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The Wolfenden Report: A Shift in Silencing

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Abstract

The 1957 Wolfenden Report addressed male homosexuality and female prostitution. Its impact extended far beyond the subsequent legislation on both issues, prompting debate on the philosophical underpinning of sexual offences legislation. Lesbians were almost entirely absent from consideration, briefly referred to only to be dismissed as less libidinous than gay men. Superficially, this is unremarkable since sex between women was not explicitly criminalised. However, closer examination shows a deliberate suppression rather than an incidental omission. It was a pivotal moment in the transformation from outright silencing of lesbianism to its dismissal as a lesser form of male homosexuality. That change is explained through societal and legal developments in understandings of sex between women in the post-war period, set within a wider context of evolving social and political approaches to homosexuality and sexual offences and the emergence of modern rights movements.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The three men were convicted following accusations that during a weekend at Montagu’s country estate, they had committed gross indecency with two RAF men, who gave evidence against them in court; Lord Montagu always denied the offences. For a fuller account of the role of sensationalist press reporting in prompting the inclusion of homosexuality , see Bengry (2012).

  2. 2.

    This was achieved by using the procedure under the Consolidation of Enactments (Procedure) Act, 1949, section 1. Marcus Lipton MP’s challenge to the Bill being passed before the Departmental Committee reported was rejected on procedural grounds (HC 06/07/1956, cols. 1750–1751).

  3. 3.

    Indeed the performance of male homosexual identities was common in light entertainment of the period, for example, the polari-speaking ‘Julian and Sandy’ (Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick) in the BBC Radio comedy series Round the Horne (1965–1968); or the camp Mr Humphries (John Inman) of BBC TV’s Are You Being Served? (1972–1985).

  4. 4.

    Interestingly, the Church of England report had suggested a potentially narrower state duty ‘to protect young people … to protect society from nuisances and to preserve public decency’ (Church of England Moral Welfare Council 1954, p. 19).

  5. 5.

    See the transcripts of witness evidence, for example TNA HO 345/13, questions 1164, 1342, 1375–1376, 1760–1764, 1960, 2396–2399, 2607, 2630, 2912–2916, 2936, 3024–3025, 3084, 3111–3121, 3223–3224, 3336–3339.

  6. 6.

    The former, they claimed, need not fear prosecution . Other witnesses, including the Bar Council, were more sceptical of police practices.

  7. 7.

    Probably a reference to Wildeblood; the third openly gay witness was Carl Winter, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

  8. 8.

    Leslie Moran (1995, p. 115) also argues that the Committee ‘hoped homosexual acts might disappear into a space beyond the law’.

  9. 9.

    Failure to disclose a felony (a serious offence) to the police was itself a crime, misprision of felony, albeit there had been no prosecutions of doctors (“Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution” 1957, p. 640).

  10. 10.

    In his evidence to the Wolfenden Committee, Chesser expressly opposed the criminalisation of female and male homosexuality (qu. 3224).

  11. 11.

    While the War Office stated it was produced in 1941, Vickers dates it to 1943 and identifies its author (2009, p. 432).

  12. 12.

    My informal discussions with several people who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s suggest that there was truth in that claim.

  13. 13.

    For discussion of this case and whether conspiracy to corrupt public morals had existed historically as a single offence, see Cocks (2016).

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Derry, C. (2020). The Wolfenden Report: A Shift in Silencing. In: Lesbianism and the Criminal Law . Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-35300-1_6

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