Sam Caslin and Julia Laite
Wolfenden’s Women is a critical sourcebook that compiles excerpts from the extensive interviews undertaken by the Wolfenden Committee on the subject of prostitution. The committee is remembered, first and foremost, for recommending the decriminalisation of sex between men. However, the other half of its remit—prostitution—has largely been forgotten, despite the fact that prostitution, not homosexuality, was the original impetus behind the committee’s appointment. If we consider the Committee and its Report from this perspective, its status as both a liberal and permissive endeavour must be called into question. This book captures the controversy, diversity and complexity of opinions surrounding prostitution in this period, and provides critical analysis and context. It restores the question of prostitution to its central place in the history of Britain’s so-called progressive era and challenges the way that the report and its legacy have been characterised. Crucially, this book highlights the substantial evidence gathered by the committee on prostitution outside of London, which the Wolfenden Report itself largely disregarded. The excerpts, the reprinted report, and the critical introductions to each chapter are intended to spark important debates amongst students, researchers and the public about the history of sexuality, society and the state in twentieth-century Britain.
NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?
Julia Laite: Wolfenden’s Women is a critical source book, that pulls together and abridges the key evidence given to the (in)famous Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, which sat in Britain between 1954 and 1957. It was tasked with finding new legal ‘solutions’ for the problems of homosexuality and prostitution, and is mostly remembered (in a celebratory way) for its stance on ‘decriminalizing’ sex between men in private. However, it also looked at prostitution. This book explores the way that the minutes of evidence given to the committee from experts on commercial sex illuminates the diverse and often surprising attitudes toward prostitution at the time; and helps readers understand why the Report recommended what in some ways feels like the opposite approach to the one they took on homosexuality: the massively increased criminalization of prostitution in the UK. Because Wolfenden set the tone for the legal control and cultural understanding of commercial sex for the rest of the twentieth century and beyond, this book represents crucial reading for anyone hoping to understand the state and society’s response to sexual labour in the past and present.
Sam Caslin: We hope that Wolfenden’s Women will shine more light on the Committee’s work on prostitution and encourage further research and teaching in this area. As Julia points out, the recommendations of the Committee, implemented in the 1959 Street Offences Act, had profound and long-lasting consequences for sex work, yet so much of the public focus on Wolfenden tends to be about the Committee’s approach to male homosexuality. The way these two issues were yoked together needs further analysis, not least because of the way Wolfenden promoted a jurisprudence that dealt rather uncritically with ideas about ‘public’ and ‘private’ and proceeded to try to map these ideas on to prostitution and homosexuality. As an edited collection of evidence, the book gives readers a chance to see how the Wolfenden Committee rationalised its decisions, who was given the power to speak on the issue of sex work, and how they spoke about the women who sold sex. This offers readers an insight that you cannot get from just reading the Wolfenden Report alone.
NOTCHES: How does Wolfenden’s Women respond to prostitution being so often overlooked in favour of the report’s recommendations on homosexuality?
JL: This is the reason Sam [Caslin] and I were so keen to make this book happen. Wolfenden is remembered as a ‘liberal document’, and celebrated for its recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality. That in itself has been criticized by historians; but even still the fact that Wolfenden looked at prostitution—and recommended such seemingly opposite solutions—is consistently ignored. This is especially surprising because it was the sharp rise in arrest rates for prostitution-related offences (soliciting in particular) that motivated the government to appoint the Wolfenden Committee in the first place. We believe that this unacknowledged history of Wolfenden and Prostitution is incredibly telling. We celebrate Wolfenden as a liberal document, and yet it is the Committee that recommended draconian measures against commercial sex: a much lower burden of proof for soliciting charges; an enormous increase in fines; and the formal reintroduction of prison sentences for women who were prosecuted for soliciting. They wanted to push prostitution out of the sight of ‘ordinary, decent citizens’, and didn’t care about how that would increase the harms to women selling sex, or what that meant for their civil rights. To forget about the prostitution side of Wolfenden is to forget about this serious injustice.
SC: The idea that the Wolfenden Report was a liberal document furthers the marginalisation of those who sold sex at the time and who have sold sex since. The key priority of the Committee was to get the women who sold sex out of sight because they believed that these women were a nuisance and their presence on the streets a scandal. That the Committee did not even talk to women who sold sex speaks to the fact that these women were regarded as too disreputable to reliably convey their own experiences. Sex workers were marginalised because prioritising their safety was considered to come at the expense of maintaining public order. This wasn’t a price that the Wolfenden Committee was prepared to pay. Moreover, aside from it being contested by historians of homosexuality, the continued holding up of Wolfenden up as a liberalising moment perpetuates the notion that the negative consequences of Wolfenden for sex workers can be written off in exchange for supposed liberal gains in another area of sexual regulation. Concerns about sex worker safety are reduced to collateral damage.
NOTCHES: This book engages with histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes issues it speak to?
SC: The Wolfenden Committee’s impact was significant because it effectively legitimised an approach to the law that was about control over people in ‘public’ while supposedly allowing for more freedom in ‘private’. This means that the Committee has big implications for the socio-legal history of postwar Britain. Also, the witnesses that the Committee spoke to came from various spheres of influence including policing, medicine, voluntary bodies, and local government.
The evidence we have put together in Wolfenden’s Women is grouped in a way that highlights key themes in the discussions between the Committee and their witnesses. There are sections looking at public space, concerns about brothels and privatization, and law and jurisprudence. At the same time, we also wanted to draw more attention to the regional issues discussed by the Committee. A lot of the focus in the literature on this topic focuses on London because there were significant concerns about sex work in that city, and the Wolfenden Committee certainly regarded prostitution in London to be a particular problem. Yet they did hear evidence from other areas, including Glasgow, Glamorgan, and Liverpool, some of which we have included in the book.
JL: Yes, and I think readers of this book will quickly see how prostitution and its legal control is about so much more than the sex trade, and readers will see how the minutes of evidence touch on so many other themes: public space, civil rights, public health and medicine, the psy sciences, feminism, regionalism, police procedure, court procedure and in a more general sense, the role of the law for upholding public morality.
NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of the Wolfenden Report? How did you respond to this?
SC: In many ways, the book complements Brian Lewis’ source book Wolfenden’s Witnesses, which looks specifically at the Committee’s evidence on homosexuality. It is significant that Lewis’ book is able to include a section on the evidence presented to the Committee by homosexual men. As Lewis points out, hearing evidence from homosexual men absolutely does not appear to have been a priority for the Committee and they only interviewed three homosexual men. That awkward, euphemistic way the Committee spoke about homosexual men and sex workers as ‘Huntleys’ and ‘Palmers’ (after the biscuit brand) tells us a lot about the degree to which the people who were to be most affected by the recommendations were regarded as too disreputable to be heard. It really is important to note, though, that the Committee didn’t talk to any women who sold sex and were instead entirely reliant upon second-hand (and often highly problematic) accounts from witnesses who had had contact with sex workers. This is why one of the most important sections of the book, ‘Wolfenden’s Missing Women’, deals with Wolfenden’s failure to hear from women who sold sex and points readers towards evidence from women ignored or otherwise marginalised by the Committee.
JL: As Sam has said, Wolfenden’s most grievous omission was their failure to interview a single person who sold sex or had any first-hand experience with the sex industry. This was in sharp contrast to the attention they gave to the interviewees who they identified as homosexual men. The suggestion that they should interview prostitutes was quite literally laughed at. But even beyond this, Wolfenden gave clear preference to the opinions and evidence of police, medical doctors, and jurists; and had very little time for feminist campaigners who were advocating for decriminalization. It feels like this history has continued to repeat itself.
NOTCHES: What would you include had you been able to?
JL: In the Wolfenden Committee? The experiences of women who had sold sex. Which is why a section of the book strays from the original mandate to cover the Wolfenden committee’s minutes of evidence and instead includes extracts from the very few sources we have written by women who sold sex. We called this chapter Wolfenden’s Missing Women….
SC: Obviously being able to include testimony to the Committee by people who sold sex would have been hugely useful, but that testimony doesn’t exist.
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?
SC: The book offers a great way to get students working with actual primary source evidence. Our introduction and conclusion situate the Committee in historical context and provide readers with an overview of the laws that the Committee discussed. We also give some background on the sorts of moral panics and issues in policing from earlier in the century.
JL: This book is definitely an excellent teaching tool, because it combines direct primary sources with careful contextualizing introductions, a glossary, and references for further reading. I think it would clearly pair well with Brian Lewis’ Wolfenden’s Witnesses, its companion book; but in general I’d encourage it to be taught alongside the scholarship on Wolfenden and the decriminalization of homosexuality. The contrasts are sharp, and would prompt students to reflect on the way in which women who sold sex and men labelled homosexual were considered very differently by the state and the law; but there are also comparisons to be made, especially around the conversations about public vs private space, and public vs private morality.
NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?
JL: This is an easy question to answer. We are still very much living under the shadow of Wolfenden. Their recommendations are still the core of the UK’s legal code around prostitution to this day: to crack down on street soliciting by lowering the burden of proof and stigmatizing women as ‘common prostitutes, and to continue to make brothels (a place where more than one woman works selling sex) illegal. This criminalization drive has cast a long shadow, and has dramatically and negatively affected the wellbeing, safety and rights of sex workers in the present day. Not only this, but Wolfenden’s emphasis on the psychological and pathological ‘causes’ of prostitution continue to loom large; and the economic side—the fact that women do this as a form of labour, often in the face of working poverty, social insecurity, and disability—continues to be ignored. And as I said above, history feels like its repeating itself: a committee is sitting as I type to consider further criminalization, and is refusing to engage with sex workers rights organizations and professional researchers on sex work.
SC: Selling sexual services in exchange for money is not, in itself, illegal in England, Wales or Scotland. This was also the case at the time the Wolfenden Committee met to review the law. However, those involved in sex work have historically been (and continue to be) criminalised by regulations on street solicitation and brothel-keeping, among other things. This harmful, restrictive and criminalising approach was consolidated and strengthened by Wolfenden.
The marginalisation of sex workers in policy discussion is also still a problem, and there is still that same ‘Huntley and Palmers’ awkwardness in the media and among politicians when it comes to talking about sex work or to those involved in the industry. Those with influence still tend to be concerned with not wanting to be seen to “legitimise” or “promote” prostitution, and this frequently derails efforts to help those involved in sex work. Just last month, there was backlash against a UK university’s implementation of a ‘sex worker toolkit’ to ensure that students involved in sex work knew where to get support. All too often, strategies designed to enhance sex worker safety and facilitate harm reduction are criticised as “promoting” sex work. This type of marginalising rhetoric has a very long history, but we cannot overlook the significant role that the Wolfenden Report had in propagating this type of stigmatising approach at the expense of sex worker safety.
Sam Caslin is a Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. Their work focuses on social control, gender and urban space in a modern British context. Sam has published in Social History of Medicine and Women’s History Review, and their book Save the Womanhood: Vice, Urban Immorality and Social Control in Liverpool c.1900-1976 (Liverpool University Press, 2018) is available in paperback from 2021.
Julia Laite is a Reader in Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. She researches and teaches on the history of women, crime, sexuality and migration in the nineteenth and twentieth century British world and is the author of Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London (2012) and (with Samantha Caslin) Wolfenden’s Women: A Critical Sourcebook (2020). Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A True Story of Sex, Crime and the Meaning of Justice, was published with Profile Books in April 2021.
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