Two years ago, feminist author Naomi Wolf faced controversy when historians noted that her new book, Outrages, based on her doctoral thesis, contained important historical errors in its account of what Wolf claimed was violent systemic oppression of gay men in Victorian England. Wolf had misunderstood an old legal term, “death recorded,” to refer to an execution instead of a suspended or commuted death sentence. Thus, she had claimed that gay men were executed regularly at the Old Bailey through the nineteenth century, when in fact Britain’s last execution for sodomy occurred in the early days of Victoria’s reign. Wolf’s U.S. publisher pulped the book in the wake of the controversy, but two years later, a new one emerged.
Outrages is an exploration of the cultural climate surrounding homosexuality in nineteenth century Britain. It centers on John Addington Symonds, a poet and literary critic who was married to a woman but also had deep relationships with men. He wrote poetry about men in love and composed various nonfiction works on the subject, only two of which were published in his lifetime, and then only in very small private printings. (I reprinted one here.) Wolf argued for Symonds as a major figure in the history of gay rights and depicted him as a powerful force in early gay liberation movements. Although his bisexuality was known to friends and colleagues, he was not public about it. He supported groups that advocated for decriminalization of sodomy but was not himself a public advocate. Most of his influence came after his death, notably in his contributions to the volume Sexual Inversion, the first major study of homosexuality, published years after his passing (his family forced the publisher to remove his name from the book), and his memoirs, published only in 1984. The Wikipedia article for Symonds has been edited over the years to align with Wolf’s view. Truthfully, his life was defined more by what he couldn’t say or do than what he said and did.
Over the years since the first edition of Outrages was pulped, Wolf has defended her book’s scholarship vociferously, if disingenuously. She has, for example, revised her claim to argue that executions took place in the “nineteenth century” rather than the Victorian period so she can include Regency-era executions, before the Victorian reforms that drastically reduced crimes punished by death. However, her public stance aside, the University of Oxford will be appending a correction to her doctoral thesis.
The new paperback edition of Outrages is now out with corrections, and historians discovered that Wolf has made even more errors and misrepresentations. According to Dr. Fern Riddell, joined by Dr. Matthew Sweet, Wolf misrepresented nineteenth century trials of men accused of bestiality and pedophilia as trials of men in consensual relationships with other adult men. For example, she identified a man named John Spencer as having been tried for “sex with three different men.” In fact, as contemporary accounts made plain, he was a schoolteacher tried for raping three young boys.
An article in the Guardian summarizes one of Wolf’s more outrageous misrepresentations:
Wolf also cites the case of 14-year-old Thomas Silver, “‘indicted’ for an ‘unnatural offence’”, as being an example of teenagers being “convicted more often” for attempted sodomy. Both Sweet and Riddell pointed out that Silver was charged with “indecently assaulting” a six-year-old boy in 1859. In the book, Wolf claims that Symonds “would have read about what happened to teenagers such as Thomas Silver when word about their intimacy with other boys got out.”
The infuriating part of this controversy is that Wolf’s thesis, overall, is not wrong. There was certainly a climate of oppression and fear, one that persisted deep into the twentieth century. The Victorians did indeed add new restrictions, legal and social, on expression of homosexuality, followed in the twentieth century by an opprobrium that settled onto any form of homosocial behavior. But that is no surprise and is well known. Wolf’s sloppiness with facts—from a doctoral thesis no less!—undermines the point she tried to make.
“My claim that a homosexual man in the 19th century in Britain would be subject to, and no doubt fearful of, prosecution under sodomy laws, and that sodomy laws included consenting adult acts, child abuse, sexual assault and even bestiality, is correct and not a misrepresentation of any sort,” Wolf claimed, adding that her mistakes weren’t important because Symonds wouldn’t have known about the real stories. (As Riddell and Sweet pointed out, the truth was printed in the newspapers of the time.)
This flap makes me more than a little angry, not least because I worked with a lot of the same materials in researching the background for the book I just wrote, which covers American attitudes toward and laws regarding homosexuality in the middle twentieth century. Those laws and attitudes stem directly from the preceding period, and many of the (for the time) progressive late Victorian ideas were still in circulation in the 1950s, when, sadly, they still served as one of the most readily available counterpoints to psychoanalytical nonsense about the pathological nature of homosexuality favored by politicians and clinicians at the time.
The point, of course, is that ideas have consequences and facts matter. Wolf’s errors, even in service of worthwhile ends, damage the very goals she hoped to achieve.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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