The papers of the Wolfenden Committee (1954–7), held by the National Archives at Kew, provide a unique insight into how homosexuality was understood in post-war Britain. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a departmental committee which had been appointed to consider and recommend changes to the laws relating to homosexual offences and prostitution, this inquiry privileged certain ‘expert’ voices at the expense of others. Nevertheless, the Wolfenden papers contain a wide range of perspectives from more than 200 individual witnesses and representatives of professional organizations. In this edited source collection, Brian Lewis offers an extensive and meticulous selection of previously unpublished written evidence and oral testimony on mostly male homosexuality (although the volume also incorporates interesting insights into how female homosexuality was understood by a number of ‘experts’). Throughout Wolfenden’s Witnesses, Lewis offers ample contextualization and illuminating annotations of the material which, because it was produced solely for the aid of the committee, allow for fascinating glimpses into the deliberations of the Wolfenden inquiry—their immediate responses to some witness statements, their attempts to negotiate their way through a variety of competing discourses, and their deliberations on important and controversial issues. Wolfenden’s Witnesses is divided into three parts. Part 1 is an introduction which maps out the major debates surrounding homosexuality in the 1950s and provides a concise history of the inquiry and subsequent Wolfenden Report of 1957 which controversially recommended that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults (aged 21 years and over) in private should no longer be a criminal offence. Part 2, the largest of the book, focuses on the witnesses and presents the edited source material. Part 3 then concludes the collection by highlighting relevant excerpts from the Wolfenden Report, touching on themes which permeate the preceding witness testimony—understandings of homosexuality, consideration of the function of the criminal law, and recommendations for an appropriate age of consent. Despite the Wolfenden recommendations not being put into effect until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, Wolfenden has long been recognized as a key moment in the history of homosexuality in Britain. Nevertheless, as Lewis indicates, existing scholarship on Wolfenden has tended to point towards two broad interpretations. While the first regards the inquiry as condescending and limited in approach, it sees the Wolfenden Report as an enlightened and rational document for its time, which represented a step in the right direction and prepared the way for legal reform. The second view has seen Wolfenden as an attempt to assemble ‘the homosexual’ subject as a way of better controlling him. From this perspective, Wolfenden only afforded limited tolerance to a respectable, domesticated, masculine, and largely middle-class version of homosexuality, thus crystallizing the heterosexual/homosexual binary at the expense of sexual and gender fluidity, as well as aiming to eliminate the ‘problem’ of homosexuality through psychological and social ‘adjustment’, and perpetuating the moral stigma against homosexual conduct. While Lewis does not wish to colour the reader’s own interpretation, he indicates quite rightly that the documents which follow do not lend themselves to such clear-cut assessments. Lewis admits that the normalizing, assimilationist intent behind Wolfendenian discourse was subverted in practice, perhaps even leading to the eventual unravelling of the Wolfenden consensus, as alternative voices attacked and eventually defeated the notion that homosexuality was a medical or psychological disorder. In Part 3, Lewis discusses this longer legacy, carefully positioning the excerpts from the Wolfenden Report in the context of the committee’s wider deliberations on particularly contentious issues, such as the age of consent, on which there was a lack of consensus among the committee as well as the witnesses. In this sense, Lewis suggests the Wolfenden recommendations were negotiated with caution and calculation according to what was considered to be politically and socially expedient. In Part 2, Lewis divides the edited source material into four sections, comprising four different categories of witness: law enforcers; medical practitioners and scientists; homosexuals; and Christians, moralists, and reformers. Each section includes a representative range of perspectives, showing the variation even within each grouping. Lewis offers a brief introduction to each section which identifies broader trends in the submissions, highlights views of particular individuals and organizations, and adds further context. Lewis broadly concludes that while the law enforcers generally favoured the continued criminalization of homosexual acts, those who argued from medical, religious, and ethical perspectives tended to favour reform, although some organizations remained divided amongst themselves. Most remained united in their moral condemnation of homosexual acts, whether for or against reform. One of the most striking aspects of the witness testimony is that, despite unanimous agreement on the need to protect the young and preserve public order and decency, there was remarkable disagreement on many other issues, even amongst those who supported reform. Not only was this the case with the question of when a young man became settled in his sexual habits or orientation, thus marking his supposed transition from vulnerable youth to responsible adult, but there was also a real muddle of understandings of homosexuality, attempts to establish causation, and approaches towards treatment or prevention of the ‘problem’. Particularly noticeable throughout the testimony is the tension between suggestions that a spectrum of sexual desires and same-sex practices existed, and various attempts to map out particular ‘types’ of individuals and behaviours. Perhaps unsurprisingly most space in the collection is devoted to the testimony of law enforcers and medical practitioners and scientists. As is well known, Wolfenden’s homosexual witnesses were severely limited in number. Yet it is promising to see some representation of the various voices which gave evidence to Wolfenden from a Christian or ethical perspective. Existing narratives of the making of modern homosexuality have tended to privilege legal, medical, and scientific discourses at the expense of supposedly outdated and essentially conservative moral discourses. Unavoidably, the need to categorize material into distinct sections leaves a somewhat incoherent grouping of ‘concerned voices in the public arena’ for the substantially shorter fourth section. Read as a whole, however, this collection offers a more realistic sense of the amalgamation of competing discourses on homosexuality and continuing dialogue between various different knowledge systems which overlapped and informed each other. As Lewis points out, perhaps more than any other, it is the British Medical Association’s memorandum (included amongst the medical witnesses) which testifies to the enduring strength that moral and Christian discourse continued to maintain in 1950s Britain. Overall, Lewis is to be applauded for making this rich and captivating resource more readily available to all those interested in the making of modern British sexuality. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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