Philosophy in the Bookshop – Nigel Warburton in Conversation with Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf talks of book blunder and her ties to Oxford.

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Naomi Wolf speaks at an event at Brooklyn Law School. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Naomi Wolf’s new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love, charts the development of censorship around sexual deviancy and morality in the 19thcentury, through the lives of John Addington Symonds, writer and critic, and Walt Whitman. She spoke in conversation with Nigel Warburton (co-author of Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill) at Blackwell’s on Thursday the 23rdof May, as part of a wider promotional tour, and as part of Blackwell’s ‘Philosophy in the Bookshop’ series, set to include speakers such as Armand D’Angour and Jonathon Reé. 

She began by explaining how moving it was to be giving a talk in Oxford, where the graduate thesis out of which Outrages came was researched and written. Oxford holds significance for one of the subjects of her book, too. J A Symonds studied at Balliol, where he fell in love with William Fear Dyer, a choirboy three years his junior. He was eventually elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen. He left Oxford for Switzerland following a breakdown prompted by an accusation of homosexuality, despite its eventual dismissal. Wolf charts the effect the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 had on Symonds and his writing, and on wider society. Most of Symonds’ work remained unpublished during his lifetime, locked in a metal box in his study for fear of arrest. Her study of censorship and decency laws becomes transatlantic with the inclusion of Walt Whitman, with whom Symonds enjoyed a close epistolary friendship, although they never met face-to-face. Symonds was an admirer of Whitman’s, frequently asking him to speak up on behalf of British writers from the position of increased freedom he enjoyed in America, until similar censorship laws were introduced in the States. 

Wolf argues that the censorship laws of the 19thcentury were motivated by a need for social control, rather than an organic wave of moral panic over sexual deviancy – she points to the examples of the forced venereal disease examinations under the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, which allowed authorities to arrest any woman suspected of prostitution and keep her in a ‘lock hospital’ until the end of her sentence. Wolf highlights the little-known fact that these examinations were often extended to men suspected of sodomy, with a whole branch of science devoted to examining men’s anuses to judge whether they engaged in gay sex. When discussing her research for this, Warburton brought up the controversy that emerged on BBC Radio 3, when historian Matthew Sweet pointed out that Wolf had wrongly interpreted the phrase ‘death recorded’ in the Old Bailey records as evidence of an execution following a conviction of sodomy, when the two men she cites were not sentenced. She responded by acknowledging the mistake, saying it would be corrected in the next print run, but cited other instances of men being executed for gay sex in the period, claiming that the fact that two of these men were not actually executed does not invalidate her thesis. Warburton directed those who wanted to follow the controversy to Twitter. (I have since followed her, and she has been tweeting about it. A lot.) 

The floor was then opened to questions, and we were immediately assaulted by people asking Wolf to comment on trans issues. Wolf responded with an admission that she had been told not to wade into this discussion, as it is so different in the UK than in America, but that she was going to anyway. She said she believed people should be able to identify however they want, and use any bathroom they want to, which, although a noble sentiment, unfortunately opened the floor for people to jump in with increasingly aggressive ‘but what about THIS debate’ questions which Wolf was clearly unequipped to answer. The discussion was eventually shut down by Warburton, and we moved on to some fairly interesting questions – like one from a philosophy student asking how to make the curriculum more diverse, probably prompted by Wolf’s earlier comment that she had abandoned her original idea for a post-grad thesis in the 80s because she was told the Oxford dons didn’t think feminist criticism a valid method of study. There was then an opportunity to buy a copy of the book, and get it signed. She remarked to us that we should keep hold of the book, since the now-corrected mistakes in it would make it a collector’s copy. I look forward to reading it.

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