schwyzer has taken down the two blogposts mentioned in this essay. The original confession can, for the moment, still be found at this cache, and the followup post is cached here and duplicated here

January 23, 2012 Update | More on the Schwyzer controversy, and on the harm he’s still inflicting on the feminist movement, can be found here.

August 2, 2013 Update | Nothing more from me on Schwyzer for a while. Some final thoughts here.

Male feminist blogger and professor Hugo Schwyzer has been taking a lot of heat recently, much of it precipitated by a blogpost in which he detailed what he describes as “a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas.” (The incident took place in 1998, and he disclosed it publicly for the first time early last year.)

Schwyzer has put up a new post this morning expressing additional regret for the murder-suicide attempt, and apologizing for certain elements of the original piece. But his apologies evade many of his critics’ core complaints.

First, there’s the incident itself. The woman, his sometime lover, came to him for help after being tied up, raped, and abused by her drug dealer. They went back to his apartment, took more drugs, and had “desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex.” Then, when she passed out, he decided to kill them both. He turned on the gas on his oven, aimed its flow at his girlfriend, took some booze and pills, and lay down to die beside her.

Schwyzer now describes this act as one of “sheer monstrousness,” and it certainly is that. But it’s also something else. It’s a crime he construed and justified as an act of caretaking:

I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I’d had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) And then it came to me: I needed to do for her and for myself the one thing I was strong enough still to do. I couldn’t save her, I couldn’t save me, but I could bring an end to our pain. My poor fragile ex would never have to wake up again, and we could be at peace in the next life. As drunk and high as I was, the thought came with incredible clarity. I remember it perfectly now.

She was “fragile.” She was “broken.” But he was “strong enough” to do what she needed, what she didn’t have the strength to do for herself. He would bring her peace, a peace they would share forever.

It’s not enough for a feminist to describe this crime as horrific, though it is. It’s not enough to describe it as “something truly awful,” as he does. This was an act of a very particular kind, and Schwyzer never calls it by its name.

Because it’s not just the fact that Schwyzer committed an act of violence that’s of such concern, or even the fact that he committed an act of intimate partner violence. It’s that he committed an act of gendered violence, the nature of which he still hasn’t come to terms with.

Murder-suicide is a crime committed almost exclusively by men, with their intimate partners their typical victims. In the post he wrote this morning, though, Schwyzer refers to the woman he tried to kill as “another human being” twice, as “another person” once, as his “ex” six times, but never as his lover, his girlfriend, a woman.

In all his writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today. And though he construes the story as the final dramatic act of his old life of addiction and irresponsibility, it’s a story that resonates powerfully with his current public presence.

Here’s how Schwyzer described his relationship to his students not long ago:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

This notion that feminism calls him to protect the weak — to save them from themselves, to guide them to the right path — recurs again and again in his writing. As the co-organizer of the LA Slutwalk earlier this year, he referred to his role as “Herding sluts. In the best and most responsible way.” His students say he’s an electrifying lecturer, but complain that he severely restricts class discussion. And he frequently conceptualizes moral behavior as a matter of denial and restriction. (He has, for instance, described feminism as a “cold pool” in which “none of us can fully immerse ourselves forever.”)

I don’t have any reason to believe that Hugo Schwyzer is likely to attempt another murder anytime soon. But the man who described his girlfriend as fragile and broken and in need of his sheltering strength as he plotted her death has not gone entirely away. The paternalistic impulse to save that young woman from herself — an impulse that came to him with “incredible clarity” then, one which he remembers “perfectly” today — is still in him, still driving him. It’s an impulse he’s redirected, but it remains unexamined, unchecked, and dangerous. (It particularly inflects and infects his writing about sexuality, about youth, and about people of color.)

Like Hugo Schwyzer, I’m a white male professor teaching history in an urban community college. Like Schwyzer, I consider myself a feminist. Like Schwyzer, I work with young people extensively outside of the classroom. And it’s from that perspective that I offer him this piece of advice:

You’re doing it wrong. You need to stop.

Update | An old blogpost has surfaced that calls into question Schwyzer’s claim that he called a friend to warn her about the murder-suicide attempt.

Second Update | Hi to all the folks finding this post via Tumblr and the Feminists Against Hugo Schwyzer Facebook page. I’ve included pointers to a lot of the discussion of this subject in the followup post I linked above, so if you’re interested in reading more, that’s a good place to start.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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