United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual Sex Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The decriminalization of homosexual acts conducted in private between consenting adults was a major British civil rights milestone, but the new law failed to fully protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians throughout the United Kingdom and even led to increased prosecutions. Nevertheless, the act would significantly impact U.S. law as well because of the two nations’ shared legal traditions.

Summary of Event

Even as Great Britain passed one of Europe’s most restrictive sex laws in 1956, a committee of Parliament invited testimony on possible legal reforms regarding homosexuality. Charged in 1954, the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, Committee on based its work on the principle that

the function of the criminal law…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 because they are young, weak in body or mind, inexperienced, or in a state of special physical, official or economic dependence. [kw]United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual Sex (July 27, 1967) [kw]Decriminalizes Homosexual Sex, United Kingdom (July 27, 1967) [kw]Homosexual Sex, United Kingdom Decriminalizes (July 27, 1967) [kw]Sex, United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual (July 27, 1967) Homosexuality;and British law[British law] Legal reform;United Kingdom Sexual Offences Act (1967) [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 27, 1967: United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual Sex[0670] [c]Civil rights;July 27, 1967: United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual Sex[0670] [c]Crime;July 27, 1967: United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual Sex[0670] Wolfenden, Sir John Frederick Abse, Leo Arran, Earl of

In keeping with this dictum, the final product of the committee’s investigations, known as the Wolfenden Report Wolfenden Report (1957) for the committee’s chair, Sir John Frederick Wolfenden, included recommendations that “homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence” and that the maximum penalties for buggery Buggery;and British law[British law] and gross indecency Indecency;and British law[British law] be revised.

The Wolfenden recommendations did not flow from a wellspring of sympathy for gays. The committee reasoned that more men would seek psychological treatment if they did not fear prosecution. In any event, it seemed irrational to maintain the criminality of male homosexuality while adultery, fornication, and lesbian sex all remained outside the criminal purview, contradicting any argument that the ban needed to be maintained to preserve the moral basis of civilization.

Lawmakers did not react well to the committee’s logic, fearing that decriminalization of homosexuality would unleash a torrent of homosexual contagion. As attitudes began to liberalize during the 1960’s, however, reforms were enacted in several areas touching on sexual life. The death penalty was abolished, and divorce and abortion laws were modernized. Within this milieu, revising the laws on homosexuality no longer seemed unthinkable.

In 1966, Leo Abse, a member of the House of Commons, and the earl of Arran, of the House of Lords, introduced legislation, nicknamed “William,” to revise the 1956 Sexual Offences Act Sexual Offences Act (1956) and decriminalize selected homosexual acts. The final statute became the new 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Section 1 of the new act contains the heart of the proposed reforms of the Wolfenden Report, legalizing homosexual acts conducted in private between consenting adults over the age of twenty-one. Other parts of the law, however, criminalized sex in which more than two people participated. Punishment for buggery was reduced from life to ten years, and charges became subject to a statute of limitations of twelve months.

The earlier 1956 law had targeted male homosexuality much more harshly than female homosexuality. The 1967 revision did little to balance treatment of the two types of sexuality. As a rule, lesbian sexual acts remained legal unless a partner did not consent.


From its inception the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was a compromise measure. Although a major milestone in the advance of civil rights for gays and lesbians, the details of the law did not ensure complete protection. For example, the armed services were expressly exempted from the legalization of homosexual acts, and the statute enforced a higher age of consent for homosexual acts than for heterosexual ones: twenty-one instead of sixteen. Equal ages of consent were not achieved until the 2000 Sexual Offences Act. Sexual Offences Act (2000) A final, surprising limitation of the 1967 act is found in Section 11(5), which withheld the new reforms from Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1981 the European Commission found this limitation to be a breach of the European Convention.

The most controversial amendment to the bill, however, concerned the privacy Privacy rights of the sexual acts. The law allowed consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts in private. However, it also defined a situation as “private” when no more than two people were present. On its face, this stipulation preserved the criminality of group sex. Interpretations further limited the meaning of “private.” “Public,” the antithesis of “private,” became defined as any place where third parties might be present. If two men had sex alone in a room behind an unlocked door, they were having sex in public because another person could walk in.

Because of these limitations on the new formal liberties, prosecutions for homosexual offenses reportedly have increased since the passage of the 1967 law. A similar pattern exists in the United States. The formally “liberalized” military posture toward homosexuals—encapsulated in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] policy—has led to an increase in discharges for homosexuality.

Despite these drawbacks, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act represents a milestone in Anglo-American common law. Although other societies, especially those practicing the civil law tradition, had long since abolished criminal sanctions against homosexuality, the later action by Great Britain would have a deeper influence on attitudes in the United States. Homosexuality;and British law[British law] Legal reform;United Kingdom

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abse, Leo. “The Sexual Offences Act.” British Journal of Criminology 8 (1968): 86-88.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Great Britain. Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. The Wolfenden Report. Authorized American ed. Introduction by Karl Menninger. New York: Stein and Day, 1963.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higgins, Patrick. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. London: Fourth Estate, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Honoré, Tony. Sex Law in England. London: Archon Books, 1978.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffrey-Poulter, Stephen. Peers, Queers, and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lafitte, François. “Homosexuality and the Law: The ’Wolfenden Report’ in Historical Perspective.” British Journal of Delinquency 9 (1958): 8-19.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moran, Leslie F. The Homosexual(ity) of Law. London: Routledge, 1996.

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

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

January 1, 1957: United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law

September 4, 1957: The Wolfenden Report Calls for Decriminalizing Private Consensual Sex

January 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military

November 18, 2004: United Kingdom Legalizes Same-Gender Civil Partnerships

Categories: History