Feminist author Naomi Wolf has a new book coming out next month. At least that was the plan. But after what happened today on a BBC 3 radio interview show, I suspect that date will be pushed back a few months. Wolf’s new book is titled “Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love.” Here’s the description of the subject it covers from Amazon:
The best-selling author of Vagina, Give Me Liberty, and The End of America illuminates a dramatic buried story of gay history—how a single English law in 1857 led to a maelstrom, with reverberations lasting down to our day…
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.
So today, Wolf sat down with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet to discuss the book and, in the span of 30 minutes, he uncovered a big problem with her thesis. About 20 minutes into the discussion, Wolf claimed that her review of court records had uncovered “several dozen executions” of people who had been charged with “sodomy.” Wolf pointed to this as proof of the criminalization of homosexuality in 19th century England. But Matthew Sweet had done a bit of his own research.
“I don’t think you’re right about this,” Sweet said. He then began reading a passage from the book: “One of the cases that you look at that’s salient in your report is that Thomas Silver. It says ‘teenagers were now convicted more often. Indeed, that year…’ which is 1859, ‘fourteen-year-old Thomas Silver was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for an unnatural offense. Guilty. Death recorded. This is the first time the phrase unnatural offense entered the Old Bailey records.'”
“Thomas Silver wasn’t executed,” Sweet said. “Death recorded—I was really surprised by this and I looked it up. Death recorded is what’s in, I think, most of these cases that you’ve identified as executions. It doesn’t mean that he was executed. It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict who they considered to be a fit subject for pardon. I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
“Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate,” Wolf replied. “What is your understanding of what death recorded means?” she asked.
“Death recorded—I’ve just read you the definition of it there from the Old Bailey website,” Sweet said. He continued, “But I’ve got here a newspaper report about Thomas Silver and also something from the prison records that showed the date of his discharge.”
“The prisoner was found guilty and sentence of death was recorded,” Wolf said, apparently reading from a document Sweet had handed her. “Ah, the jury recommended to prisoner to mercy on account of his youth,” she added.
“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. He continued, “Also, it’s the nature of the offense here. Thomas Silver committed an indecent assault on a six-year-old boy. And he served two-and-a-half years for it in Portsmouth prison which doesn’t seem too excessive really.
“And I wonder about all the others because all the others that I followed up, I can’t find any evidence that any of these relationships that you’ve described were consensual. The other one you offer is James Spence, 60-year-old tutor. He committed what was described as felonious assault on schoolboys. One of these cases you offer is a bestiality case and not a buggery case. So, I think there’s a problem here with this argument.”
To her credit, Wolf thanks Sweet for his research and says that she’ll update the book with any evidence about Thomas Silver not having been executed. But Sweet continues to press the point that in fact there’s no evidence any of the sentences Wolf wrote about were for consensual homosexual sex. As he pointed out, all of the ones he looked at more closely involved what would now be called sexual assault or even rape. But Wolf maintains many of the cases she looked at involved consenting adults.
In any case, it appears the several dozen executions she identified were not executions. And it appears some of the cases she identified as the criminalization of adult homosexuality were in fact child molestation. That’s a fairly significant problem for a book that relies on court records to make the case that homosexuals were being rounded up as part of a national panic.
The full interview is here. The section in which Sweet undercuts her research is in this excerpt below.
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