Criminal Law Amendment Act 1922

Derry, Caroline (2024). Criminal Law Amendment Act 1922. In: Auchmuty, Rosemary; Rackley, Erika and Takayanagi, Mari eds. Women’s Legal Landmarks in the Interwar Years: Not for the Want of Trying. London: Hart Publishing (In Press).

Abstract

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1922 was important both for the changes it made to age of consent law and for the changes it did not make to the legal position of sex between women. The age at which a girl could give legally valid consent to sexual intercourse had been raised from 12 to 16 by an earlier Act in 1885. However, the age at which girls could consent to other sexual activity – whether with men or women – had remained unchanged. (All sexual activity between males was illegal.) The reform campaign drew together a broad coalition of reformers, from feminists opposing sexual exploitation to social purity campaigners, and had placed a number of unsuccessful Bills before Parliament in the decades after 1885. They finally achieved success with the 1922 Act which raised the age of consent for indecent assault (all sexual touching except sexual intercourse) to 16. It also made other improvements to the law including an extension of the deadline for bringing age-of-consent prosecutions for sexual intercourse from six to nine months.
The Act was equally significant for what it did not include. The previous year, a Bill had failed following the introduction of a spoiling amendment which would have criminalised gross indecency between females (that is, all sex between women). The amendment had passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords, thanks in large part to the efforts of the reform coalition leader Alison Neilans, secretary of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene. She continued to lead both the wider reform campaign and the quieter work to ensure the amendment did not succeed in 1922. After this second failure, no further attempts at blanket criminalisation of sex between women were made.

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