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Number 1: Spring 2008

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

Joanna Ryan

To raise other perspectives and frameworks in which to look at our history apart from the basic liberal narrative of progress, is not in any way to underestimate the significance of liberal reforms which can make such huge differences to the lives of lesbians and gay men. You only have to read accounts about the lives of gay men in the 50s and 60s, the ever-present fears of discovery, police witch hunts, arrest and exposure, to realise how things have changed. For example, of the three homosexual men who alone gave evidence to The Wolfenden Report two had to do so anonymously. Alan Horsfall’s description of the difficulty of campaigning openly for the implementation of The Wolfenden Report is stark, ‘Any working-class homosexual who expressed the view that change was possible was regarded as deluded and any who proposed assisting the process of change was thought of as recklessly insane.’ (Horsfall, 1988: 19) He also records the fierce opposition to reform within the Labour party although it also has to be said that most progressive legislation has been passed during periods of Labour Government3.

To raise other perspectives is rather to embrace plural and contesting narratives, to approach what Judith Butler has called the fractious constellation of sexual politics, in which emancipatory movements of various kinds jostle with each other, for example, feminist, queer, socialist, libertarian, liberal reforms and rights-based arguments. There may be contestations as to how freedom or progress are described, and the specificities of historical time and cultural location can be of crucial importance. Thus a somewhat different story–in which there is an emphasis on the ways these reforms attempted to initiate new forms of regulation of sexuality, of containment and prevention, as well as creating new freedoms–can be told about The Wolfenden reforms. This is not an alternative, but an addition to the mainstream view. Such a perspective, which could be called a revisionist history, is to be found in the work of Patrick Higgins (1996) as well as in the various writings of Jeffrey Weeks (1981).

The impetus for setting up the Wolfenden Committee did not come from any concern for homosexuals or prostitutes, nor from notions of promoting the rights of sexual minorities; rather, it arose from a pragmatic reaction to the rapidly rising number of prosecutions relating to homosexual acts


  1. An interesting if incidental question arises: what are the political interests or forces that lead New Labour to pass the contemporary raft of legislation–given that it probably doesn’t buy itself a significant increase in popularity by doing so?