Historians have accused Naomi Wolf of having confused evidence of sexual crimes against children and animals with the persecution of gay men in the Victorian era, in her controversial book Outrages.
Outrages recounts the life of writer John Addington Symonds and how gay men in the 19th century would have feared lengthy prison sentences and hard labour for “unnatural offences”. The book first ran into trouble when it was published as a hardback in 2019, when Wolf, the author of The Beauty Myth, was confronted during a BBC radio broadcast by the historian Dr Matthew Sweet. Sweet pointed out that she had misunderstood the term “death recorded” in historical records. Wolf had believed it signified an execution, and claimed that she had found “several dozen executions” of gay men after the last recorded execution for sodomy in 1835. However, the term reflects a crime punishable by death that was commuted to a custodial sentence, a common occurrence. The book was subsequently pulled and pulped in the US, and corrected in the UK by Wolf’s publisher, Virago.
Now Sweet and historian Dr Fern Riddell have responded to the corrected paperback edition, accusing Wolf of citing cases of men found guilty of sexually assaulting children and animals as examples of a wider persecution of gay men in consensual relationships.
In a blistering article in the Telegraph (£), Sweet pointed to Wolf’s depiction of John Spencer, a man who she describes as “tried three times, accused of sex with three different men”. Sweet’s article says that Spencer was a school headmaster who was accused of sexually assaulting a group of schoolchildren and found guilty on one count, according to contemporaneous newspaper reports and Old Bailey records from 1860.
“The names of these boys do not feature in Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love. But John Spencer is present – offered to the reader as a victim of the Victorian state. A man whose love was criminalised,” Sweet writes.
Writing on Twitter, Riddell said she had “never been so angry about a book in my entire career”.
“One of the most moving and heartbreaking bits of this story is the first-hand testimony of these boys. We find it difficult enough to comprehend the bravery of someone facing their abuser in court today, IMAGINE doing it in the middle of the Victorian era,” she writes. “And their testimony isn’t hidden, it’s not sitting on a dusty book shelf in an archive somewhere, it’s digitised. Because it was reported in the newspapers.”
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.”
Stephen Alexander and William Tibble, cited by Wolf as teenagers charged with attempted sodomy, were recorded as having assaulted animals, Riddell said, as were three other cases in the book, according to court records. Wolf cites these examples as part of a building crackdown, writing: “That year, more teenage boys than ever before were sent, alone, to the dark and brutal prison at the Old Bailey.”
Riddell commented: “In reality, they were NOT teenage boys convicted of consensual gay relationships. They both assaulted animals. And AGAIN, do you know how easily I found this? In minutes, on a publicly accessible archive.”
Sweet informed Wolf that several of the cases involved sexual assaults on children or animals during the Radio 3 interview in 2019. “The second edition removed references to executions after 1835 but still represented these cases and many others as consensual,” he said on Monday.
Riddell said that Wolf had “knowingly ignored” evidence to depict paedophiles as consensual gay men, and that publisher Virago should have “check[ed] every case” before going to press on the paperback.
In a statement to the Guardian, Wolf said that her book had been reviewed and checked “by leading scholars in the field”, and that “it is clear that I have accurately represented the position”.
“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,” said Wolf.
In a later statement, she added: “Dr Matthew Sweet and I are actually trying to prove different points. Dr Sweet thinks it’s important to show that there were child victims and of course it is and there were, but I wanted to show how there was a climate of fear and that there was no distinction in law between consenting and violent male-male sex. The difference is a matter of emphasis.”
She acknowledged that Sweet was correct about Spencer and William Mepham, another man named in Outrages who was prosecuted for sexual assault of a child, but said such information would have been “found in the records of the time of which Symonds himself was unlikely to have been aware.”
Outrages was inspired by Wolf’s 2015 PhD thesis at the University of Oxford, which said that a “statement of clarification” to her thesis had been submitted, reviewed and approved, and “will be available for consultation in the Bodleian Library in due course”.
In a statement, Virago said it “is satisfied that Naomi Wolf had her book checked by scholars of the period.”