Author Naomi Wolf accused of confusing paedophilia and bestiality with gay persecution in reprint of controversial book
Writer Naomi Wolf has been accused of confusing child sexual abuse and bestiality with the persecution of homosexuality in her new book.
Wolf first published Outrages in 2019, a book that examines the life of writer John Addington Symonds through the culture of fear that pervaded life for gay men in Victorian Britain.
However, Outrages quickly became a scandal when historian Matthew Sweet confronted Wolf during a BBC radio broadcast about its glaring inaccuracies.
Wolf had claimed that gay men were being executed for sodomy in Britain for much longer than most historians believed – but Sweet pointed out that she had misunderstood the use of the term “death recorded”. Wolf believed the use of the term in historical records meant that those men had been executed for their crimes, when in fact, “death recorded” meant that their sentenced was commuted to a custodial sentence instead.
Following the sensational radio broadcast, copies of Outrages were pulped in the United States, while her UK publisher Virago said it would republish the book with corrections.
But historians were shocked to discover Wolf’s new version of the book, which has been accused of further inaccuracies and misunderstandings.
Both Sweet and Fern Riddell claim Wolf misinterpreted historical records to argue that men convicted of child sexual abuse and bestiality were actually persecuted for being gay.
Sweet lambasted Wolf in an op-ed for The Telegraph titled “Blind to bestiality and paedophilia: why Naomi Wolf’s latest book is its own outrage”.
In his article, Sweet criticised Wolf’s reading of a case that went through the courts in 1860 concerning a group of Victorian schoolboys who had been sexually abused by their tutor, John Spencer.
Wolf describes Spencer as a man “tried three times, accused of sex with three different men”.
However records show that the boys – Reuben Brascher, Leon Moresco, Samuel Penny, William Roberts and Theophilus Stock – were locked in a room by Spencer where they were whipped and violently sexually assaulted. The boys were all aged between 10 and 13 at the time of the vicious attacks.
Spencer was found guilty by a jury for offences against Brascher and he was imprisoned for his crimes.
In his op-ed, Sweet said Wolf had failed to mention the names of the abused boys in her book, and had instead portrayed Spencer as “a victim of the Victorian state” whose “love was criminalised”.
Historian Fern Riddell posted a series of tweets deconstructing Wolf’s arguments and showing where she had misread cases of child sexual abuse and bestiality.
“I’ve never been so angry about a book in my entire career,” Riddell wrote.
The historian said it had taken her just an afternoon to fact check Wolf’s book, adding: “We owe so many people an accurate retelling of their past, and gay men especially so. And I think that’s why the errors in this book are so frightening. Especially because Naomi has had every opportunity to make it better.”
I’ve never been so angry about a book in my entire career. It took me an afternoon to fact check Wolf, something her publisher, editors and more importantly, SHE, should have done after this interview.
— Dr Fern Riddell (@FernRiddell) February 5, 2021
Riddell said Wolf had corrected her misunderstanding of “death recorded” in original copies of Outrages, but other inaccuracies remain.
She lambasted Wolf for only referring to the schoolboys abused by Spencer as “three different men”. Riddell pointed out that they were, in fact, five schoolboys, and said their bravery in speaking up about the abuse had been erased by Wolf.
“We find it difficult enough to comprehend the bravery of someone facing their abuser in court today, IMAGINE doing it in the middle of the Victorian era,” Riddell wrote.
Naomi Wolf accused of mistaking bestiality with homosexuality in Outrages.
Riddell also pointed to other cases referenced by Wolf in her book, including those of two teenage boys “presented by the author as examples of the state’s brutal persecution of gay teenage boys.”
Riddell shared information from digitised archives showing that the teenage boys were, in fact, convicted for sexually abusing animals.
“There are a number of other cases involving animals, and a number of other cases involving children, or underage boys. All in all, nearly half of the cases Wolf presents as consensual sex are clearly, not,” Riddell wrote.
She went on to say that the remaining cases highlighted in Wolf’s book are “seriously questionable”.
“There are a few consensual cases that appear. But they are scattered among the paedophiles and animal abusers and all presented as the same,” Riddell wrote.
She added: “We owe the truth to the dead, and we owe it to ourselves. And that matters even more when you are writing about histories that have been hidden or for people whose histories have been ignored… Books like Outrages should not be where they get their history from. They deserve the true heroes, heroines and ordinary everyday LGBTQ+ lives that lie scattered across our histories. Not disguised child rapists and animal abusers.”
Wolf defended her book in a statement to The Guardian, claiming that it had been reviewed and checked by “leading scholars” prior to publication.
“It is clear that I have accurately represented the position,” she said.
“My claim that a homosexual man in the 19th century in Britain would be subject to, and no doubt fearful of, prosecution under sodomy laws, and that sodomy laws included consenting adult acts, child abuse, sexual assault and even bestiality, is correct and not a misrepresentation of any sort.”
She went on to claim that she and Matthew Sweet are “trying to prove different points”.
“Dr Sweet thinks it’s important to show that there were child victims and of course it is and there were, but I wanted to show how there was a climate of fear and that there was no distinction in law between consenting and violent male-male sex. The difference is a matter of emphasis.”
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The book’s publisher Virago also told The Guardian that it is “satisfied that Naomi Wolf had her book checked by scholars of the period”.