Homosexuality and the Age of Consent

  • Matthew Waites


This chapter explores how the UK’s heteronormative legal framework was amended in relation to same-sex sexual behaviour during the twentieth century, up to the late 1960s. It begins by discussing a change in the minimum age applying to sexual acts other than intercourse in the 1920s, which had effects including the creation of a minimum age for sexual behaviour between women. Since the history of age of consent laws in relation to lesbianism has been subject to little previous attention, I analyse this development in the context of a growth of public concern about female homosexuality after the First World War. The main body of the chapter then focusses on the 1950s and 1960s, discussing the Wolfenden Report 1957, and the subsequent partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales via the Sexual Offences Act 1967 to which it led. I examine the rationale for the creation of a minimum age for sexual behaviour between men at the age of 21. After an overview of events, I analyse the Wolfenden Report’s conclusions, examining the understandings of citizenship for male homosexuals which informed its arguments. Through engagement with existing analyses, I argue that the Wolfenden Report’s assertion of a universal right to privacy entailed a complex strategy, seeking to contain male homosexuality while also granting limited forms of citizenship. Drawing upon this argument, I then explore the rationale behind the creation of a minimum legal age of 21 for male ‘homosexual acts’, analysing the interplay between theories of the causes of homosexuality, legal philosophies and wider social attitudes.


Sexual Behaviour Sexual Offence Private Sphere Male Homosexual Parliamentary Debate 
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© Matthew Waites 2005

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  • Matthew Waites

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