Naomi Wolf: Were in a fight for our lives and for democracy

The author discusses her fears for free speech, older women, and her latest book, Outrages, a study of the persecution of gay men by the legal system in Victorian Britain

When Naomi Wolf tells me that shes finished with writing about herself something she says more than once in the hour we spend together its hard to know what to think. Such news is likely to be treated with a certain amount of scepticism in some quarters. Readers will recall her last book, Vagina: A New Biography in which she described the way that her then lover was able to give her orgasms so powerful they made the leaves on the trees outside her bedroom glow in Wizard of Oz Technicolor and wonder if she is truly capable of giving up the over-sharing that has so often been her stock in trade. Then again, having read her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, I also know that her declaration is perfectly true for the time being, at least.


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    At one point, admittedly, she does try to evoke what it feels like to hold a particular 19th-century manuscript in her hands (its almost furry pages give off, she fancies, the scent of a time when people read and wrote by gaslight). Mostly, though, its author is entirely absent from its pages. Outrages comes over as precisely what it is: a PhD thesis, reworked for a wider readership, which examines the effect of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and some other notable laws the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which authorised the forcible medical examination of homosexual men for signs of sexual activity; the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which extended laws against sodomy to include acts of gross indecency between men whether committed in public or private on the lives and work of various Victorian poets. Highly serious and at times a little dusty, it could not be less personal if it tried.

    At its heart is a man called John Addington Symonds, an obscure writer who was an early advocate of male love, and whose work was either fudged pronouns in his sonnets changed from male to female for publication or locked away in iron boxes, so great was his fear that it would fall foul of the obscenity laws, or provide evidence in a possible prosecution of his sexual crimes. On the page, Symonds is not always wholly sympathetic, and theres an obvious reason hes all but forgotten now: the poetry is terrible. But Wolf, you gather, at some point fell for him quite hard. In her books introduction, she explains that she grew increasingly fascinated with seeking out this elusive, tormented, world-changing character.

    The longer she researched him, the more she came to feel that, though he died in 1893, he was just down the street; reading him in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, his prescient voice seemed just a carrel away. If she does not turn him into a hero, exactly, she does all she can to make him seem complicatedly human: a freedom fighter, albeit a somewhat clenched one.

    In the sunny sitting room of her West Village apartment in New York not precisely a place Id have expected to find myself discussing, over coffee and doughnuts, the relationship of Christina Rossettis poem Goblin Marketto Victorian obscenity laws Wolf leaps up and pulls from a nearby shelf a book so hefty she can barely hold it in one hand. Here are Symondss letters.

    Having read a thousand pages of them, I was so taken with this person who just wanted to love in a state of truth, Wolf says. The struggles they reveal: his father blackmailing his headmaster at Harrow [this was after Symonds revealed to his father that a school friend had had an affair with the head]; the fellows at Magdalen College [in Oxford, where Symonds had been elected to a fellowship] formally assessing his private life [someone had made sexual allegations about him to them]; the fact that he has to get married to a woman.

    He is so granular about what it feels like to have no desire for women. He is so careful when observing his own inner life. He is surrounded by silencing and suffocation, but he just wont give up. He spends his life in ill health [Symonds suffered at least one nervous breakdown] trying to tell his truth, whether in public or private and all this against the back story of the law changing, and [its implementation] becoming ever more draconian. My book is about one gay man, but its also a cautionary tale about what happens when the secular state gets the power to enter your bedroom.

    Wolf began her doctorate in 1986, as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford. But she never completed it: My subject didnt exist. I wanted to write feminist theory, and I kept being told by the dons there was no such thing. In the end, she turned the research that shed done into The Beauty Myth, her first book and the one that made her name (its central contention, oddly controversial in 1990 it seems like so much common sense now was that women were growing ever more burdened by unrealistic standards of beauty). This, in turn, led to what she jokingly describes as my career as a professional feminist as well as other, still more contentious books, among them Promiscuities, in which she urged women to reclaim their sexuality, and Vagina.

    Naomi
    Naomi Wolf, late 1980s. Photograph: Janette Beckman/Retna

    But I come from an academic family, and Id always wanted to do a doctorate, she says (Wolf grew up in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, to liberal parents who were utterly unshockable). I reapplied to finish it Im 56 now, so I must have been 48 then and they let me come back, and the beautiful end to this story is that by this point queer studies and feminist studies did exist at Oxford. It was the supervisor of her PhD, Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista, author of a book about Victorian homosexuality and the Greeks, who put her on to Symonds. He gave me these letters, she says. Id never heard of him before that.

    Even if you know something about, say, the trial of Oscar Wilde, Wolfs book is full of appalling surprises. Chief among them, for me, was the horrifying degree to which the state then persecuted homosexuals a tyranny that steadily encouraged the public to feel disgusted by gayness.

    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 theres a transition, and you see adult consensual men being brought in as couples, and it begins to be more likely theyll 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 offence, and hanged.

    Here, Wolf believes, lie the threads of modern homophobia. She is, however, careful not to draw parallels between the events she describes in Outrages and our own times. She wants her readers to reach their own conclusions, for which reason she has, for instance, nothing to say about the protests mounted by parents in Birmingham against No Outsiders, a programme that aims to show primary school children diverse families, including those with same-sex parents. Only when you push her does she agree that the effects of both sexual proscription and censorship always extend far beyond the groups they aim to target and that both may be on the rise in our own society.

    Theres no such thing as a marginalised minority whose persecution doesnt affect all of us, she says. Equally, I tear my hair when someone says something heinous, and the response its so predictable is simply to silence them. Categorically, history shows that once you let the state have that power, soon itll be your speech [thats silenced], too.

    Is this something she worries about at home? (If Trump and his acolytes are ever more emboldened to say the unsayable, theres also good evidence to suggest that American university campuses are engaging in no-platforming and other forms of censorship to an unprecedented degree.) Well, its bad here, she says. The assaults on the first amendment are non-stop. But at least we have a first amendment. Britain is the birthplace of the idea of personal liberty and freedom of speech, and I worry about things like no-platforming in Britain things that are, I should say, coming from the left. Its catastrophic, just as tasking professors to turn in their students who have extremist ideas is catastrophic. Censoring a bad idea never makes it vanish. The erosion of freedom of speech is, she believes, the biggest subject of our time, and calls for utmost vigilance on all our parts.

    Wolf occupies a complicated space in the public imagination. For women like me, a Reclaim-the-Night-marching student when The Beauty Myth came out, she has been a presence all our adult lives and a welcome one, too, at first. When that book was attacked (most famously by the American academic Camilla Paglia), its author treated with a nasty combination of suspicion and contempt, we knew perfectly well why: envy was clearly in play. She was good-looking; why should she care about impossible standards of beauty?

    But with every subsequent book she published, Wolf slowly chipped away at her own reputation. She was widely accused of sloppiness, of making generalisations and of ignoring historical context, a tendency that reached its climax no joke intended in 2012 with Vagina, in which she claimed to have proved what she described as a profound brain-vagina connection (asked by the New York Times about this, more than one scientist wondered about her data).

    Her public declarations, too, began to make people uneasy. In 2010, she appeared to suggest that the rape allegations against Julian Assange were politically motivated. In 2013, it was reported that in a Facebook post shed suggested the whistleblower Edward Snowden was not who he claimed to be (was he, she wanted to know, still working for the National Security Agency?). In 2014, she questioned the authenticity of videos that appeared to show of the beheading of two Britons and two Americans, implying theyd been staged by the US government (she later apologised for this).

    Naomi
    Naomi Wolf addresses the Oxford Union, 2014. Photograph: Roger Askew/Rex/Shutterstock

    Im not sure it would be fair to condemn her outright as a full-blown conspiracy theorist; she still has lots of sensible things to say, and Outrages is very sensible indeed. But perhaps these controversies are part of the reason why she is so reluctant to discuss anything but her new book with me. I have the feeling she would like to be taken seriously again or at any rate, to be a little less on the margins. Having frequently spoken out against human rights abuses in Gaza, she has found herself on the receiving end of some heat and perhaps this is in the air, too.

    I was [teaching] at Barnard, and the trustees said they were not comfortable with my politics being the face of the university, she says. She has no teaching job now. All I ever wanted was to teach and do this kind of research. Im proud of all my books, but this is what I was meant to do, and Ive got my resum out.

    Whatever else you may think about her, Wolfs writing has often been prescient. In 2007, she published The End of America, which looked at how fascism can destroy democracy, with particular application to the US in the years following the 9/11 attacks. Is she unnerved by what is happening around her now?

    Well, I dont enjoy being ahead of the curve, she says. Id rather be wrong. But honestly, I felt worse then than now. People were asleep to the dangers then. I feel like a fever has broken here, and everybody knows were in a fight for our lives, and for democracy. Can the Democrats win the next election? (Wolf was a highly paid adviser to Al Gore during his 2000 presidential campaign.) I dont think thats necessarily the answer, just like getting Labour into power wouldnt be the answer. Its a nice fiction that if you get a Democrat, it solves things. But in terms of civil liberties, some of the worst abuses were under Obama. Im more focused in a non-partisan way on empowering people at grass-roots level to understand their laws. To this end, she is one of the founders of an internet startup, DailyClout, which aims to make legislation easier for regular people to understand.

    And then theres #MeToo. In 2004, Wolf accused the scholar Harold Bloom, who taught her at Yale, of a sexual encroachment two decades earlier (he touched her inner thigh). At the time, a huge storm cloud blew up around her claims. So what does she make of #MeToo? Was she a canary in the coalmine?

    I feel relieved when anyone tells the truth, she says. If you cant tell the truth, you cant be the person you want to be. Will there be a backlash? Is a backlash, in fact, already underway? She sighs.

    Every time women take a step forward, theyre told its bad for women. But even if a predator doesnt go to jail, or lose their job, this is important. Just not keeping a secret is healing. I faced a lot of abuse when I told the truth about Bloom. Since then, Yale has been the target of lawsuits. Thats superficially vindicating, but it was more important for me to tell the truth. How does she feel when she is attacked? How does she keep going? Im lucky. I had a good education. I know my books are true. Theyre well sourced. They have hundreds of footnotes. She flashes me a somewhat tight smile.

    These days, though, she no longer has to face these things alone. She and her first husband, the journalist David Shipley, with whom she has two grown-up children, divorced in 2005. But last year, she married Brian OShea, a private detective. When I say, teasingly, that it seems unlikely that Naomi Wolf should be married to a detective, she affects at first not to know what I mean. But then this is love! she cannot help herself. I do feel very happy, she says, her face breaking (at last) into a huge and wholly sincere grin. How did they meet? In 2014, I was getting some blowback about what Id said about Israel/Palestine; some serious threats online. I needed to consult a security firm, and Brian was recommended to me. We were very appropriate for a long time. He took care of my security issues, and then that turned into something else And yes, it does go to show that you do not know what is around the corner.

    Is it this new relationship that preserves her from the feelings of loss and invisibility that assail so many women of her age? From a feeling of injustice? (We are at the height of our powers and yet, somehow, written off.) Or is she just naturally ebullient? (I will not use the word thick-skinned.) She shakes her head.

    I dont want to be Pollyanna-ish. But I really dont feel self-conscious about my age. I dont like mortality, but we dont have the same narrative here as in Britain. In New York, especially, there is a glorification of accomplished middle-aged women. On the sofa on which she is sitting, she re-arranges her limbs carefully.

    Its a cultural narrative in Britain: the ageing woman, the philandering man, the trophy wife its a deeply misogynist media culture. Youve got some real dinosaurs there, and they do affect the self-esteem of women. She gazes at me, unblinkingly, almost as if I were one of them.

    Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love by Naomi Wolf is published by Little, Brown (20). To order it go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

    Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

     


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