Parul Sehgal’s Error-Filled ‘Lacerating’ New York Times Review of Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love; And My Refutation

The New York Times critic Parul Sehgal wrote a review of my book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love on June 5 that was filled with errors. This review, to which another New York Times reporter referred as “lacerating,” led to a misguided social media and critical pile-on, a pile-on that was itself replete with error.

Parul Sehgal, Book Critic

As I have been systematically correcting those erroneous articles one by one, I also now publicly ask The New York Times to correct the many errors in Ms. Sehgal’s sadly inaccurate piece.

I’ll address them one by one:

1. The title – ‘Naomi Wolf’s Career of Blunders Continues in ‘Outrages’’ – may generate clicks, but it is not fair or accurate. I do think it is gendered. I guess she is free to call a writer’s career as a Rhodes scholar, a seven-time-bestselling author of works of nonfiction, an advisor informally to a Presidential re-election campaign and formally to a Vice-Presidential campaign for President, a former opinion columnist for The Guardian, Project Syndicate and George magazine, a contributor to most major news outlets including The New York Times, a commentator on most major TV channels, a CEO of a civic tech company, a former recipient of research fellowships at Barnard College and Oxford University, a lecturer at the Ashmolean Museum and Rhodes House, a former visiting professor at SUNY Stony Brook in Victorian Studies, recipient of a Glamour Woman of the Year award, author of a book that The New York Times called one of the most important of the 20th century, a reporter who revealed twenty years of coverups of sexual abuse at Yale University for a New York Magazine cover story that helped lead to a Title IX action, recipient of an honorary doctorate from Sweet Briar College, co-founder of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership and of the American Freedom Campaign, co-writer and subject of a documentary, The End of America, that was downloaded two million times, someone who completed a D Phil at the University of Oxford after raising two kids as a single mom —  a “ludicrous” “career of blunders”; but to do so accurately she would have to provide evidence.

The evidence offered by Ms. Sehgal is inaccurate. I also wonder if a 56-year-old male writer with exactly the same qualifications would be assigned such a misleading and inaccurate headline.

2. Contrary to Ms. Sehgal’s assertion, I never stated that “a woman’s brain can allow her to become pregnant if she so desires, even if she is using birth control.” This sentence is pure nonsense. She is perhaps referring to the discussion in my book, Vagina, about stress affecting women’s fertility, which is thoroughly documented by peer-reviewed studies and the citations of which are not in question. Just because stress affects women’s fertility negatively, it does not mean that “a woman’s brain can allow her to become pregnant if she so desires even if she is using birth control.” This is flat out distortion of my argument. It makes me wonder if she read this book.

3. I never wrote that “women’s intellects and creativity are dependent on their sexual fulfillment and, specifically, the skillful ministrations of a “virile man.”‘ This is again nonsensical, as well as damaging, heterocentrist and untrue. If Ms. Sehgal can find such a statement anywhere in Vagina she should reference the page; such a statement does not exist. I wrote that the neuroscience of female sexuality can support aspects of the neuroscience of female creativity; not ever that the latter is “dependent” on the former. And my book addresses the sexuality of women of all sexual orientations and practices.

4. I never wrote that “writing a letter to a breech baby will induce it to turn right side up.”

Again, I would like to see a page number where Ms. Sehgal found this sentence. I reported in Misconceptions on my own experience of being advised to address my breech baby to request that she turn, and then she did. I made no prescriptions about this inexplicable experience. I wrote that there are anecdotal reports by pregnant women, and by midwives about pregnant women, that breech babies have turned after the mothers-to-be have asked them to, or written letters with this intention. I never reported this prescriptively, but rather anecdotally. Surely basic feminism reminds us that pregnant women always share personal stories and that demeaning the anecdotal information that mothers-to-be and other women share with each other is a standard tactic of anti-feminist discourse.

Ms. Sehgal needs to identify the page number to confirm her ridiculous mis-statement. I wonder if she has even read Misconceptions.  (But I would note that if The New York Times is going to pile examples of hard-to-explain life experiences that are simply and humbly narrated onto a tendentious critical heap of “assertions” called “batty”, that gendered term of invective, they are going to very much limit beyond already existing limits, the range and honesty of female nonfiction writers.)

5. Most seriously, Ms. Sehgal replicates the same error that The New York Times has replicated in two other articles about my new book. She writes that: I “spoke passionately about ‘several dozen executions’ of men, including teenagers, accused of having sex with other men.” “Several dozen executions? I don’t think you’re right about this,” the BBC host, Matthew Sweet, said, […] filleting one of Wolf’s central claims…”

At this point I really have to wonder if Ms. Sehgal has read or even owns a copy of Outrages. I never wrote anywhere in Outrages that there were “several dozen executions” of men, and this is not a “central claim” of my book. The central claim of my book, rather, is that LGBTQ pioneer John Addington Symonds was frightened of legal exposure and of professional scandal, which his own writings make abundantly clear.

Contrary to Ms. Sehgal’s false claim about my book, I wrote that my own primary research found very few executions. Ms. Sehgal needs to show her editors and readers the page in Outrages stating “several dozen executions” as a “central claim” in my book, as this simply does not exist; The Times has been misreporting this from day one of its coverage, and I continue to experience blowback for a grave error made by Dr. Sweet and then by Ms. Sehgal, but not by me.

In interviews, I verbally noted that there were “several dozen” executions in the 19th century — NOT in the “Victorian period.” This is sadly the case. Graham Robb in Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century, identifies 55 executions before 1835. This is uncontested by scholars in the field. It is deeply damaging and completely inaccurate for Ms. Sehgal to make such a set of statements without checking the book itself, or even checking the literature by respected queer studies historians who did the primary research on arrests and punishments for same-sex offenses in the 19th century, such as Dr. Robb, Dr. Charles Upchurch or Dr. H. G. Cocks.

By leaving this solecism uncorrected, The New York Times allowed the narrative to be replicated all over the Internet that a central tenet of my book fell apart with Dr. Sweet’s criticism. Dr. Sweet was accurate about the outcomes of two cases I cite, but totally and impactfully inaccurate about the nonexistence of dozens of executions for sodomitical offenses before 1835.

BBC Radio, as a government-funded news and opinion outlet, has a special responsibility not to seriously misinform its millions of listeners about an important decades-long tragedy within queer history. The New York Times, as the most respected newspaper in the U.S., has a similar obligation to its readers and to history. This assertion of Ms. Sehgal’s is not only completely untrue, it has had a terrible effect of multiplying errors; leading to a regrettable, even shameful whitewashing of a dark record of prosecutions and punishments within LGBTQ history, which is everyone’s history.

I never stated in Outrages that “one year — 1857 — saw the birth of state-created homophobia.”  Again, does Ms. Sehgal even have a copy of the book? If she did or had actually read it, she would know abundantly that I trace state-created homophobia, as do other scholars, to the 1533 Buggery Act, with multiple acts before 1857, including the Vagrancy Act, challenges such as that of Reekspear that refined state-generated homophobic law to criminalizing penetration rather than emission, and the recategorization of sodomy with more serious crimes such as rape and murder by 1855.

If she is going to accuse me of a “distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record” she needs to have a concrete example — and ideally more than one. This statement is grievously inaccurate; I have been a serious reporter and nonfiction writer for thirty years and this unfounded, damaging and inaccurate statement about my career needs to be corrected.

She writes very wrongly that ”’The Beauty Myth’ is well-known for exaggerating the number of women who died of anorexia (Wolf stated that anorexia kills 150,000 women annually)”. This is completely untrue. I have pointed out that this was a quote many times before in many public fora.

The first edition of The Beauty Myth had a citation from Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, which cited a newsletter of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. I quoted from Brumberg’s citation of this advocacy group, in quotation marks, and wrote: “If this is true, then….” This serious error on Ms. Sehgal’s part must be corrected.

Ms. Sehgal cites “one academic paper,” not by name, that “found” that “fully 18 of the 23 statistics about anorexia in the book were inaccurate”. All of the statistics I cited in The Beauty Myth were from respected peer-reviewed sources, which as The New York Times knows, is the standard bar for serious general nonfiction. If the author of the unnamed “academic paper” has a problem with the statistics cited in The Beauty Myth, he or she needs to contact the academics who designed the studies and the peer-reviewed journals that published them. They in turn will respond. He or she can certainly alert me as well, which he or she never did. But Ms. Sehgal simply repeated this inaccurate but catchy attack without considering that my citations are peer-reviewed or from major publications, and evidently without looking at them for herself.

We have yet another unnamed source — (Remember Journalism 101? Two sources, no blind negative attributions?) stating that “reviews of her book on fascism argued, as one put it, that she ‘consistently mutilated the truth with selective and ultimately deceptive use of her sources.'” The End of America received excellent reviews and a book award, and was on The New York Times’ bestseller list for months. And who is this unnamed reviewer? Where is this unnamed publication? One reviewer, to my knowledge, made this inaccurate case, in The Atlantic, in a piece so filled with baseless assertions, like Ms. Sehgal’s, and so without other important forms of confirmation, that editors of The Atlantic had to correct the headline . Ironically, The End of America was so accurate in its citations and so unfortunately prescient that a number of well-received books, most of them by male authors, have recently rewritten it without credit to the 2008 argument. My sources for The End of America are impeccable — and with such a damaging assertion, especially from a blind source, evidence is needed. Can Ms. Sehgal name a single citation that is not accurate in The End of America?

Well, can she? Let’s have it then.

This invention by a baseless and error-filled article in The Atlantic, of vague criticism of my research, becomes a self-perpetuating disinformation machine, as later New York Times articles vaguely reference critics of my allegedly imperfect research practices – criticism re-invented for its part by Ms. Sehgal, who has yet to date to cite an actual earlier error.

We must soldier on into still more imaginary statements from Ms. Sehgal. I never “alleged the American military is importing Ebola from Africa with an intention of spreading it at home.” Again, that interpretation is invented by Ms. Sehgal. I warned that sudden media focuses, directed by elected officials, on disturbing news, at times prove to be distractions from other political news that would not play well. That’s a lesson I learned as a political consultant at the highest level of national politics; it disturbed me then and I have been conscientiously warning citizens about this ‘Wag the Dog’ tendency of elected officials ever since. Writers for The (respectfully: Yellowcake, Centrifuges, Weapons of Mass Destruction) New York Times would do well to bear this serious warning, from a former political insider, in mind when reporting.

Contrary to Ms. Sehgal’s claims, I never stated that Edward Snowden was a government plant; I noted that he may have been trained in intelligence, before it was disclosed that he was — trained in intelligence. I did appear on the Alex Jones show, as I appear anywhere anyone wishes to discuss threats to democracy, which, again, turned out to be all too real. The New York Times and other news outlets should have assumed the same sense of responsibility about this that I had back in 2008 and been reporting on these threats as vigilantly ever since. But here we are.

I did not accuse the “government of intercepting and reading [my] daughter’s mail.” These statements are not accurate.

I did not “eschew careful research” in any of my eight books with their hundreds of total footnotes; I did not “eschew careful research” in my opinion columns, or in the hundreds of news and comment pieces that I wrote for such publications as The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The London Times, The Sunday Times of London, Marxism Today, The Independent, The Telegraph, Project Syndicate, Al Jazeera, The Baltimore Sun, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, USA Today, El Pais, La Monde, Die Zeit, Ha’Aretz, Palgrave’s academic anthology Talking Bodies, textbooks that reproduce my essays for college students, The New York Times’ own syndication services, keynote speeches for university graduations based on an op-ed in The New York Times,  global literary festivals, speeches for Microsoft, Hershey, and Prudential, and so on and so on.

I have several confirmed errors over the course of hundreds of articles, eight nonfiction books, thousands of posts, in global publications and digital platforms, over a span of three decades, each one of which I have brought immediately to public attention and immediately corrected. Certainly there are peers with comparable careers who can say the same — but I would say that they would deserve to be proud of this record.

So much is wrong with Ms. Sehgal’s story, as well as with the earlier reporting by The New York Times about Outrages, that I don’t know how it can be corrected except very prominently. I was appalled to learn from an editor at The New York Times that there is no longer an ombudsman at that paper/news site. This sweeping-under-the-carpet of serious error is not characteristic of The New York Times that has in the past been the benchmark for journalistic excellence.

It was a testimony to the integrity of The New York Times that it used to own up to error. I hope those days are not behind us.

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