What was the Wolfenden Report?

November 11, 2004

Sir John Wolfenden

The British Wolfenden Report of 1957, which recommended that private homosexual sex between consenting adults should not be considered a crime, has had a long-term and far-reaching effect on how the law in English-speaking countries treats gay men.

The criminalization of sex between men has a long history in the United Kingdom, from a 1533 act of Parliament making "the detestable and abominable vice of buggery" punishable by hanging, to the 1885 Labouchere Amendment outlawing acts of "gross indecency." (Lesbian sex was not targeted, reportedly because Queen Victoria could not imagine such a thing.)

The 1950s were a time of intensified prosecution of homosexuals in Britain. In October 1953, actor John Gielgud was arrested for soliciting another man for sex. The following year, Lord Edward Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers, and journalist Peter Wildeblood were convicted of inciting working-class men to commit indecent acts. The press gave such stories prominent play, sparking a moral panic about homosexuality.

In this atmosphere, the Wolfenden Committee – named after its chair, Sir John Wolfenden – was established on August 24, 1954, "to consider...the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts"; it was also charged with examining laws governing male and female prostitution. The committee was made up of 14 men and three women, including prominent judges, a Conservative Member of Parliament, a Scottish minister, and the vice president of the Glasgow Girl Guides. The committee, which first met on September 15, heard testimony from an array of witnesses: police and probation officers, psychiatrists, religious leaders, and homosexual men whose lives had been affected by the law.

After three years of deliberation, the commission issued its Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in September 1957, recommending that homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offense. The law's function "is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others," the committee wrote. "It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour."

The Wolfenden Committee's conclusion that morality was "not the law's business" had a delayed but profound impact. Ten years later, Parliament narrowly passed the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized sex in private between men over age 21 (in 2000, the homosexual age of consent was lowered to 16, the same as for heterosexuals). Britain's laws against buggery and gross indecency were finally repealed with the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 2003.

In the United States, the Wolfenden Report helped persuade Illinois to become the first state to repeal its sodomy law in 1961. More than four decades later, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to the Wolfenden Report in the high court's June 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling, citing "an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Wolfenden Committee. 1963. The Wolfenden Report: Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offenses and Prostitution (Stein and Day).
  • Grey, Anthony. 1993. Quest for Justice: Towards Homosexual Emancipation (Trafalgar Square).

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