Second controversy over Naomi Wolf's Outrages

Second controversy over Naomi Wolf's Outrages

Author Naomi Wolf has come under fire once again for her book Outrages (Virago), with her critics accusing her of depicting paedophiles as gay men acting consensually.

The book–a study of the criminalisation of same-sex relationships in the Victorian era–was initially challenged by historian Dr Matthew Sweet in 2019 over claims in the work that, after 1857, there were "several dozen" executions of men for homosexual sex in the UK. Sweet said the term “death recorded” from Old Bailey records on which the claims had been based had been misunderstood, and this was more likely to refer to a crime punishable by death that had been commuted to a custodial sentence. As a result, the book had to be pulled and pulped in the US and amended and republished in the UK, Virago saying then it would "make any necessary corrections".

Although some changes were made for the new paperback edition, the book is now provoking controversy anew, with critics claiming it depicts as victims men who were guilty of sexual assaults on schoolchildren and animals.

Sweet wrote in an article for the Telegraph that one of Wolf's case studies, John Spencer, was the abuser of schoolboys aged between 10 and 13; but while their names are absent from Wolf's book, he is "offered to the reader as a victim of the Victorian state. A man whose love was criminalised."

Another historian, Fern Riddell, said she had "never been so angry about a book in my entire career", accusing Wolf of conflating paedophilia and bestiality with gay persecution and criticising both the author and her publishers for failing to fact check the book properly. Riddell highlighted the case of teenager Thomas Silver, who was charged with indecently assaulting a six-year-old according to old newspaper records of the time, though Riddell said this was not made clear in the book.

On Twitter, Riddell said Virago should have "check[ed] every case" before going to press on the paperback, saying: "Books like Outrages should not be where [young gay and queer people] get their history from. They deserve the true heroes, heroines and ordinary everyday LGBTQ+ lives that lie scattered across our histories."

In a statement to the Guardian, Wolf said her book had been reviewed and checked by "leading scholars" prior to publication and "it is clear that I have accurately represented the position".

"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 said.

Wolf added: "Dr Matthew Sweet and I are actually 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."

Virago told the same outlet it "is satisfied that Naomi Wolf had her book checked by scholars of the period".