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Wolfenden Report  
 
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The Wolfenden Report, a 1957 British government study officially entitled the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, is significant in glbtq history, for it recommended that homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private no longer be criminalized in England.

This recommendation was the most far-reaching proposal of a committee charged in 1954 with investigating British laws on homosexuality and prostitution. It received its name from its chair, Sir John Wolfenden, then vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.

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The Committee and Its Context

The committee included fourteen men and three women, thirteen of whom served for the entire three years of the committee's deliberations. The committee included, among others, two judges, a Foreign Office official, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, a Conservative MP, a consulting psychiatrist, the vice-president of the City of Glasgow Girl Guides, and a professor of moral theology.

It was commissioned in 1954 in the aftermath of a number of high-profile prosecutions for homosexual behavior, including the 1953 arrest for soliciting of newly knighted actor Sir John Gielgud and the sensational 1954 trial of the Montagu/Pitt-Rivers/Wildeblood case in which a peer (Lord Montagu of Beaulieu), his cousin (Michael Pitt-Rivers), and a journalist (Peter Wildeblood) were convicted of having sexual relations with young working class men and received sentences ranging from twelve to eighteen months imprisonment.

Part of the context for the formation of the committee was the increased publicity about homosexuality as a result of these high-profile prosecutions, but it included as well the significant increase of prosecutions for homosexual behavior generally. In 1952, there had been 670 prosecutions in England for ; 3,087 prosecutions for attempted sodomy or indecent assault; and 1,686 prosecutions for gross indecency.

The punishment meted out to individuals convicted of these offenses ranged from small fines to life imprisonment. Medical regimens, including aversion therapy and hormone treatments, were frequently forced on offenders as conditions for parole or probation.

Because of the great disparity in sentencing, along with the psychiatric belief that homosexuality might better be treated as an illness than a crime, as well as concern about the susceptibility of homosexuals to blackmail, worries about the use of entrapment by police officials, and a general hysteria about homosexuality in the popular press, two MPs in December 1953 called upon the government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the law relating to homosexual offenses.

In August 1954, the Home Secretary responded by appointing the Wolfenden committee "to consider (a) the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts; and (b) the law and practice relating to offences against the criminal law in connection with prostitution and solicitation for immoral purposes, and to report what changes, if any, are desirable."

The committee met for the first time on September 15, 1954. Over a period of three years, they interviewed religious leaders, policemen, judges, probation officers, psychiatrists, social workers, and homosexuals. When they issued their report in 1957, all but one of the thirteen members still sitting on the committee agreed that homosexual acts should be decriminalized if they took place in private, with consent, between persons at least 21 years of age and not members of the armed forces or the merchant navy.

The Report

The committee's report was an instant bestseller. The first printing of 5,000 copies sold out in a matter of hours, and the report quickly went through numerous reprintings.

The rationale for the committee's recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality was more philosophical than compassionate, though it did note the suffering that the current law brought upon homosexuals, and it included a number of heart-wrenching case histories culled from police reports and court cases. The committee condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals, but concluded that outlawing homosexuality impinged on civil liberties and that private morality or immorality should not be "the law's business."

Without condoning homosexual acts, the committee found that, when committed in private among consenting adults, they did not fall within the law's purview. The function of the law, the committee wrote, "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, particularly those who are specially vulnerable. . . . 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, further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined."

The sole dissenter from the majority's recommendation, James Adair, disassociated himself from the report, declaring that relaxing the law on homosexuality would be regarded by many homosexuals as "licensing licentiousness."

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