The View from Inside a Twitterstorm

In 2012, while working on my doctorate at Oxford, I came upon volumes of letters by someone of whom I had never heard: John Addington Symonds. I was hooked: it was the voice of a young man caught between romantic attraction to other men, and an increasingly dangerous legal context for writers and for homosexuals.

Symonds, who was both courageous and cautious; his epistolary friendship with American poet Walt Whitman; and British laws restricting intimacy between men and suppressing free speech, resulted in my new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love.

As has been widely reported, I erred in how I described two cases in 1859 and 1860. I misinterpreted the term “Death Recorded” as executions, rather than as the lesser, but still serious, sentences involved. Dr. Matthew Sweet pointed this out to me in a BBC 3 interview on his show “Free Thinking.”

Dr. Sweet asserted that “dozens” of executions I had mentioned, had not, in his view, happened. ‘“Several dozen executions? I don’t think you’re right about this,” the host, Matthew Sweet, said, very politely filleting one of Wolf’s central claims” — approvingly, but erroneously, reported the New York Times Book Review.

Edmund Hochreiter, or “Thymetikon,” built on this error of Dr. Sweet’s. He posted a tweet inviting “everyone” to “listen” as I purportedly learn “on live radio” that the “historical thesis” of my book is “based on [my] misunderstanding of a legal term.”

This ignited a Twitterstorm.  A frenzied social-media eruption then decided that my book was “debunked.”

The narrative that followed — that a prominent American feminist got “dozens” of executions, the “core” of my book, wrong, and was publicly chastised by a learned British man —  was too delicious not to repeat. A huge initial wave, an average of seventy stories a day, often used emotive language: I was “humiliated,” “embarrassed,” even “mortified”, at being “called out” live, on “deplorable” errors.

The Internet thought that all of this was hilarious; but virtually none of it was the case.

In other ways Dr. Sweet was wrong. He insisted, famously, that “death recorded” meant its “opposite” – the arrival of “a pardon.” The Internet gave Dr. Sweet (an expert on Victorian sensation novelist Willkie Collins, as well as, according to IMDB, “a renowned expert on the television series Dr. Who,” and not a legal historian ( — full faith in his statement.

But scholars interpret this ambiguous term variously. Professor Robert Shoemaker, co-director of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, stated that it means: `“We won’t execute you if…”’ the prisoner serves a lesser but possibly still serious sentence. Baroness Helena Kennedy, one of my legal readers, argued in the Independent, confirming Professor Shoemaker’s view, that “death recorded” meant “a sword of Damocles” — that the prisoner could still be executed.

I twice issued stern warnings to Dr. Sweet that his statement that I “would find” that “most” of the men sentenced for sodomitical offenses in the 19th century, were child molesters or sexual predators, was not accurate. Legal records used euphemism to describe sexual offenses: as Graham Robb notes, in Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century the way that 19th century British laws lumped together rapists, child molesters and consenting adult lovers, is one of the ugly legacies of legalized homophobia. My warnings barely survive in the “Free Thinking” interview.

Serious news outlets reported Dr. Sweet’s serious error suggesting that “dozens” of executions had not taken place — based on social media reports; none of the reporters had actually read the book or done their own primary research.

But sadly, these executions are all too real.

Prominent queer studies historians of the 19th century document this persecution: Charles Upchurch, in Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, confirmed British news reports of hundreds of arrests for offenses involving same-sex contact; so did H. G. Cocks, in Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century. Graham Robb identified, as I mentioned, 55 executions before 1835. Robb notes that as the death sentence for sodomy remained the law of the land until 1861, people lived, as he put it, in the shadow of the gallows.

Apart from the Guardian, I was not contacted for right of reply from any of the outlets — an omission that violates basic journalistic ethics; (the other violation of journalistic ethics is single sourcing).

Misreporting escalated. Emily Rutherford, a graduate student writing in, invented from whole cloth a scene from Outrages in which I purportedly visit the London Library and claim to have rediscovered Symonds’ Memoirs manuscript. This fictional scene was real enough to Ms. Rutherford that she assigns to it the cause of her throwing my book across the room:

Problem is, none of this ever happened, and had to issue a correction.

But first, Dr. Sweet and other reporters approvingly retweeted Ms. Rutherford’s essay, with its made-up scenario. Other erroneous reports, such as in The New European, came thick and fast; as did abuse from homophobic conservatives and supporters of Nazi websites, among that from trolls from across the ideological spectrum.

How did so many established news sites get so much wrong?

If the “feminist humiliated on live radio” story is trending (and it got up to 100% of Google Trends), then even if it’s largely wrong, algorithms will serve it up in different formats to news outlets; and editors will be more likely to sign off on a version of it, because it’s trending. This generates more impressions, more clicks, and more money via ads. The accurate version of this story on the other hand – “scholar corrects scholar with a correction that is partly incorrect” – is unlikely to have gone viral. Vanished would have been this productive clickbait: no humiliated feminist, no “dozens” of imagined executions, no “debunked” book, no titillating shame.

So whether the pressure is consciously felt by editors or not, news outlets have an incentive not to call the author for comment, not to look at the actual book, and not to make corrections.

These articles were not news or literary journalism, but gossip, conveyed in a tone often fueled by gender bias. My interpretation of these historical errors are not gendered and I take full responsibility for them. But the coverage’s focus on my purported “humiliation” and voyeuristic scrutiny of “how I feel” – was in my view gendered.

I don’t believe that a 56 year-old male author of seven bestselling nonfiction books, one of which the New York Times called one of the most important books of the 20th Century — who is also a former Rhodes scholar, a formal Vice-Presidential and informal Presidential campaign adviser, a recipient of Barnard and Oxford research fellowships, a former visiting professor in Victorian Studies at SUNY Stony Brook, a former columnist for The Guardian, for George Magazine and for Project Syndicate, a reporter whose work appears in most major news outlets, a guest commentator on most networks, the CEO of a civic tech company (all of this comprising, of course, as the New York Times Book Review put it, in an equally gendered headline, “Naomi Wolf’s Career of Blunders”) — would be assigned a narrative framing involving a theatrics  of emotionality.

My intention for Outrages is to give readers insight into this difficult history and these opaque records from the 19th century. I welcome public debate. I asked, for instance, several times, to come back onto Dr. Sweet’s show to question the host himself about some of the issues that have come to light in his interpretation of history; but to no avail.

Ultimately, though, none of this matters at all.

What matters is the story of John Addington Symonds, which is so important to LGBTQ history, getting corrected, for readers who want to know about it.

Outrages isn’t a criminological table. It’s a love story; it’s also about how Symonds and his circle absorbed news reports of trials of men accused of same-sex intimacy, and about how these news reports generated fear. It takes few death sentences or sentences at hard labor to chill a civil society. The “heart” of my book is intact.

Unfortunately, readers aren’t able to decide for themselves, as the U.S. publication has been delayed, in part, possibly, by this poorly sourced melee — a decision by my US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, that I wholeheartedly oppose.

LGBTQ history is fraught with silencing and erasure, as are the histories of many marginalized groups.  Investigations of this history should always be open to revision with new information.

How many men who loved men were executed in 19th century Britain; how many were imprisoned, and for how long —  should be a solemn inquiry about a painful, even bloody tragedy; not infotainment.

Symonds risked his freedom by telling his truth about love; by doing so he helped bring about the freer future we all inherit.

We should honor him with rigorous debate and open inquiry; not silence him a second time, via this lowbrow social-media spectacle, and lucrative misinformation.

Leave a Comment