Who Is Naomi Wolf? New Details On The Feminist Author Being Called Out For Factual Error In New Book

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Who Is Naomi Wolf? New Details On The Feminist Author Being Called Out For Factual Error In New Book

Feminist author Naomi Wolf has never been one to shy away from controversy. Her ideas about gender relations, sexuality and reproductive justice have been met with criticism and praise in equal measure. Her ideas have faced countless analyses over the years and she is used to defending her theories. This month, however, she has found herself defending facts. Or, more accurately, not being able to defend a fact in her new book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love, which deals with same-sex relations in the Victoria era and the criminalization of such relationships. In the book she purports that people were executed for homosexual activity in England. But BBC Radio host Matthew Sweet interviewed the author and pointed out that the got the history wrong. While men were certainly prosecuted for homosexual relations, Sweet informed Wolf that she had misread the sentences handed down by judges and the executions she worte about never actually happened.

Who is Naomi Wolf and how did she make such a major error of scholarship? Read on for all the new details.

1. Corrected on air

Wolf is the author of numerous books and her latest is an exploration of homosexual relationships in the Victorian era. In the notably repressed period, same sex relations were considered immoral, if not outright criminal, and Wolf cited what she said was “several dozen executions” of men accused of having sex with other men, according to the New York Times. However, BBC Radio host Matthew Sweet was skeptical of the claims and pushed back on Wolf during an interview saying, “Several dozen executions?” He later added: “I don’t think you’re right about this.”

It turns out that Wolf misunderstood the way the court's sentences were recorded and assumed that the phrase “death recorded” in court records meant an execution had been carried out. Sweet explained her mistake, saying “It doesn’t mean that he was executed. It 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.”

Wolf graciously accepted the correction and promised to look into the matter and fix the mistakes later.

Wolf misunderstood a legal term.

2. Not the first error

This isn’t the first time Wolf’s fact-checking has been called into question. In her first book, The Beauty Myth, which was premised on the idea that women are oppressed by an unattainable standard of beauty that is a social construct not based in reality, she misquoted statistics about eating disorders. At the time, critic Christina Hoff Sommers questioned Wolf’s assertion that 150,000 women were dying every year from anorexia. Sommers double-checked the figures herself and discovered that the number 150,000 was not a mortality rate from eating disorders but in fact the number of diagnoses. In truth, the number of eating disorder fatalities was 100-400.

Wolf has made factual errors before.

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3. Feminist adviser

Another episode that called into question Wolf’s credibility was her rather undefined role in Al Gore’s unsuccessful bid for president in 2000. According to The Heavy, she signed on to the campaign as an advisor, with a salary of $15,000 per month. She was loosely titled his “feminist advisor” but her role was never clearly explained. Rumors circulated that her job consisted of helping the candidate choose clothing and accessories.  She had also allegedly called him a “beta male” to then-President Bill Clinton’s “alpha male” and was working to make him seem more assertive on the campaign trail. She dismissed all of these rumors but never did clarify her role in the campaign.

Her role on the Gore campaign was ambiguous.

4. Other controversies

Wolf has argued that the productive justice and feminist movements should make more room for activists who do not support legal abortion rights and that the pro-choice movement should change strategy. Writing for the New Republic, she suggests that feminists need to accept the label of homicide for abortion saying: "Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die.” She also posits that pornography sets up unrealistic ideas of what women’s bodies should look like, thus causing heterosexual men to not be sexually interested in typical looking women. She wrote for New York Magazine in 2003 that: “The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as 'porn-worthy.' Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention." 

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In 2003, Wolf wrote about internet porn.

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5. Fact checking

As for the claims made in her current book, the New York Times reports that Wolf is prepared to fix them, having taken to social media to tell readers that she is making the corrections and thanking Sweet for bringing the mistake to her attention. Her publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt explains that they do not do internal fact checking and that while the publisher “employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”

The publisher denies repsonsibility for fact checking.

Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.