Naomi Wolf: ‘Never before have I seen so many threats to free speech. It is chilling’
The author traces the roots of modern censorship via a gay 19th-century poet and the birth of sewerage
Naomi Wolf: ‘Censorship never stops anything from happening. It didn’t stop abortion, homosexuality, contraception.’ Photograph: Robin Marchant/Getty
The personal and the political have always been closely entwined for Naomi Wolf, to the delight of her fans and to the despair of her critics. Wolf’s distinctive authorial voice – which combines the confessional intimacy of the self-help genre with the clout of a formidable intellect – has been instantly recognisable since she wrote her first book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women, published in 1990 when she was just 28.
Since then Wolf has remained a frequent presence on the bestseller lists, drawing on her own highly personal experiences to write books such as Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (1998), in which she urged women to “redeem the slut in ourselves and rejoice in being bad girls”, and Vagina: A New Biography (2012), a surprising foray into neuroscience via the changing nature of her own orgasms.
Wolf remains very much present in her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love – a dramatic historical investigation of the roots of modern censorship in Britain and the US – but the real star of the story is the English homosexual poet, essayist and critic John Addington Symonds, whom Wolf describes as an “elusive, tormented, world-changing character”. It is Wolf’s belief that this obscure, half-forgotten author – “an unlikely revolutionary” – was one of the forefathers of the gay rights movement and a key originator of the modern identity of male homosexuality in the West.
Wolf encountered Symonds for the first time at Oxford, during research for her PhD: in fact, the new book, Outrages, is a rewriting of her 2015 doctoral thesis. For Wolf, this was her second stint at Oxford. She had been there before, in the 1980s, after winning a Rhodes scholarship at Yale that allowed her to spend two years at the university.
She has previously said that this was where she encountered “raw sexism, overt snobbery and casual antisemitism” for the first time. The research she undertook was too personally political, in the nascent Wolf style, to be submitted as a thesis. Instead it became the foundation for The Beauty Myth, and with its publication Wolf was launched upon the world. Her return to Oxford, decades later, as an internationally established author, was a quieter, more reflective one.
“I had never heard of Symonds until my thesis adviser, Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista, insisted that I read his letters,” says Wolf, speaking from her home in New York. “That led me to a poem that Symonds wrote in 1859 to a young man he identified only as W. This long, heartfelt love poem was a description of falling in love that anyone in the world would recognise. It was a literary mystery that drew me into the whole rest of Symonds’s life.”
It’s a common misconception that everything began with the Oscar Wilde trial, but at that time men, even teenagers, were being sentenced to hard labour for sodomy
Symonds, born in 1840, was extraordinarily prolific as a writer, producing volume after volume of biography, verse, travelogues and translations. The subject that fascinated him most, animating him more than any other, was love between men. Encouraged by the provocative homoeroticism of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which the American poet published in 1855, Symonds insisted that homosexual love was natural and normal, not a “neurosis”. But because of the repressive, and increasingly punitive, social climate of the time, he was compelled to use coded language to express himself.
“He changed pronouns in love poems, or he referred to gay men in history like Michelangelo and [the Elizabethan playwright] Christopher Marlowe, or to poets in classical antiquity,” says Wolf. “Symonds was pushing the envelope as much as he could in his lifetime, but the sodomy laws had become so draconian, so terrifying. It’s a common misconception that everything began with the Oscar Wilde trial [in 1895], but at that time men, even teenagers, were being sentenced to hard labour for sodomy, 10 years’ or more of penal servitude.
“So Symonds left clues for the future reader, for people living in a world he could never have known. He had an extraordinary kind of faith in his readers; it was like a parable about the power of words, readers and writing that eventually came true. As a writer myself, I’m so grateful and moved that he wrote at such risk. And it took a lot of brave people for Symonds’s writings to survive.”
Despite his homosexuality, Symonds married and had children. In his secret papers, Wolf found a painful description of his wedding night in the English seaside town of Brighton. “I shall not forget the repulsion stirred in me by that Brighton bedroom, or the disillusion caused by my first night of marriage,” wrote Symonds. “I firmly expected that some extraordinary and ecstatic enthusiasm would awaken me at the mere contact of a woman’s body in bed.” Later, he wrote: “Being what I am, the great mistake – perhaps the great crime of my life, was my marriage … I shall go to the grave with an unsatisfied desire.”
Hinges of history
Wolf believes that the year 1857 was one of the “hinges of history”. In the earlier decades of the 19th century, people did not assume that the state could censor speech or dictate who could have sex with whom. Indeed, in both Britain and America, physical affection between men was both legal and socially acceptable. But in 1857 the new Obscene Publications Act gave magistrates in Britain the power to confiscate material deemed to be obscene. If writers, editors and booksellers failed to uphold the law and the prescribed morals of society – especially regarding accounts of love between men – they faced serious criminal penalties.
The state was allowed to go into people’s homes to see how they were disposing of their sewage, on the basis that your filth affects everyone else
Central to this new, moralistic purge, according to Wolf, was the idea of “a war on filth”. Following waves of cholera and typhus, which had wiped out tens of thousands of British lives, a sewerage system had been built in London and the resulting reduction in contagion and illness meant that it was hailed as a public health miracle. According to Wolf, this was the precursor of unprecedented state interference in people’s personal lives, seizing the power to decide who or what was considered clean.
“The state was allowed to go into people’s homes to see how they were disposing of their sewage, on the basis that your filth affects everyone else,” she explains. “Then it became how your speech affects others, and then how your sodomy affects others.” The British state also staged mass arrests of women for their sexual activity, on the pretext of curtailing disease. “Bad laws designed to control populations tend to metastasise,” reflects Wolf. “It’s an object lesson for everybody about how dangerous laws affect people’s private lives, with echoes or foreshadowings of issues today.”
So what examples would she give of contemporary state intervention in the private affairs of individuals? Unusually, she seems reluctant to elaborate. “I made the choice to leave those kinds of questions to the reader, rather than spelling it out. But I will say this. We keep thinking we have won the battle for free speech, yet here we are. Never, in my 30 years going back and forth between Britain and the US, have I ever seen so many threats to freedom of speech. It is chilling. People get groomed into a conformist mindset – oh, I’m trying not to give examples, but it is overwhelmingly tempting.”
Bad ideas are only ever changed through sunlight, scrutiny and debate
“Let’s just say that I have now looked at the issue of censorship in Britain and the United States over the last 2½ centuries and I can tell you categorically that censorship never stops anything from happening. It didn’t stop abortion, homosexuality, contraception. If anything, censoring ideas just makes them stronger. And bad ideas are only ever changed through sunlight, scrutiny and debate.”
In the introduction to Outrages, Wolf admits that she felt some trepidation about undertaking to tell the story of Symonds, Whitman, Wilde and others, since she was not a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself. In justification, she describes how she was “moved to do my utmost to shine a light on it, and sought to bear in mind the responsibilities involved with telling this extraordinary story.”
Now that the book is published, is she concerned about how it will be received? “I think this is such an important part of LGBTQ history, and of everyone’s history. Part of why we have gay rights movements is because there is a truth to be told. And telling the truth is the way to have the right to claim your sexual identity.”
An Evening with Naomi Wolf will take place on Friday, May 24th, at 6pm as part of International Literature Festival Dublin, for tickets go to ilfdublin.com