It’s every writer’s worst nightmare. You spend countless hours researching, writing and promoting your latest book—claiming to have discovered something all of the professional scholars have strangely missed—when it’s revealed that your interpretation is clearly flawed. But that’s precisely what has happened to Naomi Wolf, and it’s not the first time it’s happened either.
Back in 1992 Wolf published the feminist classic, The Beauty Myth, (New York: Doubleday) in which she argued that 150,000 women die of anorexia in America every year. What’s more, Wolf compared this to the Holocaust stating:
When confronted with a vast number of emaciated bodies starved not by nature but by men, one must notice a certain resemblance.
There was only one problem. And that is, according to Dr. Diane Mickley, the president of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, the statistic of 150,000 refers to how many women suffer from anorexia nervosa and not how many women die from the disease. In fact, the feminist Christina Hoff Sommers reports in her book Who Stole Feminism? that the number of fatalities is less than a hundred annually.
As if this blunder weren’t embarrassing enough, it’s happened once again. Wolf was being interviewed by the BBC’s Matthew Sweet about her forthcoming book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love (Virago Press, 2019) when it was pointed out to her (live on air) that she had misinterpreted the historical evidence upon which much of her work was based.
Everyone listen to Naomi Wolf realize on live radio that the historical thesis of the book she’s there to promote is based on her misunderstanding a legal term pic.twitter.com/a3tB77g3c1
— Edmund Hochreiter (@thymetikon) May 23, 2019
Wolf’s thesis was that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 meant that gay people lived in constant fear that they would be executed and that this only got worse during the Victorian era. As Rachel Cooke wrote glowingly in The Guardian:
Even if you know something about, say, the trial of Oscar Wilde, Wolf’s book is full of appalling surprises. Chief among them, for me, was the horrifying degree to which the state then persecuted homosexuals – a tyranny that steadily encouraged the public to feel disgusted by gayness.
“I could not get over what I found,” she says. “People widely believe that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830. But I read every Old Bailey record throughout the 19th century, so I know that not only did they continue; they got worse. In the beginning, there were relatively few executions, and it was relatively difficult to get arrested. If you were, it was usually for rape or the molestation of children. But then there’s a transition, and you see adult consensual men being brought in as couples, and it begins to be more likely they’ll be convicted and given a sentence of penal servitude or worse.” Her voice rises. “Those kids… I cannot get them out of my mind… executed or sent to Australia for the attempt at sodomy.” To take just one example, in 1859, a 14-year old-boy named Thomas Silver was found guilty of having committed an “unnatural offence”, and hanged.
Here, Wolf believes, lie the threads of modern homophobia. She is, however, careful not to draw parallels between the events she describes in Outrages and our own times…
There is, of course, one massive problem. And that is, not only was the “unnatural offence” Thomas Silver was convicted of was the rape of a six-year-old boy—and not just your garden variety act of sodomy—but Silver was released from prison a few years later. And that’s because ‘death recorded’ didn’t mean that the person was executed, but was a legal expression for saying that the penalty of capital punishment had been commuted.
If the projection of rampant homophobia upon subsequent generations in Western civilisation weren’t so serious, Wolf’s egregious error would be funny. Indeed, as many have pointed out on social media, it’s strangely reminiscent of a scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, in which John Cleese’s character says that a woman—wrongly accused of witchcraft—had turned him into a newt, only for him to subsequently ‘got better’.
Wolf’s credibility as a serious writer should be called into question. Especially when one considers that the publication of Outrages, was a result of her doctoral studies at Oxford. What’s more, as Matthew Sweet has subsequently tweeted:
For the record: Outrages says that the Victorians executed men for having sex with each other. This is a big claim that goes against every history of the subject I have read, and it is wrong. No Victorian man was ever executed for sodomy.
— Matthew Sweet (@DrMatthewSweet) May 23, 2019
To their credit, The Guardian published a follow up piece in which they stated:
The historian Richard Ward agreed, adding that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823. “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.”
Wolf has committed a “pretty basic error”, Ward added. “If all the people who were mentioned in the Old Bailey records as ‘death recorded’ were subsequently executed, there would have been a bloodbath on the gallows,” Ward said, “yet anyone who has a basic knowledge of crime and justice in the 19th century would know that that wasn’t the case.”
Of course, the Victorians routinely get a bad rap whenever it comes to the topic of sex, such as the popular myth that they covered piano legs for the sake of purity which, according to Therese O’Neill, is also completely false.
But this whole fiasco once again involving Naomi Wolf is a pertinent reminder to make sure that the evidence one is presenting when arguing a case always aligns with the facts. Otherwise, the next time you cry ‘wolf’ people are less inclined to believe you. Even if you do have a famous last name.