Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A growing public belief that the state should not legislate morality, along with recommendations of the Wolfenden Report of 1957, led the British parliament to decriminalize consensual sexual activity in private between adults, including adults of the same gender. Ten years after the report, the British passed a law that, while not legalizing homosexuality, exempted some same-gender sexual activities from criminal penalties.

Summary of Event

The Wolfenden Report of 1957, which recommended that same-gender sexual activities between consenting adults in private should be decriminalized, was the result of a gradual change in public attitudes about whether the state should legislate private morality and about whether homosexuality was a sin, a sickness, or a regular and normal facet of human behavior. The report reflected the broad change in sexual morality that occurred during the twentieth century and that began in the 1890’s. Wolfenden Report (government report) Homosexuality Gay rights Civil rights;United Kingdom [kw]Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex (Sept. 4, 1957) [kw]Consensual Sex, Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing (Sept. 4, 1957) Wolfenden Report (government report) Homosexuality Gay rights Civil rights;United Kingdom [g]Europe;Sept. 4, 1957: Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex[05540] [g]United Kingdom;Sept. 4, 1957: Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex[05540] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 4, 1957: Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex[05540] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 4, 1957: Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex[05540] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 4, 1957: Wolfenden Report Recommends Decriminalizing Consensual Sex[05540] Wolfenden, John Frederick Abse, Leo Wilde, Oscar Hall, Radclyffe Ellis, Havelock Montagu, Edward

In England, public acts of indecency between males had always been punishable in common law, and church law Christianity;on homosexuality[homosexuality] had forbidden the “abominable vice” of buggery or sodomy (anal intercourse between man and woman, man and man, or man and beast). During the Reformation, Parliament transferred buggery from ecclesiastical jurisdiction to that of the state and made it punishable by death. Executions were rare, however, and in 1861, as part of a general reform of the criminal statutes, imprisonment for between ten years and life replaced the death penalty.

In the 1880’s and afterward, the law against homosexuality was tightened, but during the same period, the idea of homosexuality began to take shape. Oscar Wilde’s trials of 1895 were of crucial importance in developing an image of homosexuality. Wilde, famous as a wit, playwright, and poet, was charged with indecency for a homosexual relationship and was sentenced to two years at hard labor. Although his treatment was intended to demarcate acceptable and unacceptable behavior and to discourage others from similar behavior, it also prompted men attracted to men to think about their own desires and to come to a clearer understanding of their own identity as homosexuals.

It had been thought that some men were inclined to a greater or lesser degree to sodomy and that such acts were sins. Attitudes were changing toward the belief that some men were by nature exclusively attracted to their own gender and that their sexual attraction was the center of a homosexual “lifestyle.” The word “homosexual” had been invented by a Hungarian physician in 1869 and popularized by the English sex researcher Havelock Ellis in the 1890’s. Ellis stressed the ideas that homosexuality was a personality condition rather than a sin and that there was a continuum between normal and abnormal sexual behavior. Ellis’s dispassionate writings brought respectability and objectivity to the study of alternative sex and sexuality.

This change of attitude toward homosexuality resulted on one hand in a greater degree of sympathy and on the other hand to the formation of pressure groups and reform societies, which used the existing laws to repress behavior that they considered immoral or degenerate. At the same time, more voices calling for greater tolerance and freedom for homosexuals began to be heard.

Significantly, the criminal statutes ignored lesbians and lesbian sexuality. When it was proposed in 1921 to legislate explicitly against lesbian sex, the legal establishment convinced Parliament that to do so would only teach otherwise ignorant women that such sexual acts were possible. Not until the publication and banning of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness Well of Loneliness, The (Hall) Censorship;United Kingdom in 1928 did lesbian sexuality receive widespread publicity. Hall, who was a lesbian, dealt with the subject in an open and sympathetic manner. The novel was declared obscene and its publication forbidden.

The temper of the times changed after World War II. The British public in 1945 voted to create a welfare state, and concern with family, procreative, and sexual matters was a large part of welfare. Social workers, anthropologists, and psychologists investigated numerous aspects of sexual life, including homosexuality. The studies of the American researcher Alfred Kinsey Kinsey, Alfred continued Ellis’s work of undermining the idea that homosexuality was unnatural or abnormal. Simultaneously, the number of homosexual offenses increased between 1938 and the middle 1950’s, an increase caused partly by the postwar emphasis on domesticity.

These feelings came to a head in 1954 with the sensational trial for homosexual acts of Lord Edward Montagu of Beaulieu and Peter Wildeblood Wildeblood, Peter , diplomatic correspondent of the influential Daily Mail newspaper. The trial convinced many that what the men had done had harmed no one and that existing legislation could not prevent homosexual activity.

In response to the debate that the trial had sparked, the government created a committee in 1954, chaired by John Frederick Wolfenden, a distinguished university vice-chancellor, to study the entire question of legal sanctions against prostitution Prostitution and homosexuality. Its charge was to examine how the laws operated, not how to liberalize them, but its report, published in 1957, proposed bringing the law of homosexuality into congruence with the changed conditions of postwar society. The basic position of the Wolfenden Report was that the purpose of the criminal law was to preserve public order and decency and to protect the weak from exploitation, rather than to interfere with private life in the interests of imposing a specific code of moral behavior. Thus it distinguished between private and public behavior. The state could, and indeed should, regulate public behavior such as solicitation for prostitution and street offenses, but should decriminalize private behavior such as homosexual activity between consenting adults.

The committee’s clinical, objective, and pragmatic approach to a controversial topic was persuasive. Public opinion polls at the time indicated that between 40 and 50 percent of those asked approved of the recommendations relating to prostitution. Leading newspapers such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph endorsed the report, as did religious leaders of the Church of England and the Free Churches. The Daily Mirror, which had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world, proclaimed “Don’t Be Shocked by This Report. It’s the Truth. It’s the Answer. IT’S LIFE.” The strongest reservations had to do with the report’s recommendations about homosexuality. A substantial body of public opinion feared that relaxation of the law would encourage homosexuals to “convert” people away from heterosexuality.


The Wolfenden Report’s recommendations on prostitution were implemented in the Street Offenses Act Street Offenses Act, British (1959) of 1959, which increased fines and imprisonment for street solicitation but which permitted private prostitution agencies. Its recommendations about decriminalizing homosexual acts, however, had to wait for a decade. British medical thinking considered homosexuality a sickness, and there was considerable popular opposition to homosexuals; in a 1965 public opinion poll, more than 90 percent of the sample considered homosexuality an illness. Nevertheless, attitudes began to swing toward decriminalization.

The Homosexual Law Reform Society Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded in 1958 to lobby for implementation of the Wolfenden recommendations, and public opinion came to favor reform. Only 25 percent favored homosexual reform in a 1957 opinion poll, but 63 percent favored it in 1965. The changing political climate also contributed to the eventual coming of reform. The Labour Party was willing to allow its supporters to vote their consciences, and thus a cross-party coalition of reformers emerged.

Labour politician Leo Abse took the lead in the parliamentary pressure to modify the law. Abse, who had deep interests in both the human psychological makeup and the varieties of human sexual behavior, sponsored legislation that Parliament passed as the Sexual Offences Act Sexual Offences Act, British (1967) of 1967, which wrote into law the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations for decriminalizing private adult male activities. The act did not legalize homosexuality but merely exempted some activities from criminal penalties.

Both the armed forces and the merchant navy, which punished homosexuals in their ranks, were excluded from the measure’s purview. Behavior deemed to be against public decency, such as solicitation in public lavatories and cruising areas, remained illegal, as did the publishing of homosexual contact advertisements. Much, then, depended upon local police attitudes. Although what men did in private became their own business, the number of prosecutions for public indecency tripled between 1967 and 1976.

Thus the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and its implementation in 1967 represented a relatively limited reform. The reform only freed consensual behavior among adults in private from the threat of legal prosecution, thereby relieving homosexuals from fears of blackmail. The reform certainly reflected the fact that public opinion generally had become much more tolerant of such activity. The increase in prosecutions for public indecency, however, together with the example of the gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States, led to the creation of the British gay and lesbian rights movement in the early 1970’s.

The full, open equality that activists in the gay rights movement wished for still remained unreached. A 1988 act reflected the limited status that lesbians and gays had under the law in Great Britain. That measure, passed as part of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy of reducing the influence of the central government in molding behavior, made it unlawful for local government to “intentionally promote homosexuality” and to treat homosexual relationships as the equivalent of stable, married family life. Wolfenden Report (government report) Homosexuality Gay rights Civil rights;United Kingdom

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Havighurst, Alfred F. Twentieth-Century Britain. Evanston, Ill.: Row, Peterson, 1962. A political and economic history rather than a social history. It provides the context necessary to understand the events of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higgins, Patrick. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. London: Fourth Estate, 1996. A study of homosexuality among men in Great Britain following World War II. Good for background on same-gender sex before the time of the Wolfenden Report.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, Harry. The New Look: A Social History of the Forties and Fifties in Britain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. Written by a journalist, this impressionistic study of social history describes the changing attitudes toward sexual mores after World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyde, H. Montgomery. The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain. London: Granada, 1972. A historical survey, written for general readers and focusing mainly on personalities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Trials of Oscar Wilde. New York: Dover, 1962. Based on the transcripts of Oscar Wilde’s three trials for homosexual offenses, this well-written and fascinating work covers Wilde’s own life and experiences in the late Victorian homosexual world, the legal background to the laws governing homosexuality, and the social and political attitudes of the times that the trial revealed. Essential reading for an understanding of the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearsall, Ronald. The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality. 1969. New ed. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2003. A well-written study of Victorian attitudes and practices related to sexual behavior. One of the first attempts to deal seriously and in a scholarly way with the topic, this book is anecdotal rather than analytical, but it is definitely worth reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet, 1977. A survey of homosexuality as a legal and political issue in Great Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1989. Solidly documented, clearly written, and thorough. Surveys social attitudes about several topics relating to sexuality, such as marriage, women’s roles, prostitution, homosexuality, and sexual morality, and analyzes the changing political responses to those topics. This book is the beginning point for any historical study of the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wildeblood, Peter. Against the Law. 1955. Reprint. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999. The story of the crucial legal case that precipitated the commissioning of the Wolfenden Report, told from the viewpoint of one of the participants.

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Categories: History