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On Contact: Censorship & criminalizing love

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to author Naomi Wolf about the bitter legacy of the British and Western colonialism of rampant homophobia, so virulent that people to this day are murdered for being gay in countries such as Egypt or Uganda.

Naomi Wolf in her new book, 'Outrages, Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love', examines through the life of the British poet and gay activist John Addington Symonds how imperial power used, and uses, rigid sexual stereotypes as tools for repression and social control.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss "Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love" with author Naomi Wolf.

Naomi Wolf: Who is censored is often a matter of social control.  I mean, I'm just thinking of the American Library Association's Banned Books Project that shows that a significant number of the banned and challenged books every year in 2020, up until 2020, show LGBTQ relationships in a positive light to younger readers, or young adult readers.  And I want to say one more thing, which I've been writing about quite a lot, which is technology allows the censor to be stealthier.

CH: It was not until 2018 that the Indian Supreme Court revoked Section 377, a British Colonial Era law, prohibiting homosexuality or what it termed unnatural acts, and legalized consensual gay sex.  There are 71 countries where same-sex sexual relations are outlawed.  More than half of them are former British colonies or protectorates that left in place British legislation outlined consensual gay sex following independence.  One of the bitter legacies of British and Western colonialism is a rampant homophobia, so virulent that people to this day are murdered for being gay in countries such as Uganda or Egypt.  As Edward Said pointed out, British and Western societies portrayed Oriental cultures as lascivious, places filled with eroticism, and unbridled sexual lust.  These caricatures Said noted served to justify total dominance, including sexual dominance.  The homophobia of the West often clashed with traditional beliefs, for example, Indian society before British rule did not embrace rigid sexual divisions.  There is a centuries old tradition in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal of intersex and transgender people in India that are called Kinners, the name taken from the beings in Hindu mythology that excel at song and dance.  These Kinners are accepted in traditional culture as a natural part of the variance of the sexual universe.  Strict and sexual mores were, and are, weaponized by the west, used to blackmail and intimidate those the ruling elites once silenced, not because of their sexual proclivities, but because of their political opposition.  It was under Section 377, for example, that the Malaysian opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was imprisoned twice on sodomy charges, charges he and his supporters said were unfounded.  He was pardoned in 2018.  Naomi Wolf, in her new book, "Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, examines."  Through the life of the British poet and gay activist John Addington Symonds, how Imperial power used and uses rigid sexual stereotypes as tools for repression and social control.  So at the beginning of your book, and I--as I said before we went on air, I thought Walt Whitman was the true hero of your book, and he's my hero.  You write about how you say there's a deep connection between the origins of the feminist movement in the West, the modern reinvention of Western homophobia, and the start of the Western gay rights movement.  I had not tied all of these together.  So--and you go back to the origins of all of this.  So lay out that process, what happened.  And I mean, what I found most fascinating about your book is how this became a gateway by the state into the intrusion of our--of our personal lives.

NW: Thank you, Chris.  So I am so pleased with your introduction and your showcasing how state rulings, especially originating in the British state in 19th Century, and as you would say, being exported around the world through the Project Vampire, were really about maintaining social control.  And so in "Outrages," what is clear is that the state, the modern secular state, not having the kind of tools of ecclesiastical states previously had to find a rationale for intruding on people's bodies, for managing their private life, their private acts, and for engaging in more and more invasive forms of control at just a time that not only do the British state need to suppress, you know, millions of people overseas, but also at home, domestically.  New populations were clamoring for rights, everything from the chartists, who were wanting to widen the vote for working class men, to the first wave of feminists who were active in the 1850s, 1860s, also demanding property rights, voting rights, sexual--the end in sexual double standards, and so on.  So absolutely, what I found in "Outrages" is that the 19th century British state was experimenting with criminalizing things that hadn't been crimes before like obscenity, right?  It was not a secular crime.  And so the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, at a stroke, gave the state the power to suppress the circulation of texts, and many of these are--were texts that were, like, helping women learn about how to use contraception, or texts that celebrated same-sex love, for instance.  And the other thing is you rightly point out, and point out how enduring the legacy is, the state used new laws, criminalizing in new ways, same-sex male sexual contacts, specifically sodomy, as a way to showcase, I think, the power of the state and to rationalize really getting into what had been, you know, a man's home is his castle, private life.  And so private life free speech were managed in these new ways.  And so you ask, how did I find a connection between feminism in the 19th century and the rise of kind of new legalized forms of homophobia that form the bases for the homophobia we now inherit.  And that was really interesting.  Basically, couple of vectors, one of them was one of the first feminists, Josephine Butler, was a friend of John Addington Symonds, and Symonds was finally, in his lifetime, who's kind of the spine of this book, the writer who wrote the first gay rights manifesto in English.  So she was out there trying to end the Contagious Diseases Act, which were laws in the 1860s that led the British State to arrest women who looked like they might be prostitutes, or they might be sexually active and keep them in locked hospitals for up to six months at a time, and vaginally penetrate them, you know, to check for venereal diseases without their--against their will.  So that was a model of a new form of state control, and it led to the first wave of middleclass women saying, "No, this is not okay," it was the first feminist cause that women organized around.  So I think that the British State clearly kind of moved on from the bodies of heterosexual women to the bodies of gay men, or what we would call today gay men, it's a term that didn't exist in the same way at that time, because by the 1870s, you had testimony in sodomy trials in which invasive brutal exams of the bodies of men accused with sodomy were--the results were being brought to the public eye, you know, entered into the legal record.  And this is a practice that Scott Long of Human Rights Watch says extends in former colonial outposts to this day that men accused of sodomy are basically tortured by the state with these invasive anal exams.  So I don't mean to get very graphic, but, you know, you can see the state kind of using tools on the bodies of women and then finding that that's effective, or using tools on the bodies of people in India, people in colonies overseas, finding that's effective in suppressing dissent in chilling vocal populations, and kind of declaring that the state has powers over our private lives and over our speech and then criminalizing same-sex male contact in more and more kind of flagrant and intrusive ways.

CH: One of the issues you raised in the book is how, in Victorian England, especially among the male upper class, there was a widespread use of prostitution, especially towards very young girls.  So you wrote in the book, as young as 10 years old, adultery was kind of the national sport of the ruling elite.  And when feminist movements pushed back against this kind of misogyny and double standard, of course, towards women, these saw the ruling elites bring out the whole--they were called sodomites, the whole issue of homosexuality as a way to deflect attention from their own behavior and their own misogyny.  Can you speak about that?

NW: Sure.  And thank you for raising that, too, because that's the other important branch of these connections between the first wave of feminism and the feminization of what we would call gay men in the 19th century.  Lesbians were completely ignored by the law, which is a separate, you know, but related important conversation.  So indeed, what I found is that, you know, while same-sex offenses had been criminalized, you know, between men since 1533, I did find that there were these flare-ups of hysteria in, you know, what Scott Long call a moral panic in kind of encouraging all of the British public to point a finger at sodomites, you know, men having sex with men, as the worst possible thing that could be done sexually.  And there were two moments in which there was particular hysteria and new legislation in the case of the second moment, demonizing sex between men, in particularly kind of hysterical language.  And that was interestingly, in 1857, when feminists clamored for the end of the double standard and abuses against women in heterosexual marriage, and they wanted a divorce law, in which, you know, it wasn't a double standard that the heterosexual men could have mistresses, but women could lose their children, and their home, and their property for adultery.  And they also wanted to end, you know, marital rape and they wanted to end various forms of women being victimized, they were being very effective in petitioning parliament, considering women couldn't vote, and had, you know, very few other rights at that time.  It was the divorce issue, the women question, was a very, very effective front of line debate.  It's now largely erased from history books.  But in the face of that, parliamentarians drafting the first divorce bill to affect everybody kind of coined a three-part rape-sodomy-bestiality phrase and kind of highlighted sodomy as one of the worst things that you could do that would allow you to divorce your husband.  And subsequent to that, there was this kind of incredible frenzied language about sodomy.  And you're exactly right, that at the same time, women were also saying, "Look, there's trafficking of girls, you know, there's seduction and betrayal, there are--there are girls, you know, very young girls being brought in from the provinces, being sexually marketed to heterosexual men, this is abuse."  And there was this, I think, deflection of attention at, well, that's the main sexual transgression you need to worry about, the misdeeds of adulterous, prostitution-using heterosexual men, it's those guys over there having sex with each other that doesn't even affect you, right?  That is the thing you need to worry about most.  And then, again in 1885, women were organizing very effectively to end trafficking, and raise the age of consent from very young girls, that it was legal to have sex with girls who were ten, eleven, twelve years old, right?  And so as they were shining light on this, in a really important article called the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon came out in which a famous publisher of newspapers basically bought a young girl for sexual purposes to show how easily it could be done.  At just that moment, when women were saying this is sexually abusive, this is sexually immoral, that straight men are, you know, raping girl children at that moment, the Labouchere Amendment was passed, which criminalized "gross indecency," this very broad criminalization of not just sodomy, but pretty much anything a man might do to another man, it even criminalized if a man introduced them to another man and those second two men had sex, that first man, who made the introduction, could be swept up in the law.  The Labouchere Amendment that was the famous amendment by which Oscar Wilde was later brought to trial.  So to me, as a cultural critic, you know, there's never a smoking gun when you have more moral panics.  But to me, it's really, really interesting that twice very, dramatically in the 19th Century, when women were saying effectively enough, stop raping us, stop raping us in marriage, stop raping girl children, stop having mistresses and end depriving us of our children when we do the same, when we take lovers outside of marriage, you know, give us property rights, you know, and they were very eloquently saying heterosexual men are sexually abusing people engaging in sexual transgression, that at just that moment, an act, which had been a capital offense since 1533 until 1861, but was seen as something that any men might do under certain circumstances, which is sodomy, that became, like, the worst thing, the worst crime, the most immoral thing a man can do sexually.  So, yeah, I do see--I do see a deflection there.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the state intrusion into people's private lives with the author, Naomi Wolf.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the state's intrusion into our private lives with author, Naomi Wolf, author of "Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love."  I want to talk about speech because you have writers Flaubert writes Madame Bovary which causes a scandal in France, and there, as you point out in the book, this is kind of the next step.  It's not just about behavior, it's about speech.

NW: Exactly.  And again, thank you for seeing the really important connections between these laws and, you know, political repression.  So indeed, what you really see in "Outrages" is nations learning from each other, how to criminalize speech and how to kind of develop norms and laws that basically innovate modern censorship.  So we're so I would say propagandized to believe that the modern secular state has always censored speech, right?  That, like, it's not just a matter of how much, you know, do you--do you shout fire in a crowded theater and that's what we censor or is hate speech censored or what's the line.  But we don't ask the right question, which is what right does the state have to censor speech at all and where do those laws even come from.  So they were invented in the 19th century by France, actually, and then Britain learned from France and the United States learned from Britain and here we are with, you know, in 2020 with calls to censor from both sides of the aisle and in nations around the world.  So before 1857, you know, ecclesiastical law did have laws against certain kinds of speech like blasphemy and, you know, heresy and the state had laws against speech like sedition, but the kind of day-to-day modern secular claim that the state has a role in policing what words I say or what words you can read in your private home, that really was invented.  And it was--it has a very vivid kind of point of origin, as you say with the Flaubert trial, also in 1857 in France where Flaubert's magazine publisher was in trouble for publishing Madame Bovary and offending public mores.  So I can't stress enough the importance of this because the notion that the state had a role in protecting public mores was brand new, right?  We're so used to it.  Oh, yeah, the state has to protect public mores.  What are public mores, right?  Totally invented.  And not surprisingly that magazine, which had been critical of the state, after they succeeded in prosecuting for publishing Madame Bovary, they went after that magazine and closed it down for criticism of the French state and that you saw over and over, so it's like a stalking horse.  It's a pretext, you know, the pretext is obscenity.  The pretext is books about, you know, this child has two dads or two moms.  The bottom line is it's a way for the state to showcase its power and it always ends in suppressing criticism of the state.  So now England saw that at a time when, as I keep stressing, many people were clamoring for rights, you know, the French Revolution wasn't that distant in history.  The elites were worried, people were nearly illiterate.  So they did the same thing, they--after a great, you know, decades of parliament saying this is a free country, one man's smut is another man's Venus de Milo, you finally see this bill, the Obscene Publications Act, passed and that compared pornography to poison.  And it focused on, you know, impressionable minds that could be polluted by such influences, and that's a metaphor we really inherit to this day, like, to this day, local school, you know, school libraries that are getting rid of LGBTQ friendly young adult literature will use that metaphor, poisoning young minds.  It was a new metaphor.  And this was so effective.  I'm fast forwarding but so effective, you know, we lead the Victorians without paying attention to the legal context.  And we think they're prudes.  They weren't necessarily prudes.  It was illegal to publish a sexually clear poem or, you know, guidelines about how to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy.  And book sellers and publishers up and down Britain had four to--two to four-month sentences at hard labor for distributing obscene publications.  Societies for the Suppression of Vice would kind of sneak into bookstores and entrap people and then destroy their printing presses.  People like Swinburne, who's an icon now, we read him in high school, his print run was canceled, you know.  And you see, like, struggles then of famous British writers, you know, iconic British writers like William Rossetti to bring out a version of Leaves of Grass that would not violate censorship law, people, you know, starting to tell sexually explicit stories in the allegory like Christina Rossetti, you know, with Goblin Market.  And then I'm going to end this by hopping across the Atlantic, this was so effective at crushing dissent, constraining ideas, making writers self-censor that even though we have a First Amendment in 1873, the Comstock Laws were passed criminalized speech if you mailed a book across state lines that could be seen as pornographic.  So it's a constant fight and the great trials of the early 20th century to win back freedoms of speech like the Howl trial or the Lady Chatterley Trial, you know, we thought that we'd won rights to free speech after those famous trials but the censor is back.

CH: Two things.  I mean, Whitman didn't self-censor and paid for it.  Swinburne completely self-censored and turned on the poet you write about, Symington, to protect his own career.  I want to talk about the targeting.  You wrote a book called "Vagina," which even that book in this modern era, endured a certain amount of censorship.  I think it was even taken off Amazon.  I can't remember.  You can tell us.  But the point that you make, I think correctly, is that it's not that you can't discuss these issues, it's who can discuss these issues.  And if you're a woman speaking about your own--your own--your own body and your own sexual orientation, you're not--you're not okay.  So it's not a complete censorship of the issue.  It's a censorship of a particular voice who deals with that issue.  Can you address that?

NW: I mean, another great question.  I've got to stop kind of being so enthusiastic about these questions but these are the questions we all should be asking always.  Absolutely.  I mean, when you look at who is censored now in the West, in countries that are supposed to have freedoms of speech or the global north I should say, it's often a question of power, right?  And you're exactly right, there was any amount of pornography at the touch of a button when my book "Vagina" was published in 2012 that was sold on any number of platforms.  But I believe it was Apple that kind of starred out the word "vagina" as being too, you know, improper to reproduce and I agree with you.  It's because it was booked by a woman about female sexuality that was empowering to women.  And if you look at the history of censorship, texts that empower marginalized people are people who--whom other people have an interest in suppressing are the texts that get censored, a total double standard.  You could see this in the 19th century when, you know, collectors of erotic painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who were wealthy heterosexual men, could continue, you know, apace but Simeon Solomon, a contemporary at Dante Rossetti's who was a gay man, painted these beautiful ambiguous figures.  You actually can see them on the cover of "Outrages" that were, you know, really homoerotic images and his career was ruined.  And he never, you know, could show again even though he had a--until that point, ascent, you know, until he was arrested for soliciting homosexual act in the 19th century, so you see this over and over and, I mean, there are many examples in "Outrages."  You know, we haven't talked much about my hero, John Addington Symonds, who was constantly censored and censoring himself.  And he was a gay man born in 1840 who realized early on that he couldn't have a career or a life as a lover of men and a great romantic in his home country, Britain, because of the laws against both speech and same-sex offenses.  So he, you know, his life stories, one of being having his career crushed again and again because of some perceived homoeroticism in his poetry to the point where he had to write in code and he had to embed, like, secret codes telling the true story of his love affair with Angelo Fusato, the great love of his life, a gondolier, in poems, you know, for us in the future to decode, you know, and he wrote in codes ranging from writing about biographies of long dead people that today we'd call gay or, you know, writing allegories, or writing travel logs but having like a frontispiece of a famous statue of two men--naked men turned toward each other, right?  It was--it was trying to go beneath the censor.  But I agree with you that, you know, moving to the present day, who is censored is often a matter of social control.  I mean, I'm just thinking of the American Library Association's Banned Books Project that shows that a significant number of the banned and challenged books every year in 2020, up until 2020, show LGBTQ relationships in a positive light to younger readers, or young adult readers.  And I want to say one more thing, which I've been writing about quite a lot, which is technology allows the censor to be stealthier.  We've been talking about how, you know, there are fewer and fewer independent news outlets in the United States for instance, and Britain.  Well, it's very interesting that the truth about how many men were sentenced and executed for sodomy in the 19th century can be found in scholarly works like that of the scholars who reviewed this edition of my book, H.G. Cox and Paul Johnson, but they're behind paywalls or they're behind ProQuest walls, third party academic paywalls.  That's where really good scholarship lives now.  But the many, many dozens of news outlets that misreported last spring, claiming dozens of men had not been executed for sodomy when they had, those are free.  So now what you get with technology, and this is a very serious thing as [INDISTINCT] and Cambridge Analytica and these big tech companies own more and more information and are buying up public archives and public records is the very technology of proliferating results can skew information and create propaganda and hide actual history as the case of the men who were executed for sodomy.  Or, you know, this is a more akin subject, but search results are--can be our new censors, right?  What does Google highlight?  What does it--what does Wikipedia let you know, right?  Knowledge is being centralized and what you're served is served through search.  And most people who don't run a tech company, my other life, I do, don't realize that search is a transparent--it doesn't include all of knowledge like a mirror.  It can be weighted with the search terms that are, you know, tagged or identified on the backend, so censorship can be…

CH: We're going to--we're going to have stop there.  We're going to have to stop--we're going to have to stop there.  That was Naomi Wolf, author of the book "Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love."

NW: Thank you so much, Chris.

CH: Thanks.

NW: Thank you for having me.

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