Back to contents
Number 1: Spring 2008

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

Joanna Ryan

and prostitution, involving some high-profile men. Reading The Wolfenden Report itself is an exercise in time travel: sessions of the committee were held in private because of the allegedly ‘delicate and controversial’ nature of the topics. At best the tone of the report is one of tolerant dismissal. It was considered too shocking and distressing for the secretarial staff to have to type out the words ‘homosexuals’ or ‘prostitutes’ in recording the evidence presented, and so they were called ‘Huntleys’ and ‘Palmers’4, to spare the staff’s feelings. The emphasis throughout The Report is one of containment of something rather distasteful; no-one spoke positively about homosexuality, nor about rights. The single exception was a homosexual man who gave oral evidence, an upper class surgeon who described the elevated cultured social world he lived in and said with evident disdain, ‘I do not wish to meet a strictly normal person’–perhaps an early aristocratic advocate of a queer position. (Wolfenden 1954-57, HO 345: 14)

The increase in recorded homosexual offences and prosecutions in the 40s and 50s is striking (six to ten times greater than before the war); it was regarded by The Wolfenden Report as the main reason for advocating law reform. The great increase in prosecutions was caused by heightened police activity driven by the post-war shift towards the reassertion of the primacy of the nuclear family. This increase can also be seen in the context of the Cold War ‘Lavender Scare’ being waged in the USA at the same time (see Johnson: 2003). The threat perceived as emanating from homosexuals in government service in the United States was taken to be as serious as that from communists, and large numbers were summarily dismissed from their jobs in a wide-ranging purge. The association of homosexuality with treason was promulgated. According to another historian of sexual attitudes, in 1951 the American government, following the defections of Burgess and Maclean to the USSR, pressured the British government to campaign against homosexuals in government service (Davenport-Hines: 1990). In 1952 Scotland Yard consulted the FBI for advice on conducting a purge. This was the period of the most extreme psychoanalytic homophobia in the US, as is well documented (e.g. Lewes: 1989). When The Wolfenden Report was published in the USA in 1963, it included an introduction by Karl Menninger, a leading psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, strongly arguing against its assertion that homosexuality was not a disease (cited in Isay: 1985). Despite the pathologising nature of the evidence given to the Wolfenden Committee by leading psychoanalysts (see below), The International Journal of Psychoanalysis for that period gives a more varied picture. Some articles put forward less stridently pathologising views, and some reviews criticised the more extreme homophobic books of the time, and welcomed the less prejudiced ones.


  1. Huntley & Palmers was the name of a well-known biscuit manufacturer of the time.