In Depth

Why Naomi Wolf’s latest book has been pulped

Upcoming release by the feminist writer cancelled over false claims about Victorians

Naomi Wolf has “parted company” with her US publisher after the bestselling feminist author claimed in her latest book that the UK executed men for being gay in the Victorian era.

The claim was one of a number of significant factual errors made in Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love, according to critics

On Monday, a spokesperson for publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that the US release of the book has been cancelled, The New York Times reports. Wolf and the publisher have “mutually and amicably agreed to part company”, the spokesperson added. 

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So what did Wolf claim?

In Outrages, Wolf claimed to have found evidence in records from the Old Bailey of “several dozen executions” of men accused of homosexual sex during the 19th century.

She cited cases including that of a 14-year-old boy called Thomas Silver, who was “actually executed for committing sodomy” in 1859.

“The boy was indicted for an unnatural offence. GUILTY - Death recorded,” she wrote.

The arrests and executions were the culmination of a storm of “hysterical moral aversion” to homosexuality that was whipped up in Britain in the mid-1850s, Wolf claims.

What was her error?

Wolf was challenged about her interpretation of the legal texts during an appearance on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme in May, The Telegraph reports.

Interviewer Matthew Sweet, author of a revisionist history of Victorian morals, pointed out that the term “death recorded” in Old Bailey records actually meant judges had abstained from giving a death sentence.

“I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened,” he told Wolf.

 Sweet also noted that court references to “sodomy” referred not only to homosexuality but also to child abuse, including the indecent assault of a six-year-old boy, reports the BBC.

“I can’t find any evidence that any of the relationships you describe were consensual,” he said.

What next for Wolf?

Wolf’s UK publisher, Virago, corrected her mistakes shortly after the May launch of Outrages in Britain, where it remains on sale.

But Houghton Mifflin Harcourt delayed the US publication date, which had been scheduled for June. A spokesperson told The New York Times that the publisher was “requesting that all copies be returned from retail accounts while we work to resolve those questions”. 

Wolf said she “strongly objected” to the decision.

In a statement issued at the time, she added: “The misinterpretations I made, I directly acknowledged and took immediate action to correct; but many of the other critiques are either subject to interpretation or are themselves in error.

“A rebuttal article was underway. More responsiveness and more transparency are the right answers to criticism, and not the complete withdrawal of a text.”

This week, Wolf said in an email to the newspaper that she was still hoping for the book to be released in the US - with a different publisher - “in due course”.

Outrages was based on Wolf’s 2015 Oxford University PhD thesis, and the exposure of the inaccuracies threatens to undermine the merits of the doctorate, awarded by Trinity College.

Wolf has reportedly made contact with her former college in order to correct mistakes made in her thesis.

However, this is by no means the first time that Wolf has had her facts challenged.

“Her first, career-making book, The Beauty Myth, is well known for exaggerating the number of women who died of anorexia (Wolf stated that anorexia kills 150,000 women annually; the actual figure at the time, in the mid-1990s, was said to be closer to 50 or 60),” writes The New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal.

And Wolf’s book Vagina “so profoundly misrepresented the working of the brain, I’m not sure science writers have recovered”, Sehgal adds.

She concludes: “Wolf’s errors matter. They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed... I don’t trust it.”

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