Naomi Wolf's book canceled after her research was undercut during a radio interview

Naomi Wolf's book canceled after her research was undercut during a radio interview

Naomi Wolf’s forthcoming book “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love,” has finally been canceled, marking the end of an embarrassing chapter in Wolf’s career. The book was initially delayed after a radio host uncovered significant errors in Wolf’s research:

In June, days before the book was expected to go on sale in the United States, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt postponed the publication and recalled copies from retailers, an unusual and costly move. The publisher said at the time that “new questions have arisen that require more time to explore.” Now, it has pulled the book altogether.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said in an email that Ms. Wolf and the publisher “mutually and amicably agreed to part company.”

One of the issues raised in the book was the alleged execution of various people in 19th century England for the crime of sodomy. Wolf claimed to have identified several dozen executions of homosexuals, including some who were only teenagers.

However, in a BBC radio interview to promote the book, host Matthew Sweet revealed that Wolf had made a critical mistake. She misunderstood a bit of archaic court terminology (“Death recorded”) to mean people had been executed when in fact it meant they had been pardoned. Here’s my account of the radio exchange from back in May:

“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.”

Just as bad, Sweet found that all of the people Wolf was presenting as victims in her book were in fact found guilty of rape and, in some cases, pedophilia:

“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.”

The picture Wolf was trying to paint of 19th-century bigots executing gay people was actually evidence of sexual offenders who received appropriate sentences for their crimes, i.e. things we would still, rightly, consider crimes in the 21st century.

I don’t know how you recover from a mistake that glaring. Wolf tells the Times that her book, or some version of it, will still be published “in due course.” Maybe she should quit while she’s ahead. And if you haven’t heard this radio excerpt before it’s definitely worth a listen.

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