Trigger warning: gendered violence/attempted murder, suicide, addiction, abuse culture.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Global Comment on the ongoing discussion in parts of the feminist blogosphere about Hugo Schwyzer, and more broadly on the place of people with a history of abuse in feminism and other activist movements. The short version of the controversy (from my article):
Schwyzer, a professor of gender studies and male feminist personality….has written prolifically, and controversially, about recovering from sex and drug addictions, his now 13-year sobriety, and his ”pre-sobriety” predatory behavior towards younger female students – including, at one point, sleeping with four students on a class trip he was chaperoning. The current backlash against him, set in motion by yet another article recounting this troubling history, took on unprecedented intensity after the resurfacing of a post, originally written a year ago [which Schwyzer has now redacted to protect himself from legal consequences], in which Schwyzer admitted to nearly killing a former girlfriend in a drug-fueled* murder-suicide attempt.
The subsequent outcry and campaign against Schwyzer has, for the first time, resulted in concrete consequences for him: the pulling of his writing from Scarleteen, a well-respected resource on teen sexual health, and his departure from Healthy is the New Skinny, an organization co-founded and directed by Schwyzer, dedicated to addressing body image issues in teen women and the beauty and fashion industries. Schwyzer did not fully inform either organization of his history.
*I included this in the article in the interests of stating all the facts, but unlike Schwyzer and many who have defended him, I don’t think the fact that he was high when he tried to kill his partner and himself is all that relevant. Many, many people manage to go on drug binges without attempting to murder anyone.
The debate about Schwyzer has touched on a number of important questions, including the role of men/male allies in feminism, about whether there’s space in feminism for people with checkered pasts, about what constitutes sufficient rehabilitation, restitution, and amends-making for people with a history of violence or abusive behavior. These are all important questions, and they’re certainly relevant to the debate around Schwyzer…but the more responses I read about this situation specifically, the more convinced and concerned I am that they are obscuring an equally important discussion of Schwyzer’s ongoing behavior – including, as Campus Progress aptly summarizes (under “Atonement”), disturbing aspects of how he writes about his past.
I was particularly struck by two responses defending Schwyzer’s place in feminism (and linked by Schwyzer as responses to the controversy for which he’s “personally grateful,” which…well, I won’t say anything about that) – one from Feminism and Religion, a space and project that I respect, and another from Elizabeth Nolan Brown. These responses describe the backlash against Schwyzer, as “cruel and vulgar,” “cutting and obscene,” “cynicism and ridged hostility,” an inability or refusal to live with the dualistic reality of the “darkness and light” that lives in all of us (Feminism and Religion), and “ridiculous,” “sadly typical of the feminist blogosphere,” an attempt to “cluster and ostracize [dissent],” and a rejection of “paradoxes and contradictions in the ideals versus lived experiences of its proponents.”
I have to say that reading comments like this in spaces I respect and that are sincerely working for justice for women is alarming and terrifying.
There are a few things we need to be absolutely clear on.
Hugo Schwyzer lied for several years about his attempt to kill a woman – on one occasion, falsely describing his attempt to kill his girlfriend and himself as a only a suicide attempt that “accidentally” endangered her. On the record, preserved in on Internet Archive here, “suicide attempt,” and here, “I came close to accidentally taking the life of my girlfriend.” This was long after he was self-identifying as a “male feminist” who was “recovering” and being “redeemed” from his past behavior.
And just in the past two months, since the backlash against him, Schwyzer has edited his past posts to conceal the fact that he repeatedly lied about his history . There are no disclaimers or notes on these posts to indicate that they’ve been edited in any way. For example, the post that once claimed that he accidentally endangered his girlfriend now reads:
As I’ve written before, 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 and my girlfriend. Miraculously, we both survived.
This post is rather perversely titled “A very long post on how to rebuild trust.” Well, here’s a hint: it doesn’t involve lying about what you’ve done and then trying to cover up that lie.
There’s also the fact that Schywzer compared the guilt and remorse he says he feels over deliberately trying to kill a woman to the guilt and remorse someone else felt over having accidentally endangered a dog.
There’s the fact that until this backlash, Schwyzer appears to have never once called what he did “violence,” and had never once acknowledged that he was the perpetrator of an act of domestic, intimate partner violence, or gendered violence in a number of ways – despite the facts that:
- Over 90% of perpetrators of murder-suicides are male
- Over 70% of murder-suicides are committed against an intimate partner, and in 94% of these cases the intimate partner is a woman
- Over 75% of murder-suicides are committed in domestic settings. [Source: Violence Policy Center, PDF. ht Campus Progress]
We can have a conversation about what it looks like for someone with a history of abusive or otherwise harmful behavior to take full responsibility for their actions, but I hope we can all agree that “taking full responsibility” doesn’t ever involve lying about what one has done. It doesn’t involve concealing one’s history from people who invest trust in you and could be harmed by your withholding of relevant information.
We can have a conversation about what it means to be truly remorseful for abusive behavior, or to make amends for it. But there shouldn’t be any debate about whether or not sincere remorse over attempting to murder a woman should ever, ever be compared to accidentally endangering a dog.
We can have a conversation about whether and how men should be allies or leaders in feminist and woman-oriented spaces, but it shouldn’t be seen as cynical or hostile to insist that at the very least, men with a history of gendered, misogynist abuse and violence who want to claim a space as *leaders* or *role models* in feminist spaces should be able to own up to their history and clearly name it for what it is.
There’s a lot more going on in Schwyzer’s case and the responses to it than this – glossing over a history of abuse in a way that is enabling to perpetrators and silencing and harmful to victims, white privilege and tolerance of racism and racial double standards, different perspectives on what role male allies can have in women’s movements, and different perspectives on whether and how we should limit access to feminist/women’s spaces. And these issues need to be discussed as well, but not without addressing the the very clear cut dishonesty and lack of remorse in how Schwyzer has written about his past behavior, and why this is extremely dangerous.
This is what I can’t get out of my mind when people, especially other feminists, caricature statements that Hugo has no place in feminism as mean-spirited, perfectionist, even hateful exclusivism. I have to wonder if people – again, especially feminists – who feel this reaction is no more than pettiness are aware of the above information, or simply believe it’s irrelevant.
Yes, we’re all imperfect. Yes, there are always contradictions and shades of gray in the space between our stated ideals as advocates for women’s rights and our lived realities. In general, I’m sympathetic to the idea that we need to keep in mind that activists and leaders are real people too, with real flaws and needs and low moments and things we’re ashamed of – just like everyone else. In general, I’m sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t hold leaders to unrealistic expectations or put them on lofty pedestals. Part of respecting the humanity of others is not holding them to an unfair standard. I agree with all that.
But I think these objections are dangerously misplaced in this case. This is not about expecting perfection. It’s not about stifling dissent. It’s not about feminists and other activist women who object to Hugo being incapable of forgiveness, or refusing to come to grips with the paradoxes between feminist ideals and reality.
Because really, if we’re going to paint cynicism as a bad thing (and frankly, I don’t see why that’s automatically a given) which is the cynical position here? That we should be able to expect leaders and role models to not actively and consciously tell lies about past violent behavior? Or that it’s unrealistic and excessive to expect such a thing?
This past week The Atlantic ran an article on Schwyzer’s “exile” from feminism (a deeply irritating and problematic framing, but that’s a topic for another post) in which I was briefly quoted. I said a lot more about the situation to the author and wish more of those points (though not necessarily from me) had ended up in the final piece – particularly this: “I think we shouldn’t hesitate as a community to eject someone who has lied about and minimized his history of abuse, and I think feminists in Schwyzer’s circle really failed in this regard.”
Sadly, that failure is ongoing. The discussion about which men belong in feminism is allowing people to abstract the conversation from what Schwyzer actually did, not just before his “transformation,” but in recent years – in recent months! – and why it’s dangerous. It’s turning it into this theoretical discussion about parameters for letting people into feminism – which is a related but separate discussion from how feminists should deal with a case where there is a demonstrated pattern of abusive behavior from someone in the community. It distracts from discussions of concrete actions and their implications.
Talking about the presence of “darkness and light” in “all of us” obscures the fact that this one specific person has engaged in abusive and predatory behavior and lied about it. Not “all of us,” Hugo Schwyzer. And a community dedicated to social justice needs to address questions of accountability for perpetrators and justice for their victims – not implicitly paint the abuse as something anyone could do.
Accountability doesn’t look like lying about trying to kill someone. Remorse and amends doesn’t look like making money off of a history of abuse and predation – without the consent of the people whom you have harmed – or soft-pedaling this behavior as “what many addicts do” (no, actually, many addicts manage to not try to kill people while high), as “age-appropriate” and “less overtly predatory” than it could have been, etc. Remorse doesn’t look like comparing the near killing of a human being to the unwitting neglect of an animal.
Where is his “confession” on this point? How does someone work towards “redemption” for not just withholding information about, but actively lying about a history of violence?
Where is his recognition that his framing his past behavior in this way, all while claiming to be a women’s advocate and claiming to have been “redeemed,” inherently disqualifies him from being able to see what he’s done clearly? Where is his recognition that it’s a profound and dangerous failing on his part to not see how lying about past violence makes him an unsafe person to be around, how equating much lesser offenses to attempted murder makes him unsafe to be around? Where is his recognition that at this point accountability means that he has a lot more work to do before he fully grasps the harm he’s done to others and the danger he poses as long as he continues to minimize his past behavior?
That’s what accountability looks like. That’s what remorse looks like. That’s what responsibility looks like. If Schwyzer truly grasped how serious his behavior was, he wouldn’t hesitate to withdraw from women’s spaces to make them safer – or at the very least to make women feel safer in those spaces. That’s what really being willing to accept the consequences of one’s behavior looks like – being ready to accept that you may lose certain things because your behavior was just that egregious.
But to be honest, I don’t expect Schwyzer to take on that measure of responsibility for himself – few people with a history of repeated abuse ever do. It’s a sad truth that most habitual abusers opt for changing their external behavior just enough to get by over accepting hard consequences for their actions. And we can see it in this case, where at every point Schwyzer has had to be forced out of spaces where he probably shouldn’t have been in or tried to gain access to in the first place, if he had really understood the ramifications of his past behavior.
He has responsibility for his behavior, but those around him also have a responsibility for the spaces to which he’s given access. And the question we need to be asking is not – who’s allowed in these spaces – but rather, at what point is behavior so harmful, so dangerous, so beyond the pale that it makes a person unsafe to be around? At what point does allowing that person continued access to certain spaces become tolerance of and even complicity with their behavior? Is there such a point?
I think there is. I think when we defend the right of someone who has lied – is still lying – about his past abuses to be a feminist leader, we become complicit in fostering an abuse culture where abusers are tolerated and coddled and their victims are silenced and marginalized. This is alarmingly evident in defenses of Schwyzer that are focused entirely on him and his redemption and rehabilitation and recovery, and barely mention the victims, the still-living, quite possibly still hurting and recovering themselves real people that he exploited and harmed.