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Number 1: Spring 2008

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

Joanna Ryan

 Although the law was sufficiently vague to deter local authorities from undertaking prosecutions, nevertheless many gay and lesbian initiatives were closed down or simply dropped as a result.

‘In private’ was defined in The Wolfenden Report as, ‘Not in a place where members of the public were likely to see and be offended’, and it was left to the courts to decide whether public decency was offended. What is private could not be self-evident, but rather remained open to all sorts of qualifications, including the likelihood of giving offence–despite the passages in The Report which state clearly that disgust or offence, whilst often strong emotions, cannot be the basis for either morality or the law. Devlin and later homophobic writers have often tried to claim that the opposite is the case. ‘In private’ was defined even more restrictively when a last minute amendment to the 1967 Act was secured in the Lords by the then Lord Chancellor. The latter was bitterly against the legislation and as a result of his amendment privacy was defined as an act taking place with only two people present–one might say, with psychoanalysis in mind, a couple. If three or more people were present, then it became a public act.

The emphasis on privacy chimed amongst other things with some of the pro-decriminalisation arguments put forward by the Homosexual Law Reform Society, where the respectability and non-offensive nature, that is the social invisibility of the majority of homosexual relationships, was asserted as part of its campaigning tactics. Such a stance, whilst wholly understandable in the climate of the time, and bearing in mind the extreme bravery required to campaign openly, accepted the terms of the proposed reform: that is sexual ‘outlaws’ were to be tolerated on condition of privacy. This position brings out one of the ambiguities of liberalism; tolerance does not necessarily mean real acceptance of difference. Davenport Hines considers that the 1967 legislation was not so much a triumph for tolerance as the acme of the traditional and increasing middle-class taste for privacy. Jeffrey Weeks (1981) emphasises how, increasingly towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, sex of all kinds was ‘ideologically privatised’, ideally confined to marriage, with discretion and control becoming the mark of respectability.