Naomi Wolf is back with a brand new book, and you know what that means! Actually, maybe you don’t — I’m not sure I’ve ever even talked about Naomi Wolf, since it has blessedly been seven years since her last book, which was an unmitigated disaster. Spoiler alert: this one is, too, apparently.
To catch you up, Wolf is a feminist who some people seem to view as an important voice of our generation. She’s written several books from her own feminist lens, including The Beauty Myth and Vagina. Her most recent book is called Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, which discusses the history of homophobic legislation and criminality in the Victorian era, leading to the life and career of the gay poet John Addington Symonds.
In the course of a BBC Radio 3 interview with historian Matthew Sweet, Wolf realized live on air that she had made a pretty egregious mistake in her newly published book — she claimed that dozens of men had been executed in Victorian England simply for being gay, which she says Symonds would have read about in the papers, leading to his conflicting feeling over his sexuality.
The problem, as Sweet points out, is that none of that happened. Wolf read reports of men convicted for sodomy that read, “death recorded,” and instead of researching what that legal term meant, she just assumed it meant they were executed. It doesn’t. It means that the law said they should be executed but that they were receiving a lesser sentence instead.
Sweet went into more detail on Twitter, revealing that not only were none of the men executed, but there’s no evidence their “crime” of sodomy was even consensual. Several men were convicted for abusing kids, and for the others there’s no record of who, exactly, the “victim” was. If the person was another man in a consensual relationship, it would be odd that one man would be convicted and the other not charged at all. Unless it wasn’t a consensual relationship between two equals.
The fact that this all happened live on the radio is amazing and horrible and it’s like watching a trainwreck, or a real-life Curb Your Enthusiasm. And it was also just a little satisfying, because Wolf has spent way too long taking up space in feminist circles as an inveterate bullshitter.
Her previous book, Vagina, was an absolute dumpster fire of pseudoscience, full of bullshit like “your vagina is a goddess-shaped hole.” Really? Is that what a goddess is shaped like? Yikes. And that’s before she gets into evolutionary psychology, a dicey subject even before Naomi Wolf gets involved. She preaches debunked hypotheses about the adaptive purpose of the female orgasm, and declares that dopamine is the “feminist chemical,” for fucks’ sake.
And Naomi Wolf’s book prior to Vagina, The Beauty Myth, was so incredibly wrong about basic facts that it’s hard to understand how anyone agreed to publish it. As just one example, she claimed that most women had bulimia or anorexia. Most. Women. And she claimed that 150,000 women died from anorexia every year in the United States. The actual number? About 500. Still way too many, but, come on. Not only was that published, but publishers let her publish TWO MORE BOOKS, again with zero fact-checking. And the media just soaks it all up. Hell, even The Guardian gave it a good, credulous review the week before her interview with Sweet.
Thank god an actual historian did the research and called her on her shit. It seemed to take him about 5 minutes, and he hasn’t even read her entire book — he just picked an excerpt and looked into it! What could happen if we let him loose on the rest? What would happen is what should have happened prior to publishing — the book would be thrown in the trash.