“Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate.”
Naomi Wolf, a feminist author and former advisor to President Bill Clinton, learned this week she’d misunderstood a legal term that underpinned a major thesis in her latest book, “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love.”
Making matters worse, the embarrassing revelation was broadcast live to countless listeners on BBC’s Radio 3 during an interview with host Matthew Sweet.
Wolf’s book, which is slated for a mid-June release, chronicles “how a single English law in 1857” helped stigmatize and criminalize gay relationships.
“Until 1857, the State did not link the idea of ‘homosexuality’ to deviancy,” reads the Amazon description of “Outrages.”
“Before 1857 it wasn’t ‘homosexuality’ that was a crime, but simply the act of sodomy. But in a single stroke, not only was love between men illegal, but anything referring to this love became obscene, unprintable, unspeakable,” the description adds.
As Sweet describes it in the Radio 3 interview, the execution of gay men in England during the Victorian era is a “major plank” in Wolf’s book.
There’s just one problem.
The supposed “executions” Wolf references likely never happened. The best-selling author of “Vagina, Give Me Liberty” claimed that while examining historical records she learned of “several dozen executions” of gay men convicted of sodomy after 1835.
But Sweet pushed back against Wolf’s assertion as well as her belief that she had unearthed “a misapprehension that is in every website, that the last man was executed for sodomy in Britain in 1835.”
“I don’t think you’re right about this,” he said. “One of the cases that you look at, that’s salient to your report is about Thomas Silver. It says, ‘Teenagers were convicted more often.’ In fact, that year, which is 1859, fourteen-year-old Thomas Silver was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offense. Guilty, death recorded. This is the first time ‘unnatural offense’ entered the Old Bailey records.”
“Thomas Silver wasn’t executed. ‘Death recorded’ – I was really surprised by this, and I looked it up. ‘Death recorded’ is what in, I think, most of these cases that you’ve identified as executions, it doesn’t mean that he was executed,” Sweet added. “It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon. I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
Wolf said, “Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate” and asked Sweet about his “understanding of what ‘death recorded’ means?”
Street replied by producing a newspaper report and prison records showing the date of Silver’s discharge.
“’The prisoner was found guilty and sentence of death was recorded.’ Ahh. ‘The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy on account of his youth,’” Wolf, apparently reading aloud from the documents and realizing her error, said.
Unfortunately for Wolf, that wasn’t the only hole Sweet would tear in her argument. The BBC interviewer alerted her to the fact that all the cases she had cited as evidence of state persecution of homosexual “love” appeared to be nonconsensual. And Silver’s case was particularly egregious – it involved a six-year-old boy.
“See, I think this is a kind of — when I found this I didn’t really know what to do with it, because I think it’s quite a big problem with your argument,” Sweet said.
The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk delivered a backhanded defense of Wolf by arguing that her error is symptomatic of a bigger problem – elite academics framing history to fit their favored political narratives.
“A lot of people gleefully trashing Naomi Wolf, and her latest book does seem based on a big misunderstanding,” Monk wrote in a Friday tweet. “But, really, Wolf is just the Id of much modern historical scholarship: It too tells just-so stories to bolster the political orthodoxies of a small group of academics.”