Former Bill Clinton adviser and feminist author Naomi Wolf saw a central part of her upcoming book debunked during a BBC interview that aired Tuesday.
In her book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, Wolf posits that a revolution in British law's approach to homosexuality took place in the 19th Century, eventually coming to America. One of her most dramatic claims was that many homosexuals were executed under sodomy laws in the U.K. after 1835, the consensus date of the last execution for sodomy in Britain.
"I found several dozen executions, but that was, again, only looking at the Old Bailey records and the crime tables," she said during an interview on "Arts and Ideas" with broadcaster Matthew Sweet. "This corrects a misapprehension that is in every website, that the last man was executed for sodomy in Britain in 1835."
However, this was based on a misunderstanding of the British legal term "death recorded," created in 1823, which meant the death penalty was not carried out. Sweet pointed this out, reading her the definition of "death recorded" with which she was unfamiliar.
"I don't think any of the executions you've identified here actually happened," Sweet said.
"Well, that's a really important thing to investigate. What is your understanding of what ‘death recorded' means?" Wolf asked.
"Death recorded, I've just read you the definition there," he said. He also showed her a newspaper report about the 14-year-old Thomas Silver, about whom she wrote in the book.
A "death recorded" decision was handed down that allowed Silver to live.
"The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy on account of his youth," the report said, as Wolf herself read aloud.
"I think it's quite a big problem with your argument," Sweet said, exhibiting a knack for understatement.
Everyone listen to Naomi Wolf realize on live radio that the historical thesis of the book she's there to promote is based on her misunderstanding a legal term pic.twitter.com/a3tB77g3c1
— Edmund Hochreiter (@thymetikon) May 23, 2019
However, there was arguably a larger problem with Wolf's thesis: Cases she cited, including the one reported in the newspaper, involved sexual assault rather than consensual encounters.
"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," Sweet said.
"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 describe were consensual," he added. "The other one you offer is James Spencer, 60-year-old tutor. He was a teacher who committed what was described as ‘felonious assaults' on schoolboys."
"One of these cases you offer is a bestiality case and not a buggery case," he also said, to a stunned Wolf. "I think there's a problem here."
"I mean, I certainly will ask for the sources that you have, I mean, I was going by the Old Bailey records and the regional crime tables, and if there's further details to be added—" she said.
"That's how I got this, through that same portal," he said.
Wolf has been celebrated on the left for her feminist writings, including The Beauty Myth, The End of America, and Vagina, Give Me Liberty, along with pieces in the The New Republic and elsewhere, but she has recently been under fire for spreading conspiracy theories about ISIS and the ebola virus.
Her latest book has been hailed as "absorbing and thoughtfully researched" by Kirkus, and its Amazon summary touts its supposedly groundbreaking findings about British law about sexuality:
[Wolf] illuminates a dramatic buried story of gay history—how a single English law in 1857 led to a maelstrom, with reverberations lasting down to our day
Until 1857, the State did not link the idea of "homosexuality" to deviancy. In the same year, the concept of the "obscene" was coined. New York Times best-selling author Naomi Wolf’s Outrages is the story, brilliantly told, of why this two-pronged State repression took hold—first in England and spreading quickly to America—and why it was attached so dramatically, for the first time, to homosexual men.
Before 1857 it wasn’t "homosexuality" that was a crime, but simply the act of sodomy. But in a single stroke, not only was love between men illegal, but anything referring to this love became obscene, unprintable, unspeakable.