On the anniversary of the reform that (partially) decriminalised male homosexuality Mark Simpson argues Wolfenden would have been horrified by what has happened. To heteros 

(The Guardian, 30/7/07)

Sometimes you can estimate the popularity of a thing by its illegality. Illegal drugs, for example are extremely popular, even with Cabinet Ministers. In the 18th Century when starvation was rather more common than it is now, stealing bread was punishable by death. And before July 1967 all forms of sexual contact between males whether in private or public were completely illegal.

But contrary to the current depiction of that time as one of total persecution and horror of man-lurve, there may have been even more of it around than there is now. Something which may be difficult to believe possible, especially if you live in Brighton.

Joe Orton’s and Tom Driberg’s diaries offer a glimpse of a pre ’67 world where homosexual encounters were as available and convenient as public lavatories used to be. Matt Houlbrook’s recent history ‘Queer London’ shone a Bobby’s torch behind the pre-Wolfenden bushes, illuminating an illicit (homo)sexual economy that involved queers, queans and rather a lot of sailors, soldiers, young workingmen – and sailors again – most of whom who were not themselves queer.

Just a few years ago it emerged that the Royal Navy hastily abandoned a witch-hunt into sodomy in its ranks in the 1960s when it became apparent that ‘at least 50% have sinned homosexually.’ When ‘Dr Sex’ alias Alfred Kinsey visited the UK in the ‘repressed’ 1950s he found that one in five men admitted an adult same-sex experience – only a slightly lower figure than those admitting visiting a female prostitute.

Male homosexuality and female prostitution may seem odd bedfellows today, but it wasn’t always so: they were once the mainstays of recreational sex. Ironically, the word ‘gay’, today’s preferred carefree term for ‘homosexual’, was in the England of Oscar Wilde a euphemism for ‘whore’. The Wolfenden Committee set up to investigate possible reform of the impressive array of laws against male-on-male sex after the Montagu Scandal of 1953 – and which ultimately led to the 1967 reform – was also an enquiry into prostitution (and actually stiffened the laws against it). Wolfenden was effectively an enquiry into better ways of regulating the ‘problem’ of sex outside marriage.

And in pre-Pill, pre-Beatles, pre-feminist, pre-alcopop England where good girls didn’t put out, the problem with homosex was that it was free sex. Quentin Crisp and the Dilly queans excepted, queers generally didn’t expect to be paid, nor, back then, given a white wedding. What’s more, in the 1950s they were likely the only enthusiastic players of the hairy oboe in town. No wonder they were so popular at closing time.

Wolfenden didn’t dispute the ‘immorality’ of homosex but argued that the Law should not criminalise ‘congenital inverts’ – homosexuals who couldn’t help their homosexuality – so long as they conducted themselves with domesticated discretion. Instead the Law should focus its attentions more usefully on the ‘real perverts’ – the ‘otherwise normal men’ who took part in the semi-public homo demi-monde for cheap thrills, and no-apron-strings sex.

This philosophy was etched into law. When decriminalisation came in 1967, the ‘over 21′ stipulation, the exemption of the Armed Forces, the hygienic insistence on ‘in private’ – not in a locked public toilet cubicle, not in a park at night, not in a hotel or boarding room, not in a prison cell, not in your own house if someone else was present (even if downstairs watching Songs of Praise) saw to it that most of the non gay men involved in gay sex would remain outlaws (including ‘at least half’ of the randy Royal Navy). Gay sex seems to have been considered such an irresistible, inflammatory temptation that it still had to be generally proscribed.

Even the Montagu scandal that originally sparked the reform would still have been a scandal after 1967 as it involved Airmen and was not in private. Cottaging convictions also doubled in the decade after ‘decriminalisation’. In a sense, the Wolfenden reforms decriminalised being homosexual, but not homosexuality.

Forty years on these proscriptions have been dropped, and the law has lost interest in trying to quarantine homosexuality. But then, apparently, so have straight men lost interest in having sex with other men. Hardly surprising though, since today even receiving a drunken blow job from another male means you have to move to Soho and have your own float at Pride.

Nevertheless, ‘gay sex’ is now clearly even more popular with non-gays than it was in the illicit 1950s. In a development that would have horrified Wolfenden, women have entered the public houses and, with gusto, the sexual fray. Sex outside marriage and Biblically-sanctified orifices has become almost compulsory. Men can now have ‘gay’ – no baby, no strings, no fee, no gag-reflex – sex with women. Often in nightclub toilets.

In this metrosexual world of straight gayness, dogging has replaced cottaging, swinging parties and ‘roastings’ have replaced a quiet night in the Dog and Duck, and fashionable female bisexuality has replaced synchronised swimming.

The ‘real perverts’ of the 1950s, far from being beaten down, have taken over.

This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’