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Wolfenden Report  
 
page: 1  2  

Interestingly, despite the testimony of numerous psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, the committee refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness requiring psychiatric intervention. It found that "homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects." It did, however, urge continued research into the causes and potential cures of homosexuality, such as hormone treatments and psychiatric therapy.

The committee also recommended increased penalties for soliciting by street prostitutes and it recommended making male prostitution illegal, proposals that were adopted into law in 1959.

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The Report's Aftermath

The committee's report sparked a vigorous debate in the United Kingdom about homosexuality and the relationship of the law and private morality. The recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality was widely condemned by many religious and political leaders and by a host of newspapers. The committee's refusal to declare homosexuality a disease provoked the condemnation of psychiatrists.

Among the supporters of the committee's recommendations were the British Medical Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the National Association of Probation Officers.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Fisher, made an eloquent plea on behalf of the recommendations, declaring that "There is a sacred realm of privacy . . . into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility."

The first parliamentary debate on the committee's recommendations was held in the House of Lords on December 4, 1957. Of the seventeen peers who participated in the debate, eight spoke in favor of the decriminalization of homosexuality.

The home secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, was deeply disappointed in the Wolfenden Report. He no doubt expected the committee to recommend additional ways of controlling homosexual behavior, rather than decriminalizing it. In any case, he expressed doubt that the general population would support reform and declined to take action to implement the committee's recommendation, calling instead for additional study.

Without the government's support, efforts at reform of the law were left to individual MPs, who introduced reform legislation that had little chance of success. Still, the debates in Parliament and in the press kept the question of reform alive.

In 1960, the Homosexual Law Reform Society announced plans to lobby on behalf of reform. Its first public meeting attracted over 1,000 people.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967

Finally, in 1967, ten years after the publication of the Wolfenden Report, MP Leo Abse, with support of the Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, introduced the Sexual Offences Bill, 1967, which, after a blistering debate, was narrowly passed by Parliament.

The bill implemented the Wolfenden committee's recommendation to decriminalize homosexual acts among consenting adults, but added new privacy restrictions. For example, no act could take place in public accommodations such as hotels or in a private home where a third person was likely to be present. Twenty-one was set as the age of consent. Members of the armed forces and the merchant navy were exempt. Moreover, the Sexual Offences Act applied only to England and Wales.

Conclusion

As enacted into law, the Wolfenden committee recommendations did not completely decriminalize homosexuality in the United Kingdom. However, it began an important process of reform that eventually led to something approaching equality under the law for homosexual and heterosexual conduct.

In 1980, the Criminal Justice Act brought Scots law in line with English law, decriminalizing sex between men in private. In 1994, the age of consent for homosexual acts was reduced from 21 to 18. In 2000, it was reduced to 16 (which is also the age of consent for heterosexual acts).

Most significantly, the philosophical basis on which the Wolfenden recommendations relied--that private morality or immorality should not be the law's business--has proved to be enormously important in sex law reform in the United States, Canada, and other places.

Indeed, the Wolfenden report directly influenced the American Bar Association's Model Penal Code, which repealed sodomy laws and which was adopted first by Illinois in 1961, and the 1969 decision by Canada to decriminalize homosexual relations among consenting adults in private.

The Wolfenden report is by no means a radical statement. In many ways, it is a conservative document, fully partaking of the prejudices of its era. At the same time, however, it is courageous for taking what was in its time an unpopular stance in favor of tolerance and reform.

As a postscript, it is interesting to note that in the course of his committee's deliberations, Sir John Wolfenden discovered that his son Jeremy was homosexual. Wolfenden was later appointed Director of the British Museum. In 1974, he was created a life peer, Baron Wolfenden of Westcott. He died in 1985, laden with honors, but somewhat embarrassed that his name had become a household word for a report on a subject for which he expressed personal distaste.

Claude J. Summers

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    Bibliography
   

Chesser, Eustace. Live and Let Live: The Moral of the Wolfenden Report. John Wolfenden, foreword. London: Heinemann, 1958.

Faulks, Sebastian. The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. London: Hutchinson, 1996.

Higgins, Patrick. Heterosexual Dictatorship. London: Fourth Estate, 1996.

Radford, Neil A. "Wolfenden, John Frederick." Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History from World War II to the Present Day. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, eds. London: Routledge, 2001. 454-56.

Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. London: HMSO, 1957. Available online at case.tm/pubs/Sources.html.

Wildeblood, Peter. Against the Law. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955.

Wolfenden, John Frederick. Turning Points: The Memoirs of Lord Wolfenden. London: Bodley Head, 1976.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Wolfenden Report  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated July 27, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/wolfenden_report.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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