Regulating sex and sexuality: the 20th century

In 1954 the government appointed a committee to review the laws dealing with homosexual activity and prostitution, chaired by Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden.

Homosexual offences

There had been much concern about the visibility of prostitutes in London during the early 1950s, along with an increase in the number of homosexual offences and media scandals about several prominent men.

The Wolfenden Committee reported in 1957, and recommended the decriminalisation of private homosexual activity between consenting adults over the age of 21, but with heavier penalties against homosexual activity in public places.

Street prostitution

Stricter controls of street prostitution were also recommended, and these were put into effect in the Street Offences Act of 1959.

The laws against homosexual activity remained unaltered, however. The Homosexual Law Reform Society campaigned for change, and the subject was addressed in Parliament in discussions on Private Members' Bills in 1960, 1962 and 1966.

Sexual Offences Act 1967

In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act was passed which decriminalised private homosexual acts between men aged over 21, while at the same time imposing heavier penalties on street offences.

The law was not changed for Scotland until 1980, or for Northern Ireland until 1982.

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act

In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act lowered the age of consent for gay men from 21 to 18, and in 2001 it was further lowered to 16.

Glossary link

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Lords debates the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill

The House of Commons debates the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act