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Number 1: Spring 2008

The Privacy of the Bedroom? Fifty Years on from The Wolfenden Report Reforms

Joanna Ryan

The fiftieth anniversary of The Wolfenden Report–which may seem like ancient history to some–has a powerful meaning for me in the changes I have witnessed and lived through in this span of my lifetime. Furthermore, it is only forty years since the reforms recommended by The Report were implemented, with some significant amendments, in The Sexual Offences Act (1967) after a decade of intense debate, campaigning and counter-campaigning. It was this Act which resulted in the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, limited to ‘consenting adults in private’ over the age of 21, and not applying to the Armed Forces, Northern Ireland and Scotland–although these limitations were subsequently lifted as a result of further campaigning. The Act itself only brought the UK into line with many other European countries at the time. The Wolfenden Report and the subsequent legislation are often hailed as a classic piece of liberalising reform, along with the other reforming acts of the 60s regarding abortion, divorce, and censorship. The liberalising impact of this legislation lay in the space that it opened up for many gay men at the time, and for the wider message that it conveyed about homosexuality, especially its assertion that homosexuality was not a disease, but rather a state or a condition which was compatible with full mental health. It also implied that there was no convincing evidence for psychopathological causes of homosexuality.

We can compare the circumstances of gay and lesbian lives in the 50s, with the substantial legislative improvements in the UK during the last 10 years.1 We now have a picture of greatly increased legal freedoms, rights and protections that currently frame our discussions and reflections. In comparison with many other aspects of politics today, it would be churlish or perverse not to call this progress; as such it can be an enormous source of confidence in our lives that has not existed hitherto. However, this does not mean either subscribing to a notion of the historic unfolding of freedom as the advance of a modern hegemonic civilisation, or ignoring the many different stories that may be told alongside these advances, both locally and globally.


  1. The list includes The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act (2000) which equalised the age of consent; the Civil Partnership Act (2004); The Equality Act (2006); The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (2007); the various changes to child, fostering and adoption laws that secured the position of lesbian and gay families; the repeal of the prohibition on the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ and ‘pretend family relations’ of the 1988 Local Government Act, (the infamous Section 28), and the removal of any offence of gross indecency and sodomy in The Sexual Offences Act (2003) which finally fully decriminalised male homosexuality.