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Number 1: Spring 2008

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

Joanna Ryan

In this paper, I raise some questions about the interactions of law reform, politics and psychoanalysis as these relate to homosexuality, and a significant piece of our history. I do this somewhat in the spirit of Oscar Wilde–who else?–‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it’ (cited in Higgins: 1996). The notorious Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885)2 under which he was prosecuted definitively criminalised male homosexuality in private and put Britain in a much more repressive position than in many other European countries for the first half of the last century. In this context, the first part of this paper raises some issues about liberalism and sexual politics and in the second part I consider some of the more specifically psychoanalytic themes.

The Wolfenden Report itself relied on John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty in deciding where the proper limits of the state’s authority over the individual lay, maintaining that the function of law was not to intervene in ‘private lives’, except or unless there was the possibility of harm to others. The use of this definition raised the problem of how to define the meaning of both ‘harm’, and ‘private’, since all definitions depend upon particular viewpoints about morality and human nature. The Wolfenden Report stated that part of the role of law was to preserve public order and decency. It also argued that homosexuality did not cause harm to either society or the family–arguments which still rage as the Hansard records of debates in the Lords about recent enabling- and anti-discrimination legislation show. Many of the hostile views and arguments expressed now have not changed in 50 years, although their influence has diminished greatly. Once The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957, there followed a decade of fierce campaigning and public debate, with many motions unsuccessfully laid before parliament. The politics of the campaign for the implementation of The Wolfenden Report were spearheaded by the Homosexual Law Reform Society. They embraced many familiar liberal arguments concerning the rightful province of law in matters of sexuality and the distinction between private morality and public law. The Wolfenden Report itself saw the creation of a realm of private morality as a way in which individuals, whom the writers termed ‘mature agents’, would take responsibility for their actions, i.e. be internally self-regulating. The writers also repeatedly emphasised ‘continence’, i.e. self-control, which seems to me to speak to an unconscious association between homosexuality and urination.


  1. It was only repealed in 1967.