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October 1, 2013

The Porn Professor Had a Meltdown

schywzyer.jpg

By Cathy Young        

The downfall of Hugo Schwyzer, gender studies professor and onetime darling of the feminist blogosphere--now revealed as a self-confessed "monstrous hypocrite" and intellectual fraud--has been one of the more bizarre spectacles to unfold recently on the Internet.  His strange case offers depressing insights into the sexual politics of the modern academy and the cultural left, and also says something about the brand of feminist-dominated "men's studies" that currently enjoy academic acceptance.

Schwyzer--strictly speaking, not a professor but a soon-to-be-former tenured instructor at Pasadena Community College--has a formal background in medieval Scottish history. Much of his 20-year career, however, has been spent teaching sexier subjects such as gender studies, body image, and pornography.  In the last few years, the 46-year-old academic, with his engaging manner and boyish good looks, also emerged as something of a male feminist pop star.  He helped organize "SlutWalks," protest marches to convey the message that a woman's revealing dress is not an invitation to sexual assault.  He wrote for "cool" feminist websites such as Jezebel.com and for The Atlantic's gender-issues web section.  He was a frequent guest on radio and TV and gave workshops (according to his website) "at institutions as diverse as Fuller Theological Seminary and Brown University."

The Problem of 'Accidental Rape'

In all these venues, Schwyzer's message rarely deviated from the party line.  He opined that "white male privilege" was a key factor in mass shootings (even though, statistically, black and especially Asian men are somewhat overrepresented among perpetrators).  He warned that a man who took the absence of a "no" for a "yes" could find himself, morally if not legally, an "accidental rapist"--recounting his own dismay at a college girlfriend's admission that she sometimes had sex with him when not in the mood because she didn't know how to tell him. He argued that, in a "rape culture," women are justified in viewing every man as a potential rapist, "presumed guilty until proven innocent." He chastised middle-aged men for perpetuating insidious gender injustice by lusting after young women, though he engaged in that sort of lusting himself. He asserted that, while men may have real problems in today's society, these woes are due entirely to men's own failings (individual or collective), never to mixed signals from women or to male-unfriendly feminism. He publicly broke from a site called The Good Men Project after its founder Tom Matlack made comments critical of feminism and defended the idea of innate differences between women and men.

Yet in late 2011, Schwyzer's presence in feminist ranks became controversial.  In a way, he was the victim of his own stardom--and of his trendy penchant for mixing social analysis with wanton self-disclosure. The anti-Schwyzer backlash was sparked by an interview posted to two influential feminist websites, Role/Reboot and Feministe, in which he discussed his troubled past, including not only alcohol and drug abuse but compulsively promiscuous sex, often with his own students (once, supposedly, four on a single class trip). Schwyzer presented his story as one of redemption: a reformed "bad boy" who, after three failed marriages, had finally grown into a good husband and father. Yet to his detractors, he was a predatory narcissist professing regret for his past wrongs while using them as career fodder.  "Why are you giving this animal a platform?" demanded a Feministe reader.  Things got more heated when someone dug up a year-old Schwyzer blogpost with a shocking revelation: in 1998, during his battle with addiction, he tried to kill himself and an ex-girlfriend--also an addict--by turning on the gas oven while she lay passed out.

The fallout caused Schwyzer to be banished from Feministe and anathematized by some former allies.  Nonetheless, he largely managed to recover.  Many fans stood by him, and he still had friendly feminist outlets. By the summer of this year, he was reportedly on his way to a writing gig with Cosmopolitan. And then, with dizzying speed, it all came crashing down.

Blaming the Take-Down Culture

On July 30, Schwyzer abruptly announced his withdrawal from online writing, blaming "the toxicity of the take-down culture" and declaring surrender to "critics who wanted me gone from feminist spaces." He also referred obliquely to family troubles; in his next-day interview with New York magazine's ladyblog, The Cut, he disclosed an extramarital affair--but made no mention of the fact that he was about to be rather literally, and scandalously, exposed.

The other shoe dropped hours later: a website called The Real Porn WikiLeaks ran a story (warning: sexually explicit material) revealing Schwyzer's "sexting" affair with 27-year-old porn actress/activist Christina Parreira, complete with Anthony Weiner-style photos (found on Parreira's cell phone and released by her ex-boyfriend).   These X-rated chats took place in early 2012 when Schwyzer brought Parreira to speak to his "Navigating Pornography" class and included fantasies about sex in front of the students. 

In the next few days, Schwyzer told interviewers that he was having a mental breakdown, partly due to going off his medication for bipolar disorder, and would take a leave from teaching to focus on his mental health and his marriage.  Then, on August 9, he returned online for a bizarre hour-long marathon of self-flagellation on Twitter. He denounced himself as a fraud ("I talked my way into teaching women's studies on the basis of 2 undergrad courses"), abjectly apologized to his defenders ("I lied and manipulated and cheated so many of you"), and confessed to numerous other sins, from an extramarital affair with a woman half his age to blindness to the "class and white privilege" in his writings.

Affair with a Sex Worker

In an interview with The Daily Beast a few days later, Schwyzer disclosed that his paramour was another sex-industry worker he had met through his porn class.  He also maintained that he had not "crossed the line" with any students since 1998.  Yet online rumors persisted--culminating in a September 1 post on the Tumblr social media site by the pseudonymous "Meagan Moore," a self-identified organizer of the Los Angeles "SlutWalk" in 2011. "Meagan" claimed that she was having sex with Schwyzer at the time--sometimes in his office--while enrolled in his "Women in American Society" class, and that at least one other student was sleeping with him that semester.  While "Meagan" stressed that she bore Schwyzer no rancor, did not feel abused and had initiated the relationship, she also felt that his continued lies undercut his professed effort to turn a new leaf. 

On September 5, Schwyzer blogged his latest confession, confirming "Meagan's" account and admitting that he had been having sex with students again since 2008.  A few days later, he posted an announcement that his academic career was over and that he would seek disability retirement on the grounds on mental illness (which would require PCC to continue paying part of his salary).  Unsurprisingly, he also revealed that he and his wife, who have two young children, are getting divorced.

What, then, are the lessons of this sordid saga?  In one of his penitent tweets, Schwyzer insisted, "I'm sui generis. I'm not symptomatic of a problem in feminism, I'm a reminder of what manipulative mentally ill [people] can do."  While this comment was directed at ludicrous far-left charges that white feminists favored him due to racial bias, he would no doubt say the same--even more strongly--with regard to critiques of academic feminism and gender studies from the right.  It would indeed be unfair to use one person's foibles to discredit an entire field; no discipline is free of academic misconduct.  And yet it's hard to deny that this particular field, with its notoriously shoddy scholarship (such as the error-ridden and tendentious works of SUNY-Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel, the leading light of "masculinity studies") and its tendency to elevate the personal and the political over the academic, offers uniquely fertile soil for frauds, narcissists, and emotionally troubled manipulators to flourish.  (And that's not even to mention the vast potential for academic mischief in porn studies.)

Not Interested in Other Men

Inevitably, the Schwyzer drama also says something about male feminism . And no, it's nothing so facile as "male feminists are just trying to get laid" (though a sex addict organizing a SlutWalk is a near-irresistible setup for a joke). Schwyzer himself has said that both his feminism and his sex-seeking were ultimately about craving "affirmation and validation from women"; one way to get such validation, he told The Daily Beast, was by presenting "an idealized picture of what is possible for men." His teaching and writing, he admitted, were always geared to women even when ostensibly addressed to a male audience: "I wasn't really interested in other men. I taught a course in men and masculinity, and I cited male authors, but the whole way of designing the course was to get women excited about the possibility for male change, that they would then transfer some of that hope onto me."

Granted, this insight is filtered through the lens of Schwyzer's post-meltdown mental state; nonetheless, in the context of his writings, it rings true.  It is also particularly ironic given his assertion, in a 2011 article, that it's wrong to blame women's expectations for helping perpetuate gender-role pressures on men since men are "taught to get their primary affirmation from other men rather than from women."

During the first round of the Schwyzer scandals in early 2012, another male feminist academic, CUNY history professor Angus Johnston, wrote a blogpost critiquing Schwyzer's "paternalistic feminism."  He noted Schwyzer's apparent belief that "feminism calls him to protect the weak" and his tendency to see himself as a savior of vulnerable women, manifest in the way he wrote both about his students and about his ex-partners.  This is unquestionably true.  (The paternalism, moreover, is disturbingly sexualized; in his Daily Beast interview, Schwyzer explains that he sought to bond with female students by either sleeping with them or being their "idealized dad.")  But one may ask if this paternalistic mindset is at the core of nearly all male feminism in its present form, when feminism itself is so skewed toward portraying women as ever-innocent, helpless victims of men.  Michael Kimmel's paternalism may be less overt than Hugo Schwyzer's, but it is ultimately no less condescending.  Feminists (of both sexes) who assert that men must never initiate sex without checking for clear consent may not explicitly depict women as passive fragile flowers, the way Schwyzer depicts his then-girlfriend in the "accidental rapist" story; but such a view is implicit in the assumption that women cannot be expected to rebuff an unwanted advance.

The Schwyzer affair also illustrates the bankruptcy of a female-centric approach to gender issues, in which women's grievances against men are treated as sacrosanct while men's concerns are ridiculed or condemned.  (And not trivial concerns, either: Schwyzer once wrote that for a man to feel devastated by the revelation that he has been tricked into assuming paternity of another man's child is "utterly narcissistic.")  If feminism for men boils down to "women good, men bad--but can and should do better," that's neither an appealing message nor a productive one.

'Poor Pitiful Dudes'

There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Schwyzer finally became the target of more-radical-than-thou activists for whom he was still too male-friendly--and that, having spent much of his career scoffing at sympathy for "poor pitiful dudes," he found his own breakdown mocked with such comments as "grown men are fragile." Yet the sheer indecency of the gloating over the woes of a mentally ill man (which Schwyzer clearly is, for all his faults) is enough to elicit sympathy, particularly when coupled with the grotesque inflation of his offenses.  (Thus, Schwyzer's absurd self-indictment for "accidental rape" has morphed into claims that "he's capitalized on sexually assaulting one of his partners by writing articles ... blaming her for not saying no to him enough.") The Schwyzer-bash is a stark example of leftist identity politics as "oppression Olympics" in which a straight white male can never win: he has been accused, in the same breath, of bullying "women of color" for complaining about an attack by a female Hispanic blogger, and of taking only men's opinions seriously for singling out a male blogger's Twitter attack as particularly hurtful.

Will Schwyzer's rise and fall prompt some rethinking of campus gender politics?  Unfortunately, within the academy itself, that's about as likely as the establishment of a Hugo Schwyzer Scholarship in Women's Studies.  But for the rest of us, at least, his tale can be a cautionary one.

---------

Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.

(Photo: Hugo Schwyzer at SlutWalk. Credit: Flickr). 



Comments (2)

Jay:

"Will Schwyzer's rise and fall prompt some rethinking of campus gender politics?"

And not just in campus gender politics but in feminism as a whole, especially in media feminism, ie. Salon, Slate, The Guardian, Jezebel, XOJane, any media site that regularly ran Hugo's columns.

The truth is that not only did these sites get Hugo wrong for years, but that these sites excoriated many groups of people, including father rights activists and mens rights activists that told them long ago that Hugo was a narcissist and sociopath whose shtick was to rationalize his own horrible behaviors by placing the blame on all men.

Usually when an individual or organization or journal finds it has made deep errors of trust or deep errors of logic, some sort of introspection occurs to determine how they made that error, and what other errors that first error led to.

Feminism needs to do the same.

They might find that Hugo was symptomatic of how feminists also rationalize their own bad behaviors by placing it onto men and demanding as you suggest a paternal, patriarchal role of men.

steven deluca:

Thank you Cathy for all your hard work and fairness towards both genders.

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