Act of folly: how wolfenden failed to clean up the streets

June 22, 2007

Before Wolfenden, two main defects were identified in the law as it applied to prostitution: first, the meagreness of the penalty for soliciting; second, the necessity to prove that the person accosted had been annoyed.

In February 1954, Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, set out in a confidential Cabinet memorandum the reforms he had in mind. They were to dispense with the need to prove annoyance and to establish a scale of rising penalties, with imprisonment for repeat offenders. It was hoped that these measures would end street prostitution and replace it with the less publicly offensive “call-girl” system. Three years later, the Wolfenden proposals reflected his recommendations exactly.

The proposals were rapidly incorporated into law through the Street Offences Act 1959, with the additional advantage of a cautioning system. This provided a presupposition of guilt since a twice-cautioned woman would be presented to the court as a “common prostitute”. As the passing of the Act coincided with a general election, a law-and-order issue helped facilitate Harold Macmillan’s landslide victory.

Initially, it worked like a dream, and London’s streets were emptied of prostitutes. But after the initial shock, women relocated around a variety of off-street venues — bars, clubs and flats — that were harder to police. Eventually, they returned to the streets, becoming increasingly peripatetic, and prostitution spread into many provincial towns. The cumulative effect of the law was to increase the magnitude and the complexity of the problem. It was also discredited as a “revolving door system” (arrest/court/ fine/return to the streets). In 1982, however, imprisonment was repealed.

An unexpected consequence of working women’s decreased visibility was kerb-crawling. Rising car-ownership added a frisson to the search for a woman, a problem that came to a head in the 1980s.

It is sometimes said that the Wolfenden report was the last thorough review of the law on prostitution; this is not the case. In 1971, Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, appointed a working party on vagrancy and street offences, and in 1975, the Criminal Law Revision Committee began an 11-year review of sexual offences, which resulted in five more papers on prostitution. Little notice was taken of the recommendations apart from the enactment of legislation that the Home Office had already determined — the Sexual Offences (Kerb Crawling) Act of 1985.

Prostitution surfaced again as a major concern in the 1990s when the Children’s Society launched a campaign exposing the injustice of girls prosecuted for “loitering or soliciting” when, in the society’s view, the men involved were guilty of child abuse. A few years later, Barnardo’s began an investigation into the plight of children who were groomed for the purpose of prostitution. Rising public concern was exacerbated by international anxiety over trafficking. In January 1999 Jack Straw (then Home Secretary) began a review of sex offences; the subsequent report, Setting the Boundaries , suggested another review of the law.

In 2004, the Home Office delivered Paying the Price, followed by A Coordinated Prostitution Strategy , a document that bore a great resemblance to the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Policing Prostitution. The emphasis now is on a holistic, inter-agency approach to prostitution. The new vision is one of abused victims deserving of welfare, so long as they co-operate with “exiting strategies”.

If prostitutes do not comply, the full force of the law is still available, reinforced by the additional use of anti-social behaviour orders and drug treatment orders. But the flaunting hussies of the Wolfenden era are a thing of the past.

Helen J. Self is author of Prosti tution, Women and Misuse of the Law: The Fallen Daughters of Eve (Frank Cass, 2003).

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