glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy





social sciences

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-E  F-L  M-Z

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.

Sponsor Message.

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.


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

  <previous page   page: 1  2    

Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Social Sciences

   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Aversion Therapy

A form of behavior modification that employs unpleasant and sometimes painful stimuli, aversion therapy was one of the more popular treatments for homosexuality and cross-dressing in the 1950s and 1960s.

arts >> Overview:  British Television

Until recently, British television embraced lesbians and gays as Them rather than Us, but a more diversified and nuanced approach to all kinds of sexuality is likely to be the case in the future.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homophobia

Homophobia was originally defined as a "dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals," but it is now sometimes used to describe any form of anti-gay bias.

social sciences >> Overview:  London

The capital of the United Kingdom and one of the world's largest and most interesting cities, London has recently become home to an active and diverse glbtq population.

social sciences >> Overview:  McCarthyism

McCarthyism, which attempted in the late 1940s and early 1950s to expunge Communists and fellow travelers from American public life, made homosexuals the chief scapegoats of the Cold War.

social sciences >> Overview:  Military Culture: European

Attitudes toward gay and lesbian personnel in European militaries vary widely, from the acceptance of the Dutch to the laissez-faire policy of the French to the rejection of the Greek and Turkish forces.

social sciences >> Overview:  Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis, which began as a therapeutic procedure, ultimately became one of the most powerful methods of cultural analysis and critique of the twentieth-century.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sodomy

First used to refer only to anal intercourse, sodomy was progressively defined by the Church Fathers, and many later lawmakers, to include all sexual acts that could not result in procreation.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sodomy Laws and Sodomy Law Reform

Sodomy laws, which provided the legal basis for police harassment of sexual minorities, were conclusively overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 2003, after more than half a century of efforts at reform.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

arts >> Gielgud, Sir John

Sir John Gielgud has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest British actors of the twentieth century.


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

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  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.