Naomi Wolf had a plan: get a doctorate, write scholarly work, and teach. In 1985, she received a Rhodes Scholarship and was preparing to write a thesis on images of women in 18th- and 19th-century Britain. But Wolf’s proposed analysis proved a difficult undertaking in the mid-1980s. Feminist studies did not yet exist at Oxford—the very idea of the field’s existence was regularly mocked. And so Wolf, discouraged by her betters, never completed her thesis.
Perhaps Wolf has learned to chock it all up to the times and move on. After all, just a few years after her failed thesis attempt, she managed to rework her idea into a proposal for her first book, 1990’s The Beauty Myth, which drove the formation of a new feminist consciousness.
Rather than becoming an academic, Wolf sparked intellectual debate and spurred a new national conversation around oppressive pressures placed on women’s appearances, writing not simply as a scholar but as a commentator and activist. But in her ninth nonfiction work, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love (HMH, June), Wolf is first and foremost a scholar.
The book’s origin story begins in 2013, when Wolf, figuring that she wouldn’t have the same problem as before, reapplied to Oxford. “This time around it was a completely different Oxford,” she tells me. “Both feminist theory and queer studies were very well represented, and all those guys who dared mock feminist theory were long gone.” In their stead were professors such as Stefano-Maria Evangelista, a specialist in gender and queer theory and Victorian literature. While studying under Evangelista, Wolf began to unearth early dialogue and debate about Victorian sexuality, including persecutory laws such as the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.
“I was relaying all this to Dr. Evangelista,” Wolf says, “when one day, he reached for these two gigantic green tomes, handed me one of them, and said, ‘You really have to read John Addington Symonds.’ ” It was through these books that Wolf’s thesis finally came to fruition and became the basis for Outrages. She embarked on a deep dive into late Victorian aestheticism, told chiefly through the life and memoirs of Symonds (1840–1893), an English poet and literary critic. In Symonds, Wolf discovered a nearly unheard-of advocate for male love at a time when homosexual acts were crimes.
For Wolf, a major part of the project was becoming the student after years of gasconading both literary and political authority on issues surrounding nationalism, gender, and race. After all, by 30, she’d already ascended meteorically as a purveyor of third-wave feminist thought, becoming a spokeswoman for a movement she’d helped propel into the cultural zeitgeist. But upon discovering the story and writings of Symonds, Wolf felt as though she’d been presented with a new kind of task—she wanted to inject life into a spirit struggling to live on.
“I don’t think I brought anything but willing service to this story,” Wolf says. “This was an extraordinary man. I just had to get out of his way.” She reaches for a massive, red-spined volume: a collection of Symonds’s memoirs assembled in 2017 that includes hundreds of his narratives, all of which were left with instructions indicating that they remain untouched until 50 years after his death. The directive was just one piece of a larger scheme designed by Symonds to simultaneously conceal his writings and set them free into the world—a world that, Wolf says, “he wished and predicted and imagined would one day be more accepting.”
In Symonds’s poetic writing, there is sexual boldness. There are recurring images of “quivering lips,” “feverish pillows,” “broodings,” and “ecstasies.” But in his memoirs, he retracts—paralyzed by despair, disbelieving in the cruelness of the world. Of his father’s disapproval of one of Symonds’s adolescent love affairs, Symonds writes, “At that important moment in my life, I could not understand, and I’ve never been able to understand, why people belonging to different strata in society—if they love each other—should not enter into comradeship.”
Symonds is almost always starving for answers. His writing and desperate attempts at relating to someone, particularly Walt Whitman, his cross-Atlantic idol, are fueled by an implacable anxiety. In his correspondence with Whitman, he nearly pleads for the poet to affirm that he was gay. Still, as Wolf writes, Symonds’s badgering is rooted in love; after all, if not for Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, Symonds might never have written at all.
Though a biography at its core, Outrages is packed with social and legal history, demonstrating the prevalence of the policing of sex in 19th-century Britain. Wolf follows the news of the time, tracing a litany of trials against men accused of having sex with one another—men who’d had their bodies probed for evidence by government officials. She details proceedings at London’s central criminal court, in which men as young as 14 were sentenced to years of hard labor. In doing so, she illuminates a history of oppression against queer British men in the century leading up to the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for indecency.
In Symonds’s own circle, many suffered for fear of being censored or penalized. There were people such as Christina Rossetti, who claimed that her sensual poetry was the result of religious ecstasy; painter Simeon Solomon, whose career was cut short after he was sentenced to prison for sodomy, causing him to become an alcoholic; and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, in self-defense, repudiated his friendship with Solomon, despite himself writing about sexual taboos.
Symonds, too, is haunted by the possibility of persecution, his creative practice stymied by censorship. “I’ve now written an exhaustive history of modern censorship, and I can say that it’s never solved anything,” Wolf says. “It only breaks democracy—over and over. There’s no such thing as curtailing free speech of marginal characters without curtailing everyone’s free speech.”
A week after our initial conversation, I call Wolf and we talk as she awaits a furniture delivery in Salem, Mass. “It’s in a very Goth little fishing village,” she tells me of her new part-time home. I ask her if there’s any sort of advantage to tracing the origins of a myth—to historicizing homophobia, as she’s done in Outrages, or tracing the birth of modern beauty standards, as she did in The Beauty Myth. She says that going back in history strengthens her authority to claim that censorship and homophobic law are always destructive. It helps to understand that “we think this way for a reason,” she says, “not because we have to think this way.”
Like Symonds, Wolf admits that she often feels more frozen in place than ready to fight and is left more and more bewildered by the prevalence of hate. But unlike Symonds, she has 130 extra years of persecution to look back on, providing the tools to know when oppression is imminent. “We know that if we see language that dehumanizes people, that’s a red flag,” she says. “If we see explanations for why what someone does in private hurts everyone, that’s also a red flag. So I do feel that reading these histories can be empowering tools for the future, so we’re not so easily manipulated.”
And though Wolf does not have all the answers about how to react or respond in these situations, she does have one. “If there’s anything I wish this book could communicate right now, it’s this: whenever you hear a rationale for censorship, flee in the other direction.”
Leah Rosenzweig is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has appeared in Buzzfeed, the Nation, and Slate.