The year 1990 witnessed several revolutionary changes, one of which was the release of “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women,” written by Naomi Wolf. The “Beauty Myth” highlighted how male dominance is maintained by holding women to certain standards of beauty, and it became an instant hit with readers worldwide. Wolf is now known as one of the world’s foremost feminists, who is vocal about issues that affect not just women but various marginalized communities.
Last year, Wolf’s latest book, “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love,” came under severe criticism after a BBC broadcaster called out two misinterpretations of a legal term. Since then, “Outrages” has received severe criticism from readers in the UK. Wolf has herself been targeted and accused of gross inaccuracies in all her previous works.
The issue that gets lost in these discussions is the reason Wolf wrote the book in the first place. “Outrages” seeks to highlight the historical marginalization of gay men, particularly the protagonist of the book, the poet John Addington Symonds. Even with its flaws, the book is a detailed historical representation of the life of gay people in Victorian England.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Naomi Wolf about “Outrages,” her reasons for writing the book, the life of John Addington Symonds, and how “The Beauty Myth” is still relevant today.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ankita Mukhopadhyay: Your latest book, “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love,” has been the target of immense criticism in the UK. Why do you think that this situation has been blown out of proportion? Lawyer Helena Kennedy — who also proofread your book — has said that the criticism reflects the “legal and homophobic legacy of British colonialism.” Do you think this connection has affected the reception of your book?
Naomi Wolf: After the incident, I have had a chance to reflect on the criticism. Right before this incident, which eventually translated into a viral attack, I was talking to British audiences about Britain’s vulnerability if it ever faced a coup. I was also talking about building a searchable database for UK law. Daily Clout, my civic data company, has a searchable database for US law. On Daily Clout, anyone can look up any law and lobby. This project has been very effective.
The thing “Outrages” does — and this was my argument to the British public right before the incident happened — when you are vulnerable to a coup, you can see what laws underpin decisions such as Brexit, for instance. However, access to information complicates the lives of everyone in power. Daily Clout has complicated lives of legislators in the US who wanted to lie about law. The platform makes it much more difficult for people on either side of the spectrum to say things like, “This health bill covers cancer care.”
Daily Clout enables people from places as far off as Tennessee to tweet and say, “No, this bill doesn’t cover cancer care.” I can see why that’s problematic for anyone who wants to a country to move left or right.
You bring up the question of colonial law. I totally agree with you. But I am not going to say that A caused B. It may well be that this is a weirdly viral, unprecedently relentless attack on my reputation because people disagreed about a poet. However, following the incident with my book, there has been opposition research to take me off the chessboard. Despite agreeing to correct the two references in the book, I am now facing difficulty in even getting “Outrages” published in the US!
The reason I wrote “Outrages” is because I didn’t want people to just sit around and believe that the British government hasn’t made terrible mistakes. There’s a lot of good scholarship on postcolonial law, but it’s not usually written for a broad audience. If you want people to trust the British government to not make horrible mistakes, then “Outrages” is not a comfortable book.
One of the calling cards of the conservatives is the mythology of an unblemished past in relation to the rest of the world. For example, a lot of people in America don’t want to hear [Noam] Chomsky talk about the role of the American government in undermining popular leaders of the world.
The story of “Outrages” categorically confirms that homophobia was exported to several places in the world by the British government. It was exported to cultures that didn’t have homophobia built into their own traditions and practices. We feel the legacy of that today, particularly in the former colonies. In India, it took a Supreme Court ruling to undo that law that was created for purposes of social control. There are countries like Egypt, where men are still tortured and arrested effectively by the police and agents of the state using the narratives that have been exported to rest of the world in the 19th century.
The bigger picture is not just restricted to colonial law. I am seeing homophobia and transphobia being weaponized in current struggles for power in Britain. This is a narrative separate from former colonial countries. If you read “Outrages,” it’s harder to take in this whipping up of hysteria by the state and media on LGBTQ+ issues. My argument — and it’s a strong one — is that these “moral panics” around homophobia were used cynically in the past by governments to attain agendas that have nothing to do with the fear of gays, lesbians and transgenders.
Mukhopadhyay: I would like to know a little more about “Outrages,” since that discussion has got lost in the euphoria around the historical and legal inaccuracies. What is the book about, and what motivated your decision to focus on homosexuality? Why did you choose to tell your story through the character of John Addington Symonds, a rather unknown poet?
Wolf: I decided to write about Symonds because my thesis adviser at Oxford is an expert in that field. He knew that I was interested in Victorian sexuality. He gave me giant copies of Symonds’ letters and I was captivated when I read them. They start as the letters of a teenager, who was born at a time when laws in Britain criminalized speech and same-sex male intimacy in new ways. It’s this voice of a young man, who is only searching for true love.
He renounces his teenage love for a young man, as his father explains to him that there’s no future for the relationship. He has written a long love poem to his beloved but has to go back and write an apology, because when he renounces his love affair in 1862, one is awarded life imprisonment for performing sodomy.
All Symonds wants is to be a British poet, critic and cultural essayist, but over and over the institutions turn on him. Fellows of his college at Oxford call him in to examine him because a fellow student turned in some of his personal letters, and now he has to justify his character and moronic interests. He barely manages to save his fellowship and later, when he wants to be a professor of poetry at Oxford, which is a high honor, there’s public shaming for who he is, and he knows that has no chance of being a professor.
There are several scandals that he has to face in his lifetime. He compels himself to marry a woman because his dad dictates to him that he has to do it. The woman he marries respects him a lot and they form a bond, but he writes in his letters painful accounts of what it is like to be married to someone and have a honeymoon but have no desire. He was completely honest about documenting his earliest life and the organic nature of same-sex desire because at that time it was described as a vice. He observed himself to document his notes.
He argued that this was ennobling, and love shouldn’t be criminalized. He had four daughters who loved him. He was a beloved husband and father although he was a gay man. This was true of most gay men at that time.
Even if he was living his double life, he kept having love affairs with men. When he got older, he went to Venice to be with a community of gay men. Throughout his life, he just wanted to write the truth about love, but it was getting more and more dangerous as British law was inventing more and more laws on obscenity and free speech, for example, the Obscene Publication Act of 1857. Britain’s invention of obscenity got exported around the world to justify cracking down on colonial populations.
The Obscene Publication Act made it dangerous to publish anything that could be considered obscene. In addition to all this, Symonds’ friends were being arrested in France for soliciting sex. This act destroyed Symonds’ career in Britain. Symonds tried to tell the truth about love, but it was illegal. He wrote in ways so that he could escape the law. He wrote allegories, historical biographies of gay men in the past, he would publish love poems changing the pronouns of lovers. All this while, he was secretly keeping a secret memoir and sodomy poems locked away in a metal box.
There were these romantic poems where he imagines gay marriage 150 years before it actually happened. At the end of his life, he had a very beautiful and provocative relationship with the American poet Walt Whitman, which prodded him to be brave and address same-sex love. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a manifesto in English for gay rights — the first, at least as far as anything I have read. The manifesto had a sustained argument for the legal rights of gay men. After his death, it was published and handed secretly from hand to hand. It created a modern understanding in more developed countries of how one could see sexual variation as a spectrum of natural behavior rather than a moral failing or vice.
He won after his death, but in his lifetime, he didn’t know that he will win. Symonds never stopped believing in love and the love he experienced. In his work, he left instructions to the future generations on how to decode his secret memoirs so that a secret story would emerge that he couldn’t tell in his lifetime about his great love. That’s John Addington Symonds, and that’s why he’s such a great character. And his story brings forth so many important themes in the LGBTQ+ movement.
In my book, I point out that newspapers reported death sentences and arrests for sodomy during Symonds’ time, and in the case of two they weren’t carried out. People were being transported overseas for life sentence and hard labor.
Mukhopadhyay: Gay sex and sodomy were a political issue in Victorian England, and it continued to be an issue long after that.
Wolf: British historians contesting my argument in “Outrages” argue that laws against sodomy and same-sex relations did not get worse in and after 1835, but they don’t address colonial law in their argument. I just had an argument with a historian who said that there was no evidence of things worsening for men in Britain in the 19th century. I pointed out to him his omission of colonies. Gay men were being transported to the colonies, and Britain’s interpretation of sodomy was exported there as well.
As a former political consultant and someone who visited Guantanamo, I am interested in this consensus of British historians who are saying that nothing got worse for gay men in Britain. If you look at their data sets, they are only counting England and Wales, they are not counting Scotland, where there was a death sentence for sodomy for many years after it ended in Britain.
They are also not counting Ireland, all of the colonies and New South Wales, where men were transported for sodomy. It is very standard practice that if you want a political problem to go away, you just imprison them or transport them elsewhere. I find it notable that these data sets are not included when British historians say that the situation didn’t get worse.
Mukhopadhyay: Do you think there’s more retaliation against “Outrages” because it addresses a topic — discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community — people are generally uncomfortable with?
Wolf: This is an incredibly important history (of the LGBTQ+ community) to tell and it’s obviously suppressed. I studied literature for 25 years. In literary studies, the high point for persecution of gay men in Britain in the 19th century was Oscar Wilde’s trial. I was shocked to discover this in my historical research.
In my research, I came across works by three scholars, namely H. G. Cox, Charles Upchurch and Graham Robb, that confirmed that 55 men were executed in Britain for sodomy. There were decade-long sentences or life sentences for gay men several years before the Wilde trials. In the 19th century, people treated news of the arrest for sodomy with amusement.
There was also a concerted campaign by the Victorian state to present people cross dressing as a threat to the rest of society. It’s shocking that there’s a narrative about how transgender people are threatening to the rest of society. “Outrages” has a whole section on dressing femininely. What is too feminine? People need to question why the state regulates masculinity levels of an attire in order to really appear as a “man.” How did the state abrogate to itself the right to police people, not just in bed, but also how they present themselves? And these thoughts were exported across borders to the colonies.
The theory in “Outrages” is that these claims of the state to manage our intimate lives, to manage our speech and our self-presentation are clever ways to control large populations and suppress them in situations where they are otherwise clamoring for their rights. An absolutely perfect illustration of that is colonial history because you have a small number of people tasked to control large numbers of people. These laws were very effective in controlling and subduing populations and then they were brought home.
Mukhopadhyay: A thing many people miss out, particularly in history, is the state subjugation of women. How did Victorian England’s laws intrude on the female body?
Wolf: There’s actually wonderful scholarly work done on this. There was an effort by British colonial powers to control and examine sex workers or women accused of being sex workers. This was first tried out in a colonial context and then brought home to become the Contagious Diseases Act. There is some documentation of how laws intrude on the female body and how women colonial subjects were experiments.
Mukhopadhyay: This context ties in with my next question. A gynecologist recently called Twitter out for censoring her publisher’s usage of the word “vagina.” There is still a stigma around the word. Why is there so much backlash when a person talks about something that makes many people uncomfortable?
Wolf: The portrayal of female sexuality is all about agency. Showing a million pornographic images of some trafficked woman or someone who is struggling to feed her kids isn’t really about female sexual agency. It’s not. When women start claiming the right to own their bodies without shame, then agencies start to turn around, and people become uncomfortable.
It’s not vaginas that make people uncomfortable if they are properly packaged. It’s when the owners of the vaginas start talking about what happens to them — that is when they get censored. This doctor’s title was censored, my book, “Vagina,” was briefly censored by Amazon, although there was an outcry.
Why is it considered radical when women start naming what happens to them? The state uses intrusion on bodies to control populations the way that women as a gender are controlled, and sexual assault and domestic violence are a huge part of that control. The judiciary colludes in not doing anything about it. India is a perfect example of this. I am always blown away by news stories of India where there is a massive radical feminist awakening, women are mobilized, aware, talking, trying to legislate and creating networks. It’s unbelievably effective — more effective than America, I would say, kind of a very fast arising of women around feminist issues, especially around sexual assault.
At the same time, you see egregious, horrific public demonstrations of male power over women’s bodies. A perfect example is the backlash and struggle over who owns the vagina and how that struggle is demonstrated. It’s a vicious cycle to control women’s desires, and the demonstration against this takes different forms. Over and over, patriarchy demonstrates to women that they are not going to escape their subjugation through sexual violence and sexual assault — which is just a way to subjugate us in general. When women start naming their bodies and are not ashamed of saying “vagina,” and they take a stand over issues like genital mutilation and molestation, it sparks a revolution.
I was ashamed to talk about what my professor did to me when I was 19, and I was afraid of speaking out until I was in my 40s, even when I had two children, been married, had a lot of social validation. One reason I was afraid was because we are trained to not name what happens to us sexually because we are so afraid that we will be labeled a slut if we have ever had sexual agency in a context that maligned us. When women are able to say “vagina,” they can stand up in front of the court and say, “This is what he did — he raped me, he touched me here” — and they can do so articulately without being silenced. It’s really not a struggle of who owns the vagina, but who owns history, who will be believed.
Mukhopadhyay: It’s been more than 20 years since you wrote “The Beauty Myth.” Do you feel that issues around women’s bodies and their beauty have escalated because of social media?
Wolf: That’s a great question and I get asked this quite frequently. Many things have changed since I wrote “The Beauty Myth,” but many things have also not changed. I think women of your generation, all over the world, are much more empowered to ask the questions that you’re asking and even theorize, position yourselves as critics of social norms. The mere idea of criticizing beauty ideals or other social norms was scary and not encouraged among young women when I was writing “The Beauty Myth.” And that’s so powerful.
When I went to India on my last visit, I was blown away by the hundreds and hundreds of highly mobilized, organized, determined passionate feminists I met. Not just women from urban areas, but women from rural areas and first-generation women going to college, which was astonishingly inspiring. The willingness to critique has gotten better globally. However, other things are not so great.
Anorexia and bulimia statistics haven’t changed. I think that young women feel a lot of fears around Instagram and looking perfect on social media, which is causing anxiety. I also think that fears around beauty are extending to boys and young men. The increasing accessibility of plastic surgery is making some people feel more dissatisfied.
Mukhopadhyay: I can’t fail to notice that criticism around your work has increased in the past few years. Why do you think that this happened? What motivates you to keep writing?
Wolf: If I gave up that easily, I wouldn’t be much of a feminist! When I was writing about how hard it is for Western middle-class women to go on a diet, I was the darling of the media. The issues I talked about earlier are important and I am glad I talked about them, but they are not central to dismantling more serious forms of power. Since I became a democracy activist, the criticism has gotten more intense. I guess that’s because I stopped being a cultural critic and commentator and got interested in offering people actual tools to change laws. That generates a different level of antagonism.
But why do I keep writing? Being 56 years old helps because I have lived through a lot of these attacks. “The Beauty Myth” was attacked viciously. I remember calling my mom and saying, “Why do I keep going on these book tours, because people are so mad at me! Feminists are mad at me. I was attacked on national television!” My mom said, “Don’t you dare think about stopping.” And I knew I was right, and it was important that I keep going on. Now, “The Beauty Myth” is in college and high-school curricula.
In 2012, people attacked me on “Vagina.” Now there are half a dozen books that are clearly influenced by that book, and women are a lot more comfortable talking about their sexuality and sexual abuse. I like to think that I had a bit of role in that. I don’t think the book will be received as critically today.
Now my critics are so mad about “Outrages,” and yet I know that it’s accurate, and those two misinterpretations are corrected. I know it’s an important book, it says things that need to be said, and it’s about a lost and forgotten pioneer of LGBTQ+ history. I am not going to give up on bringing his voice to the people. It’s my business to take on board constructive criticism and factual errors and fix them, but I can’t make people smarter than they are. I can’t make people evolve faster than they are willing to.
I know that “Vagina” was an important book. I know that “Outrages” is an important book, and Symonds was an important figure who changed history. I have also received a lot of praise and support, which you will not see on Google, over the last couple of years. A women’s museum in Italy is dedicating a permanent space to me, and I got an invite from Trinity College to be awarded and honored for contributing to feminist philosophy — this was after the attacks. I am not treated specially on Twitter, but a lot of people appreciate my work.
Mukhopadhyay: Does the current political situation have anything to do with the rise in criticism?
Wolf: I can’t stop you from noticing a direct link. One can clearly see a geopolitical alignment of oligarchic states such as Russia, the United States, the UK, ancillary Brazil and Saudi Arabia. I would also put Israel in there. These countries have anti-democratic leadership now, and what I know as a former political consultant is that a lot of these countries are being advised by a lot of the same conservative and anti-democratic leaders/political consultants and think tanks.
What we are seeing is that the nation-state is becoming less and less important. What’s becoming important is that oligarch forming common cause. They don’t like democracy and they don’t like the nation-state because you need a strong nation-state to have a strong democracy. You see the same tactics in country after country to divide people, whip up hatred of immigrants, LGBTQ+ people and Muslims. We are now seeing the rise of the paramilitary just like I predicted in one of my earlier books, “The End of America.”
How does it play out in my criticism? I have no idea. I don’t know if there’s a direct connection, but I do know that a lot of people who are pro-democracy and environmental activists are being phoned. There are a lot of smear campaigns going on. People are having their employers called, people are being controlled on Twitter, journalists are being harassed and threatened. I am not drawing a conclusion of who is doing it any why, but I do know that there’s more bullying and harassment. I don’t have any other insight on why this is happening. Maybe I am just more annoying than usual!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.