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Number 1: Spring 2008

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

Joanna Ryan

Between 1951 and 1954, there were mass arrests in the UK, including some high-profile upper class people, and the resulting furore over police techniques led to the subsequent decision, albeit by a very reluctant Cabinet, for an enquiry into the law. The association with treason was to recur in the subsequent public debates, with Devlin, a leading judge, arguing against decriminalisation, on the grounds that homosexuality could lead to a loosening of moral bonds and that the suppression of ‘vice’ was as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities. This anti-liberal argument assumes a notion of society which is held together by a common and imposed morality. The view of homosexuality as a threat to the social order in general and marriage in particular, as articulated in the recent debates about civil partnership, is a recurrent one. It speaks to a conception of society in which, seemingly, individual ‘immorality’ can seep out into society–a view of influence and contamination between individuals, which is rather different from the liberal ideal, however fictional, of the autonomous boundaried subject making rational choices relatively independently. It was this latter view of the individual that was enshrined in The Wolfenden Report with its concern also to discount the prevalent idea of the time that homosexuality was caused by malign influences and contamination by others, for example, by seduction.

The Wolfenden Report and the consequent legislation of 1967 only partly succeeded within its own pragmatic terms: whilst the number of prosecutions for homosexual offences fell in the ten years after the report, in the 1970s they rose to greater numbers than before The Report because of increased police activity (mainly with regard to public indecency offences). In this sense, the effect of the decriminalising reform was that of a re-regulation of male homosexuality, as much as a liberalisation. The ‘logic’ of the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ was that since private behaviour was decriminalised, the legal sanctions on public acts could be strengthened. Furthermore, The Sexual Offences Act (1967) in its timidity and limitations did nothing to mitigate the legislation of the subsequent Thatcher years. Under Section 2A of the Local Government Act (1988), although homosexuality in private was not as such re-criminalised, the public ‘promotion’ of homosexuality (in which gay and lesbian families were dubbed ‘pretend’ families) was attacked.