United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law

The British parliament consolidated the law of England and Wales regarding sexual crimes. The law remained among the most severe in Europe, encapsulating British society’s then-prevalent antigay attitudes. In effect, the law made what had been a crime against the person a “crime against nature.”

Summary of Event

In 1956, the United Kingdom consolidated its existing laws governing the prosecution of sexual crimes. The new statute the “Sexual Offences Act, 1956” took effect on January 1, 1957, and addressed offenses such as intercourse by force, and with minors and “defectives,” as well as prostitution and an assortment of “unnatural offences.” The 1956 act remains the touchstone of English law on the subject, although it has been the object of many liberalizing amendments since its original passage. [kw]United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law (Jan. 1, 1957)
[kw]Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law, United Kingdom’s (Jan. 1, 1957)
[kw]Law, United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes (Jan. 1, 1957)
Sexual Offences Act (1956)
Homosexuality;and British law[British law]
Legal reform;United Kingdom
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 1, 1957: United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law[0520]
[c]Crime;Jan. 1, 1957: United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law[0520]
[c]Civil rights;Jan. 1, 1957: United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act Becomes Law[0520]

The act signaled few obvious innovations in the law. It was enacted while Sir John Frederick Wolfenden’s Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution
Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, Committee on was convened and before it issued its report (known, simply, as the Wolfenden Report) Wolfenden Report (1957) the following September, thus suggesting that any substantial changes to the law were deliberately postponed until that group had reported. Thus, the act retained several glaring anomalies that had accreted over time in regard to how similar crimes would be punished. Among the more notable anomalies are the differences between the maximum punishments for indecent assault upon men and women (ten years and two years, respectively) and between the maximum sentences for attempted rape and attempted intercourse with a girl under thirteen (seven years and two years, respectively).

Of special relevance to the history of gay and lesbian rights are the sections on “unnatural offences,” by which is meant “buggery” Buggery;and British law[British law] and “indecency between men.” Buggery included both sodomy and bestiality. In general, only men can commit buggery, although women can commit buggery with animals. Conviction could bring life imprisonment, and an attempt to commit buggery could bring a sentence of as much as ten years. The 1956 section repeated the law from 1861, which had reduced the penalty from death. A hint of the antigay tenor of the nineteenth century is evident because the act of consensual sodomy was more severely punished than was rape.

In the new act, “indecency between men,” also known as “gross indecency,” Indecency;and British law[British law] became a crime sanctioned with a two-year prison term, as was conviction of a charge of an “attempt to procure the commission” of indecency with another man. This section reproduced language dating from 1885 and, to be violated, did not require physical contact. The act included no comparable crime of indecency between women. As a general rule, the law tended to criminalize homosexual acts between men but not between women.

Other crimes penalized by the new law that targeted male homosexuals primarily, if not exclusively, include “indecent assault on a man” and “assault with intent to commit buggery.” This last charge carried a sentence of up to ten years—more than that risked by an attempted rape. Again, the act underscored the prevailing notion that sexual violence against males was a more socially injurious harm than was sexual violence against women.


The 1956 law included little that was new in terms of explicit statutory prohibitions, being in many ways more of a clerical tidying of the law than a substantive rethinking of it. The legal situations of gays and lesbians were barely changed from where they had stood before. The impact of the new statute, therefore, must be measured by something other than changes in the law.

Leslie Moran, in The Homosexual(ity) of Law (1996), argues that the 1956 Sexual Offences Act significantly altered the symbolic associations of these preexisting crimes. The category of “sexual offences” was itself new, constructed “out of the category of offences against the person and conjoin[ed] with other offences and [set] up in a new and distinct division of the law.” This reordering fundamentally realigned the crimes from acts against persons to violations of the sexual natural order. The crime would be prosecuted not because of the personal harms the victim suffered but because of the damage it inflicted upon the moral order of human society; what had been a crime against the person had become a “crime against nature.” One would expect such an elevation of the harm’s metaphysical significance to be accompanied by a heightened perception of the seriousness of the offense, with resulting increases in police interest in its prevention and punishment.

Some data suggest this is indeed what happened. As reported by Tony Honoré in Sex Law in England (1978), following the act’s passage convictions for “indecency between men” almost doubled every five years, from 483 convictions in 1965 to 1,507 in 1975. This rate of increase appears to be significantly higher than that seen before the 1956 act: The Wolfenden Report shows only about a 31 percent increase in the years from 1951 to 1955. Even allowing for the obvious differences in reporting, the data support an argument that homosexual offenses became the target of more vigorous arrests and prosecutions after the act than before. This jaundiced view of homosexuality, once entrenched, would be eroded only with great difficulty, even in the face of later improvements in the formal legal status of gays and lesbians. Sexual Offences Act (1956)
Homosexuality;and British law[British law]
Legal reform;United Kingdom

Further Reading

  • Great Britain. Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. The Wolfenden Report. Authorized American ed. Introduction by Karl Menninger. New York: Stein and Day, 1963.
  • Honoré, Tony. Sex Law in England. London: Archon Books, 1978.
  • Moran, Leslie F. The Homosexual(ity) of Law. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Orr, C. Bruce. The Sexual Offences Act, 1956. London: Butterworth, 1957.
  • Rees, J. Tudor, and Harley V. Usill, eds. They Stand Apart: A Critical Survey of the Problems of Homosexuality. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
  • Selfe, David W., and Vincent Burke. Perspectives on Sex, Crime, and Society. London: Cavendish, 1998.

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

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

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

July 27, 1967: United Kingdom Decriminalizes Homosexual 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