The Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex

A committee of fifteen individuals was appointed by the British government to study the issue of homosexual offenses in the United Kingdom. The committee’s report recommended decriminalizing private sexual acts among consenting adults and recommended legal guidelines for public acts of homosexual indecency. The report led to the reversal of more than four hundred years of British sodomy laws and would have far-reaching effects around the globe.

Summary of Event

The Wolfenden Report was the culmination of three years of public hearings and research conducted by a fifteen-member committee led by Sir John Frederick Wolfenden. Members were drawn from the fields of law, politics, religion, and medicine. Appointed by the British government on August 4, 1954, the committee was directed to examine the law and legal practices related to homosexual crimes and prostitution, including the impact of homosexual convictions and how the legal system should treat those charged. [kw]Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex, The (Sept. 4, 1957)
[kw]Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex, The Wolfenden Report Calls for (Sept. 4, 1957)
[kw]Private Consensual Sex, The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing (Sept. 4, 1957)
[kw]Consensual Sex, The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private (Sept. 4, 1957)
[kw]Sex, The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual (Sept. 4, 1957)
Homosexuality;and British law[British law]
Wolfenden Report (1957)
Legal reform;United Kingdom
Sodomy laws;United Kingdom
[c]Publications;Sept. 4, 1957: The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex[0530]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 4, 1957: The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex[0530]
[c]Crime;Sept. 4, 1957: The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex[0530]
[c]Civil rights;Sept. 4, 1957: The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex[0530]
Wolfenden, Sir John Frederick
Abse, Leo
Arran, Earl of

Impetus for the committee’s work was created by public furor over the numbers of men prosecuted under sodomy and indecency statutes in the early 1950’s. Caught in the legal snare were members of Parliament, aristocrats, and celebrities such as Sir John Gielgud and Jeffrey Weeks. Almost 4 percent of men in prison at the time had been incarcerated as a result of same-gender crime convictions.

Following sixty-two meetings of the committee and evidence gathered from more than two hundred individuals and organizations, the committee’s findings were presented on September 3, 1957. The official title of the document, “The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution,” “Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, The” (1957)[Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution] was presented to the British parliament and published the following day. The document, nearly two hundred pages long, recommended decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts conducted in private.

The primary recommendations were that private consensual acts by men over twenty years of age were to be decriminalized and legal penalties for homosexual offenses were to be amended. Regarding prostitution, the committee distinguished between privacy and public decency. Members agreed that penalties for public “street offenses” should be raised to reduce public prostitution. Further measures to criminalize male prostitution were also suggested.

Though the Wolfenden Report is a prominent social document, it can best be defined as a think piece rather than a definitive study. Neither homosexuality nor prostitution was fully studied, but important issues were raised for further debate. These issues included the relations among laws, mores, and public opinion; the proper role of criminal law in society; and the relationship of scientific research and public policy. The significance of the report lies in the committee’s general orientation to the criminal law and in select recommendations, among them the decriminalization of adult homosexual acts. The scope of criminal law regarding sexual behavior should be to preserve public order and decency, protect citizens from what is offensive or injurious, and provide safeguards against exploitation and corruption.

In public discussion, the report’s recommendations were viewed as liberalizing, but the actual goal of the Wolfenden Report was to regulate homosexual acts more effectively and, in terms of private behavior, by means other than through criminal law. In general the report condemned homosexuality on grounds of immorality, as psychologically damaging to the individual, and urged research for treatment and cures. Many of the legal reforms outlined in the document pertaining to prostitution were passed nearly immediately. Meanwhile, other issues regarding homosexual legal reform lingered for years afterward. Sex between women was not a punishable offense in Britain and was not a subject of the committee’s work.

Patrick Higgins, in Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain (1996), disavows the notion that the Wolfenden Report was the result of benevolent and progressive British governmental policy. The author denies there was a humane, liberal conclusion in British government that antiquated sex laws had to be repealed. Second, Higgins states that the period following the release of the Wolfenden Report was historically a time of heightened prosecution of gay men, of increasing and heinous attacks on individuals, and of the repudiation of homosexuality in British media.

In Fear, Punishment, Anxiety, and the “Wolfenden Report” (1959), Charles Berg states that the report, while ahead of its time in legal recommendations on homosexuality, should be considered scientifically reactionary. He believed that the committee members were incapable of comprehending the issue of homosexuality because they did not understand the psychopathology and origin of attitudes, defensive mechanisms, and societal bias. Furthermore, the committee did not go far enough in separating public law and private morality, nor in proposing gay and lesbian rights to comparable to those of the heterosexual population.


The ramifications of the Wolfenden Report transcended the boundaries of Great Britain, impacting laws in many of the common-law, English-speaking nations around the world. The American Bar Association American Bar Association;and decriminalization of homosexuality[decriminalization of homosexuality] in 1961 drafted and approved a model penal code that omitted homosexual offenses between consenting adult males. The Canadian parliament followed suit in 1969, excluding consensual homosexual acts as punishable offenses. Further legislative impact was observed in Australia and New Zealand. The report had negligible or no effect in many former British colonies in Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean.

In Great Britain, the report languished in Parliament until 1962. Leo Abse in the House of Commons introduced a private member’s bill that advanced some of the less controversial segments of the Wolfenden Committee’s recommendations but did not make adult, consensual, homosexual behavior legal. Three years later, Lord Arran persuaded the House of Lords to initiate legislation to decriminalize consensual homosexual acts. In Commons, Abse followed the earl’s lead. The two members of Parliament advocated both the protection of young men from homosexuality and partial decriminalization of homosexuality.

In the summer of 1967 the Sexual Offences Act, a revision of the original 1956 law, took effect in England and Wales, but not, at that date, in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The act unfortunately did not address issues of harassment, intolerance, and discrimination against gays. Homosexuality;and British law[British law]
Wolfenden Report (1957)
Legal reform;United Kingdom
Sodomy laws;United Kingdom

Further Reading

  • Berg, Charles. Fear, Punishment, Anxiety, and the “Wolfenden Report.” London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959.
  • _______. The Problem of Homosexuality. New York: Citadel Press, 1958.
  • Chesser, Eustace. Live and Let Live: The Moral of the “Wolfenden Report.” London: Mayfair Books, 1962.
  • Great Britain. Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. The Wolfenden Report. Authorized American ed. Introduction by Karl Menninger. New York: Stein and Day, 1963.
  • Higgins, Patrick. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. London: Fourth Estate, 1996.
  • Jeffrey-Poulter, Stephen. Peers, Queers, and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present. New York: Routledge, 1991.

May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

January 12, 1939: Thompson v. Aldredge Dismisses Sodomy Charges Against Lesbians

January 22, 1973: Roe v. Wade Legalizes Abortion and Extends Privacy Rights

August, 1973: American Bar Association Calls for Repeal of Laws Against Consensual Sex

October 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

November 17, 1975: U.S. Supreme Court Rules in “Crimes Against Nature” Case

1986: Bowers v. Hardwick Upholds State Sodomy Laws

January 1, 1988: Canada Decriminalizes Sex Practices Between Consenting Adults

1992-2006: Indians Struggle to Abolish Sodomy Law

June 26, 2003: U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law