What was the Wolfenden Report?
November 11, 2004
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.
Sir John Wolfenden
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.
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
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