Naomi Wolf critiqued for apparent misunderstanding at heart of her new book

Historians say author misinterpreted law and thus made false assessment that dozens of men were executed in Victorian England for sodomy; publisher ‘discussing corrections’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Naomi Wolf. (YouTube screenshot)
Naomi Wolf. (YouTube screenshot)

The bestselling Jewish feminist author Naomi Wolf has landed in hot water over claims in her latest book, which have been debunked by historians, that dozens of men were executed in Victorian England under sodomy laws.

Wolf’s US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said it was discussing possible corrections in “Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love,” which it is due to come out in mid-June. The book, which deals with the criminalization of homosexuality in the Victorian era, has already been published in the UK by Virago.

In the book, Wolf writes that dozens of men were executed under the UK’s sodomy law at the time.

But this claim was questioned on a Thursday BBC radio program by historian Matthew Sweet, author of “Inventing the Victorians.”

Sweet charged that there was no historical evidence to suggest that anybody had been executed for sodomy during the Victorian era and suggested that Wolf had misinterpreted the term “death recorded,” assuming it to mean that convicts were put to death.

In fact, said Sweet, “death recorded” meant the sentence was documented, but not carried out.

Another historian, Richard Ward, agreed, according to the Guardian newspaper. He added that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823.

“It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded,’ the offender would not have been executed,” Ward said.

Sweet went further, saying, “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”

Sweet also alleged that Wolf had defined sodomy too narrowly, clarifying that child abuse had also been punishable under the sodomy law.

British Historian Matthew Sweet. YouTube screenshot)

Wolf, known for best-sellers such as “The Beauty Myth” and “Misconceptions,” told Sweet during the program that he had made an “important point” and later tweeted that she had fixed passages referring, erroneously, to two men being executed.

On Twitter, she pledged to go over “all of the sodomy convictions on Twitter in real time so people can see for themselves what the sentences were and what became of each of these people.”

Sweet tweeted that Wolf was “taking a second look at her work, and, I think, with great generosity, has offered to share her findings as she goes. This is pretty decent of her, I think.”

On Saturday, though, Wolf told a literary festival in England that she stood by the book’s wider argument.

“Some of you may have seen that there has been a healthy debate about two errors I did make in this book, she said, according a Guardian report, “and they’re on page 71 and 72. Hang on to your copies because it will be a collectors’ item because it will not [be] in the next printing.”

She also claimed on Twitter on Saturday that from 1810 to 1835, 46 people convicted of sodomy were hanged and 32 sentenced to death but reprieved.

In a statement Friday, Wolf’s publisher said that “While HMH employs professional editors, copy editors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.”

British publishers rarely fact-check books, citing time and expense.

AP contributed to this report.

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