Offence of gross indecency
When was the crime of gross indecency introduced?
The crime of gross indecency was included in the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. The focus of the law was the protection of women and young girls from prostitution. The crime of gross indecency was added as an amendment at the last minute. The amendment became Section 11 of the Act. The amendment was unrelated to the rest of the Act.
The law applied to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
What changes did the Act introduce?
The Act raised the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen. It introduced new crimes and punishments for sexual offences against women and minors.
For men, Section 11 criminalised any sexual activity between men, in public or private, irrespective of either age or consent. Gross indecency was not defined in the Act. What gross indecency meant was left to courts to decide. The punishment was a maximum of two years in prison with or without hard labour. Sodomy or attempted sodomy remained more serious and separate crimes (see Death penalty for buggery abolished in England, Wales and Ireland).
Section 11 also included a crime of conspiracy to commit gross indecency. The crime of conspiracy was to ‘cause or arrange‘ for a man to commit an act of gross indecency with another man. It was a crime even if the act was in private and between consenting adults.
Who introduced the amendment?
Henry Labouchere, a Member of Parliament, put forward the amendment to the Bill. He was wealthy and the editor of a weekly newspaper, ‘Truth’. The newspaper claimed to expose the corruption and injustice of the English class system.
There was no discussion of the amendment. One MP asked the Speaker if it was allowed to have an amendment that had nothing to do with Bill. The Speaker said it was if Parliament wanted it. The amendment was passed with almost no one present in the House Of Commons chamber. The government did not comment and it was barely mentioned in the newspapers when they wrote about the new Act.
Why was crime of gross indecency introduced?
Labouchere had not shown any interest in matters of sexuality before. He argued that
the laws at the time only criminalised buggery. Other sexual activities between men were not criminalised by an Act of Parliament. He said Parliament could now give ‘the guardians of morality’ the power to deal with these offences.
Other reasons have been suggested. Labouchere hated the Bill about women and young girls. He may have wanted to make it fail. Maybe it was a genuine attempt to deal with male prostitution. Some think he supported the police as they were calling for more powers. Whatever the intention, Britain ended up with a law that went far beyond anything else in any other country at the time.
What was the effect of the law?
Now Acts of Parliament criminalised all sexual acts between men. The courts were left to interpret the law. The amendment was not clear about evidence, consent, or persuading others to act. It became known as the ‘blackmailer’s charter’. Countless thousands silently suffered extortion and fear of being found out. Many chose suicide over arrest and public humiliation. In the following hundred and more years something like 100,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency. Many of these happened after partial decriminalisation across the UK.
The offence remained in England and Wales until the Sexual Offences Act 2003, in Northern Ireland until the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 and in Scotland until The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009.
This law was exported to countries in the British Colonies and territories. The effect the amendment is still being felt today in 35 countries of the Commonwealth which criminalise homosexuality.
You can read about the conviction of Alan Turing under this Act in the Personality Dateline.
In 2017 following the Royal Pardon of Alan Turing, Alan Turing Laws across the UK pardoned men convicted of gross indecency for consensual, private sexual acts..
Voices and Visibility 2019