What’s Missing In Naomi Wolf’s ‘Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love’
The moment at which I genuinely threw the book across the room was thirty pages from the end.
In 2013, when I heard Naomi Wolf give a talk about the Ph.D. research she was then pursuing at Oxford, my first reaction was panic. Twenty-three years old, I had recently completed what is still the most intense, all-consuming experience of my life: researching and writing a 75,000-word undergraduate thesis about the life and work of John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), the first major English-language theorist of male homosexual identity. Symonds was the subject of Wolf’s talk. I was trying to revise my work for publication, but what was the point, when a bestselling author was writing a book on the same subject?
It turns out I needn’t have worried. I say this not to throw shade at Wolf, on whom the inhabitants of the internet have eagerly piled in order to express their delight at the many errors in her book about Symonds, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Instead, in the years since that talk in Oxford, I have learned that academic and popular history can be productive complements to each other, especially when it comes to a subject like Symonds. Symonds was a remarkable thinker, who combined his thoroughly Victorian classical education with literary and scientific innovations coming from the United States and the German-speaking lands to create texts in a variety of genres that made new arguments for homosexuality as an innate and morally blameless category, part of human diversity. He couched his arguments in terms that were recognizable and accessible to his British readers, and he fundamentally shaped the thought of more famous writers such as Oscar Wilde and E. M. Forster. While Symonds has captured the attention of scholars over the years, the last biography of him was written in 1964, when gross indecency between men was still illegal in Britain. An update was long overdue, one that offered an inspirational story about Symonds and put him in his rightful place in the pantheon of British queer history but also engaged with the real efflorescence of scholarly interest in him that has taken place over the last fifteen years, as queer theory and history have become more established subjects of academic study.
Outrages tries to be this update. Written in a lively, engaging style that is in places moving, the book also seeks to make an original intervention into a conversation among historical and literary experts. Wolf tells Symonds’s life story, from his childhood in Bristol and education at Harrow and Oxford to his abortive attempts at academic and legal careers; an inheritance that allowed him to write full-time; his marriage and four daughters; the move of his family to Switzerland; his primary career as a popular historian of the Italian Renaissance; and the efforts to understand his own and others’ sexual identity which increasingly preoccupied him in the decade before his death from tuberculosis at 53. She situates this remarkable narrative (well-known to scholars) within two primary contexts: Symonds’s decades-long correspondence with the American poet Walt Whitman (which Wolf inflates into a deep friendship); and the British state’s efforts to regulate sexuality over the course of the nineteenth century. It is on this last point that Wolf seeks to make a scholarly intervention, claiming that she has reinterpreted court records of sodomy prosecutions to argue that English prosecutions for adult men having consensual sex in private accelerated from 1857, amounting to a much more repressive legal regime than has previously been believed. It is a stark narrative, with Symonds and Whitman as the good guys and the British state and its allies as the bad. This makes it easy for Wolf to draw parallels, as she does, to parts of the world where free speech and sexuality are controlled by repressive regimes today.
Outrages would have been more successful if Wolf had not been quite so determined to overturn conventional wisdom. She is at her strongest when she is either synthetic or autobiographical, writing in her characteristically urgent style while building on others’ specialist knowledge. The broad strokes of her account of the late-Victorian gender order and the emergence of male homosexuality as a stable identity category within it do not look that different from my undergraduate lecture on the same subject. But her forays into the legal history, particularly of the first half of the nineteenth century, go desperately off-piste, and she lacks wider contextual knowledge that would help her to make better sense of the man at the center of her story.
Others have already made much of Wolf’s basic factual errors in her interpretation of court records of sodomy prosecutions, and have demonstrated that prosecutions for same-sex sex did not increase and sentences become more punitive in the way that Wolf claims. I found many more inaccuracies, ranging from dates off by a couple years, to misunderstanding of the meaning of laws, to the use of ellipses to deliberately obfuscate meaning in the service of her argument. In a country comprised of four nations, each with its own distinct legal tradition, legal history is an exceptionally challenging, specialist area of research, and there is a paucity of good secondary literature that might help a novice to make sense of the subject. It is understandable that Wolf struggled — I, too, find it difficult to wrap my head around. Yet she does not cite key works by historians that might have helped her make sense of how English law has structured what is thinkable, sayable, and doable in the realm of gender and sexuality. To assess the legitimacy of Wolf’s claims, I turned to work by historians such as Ben Griffin, Chris Hilliard, Judith Walkowitz, and many others, as well as readily available online databases of English laws and parliamentary debates. I immediately improved my understanding of basic facts — for example, in English law, “sodomy” has never solely meant anal sex between adult men (as Wolf claims), instead being a vague umbrella term for a variety of “deviant”/non-procreative sex acts, including sex with animals and the rape of children. Some of these latter crimes were the source of the prosecutions Wolf attributes to an increasingly punitive climate for gay men.
Despite the attention that has been given to Wolf’s legal errors, from a specialist perspective I found other oversimplifications to be more troubling. Wolf argues that Symonds and his social circle were terrorized by Britain’s homophobic legal regime. But Symonds’s archive of confessional writing is vast, and I cannot think of a moment in which he mentions fear of arrest as something which conditioned his difficulties in coming to terms with his sexuality, his desire to live abroad, or even his calls late in life for the repeal of the law prohibiting “gross indecency between men” (which, in 1885, was actually what wrote an explicit prohibition on sex between men into English criminal law). Instead, Symonds talks — and talks incessantly — about contexts more immediately relevant to his life as an upper-middle-class, highly-educated English man. I will briefly discuss two that Wolf does not, religion and class.
Christianity suffused basically everything about Victorian Britain, including the energies of many of the countercultural activists Wolf praises, who fought for women’s rights and against censorship. Symonds cared deeply about Christian faith, first as an orthodox believer and then, as he became increasingly agnostic (though never atheist), as the source of more diffuse immanent goodness in the world. Symonds did not seek to overturn Victorian convention and its earnest, faith-based search for the good life, but rather to find space within this quest for moral betterment for other ways of seeing God in the people one loves. This was one of the reasons his work was so influential and enduring upon later generations of activists for homosexual rights — he was a Victorian too, and he spoke to his readers in a language that was familiar to them.
Symonds was also a Victorian with respect to the class system. In her 1985 pioneering work of queer theory Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick first drew attention to the disingenuousness of elite English men like Symonds who claimed to be spreading the gospel of democracy through same-sex love, while in fact paying their working-class or non-white lovers for sex. It is not, now, always clear to historians whether men like Angelo Fusato, the gondolier who worked as Symonds’s servant and with whom he had a long-term sexual relationship, were equal partners in loving relationships or economically marginal figures who needed the work. Wolf refers repeatedly to Fusato as Symonds’s “spouse,” sidelining Symonds’s actual wife, who was likely not as comfortable with Symonds’s other life with men as Wolf suggests. In reality, Fusato was Symonds’s employee in addition to being his lover. When Symonds introduced Fusato to his wealthy English friends as his valet, he was making a clear statement about their hierarchy as much as he was obfuscating the other side of their relationship.
Greater attention to class might also have allowed Wolf to nuance her argument about unremitting prosecution. The police arrested men on sodomy or gross indecency charges when they raided bars or public toilets, or picked up rent boys soliciting on the streets. Those whom they caught in their net, therefore, were more likely to be young, marginal sex workers than elite men like Symonds. Some in Symonds’s wider circle were arrested when they solicited sex in public places. But (as I have argued previously in Public Seminar), behind the walls of institutions like boarding schools and Oxbridge colleges, in the military, in Parliament, and in the Church, same-sex desire, sex, and love were relatively normal parts of the social ecosystem. The somewhat furtive, semi-secret nature of this meant that sexual exploitation and blackmail were common; the age- and power-imbalance paradigm of “pederasty” accessible to many elite men through their classical educations led to a widespread climate of acceptability of desire for children and adolescents. Yet I have found that many queer-identified men carved out, over decades, fairly open lives for themselves within elite single-sex institutions. Few of them understood themselves to be at day-to-day risk of legal trouble. The main risk was that they might lose their jobs, as institutions sought to protect themselves from scandal—but many men who were fired found jobs elsewhere, and institutions protected many others who were valuable employees. Scandals like Wilde’s were hugely atypical — that was part of what made them so alarming to contemporaries. A book alive to these dynamics might in some ways have been more depressing than Wolf’s story, revealing the hierarchies and inequalities baked into the construction of homosexual identities in Britain in the period. But it might in other ways have been more uplifting, showing how elite men (and women, who get little attention in Wolf’s account) demonstrated remarkable creativity in using the intellectual and cultural tools at their disposal to make sense of their desires and identities.
This brings me to my final reservation: whether Wolf was the right person to write this book. She does the right thing in the preface, acknowledging that she is not “a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” and asserting that she did the best she could to seek input from those who were. Yet throughout, her treatment of male same-sex desire is awkward. She has a bizarre fascination with the term “anal sex,” frequently interposing it to describe relations between men in circumstances when we don’t actually know what kind of sex the men in question had, when we know definitively that they had a different kind of sex, or when a language of romance or of unfulfilled longing might have been more appropriate. Her largely inaccurate reduction of male homoerotic desire to penetration is insensitive to context and the historical record — but also to gay and bisexual men today, who have as varied sexual and romantic lives as men in the past did. As Britain’s LGBTQ+ heritage has become a product for mainstream cultural consumption, many accounts have been destructive precisely to the aspects of this heritage that make it meaningful to queer people today. While reading Outrages, I kept thinking of the ways that the 2014 film The Imitation Game twisted Alan Turing’s life story, for example depicting Turing as broken by his conviction for gross indecency, when in life he was defiant. There is still plenty of space for art and literature created by queer people who engage with Britain’s queer past on their own terms. I long for a meditation on Symonds akin to the playwright and director Neil Bartlett’s 1988 Who Was That Man: A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde, which layered substantive research into Wilde’s fin-de-siècle London with Bartlett’s own experiences of a contemporary London overshadowed by Thatcher and AIDS.
The moment at which I genuinely threw the book across the room was thirty pages from the end, when Wolf narrates her experience of reading Amber Regis’s 2017 critical edition of Symonds’s voluminous, confessional memoirs. She implies that no one “had ever seen the complete unexpurgated memoirs” between 1949, when Symonds’s daughter viewed the manuscript in the London Library, and 2017. But while there was an embargo on this manuscript for several decades after Symonds’s death, it was in fact then opened to researchers. The Canadian literary historian who wrote the first modern biography of Symonds, Phyllis Grosskurth, published an abridged edition in 1984, which if anything overplays the text’s sexual content. I was immediately angry on behalf of the dozens of people, academics and otherwise, whose names are recorded in the London Library special collections visitors’ book and who have gone on to cite or draw on this manuscript in our published work. It is a shame that Wolf — for all that she writes with obsequious deference to scholarly expertise — does not acknowledge the existence of the vast majority of research on Symonds and his context.
Yet I forgave her, at least a little bit, when I picked the book back up from the other side of my apartment and went on to read the last two chapters. Wolf writes in touching terms about Symonds’s extraordinary faith that his words would outlive him. Writing at a time when he could not publish his defenses of the moral legitimacy of homosexuality, Symonds entrusted his papers to his literary executor, and in due course they found their way into a miscellaneous collection of archives on both sides of the Atlantic, waiting for what E. M. Forster, whose novel Maurice is in part inspired by Symonds’s memoirs, memorably referred to as “a Happier Year.” If Symonds speaks to Wolf across the centuries — much as he spoke to me, when I was twenty and first read his words — who am I to deny her that? If Outrages keeps Symonds alive for a new and wider readership, it will — despite its many shortcomings — have been a success.
Emily Rutherford is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Columbia University. Her research on Symonds appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 2014. She is working on a dissertation about the politics and culture of gender relations in British universities between 1860 and 1935, and another project about the intellectual history of male homosexuality in Britain in the same period. Follow her on Twitter @echomikeromeo.
Correction: in an earlier version of this review, the author mistakenly indicated that Wolf had discovered the Symonds memoir in the London Library; Wolf did not claim to have done research in that archive. Public Seminar regrets the error.