Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love. Naomi Wolf. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-64502-016-5. 384 pages. $19.95
Every book Naomi Wolf writes manages to piss off critics and her latest book, Outrages, is no exception.
The book chronicles the struggles and eventual triumph of John Addington Symonds, an obscure Victorian era poet, biographer, and critic who penned what became a foundational text on our modern understanding of sexual orientation and LGBT+ rights.
Wolf’s original publisher canceled the publication of the book after several errors were identified, the primary one centering on the number of executions for homosexuality in Victorian England. It’s not the first time Wolf has been accused of shoddy research. New York Times book reviewer Parul Sehgal has called Wolf’s career “ludicrous” and her conclusions “batty.”
Errors notwithstanding, there is some value in Outrages, not the least of which is the fact that Wolf has brought attention to a little known, important figure in the early history of the LGBT+ rights movement. Also, the zeitgeist of Victorian society, with all its Puritanical laws and sexual mores, which Wolf has effectively recalled, is especially relevant today given the recent rise of authoritarianism in America.
Drawing on the work of a range of scholars of censorship and of LGBT+ legal history, Wolf depicts how state censorship, and state prosecution of same-sex sexuality, played out—decades before the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde—shadowing the lives of people who risked in new ways scrutiny by the criminal justice system. She shows how legal persecutions of writers, and of men who loved men affected Symonds and his contemporaries, including Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, and the painter Simeon Solomon. All the while, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was illicitly crossing the Atlantic and finding its way into the hands of readers who reveled in the American poet’s celebration of freedom, democracy, and unfettered love.
Inspired by Whitman, and despite terrible dangers he faced in doing so, Symonds kept trying, stubbornly, to find a way to express his message—that love and sex between men were not “morbid” and deviant, but natural and even ennobling.
Symonds persisted in various genres his entire life. He wrote a strikingly honest secret memoir—which he embargoed for a generation after his death—enclosing keys to a code that the author had used to embed hidden messages in his published work. He wrote the essay “A Problem in Modern Ethics” that was secretly shared in his lifetime and would become foundational to our modern understanding of human sexual orientation and of LGBTQ+ legal rights. This essay is now rightfully understood as one of the first gay rights manifestos in the English language.
In addition to sharing with new audiences the story of an oft-forgotten pioneer of LGBT+ rights who could not legally fully tell his own story in his lifetime, Outrages is also important for what the book has to say about the vital and often courageous roles of publishers, booksellers, and freedom of speech in an era of growing calls for censorship and ever-escalating state violations of privacy. With Outrages, Wolf brings us the inspiring story of one man’s refusal to be silenced, and his belief in a future in which everyone would have the freedom to love and to speak without fear.
Taking the details with a grain of salt is too much to ask of many critics and readers, but in my estimation, to mix my metaphors, the forest is worth exploring, despite a few bad trees. Dr. Naomi Wolf has written eight nonfiction bestsellers about women’s issues and civil liberties. She and her family live in New York City.