The British report which launched gay rights

Michael Cook
February 1, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

This year marks a milestone along the path which eventually led to same-sex marriage - the publication of the Wolfenden Report in the United Kingdom in 1957. The report dealt with the possible decriminalisation of prostitution and male homosexuality.

Its conclusion on the latter was that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence". At the time this was such a hot political potato that it took ten years to pass the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. But pass it did, and we live in a world which the Wolfenden Report helped to shape.

All that took place six decades ago; society has changed; the law has changed; medicine has changed; psychiatry has changed. But an examination of the arguments used in the report sheds light on where we might end up 60 years from now.

First of all, some background.

After World War II, there seemed to be an increase in homosexual activity in the UK. This might have been due to the social and psychological turmoil of the War; it might have been the publicity surrounding the Kinsey Report when it was published in 1948; it might have been just a social panic. Several high-profile men were convicted of acts of "gross indecency" in 1954 and imprisoned, including the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, who later became a Conservative politician, Michael Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, who was just wealthy and travelled a lot, and Peter Wildeblood, who was probably England's first gay rights campaigner.

"Nobody had any idea how much of it there was ... but there was an impression that it was increasing; and there was a feeling that if it was then it ought to be curbed," the head of the committee, Sir John Wolfenden, later recalled.*

The Prime Minister of the day was a Conservative, Winston Churchill. Nonetheless, his government appointed a distinguished committee under Wolfenden, a former headmaster at two leading boys' schools, and vice-chancellor of the University of Reading. He later became head of the British Museum. The other 14 members were well-known figures in British public life.

As we all know, the report did anything but curb the prevalence of homosexuality in British society. However, this was not the intention of the government of the day. The Home Secretary, Rab Butler, insisted, as he introduced the report into Parliament, that homosexuality was wrong:

An impression has undoubtedly gained ground - which I do not think is fair to the Wolfenden committee - that the committee desired to legalise homosexual conduct. This gives a sort of impression that it wished to make it easier. In fact what the members of the Committee wished to do was to alter the law, not expressly to encourage or legalise such practices, but to remove them, like adultery and other sins, from the realm of the law.

So what were the arguments put forward by the Committee which eventually led to homosexuality becoming a socially-acceptable lifestyle?

(1 )The Committee firmly rejected the view - long before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1974 - that it was a "disease". How could it be, if there was no symptom other than homosexual attraction, no pathological condition, and no identifiable cause? This was a peculiar argument - to state that homosexuality was not medical because the medical profession knew so little about it. But it seemed to have convinced everyone, bar a Scottish representative, James Adair. He pointed out in a dissenting opinion that

The present state of medical and mental science, and the limited knowledge and powers of the medical profession under existing circumstances to deal with homosexual patients, make the change … premature and inopportune.

(2) The Committee rejected what subsequently became known as the "wisdom of repugnance" - that disgust and revulsion give insight into problematic moral issues, even if they are not decisive. The opposite view, which the Committee endorsed, is "different strokes for different folks". If no clear and precise reasons can be advanced, there is nothing wrong with a behaviour:

In so far as the basis of this argument can be precisely formulated, it is often no more than the expression of revulsion against what is regarded as unnatural, sinful or disgusting… But moral conviction or instinctive feeling, however strong, is not a valid basis for overriding the individual's privacy and for bringing within the ambit of the criminal law private sexual behaviour of this kind.

Although this is a commonplace in today's ethical marketplace, it must have expressed Wolfenden's own feelings. Although he was repulsed by homosexuality, his brilliant eldest son Jeremy was a flamboyant gay. Jeremy told friends that his father wrote him a note :

Dear Jeremy, You will have probably seen from the newspapers that I am to chair a Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. I have only two requests to make of you at the moment. 1) That we stay out of each other's way for the time being; 2) That you wear rather less make-up.

In retrospect, it is extraordinary that Wolfenden did not recuse himself. He could hardly be impartial in studying the issue.

(3) The Committee declared that homosexuality would not weaken the family any further than it already had been. In fact, it might even strengthen it, because pushing homosexuals to marry was the cause of great anguish in some British marriages. The Committee enthusiastically invoked the slippery slope. Adultery, fornication and lesbian behaviour were bad enough but they were no longer criminal offences in Britain. Could legalised homosexuality really be any worse?

This argument is not to be taken as saying that society should condone or approve male homosexual behaviour. But where adultery, fornication and lesbian behaviour are not criminal offences there seems to us to be no valid ground, on the basis of damage to the family, for so regarding homosexual behaviour between men.

(4) The Committee rejected the view that legalisation would make paedophilia more common. If there were any chance of that happening, they would never have recommended it. "We are authoritatively informed that a man who has homosexual relations with an adult partner seldom turns to boys," they argued. In fact, the committee argued (somewhat unconvincingly) that legalisation might decrease the incidence of paedophilia because some homosexuals exploited boys who were less likely to blackmail them.

(5) The Committee rejected the view that a change would "'open the floodgates' and result in unbridled licence". Sexual preferences in the community are relatively stable and were unlikely to change, so legalisation could do no harm. "Even if, as has been suggested to us, homosexuals tend to proselytise, there is no valid reason for supposing that any considerable number of conversions would follow the change in the law." It had not happened in Sweden, where homosexuality had been legalised in 1944.

(6) Finally, the committee declared that sin was not necessarily a crime. "There must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business."

It seems clear from reading accounts of debates in Parliament that politicians by no means wished to condone homosexuality. In fact, in 1965, during a debate on the sexual offences bill, Norman St John-Stevas, a leading Roman Catholic Conservative MP, declared that "by making a change in the law one does not give moral approval to the homosexual. We are simply saying that criminal sanctions are inappropriate to deal with this subject."

The question that this potted history raises is whether the government's intention to decriminalise homosexuality without allowing it to flourish could ever have been successful.

Not with the arguments the Wolfenden Committee put forward: homosexuality was not a medical condition; it could do no harm to the family; if it disgusted you, you had a problem; and it would not corrupt the youth. Very little hard evidence was tendered about the effects of legalisation. Instead arguments were cobbled together with shoddy ethical arguments, guesswork instead of statistics, and deference to experts who had confessed their own ignorance. It was the triumph of hope over experience. If it had been an economics report, the government would have rejected it. If it had been a philosophy paper, it would have failed.

These flimsy arguments never would and never could stem the flourishing of a homosexual culture in Britain. In fact, 60 years later Britons live in a country where same-sex marriage is legal and criticism of homosexuality is taboo.