The first thing I remember reading by Hugo Schwyzer was his now-infamous facials post at Jezebel. I liked it. The almost blanket vitriol directed at that post–and that it still gets brought up in Hugo critiques–is odd to me.
Most complaints have been of the ‘WTF? Facials are self-evidently degrading” variety (and writing otherwise a ploy to make females comply to male fantasies). But why is that self-evident? Because facials are associated with porn? Because they’re meant to be degrading in porn? I’ve never watched much porn, so I have no conception of the mediated experience of facials and what they signify.
I’ve also never been particularly grossed out by cum (male or female). You know those people who immediately head to the bathroom after sex to clean off? Definitely not me. I’m not saying I, like, lay around wallowing in cum afterwards, but it just doesn’t much bother me if it (mine or yours) is on the sheets, our stomachs or anywhere else. I’m certainly not gonna interrupt post-coital bliss (or round two) to clean it off.
I remember puzzling as a teen over the whole ‘spit or swallow’ question–it still puzzles me actually. I can understand not wanting semen in your mouth in the first place, but are there really people who take a mouth full of cum and then spit it out? That just seems messy.
I was similarly confounded by high-school friends’ squeamishness about blow-jobs. You exchange saliva when you kiss; cum is just, like … saliva from your genitals.
Suffice to say, I’ve never minded taking a load to the face. But, really, it goes beyond ‘not minding’ — I mean, I like it. I actively enjoy it. Looking into someone’s eyes as they moan and cum all over you, feeling it warm and wet all over your face (heavy cummers are the best). You’re really …. sharing in this moment of pleasure with someone? There’s something very intimate, visceral and raw about it. I like no-holds-barred sex.
Besides, I cum all over my partner’s face, too, when he’s going down on me. If a face full of cum is degrading, it’s equal-opportunity degradation, I guess.
Honestly, the harder adjustment for me has been accepting that men don’t mind my cum. If there’s one thing Naomi Wolf was right about (and this is probably the only one), it’s that girls grow up surrounded by the message that vaginas are disgusting. Despite having encountered very few men IRL who think this, and very many who love giving oral sex, it’s still sometimes hard not to feel a little self-conscious about it. So if I’m gonna take men’s word for it that I’m okay, I have to believe that they’re okay, too. It would be counterintuitive and hypocritical if I didn’t accord men the same non-disgust that they accord me.
When Hugo posited that men cumming on women’s faces was more about acceptance than degradation, it made sense to me. Of course neither are foremost in a dude’s mind in the moment, but an underlying desire for intimacy/acceptance/connection seems a lot more plausible to me in most cases than latent misogyny or desire to denigrate.
Sure, some men who cum on women’s faces do get off on the alleged degradation or show of domination, but I’m not sure why intent should make a difference to me. Shame and disgust are in the eye of the beholder. If I don’t feel degraded, I’m not–and just who were all these commenters and bloggers to insist otherwise?
If you follow Internet culture, you’ve probably read about Schwyzer recently. He “quit” the Internet at the start of August and, a week later, had a mania-induced breakdown on Twitter. In it, he called himself a “fraud” for failing to live up to the feminist ideals he espoused and the redemption narrative he’d crafted. He also copped to several affairs, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and shaky sobriety.
Buzzfeed had a gif summary in, like, 10 minutes. Twitter responses seemed to range from ‘please, get help’ to ‘please, shut up and kill yourself already’ (with frighteningly more in the latter category).
This past week, Hugo’s presence continued to loom large on the Internet–in part because he kept giving interviews; in part because of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. The hashtag was created by Mikki Kendall to highlight the ways white feminists fail women of color. One of the prime examples of this failure, they said, was Hugo. Despite what’s frequently described as an “abusive” campaign against black feminist bloggers, many mainstream feminist media outlets continued to support and publish him.
Hugo returned to Twitter once more to defend his former editors and ask that we not make this “a bizarre teachable moment on race.” The thing about social media moments, however, is you don’t really get to decide what they’re about–even if you launched them. I’m reminded of the story of Adria Richards, a consultant who tweeted a picture of the two guys making sexist comments at a tech conference. The story blew up, and both one of the men and Richards ended up losing their jobs. Mass communication is hard to manage.
I respect Hugo’s impulse to shield his former editors from criticism–but neither he nor Jessica Coen nor anybody else gets to decide how feminist WOC, independently or collectively, should feel about what his career signified.
And neither does anyone get to tell anyone else that they should feel degraded when they don’t.
This is clearly a minority opinion. A lot of people seem to believe that sexual practices they don’t approve of or enjoy are de facto bad news for everybody. Social conservatives believe it, certainly. But there’s a strain of liberalism and feminism that does too.
When I’ve written in defense of sexual submission, I’ve had self-professed feminists tell me I was “operating under a false consciousness;” that I was too stupid to actually see how I was clearly a victim and enabler of patriarchy. Fuck that. Telling me I can’t actually enjoy the things I say I enjoy disrespects my intelligence and agency way more than a good face fucking ever has.
If anything, being someone with feminist ideals and weird-ass sexual proclivities has given me a clearer understanding of the ways patriarchy, cultural expectations and neurochemistry can get all mixed up in sexual experience. I know that power differentials and stereotypical sexual roles are a huge turn on for me, and that some of this has to do with cultural factors and some of it doesn’t. I know it’s possible for me to separate my personal sexual preferences from my conception of desirable widespread sexual norms.
Conversely, most of the men I’ve known who enjoy being violent or controlling during sex are perfectly nice people in non-sexual situations. They believe in a general norm of non-violence and consent during sex. They realize that you shouldn’t hit a woman unless she wants to be hit.
Most of them don’t even actually want to hurt you … but some do. I’ve been with a few genuine sexual sadists. This doesn’t mean they’re psychopaths–they have a sense of morality. They just, for whatever reason, get turned on by seeing women in slightly painful, humiliating or submissive situations at their hands.
I bring this up because getting sexually aroused by violence against women seems at first blush like it must coincide with misogyny. Obviously, in many cases, it does. But there are also men who actually like and respect women at large and still get off acting sadistically toward them in the bedroom. And as long as they find people who are cool with this, I don’t see why it should disqualify them from feminism.
How two (or more) individuals negotiate pleasure between themselves has nothing to do with broader gender equity.
Which brings us back to Hugo. In the course of manically numerating the many ways he considered himself a fraud, he mentioned several instances where his publicly professed feminist ideal were at odds with sexual choices he made.
Everyone’s saying his ‘confession’ itself is a fraud–that it’s motivated by narcissism, sociopathy or an upcoming memoir more than true mental illness or remorse. Maybe so. For the sake of this discussion, I think it’s irrelevant. I’m not interested in parsing whether Schwyzer really feels what he says he feels or not. [I’m inclined to believe people, anyways, so I’m probably not a good judge.]
I am interested in the larger point it brings up about ideology versus experience; the ways people can feel inner conflict or public shame about discrepancies between their thoughts/conduct and the ostensible goals/norms of a community with which they identify. I think feminists, by and large, understand this tension. It’s why you get impassioned debates about whether it’s anti-feminist to wear lipstick. We’re all trying to both follow our bliss and be the best we can be.
There is a tendency in online feminism, however, to want to hide this tension when it gets too complicated. It gets complicated with sex and relationships. If you want to be a popular feminist thinker/writer, it’s best not to stray too far from Generally Agreed Upon & Approved Feminist Sexual Practices (I think there’s a manual).
To a degree, Schwyzer did stray, like with the facials post. For the most part, though, he played it pretty close to the party line. He presented an idealized, sanitized version of both his own sexuality and how other’s could/should behave, too. He was pretty much setting himself up to fail in that regard.
And that’s what’s so pernicious about the tendency of the feminist community to prefer the perfect over the real: It’s only setting us all up to fail. Hugo’s meltdown is the feminist tension between ideology and practice writ large.
There’s certainly room for debate about what constitutes acceptable feminist behavior. But in order for that debate to be productive (and not a pile on), we need to approach one another with more open minds. We need to attack less. We need to believe one another’s emotions are valid. We need to remember we’re all just fucking navel-gazing, anyway, and there’s no concretely “right” or “wrong” way to be a feminist.
I wrote a defense of Hugo back in 2012, when everyone was losing their shit over revelations of his previous murder-suicide attempt and sleeping with students. Admittedly, I was a little naive about Hugo then–I didn’t understand that some complaints about him went beyond both those transgressions; I discounted the role that narcissism and manipulation may play in his work.
But I stand by what I said about openness and honesty in feminism. I personally hate redemption narratives, but I want a feminism that accepts them. I want a feminism that avoids getting too prescriptive about personal behavior and negotiated relationships. I want a feminism that doesn’t make men or women feel like they need to obfuscate their sexual habits, turn-ons or transgressions to be a part of the club.
And when people have trouble reconciling feminist narratives with their own lives, we should consider that it might be a problem with the narrative, not the individual. I think Hugo forgot that. I think feminist writers often forget it. But people fall for people, not their ages. People make birth control choices that work best for them, not for you. Abortion doesn’t have to be the feminist litmus test. Solidarity isn’t a given. Sadists aren’t always sexist. Facials aren’t always degrading.