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Feminist author Naomi Wolf wrongly claimed in book that men, boys were executed for being gay in Victorian England. Her book just got pulled.


Wolf — who based her book on her Oxford University Ph.D. thesis — was called out for her errors during a May interview

Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

A new book by famed feminist author Naomi Wolf — which incorrectly claimed that England executed men and boys for being gay during the Victorian era — is being pulled, the Telegraph reported.

The book — "Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love" — is based on a Ph.D. thesis she wrote in 2015, the Telegraph added. Turns out Wolf began but never completed her thesis as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, The Guardian said, adding that she reapplied to the school to finish it.

What are the details?

Here's what Wolf told The Guardian earlier this year about what her research uncovered:

"I could not get over what I found," she says. "People widely believe that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830. But I read every Old Bailey record throughout the 19th century, so I know that not only did they continue; they got worse. In the beginning, there were relatively few executions, and it was relatively difficult to get arrested. If you were, it was usually for rape or the molestation of children. But then there's a transition, and you see adult consensual men being brought in as couples, and it begins to be more likely they'll be convicted and given a sentence of penal servitude or worse." Her voice rises. "Those kids … I cannot get them out of my mind … executed or sent to Australia for the attempt at sodomy." To take just one example, in 1859, a 14-year old-boy named Thomas Silver was found guilty of having committed an "unnatural offense" and hanged.

The Guardian added that Wolf believed what she discovered encompassed the threads of modern homophobia.

But we have a big problem

Then in a May BBC interview with Wolf, the host pointed out her book's claim that the aforementioned 14-year-old boy was "actually executed for committing sodomy" and that his fate was noted as "GUILTY — Death recorded."

And therein lies a giant problem. The host, Matthew Sweet, told Wolf during his interview that she was wrong — that, in fact, "death recorded" actually meant Silver was spared capital punishment.

The term "death recorded," Sweet continued, "was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon. I don't think any of the executions you've identified here actually happened."

Ouch. Here's a clip of that interview:

With that, Wolf told Sweet: "Well, that's [a] really important thing to investigate."

Hot Air added that Sweet also discovered that all those in the book Wolf said were victims — like Silver — actually were found guilty of rape and, in some cases, pedophilia:

"When I found this I didn't really know what to do with it because I think it's quite a big problem with your argument," Sweet said. He continued, "Also, it's the nature of the offense here. 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 really.

"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've described were consensual. The other one you offer is James Spence, 60-year-old tutor. He committed what was described as felonious assault on schoolboys. One of these cases you offer is a bestiality case and not a buggery case. So, I think there's a problem here with this argument."

Wolf acknowledged some errors but said they were fixable and objected to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's postponement of the book in June, the Associated Press reported. She even promoted "Outrages" on her own in the U.S., with attendees offered the chance to buy the U.K. edition, the AP added.

More from the Telegraph on what happened next:

Her U.K. publisher, Virago, corrected the mistakes, and the book remains on sale in the U.K., but according to the New York Times, her U.S. publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has now cancelled the entire U.S. run.

Just days before it was due to be published they recalled copies from retailers at a significant cost, saying "new questions have arisen that require more time to explore."

Now, a spokesperson for the company said they had "mutually and amicably agreed to part company" with Wolf, who told the paper that she was still hoping for it to be released in the US "in due course."

New doubts

The Telegraph also said Wolf's research errors "have thrown into doubt the merits of her doctorate awarded by Trinity College, Oxford, and it emerged in June, that the author had made contact with the university in order to correct mistakes made in her thesis."

Wolf and Oxford University "were approached for comment," the Telegraph added without noting if they responded.

The author has had her scholarship challenged before, the AP said, adding that Wolf's best-seller, "The Beauty Myth," says anorexia caused 150,000 deaths among women annually. But the AP noted that such a death count is generally regarded as inflated.

As for how the "Outrages" errors made it to print, the AP said publishers rarely fact-check books due to the time and expense.

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