In August 1954 the Conservative government commissioned a committee under the chairmanship of Sir John Wolfenden to investigate whether the law needed to be changed on homosexuality (and also prostitution), and their findings were published in September 1957. Lord Pakenham in opening the debate on the report in the House of Lords believed that most people would share his view that ‘some forms of conduct are not just abnormal, whether in their psychiatric origins or their social manifestation; they are not just antisocial in the sense that the community considers that it must stop them, but are grievously sinful and are a rejection of the will of God.’ This statement outlines the importance which society then placed in still observing traditional Christian religious moral precepts.
He then went on to distinguish the sin itself from the actions of the sinner, and the Committee had to consider what the distinction should be between sin and crime. So the question that needed to be answered was - what are the criteria to determine whether sins should be punished by the criminal law? The committee addressed this question by concluding that ‘the function of the criminal law in so far as it concerns the subjects of this Inquiry is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive and injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others, particularly those who are specially vulnerable’.
In this regard the Report concluded that ‘we do not believe it to be a function of the law to attempt to cover all the fields of sexual behaviour. Certain forms of sexual behaviour are regarded by many as sinful, morally wrong, or objectionable for reasons of conscience, or of religious or cultural tradition; and such actions may be reprobated on these grounds. But the criminal law does not cover all such actions at the present time; for instance, adultery and fornication’. Thus the committee recommended that ‘the criminal law should not intervene in the private lives of citizens or to seek to enforce a particular pattern of behaviour further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined.’
Lord Pakenham summarised this as’ if two men are doing wrong together, neither coercing the other nor taking advantage of his weakness, they must not be interfered with by the law unless their behaviour is harmful to a third party.’ The most important word here, which today’s generation of activists would increasingly overlook in policing sexual behaviour, is harmful. Lord Pakenham agreed with the findings of the Report that homosexual relations in private between consenting men over the age of 21 should be decriminalised. But he added the warning that ‘never let it be thought for a moment, that if we bring our law into conformity with what is the general practice in Europe…we are condoning homosexuality. We are doing no such thing…we condemn it as utterly wrongful’. All the evidence from the debate suggested that the distaste felt by Lord Pakenham towards homosexuality was then shared by a significant majority of the general public.
There was one dissenting voice on the Committee who was concerned that ‘the presence of adult male lovers living openly and notoriously under the approval of the law is bound to have a regrettable and pernicious effect on the young people of the community’ adding that ‘the more serious phases of such conduct have been recognised by our law as criminal for a continuous period of not less than 400 years’. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster thought that the ‘law cannot effectively control such acts without doing more harm to the common good than the acts themselves would do. In that case it may be necessary in the interests of the common good to tolerate without approving such acts’. The problems arising from the threat of blackmail and the use of the police as agent provocateurs were also raised. Both of these evils are still with us.
The Archbishop of Canterbury observed that ‘there is a great general moral indignation against homosexual sins because they are unnatural. There is a queer lack of general moral indignation against heterosexual sins, fornication and adultery, because they are supposed to be natural, and therefore, in some sense, less wrong’. The Archbishop believed that the Report was right in that ‘while all existing laws shall remain in force to protect and control those under 21… homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should not come within the ambit of the law’. So, in his view, the law should continue to criminalise homosexual activities such as those engaged in by Alan Turing with a teenage youth.
One lord made the point that ‘in the press the idea is put forward that indulging in homosexual occupations is a temptation. It is not a temptation to the normal man in any way at all…to ask him to indulge in homosexuality is to ask him to indulge in what to him is repugnant and disgusting, nothing else.’ This remark addressed the fear of many people of the time that anything proclaimed to be sinful, might in reality be ‘forbidden fruit’ that in practice could be quite enjoyable, since dancing and theatre attendance had once been denounced from the pulpit as sinful. As we now know only those with a homosexual inclination find such activity attractive, it generally has no lasting appeal to heterosexuals, thus the fear of many at the time over the likelihood of the widespread corruption of youth becoming ensnared by involvement in ‘unnatural practices’ turned out to be unfounded.
On behalf of the government the Lord Chancellor stated that ‘there can be no prospect of early legislation on this subject’ as it would ‘obviously be a serious step to reverse the provisions of the criminal law which have stood for a long time, and any Government would be bound to think long and carefully before deciding to do so’. He was particularly concerned that decriminalisation ‘would be tantamount to suggesting that there is nothing socially harmful in such behaviour and would inevitably have as its consequence that young people would be encouraged to indulge in it, and that society would be corrupted’. A wholly mistaken view as events would prove, but it does explain that one of the prime motivations for retaining this law was concern for the protection of young people, the same justification that is put forward today for maintaining some of the more intrusive and invasive sexcrime legislation of our time.
Given the climate of the time none of the supporters of decriminalisation had anything positive to say about homosexuality, although a number had some sympathy for the predicament which homosexuals faced. One such lord opined that it was ‘a grave moral offence, in that it offends radically the law of nature ordained by God’, but added that ‘toleration by the law is not the same thing as condoning, and that to emphasise the personal and private nature of immoral conduct, is to emphasise the personal and private responsibility of the individual for his own actions.’ As the gay liberation bandwagon rolled on, in time anyone who merely just tolerated homosexuality, instead of enthusiastically endorsing it, would run the risk of being branded as ‘homophobic’. Times were different in those days as the same lord was encouraged by ‘the vigorous public reaction against this recommendation (to decriminalise) as evidence of the instinctive sense of right values in the British public’. Remember, this was from a supporter of decriminalisation.
Future thinking was prophesised by one lord when he asked ‘why should the age of consent for homosexuality be fixed at 21 if it is no worse an offence than fornication?’ adding that ‘if the Committee had been logical, it was bound to fix the age of consent, whatever it might be, as the same for all. The only explanation I can see is that in their subconscious minds they had a real conviction that somehow or other this offence is worse in its results than the other.’ It would take parliamentarians almost 50 years before they reached the same conclusion.
As for those lords who opposed decriminalisation, their views make interesting reading today. One lord asked whether there ‘is any use sending these people to an ordinary prison where they spread contamination. I believe there should be some form of preventive detention system where they could receive proper medical treatment.’ For those who think we do things differently in these enlightened times, it should be noted that sexcrime prisoners today are still on the receiving end of ‘medical treatment’ to address their behaviour. The same lord rejected the argument put forward by some that ‘more harm can be done to the community by normal sexual intercourse outside of marriage than by homosexualism’ on the grounds that ‘one of the causes of the downfall of many ancient civilisations was the prevalence of homosexualism and its tolerance, with most damaging moral and physical effects upon the population.’ One of the physical effects of decriminalisation would be that thousand of young homosexual men would die of Aids as a consequence of their extreme promiscuous behaviour. Another lord addressed the question as to why ‘adultery and fornication are not criminal offences, so why should homosexuality be? The law answers that natural sin is different from unnatural vice. Natural sin is, of course, deplorable, but unnatural vice is worse; because, as the law says, it strikes at the integrity of the human race.’ Not a point of view you hear very much about these days.
One bishop disagreed with his archbishop on decriminalisation declaring that ‘there is no more baneful or contagious an influence in the world than that which emanates from homosexual practice. It makes a life of leprosy.’ The bishop agreed with the Lord Chancellor that ‘homosexuals can be made, they are not only born. There are far more manufactured than most people have any conception of, and they need protection. So homosexuals should be kept on a leash to prevent them from practising homosexual vice’. All the evidence today suggests that the bishop is wrong on this and that homosexuals are indeed born that way. The bishop concluded by proclaiming that people ‘would not have the general lines of the law altered, not only for the sake of homosexuals themselves but also for the sake of protecting other people from their predatory soliciting, and to protect men from being made into homosexual addicts and then let loose on the world with their predatory corruption’.
The fear expressed here by the bishop implies that young people might find that they enjoy homosexual experiences if they ever got a chance to try them out. This is in contrast, to today’s vocal fearmongers who proclaim that if young people experience sexual activity of any kind they will be traumatised for life, and will turn to drugs, alcohol, self harm, criminal activity and numerous other deleterious behaviours as a consequence. With regard to teenagers the fears of both camps are lacking in any real evidence, and what limited research has been carried out has shown such fears to be without foundation. Those who promote a contrary view invariably do so for religious, financial or political reasons. It is strange that these self appointed guardians of what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour argue that sexual activity by teenagers below the age of consent must always be damaging, but never appear to question the licentiousness of wider society which sees the same behaviour as a fulfilling and enjoyable recreational pastime for those over the age of consent.
The truth is that the authorities today, and also much of the mainstream media, are just as confused, repressed and repressive in understanding the impact of disapproved sexual expression as were their lordships back in the 1950s. At that time the irrational fear was that the young might succumb to the temptation of an illicit deviancy which needed to be suppressed by the law and moralistic guardians. Today the irrational fear is that the young will be permanently mentally scarred by biologically normal sexual activity which needs to be heavily policed by the law and the welfare authorities.