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Sodomy, as the term is generally used, refers to anal sex. It most commonly is used to describe anal sex between two males, although it has also been used to describe anal sex between a man and a woman. In common parlance in Great Britain, the term buggery is used. It carries the same connotations as sodomy but is often used as well to describe a kind of benign, nonstigmatized queerness. According to historian John Boswell, the word sodomy has meant, over time, "everything from ordinary heterosexual intercourse in an atypical position to oral sexual contact with animals. At some points in history it has referred almost exclusively to male homosexuality and at other times almost exclusively to homosexual excess" (Gomes 1996, p. 150).

Sodomy is often considered the most infamous of all sexual acts, because some see it as a mockery of heterosexual intercourse and because it is the act most specifically linked with pederasty. Thus, sodomy is considered either irreverent or predatory or both. The defining characteristic of sodomy seems to be the insertion of an actual penis into a rectum. Therefore, the use of sex toys or other surrogates, even when inserted into the rectum, is not generally considered sodomy. This distinction means that lesbian sex acts, some of which may involve a surrogate penis used or worn by a woman, often have no legal status as sexual activity. The legal stigmatization of male homosexuality, therefore, has largely been avoided by lesbians. While creating a degree of legal safety for lesbians, such attitudes indicate the general disregard with which lesbian sexuality is treated.


The word sodomy is biblical in origin, derived from the name Sodom, one of the five cities of the plain of the Jordan River that, according to the biblical book of Genesis, were destroyed by God because of the sinfulness of their inhabitants. The specific sins of these five cities are not recorded, but their destruction was immediately preceded by an attempt by one group of male citizens in Sodom to know another group of men who were visiting (actually angels of God in disguise). The Hebrew word yadha commonly means either to become acquainted with or to have heterosexual intercourse with. In translations and interpretations of this text over time, however, it has become associated with homosexual intimacy, specifically anal sex. While the meaning of know in this instance is contextually ambiguous, it has become the scriptural basis for the general prohibition of homosexuality in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Homosexuality in scripture has been reevaluated following the increasing visibility and acceptance of homosexuals since the late-twentieth century, as well as the discovery of various ancient scriptural manuscripts whose texts differ from later versions upon which most modern translations are based. Many scholars have come to believe that if the word know indeed means carnal knowledge, then the wickedness of the Sodomites was that they wished to rape their visitors, not that the sex act they intended would involve two men. New Testament scholars point out that in the books of Matthew and Luke, Jesus himself claims that Sodom was destroyed because its citizens were inhospitable to others, which seems to reinforce the claim that rape, not anal sex, was the crime of the Sodomites. After millennia of prejudice against homosexuality, however, these new understandings of scripture have been slow to take hold.


The history of sodomy in European and North American culture has been, as Boswell points out, varied. Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), in The Canterbury Tales, offered a definition of sodomy that encompassed all sex acts that are not procreative—anything other than heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Pope Gregory IX (c. 1155–1241), in the thirteenth century, called sodomites "abominable persons—despised by the world [and] dreaded by the council of heaven" (Fone 2000, p, 8). In court documents from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries, a variety of sexual acts with partners of various sexes, ages, and species are referred to as sodomy, including charges of imperfect sodomy, apparently referring to lesbianism (Greenberg 1988). In fourteenth-century Italy sodomy was linked to wealth and aristocracy. The rising middle classes, prevented from assuming positions of civic authority by the hereditary nobility, criticized the upper classes for their self-indulgence in all matters, including those sexual. Oddly, they accused the nobility of sodomy because it was seen as (along with wealth and power) something that the middle classes were prevented from having but which they aspired to. This may be the only moment in European culture when sodomy became something for nonsodomites to desire (Greenberg 1988).

Throughout the history of Europe and North America, sodomy has been illegal. In ancient times penalties for sodomy included death. This is worth noting in that sodomy is the one sexual crime almost exclusively linked to male sexual practice. Other sexual crimes (particularly adultery) that incur the death penalty have traditionally been viewed as women's crimes. The prohibitions against sodomy have rarely been prosecuted, however. Except in historical moments of extreme religious strictness, people have generally only been charged with sodomy in conjunction with other crimes.

European and North American nations have been slow to decriminalize sodomy. Prohibitions against the practice were lifted in several countries in the late-twentieth century but were visibly reinforced in the United States. In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a citizen of the state of Georgia could be prosecuted for engaging in consensual sodomy in his own home. Legally, the matter concerned an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure: Police entered the house in response to a disturbance, were admitted by someone other than the owner, and discovered the owner engaging in anal sex in his bedroom. Once the Court decided that the search of the home was legal, the sodomy charges against the homeowner could proceed; in addition the Court found that Georgia's law prohibiting sodomy was legal. The Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee was not applicable to issues of homosexual practice. The Court reversed itself in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and held that all state laws prohibiting sodomy were unconstitutional. In the years between the two decisions, many states, including Georgia, had overturned their own antisodomy laws; the Court invalidated such laws still in effect in states at the time of the Lawrence ruling.


Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986).

Fone, Byrne R. S. 2000. Homophobia: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Gomes, Peter J. 1996. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Greenberg, David F. 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halley, Janet. 1994. "The Politics of the Closet: Towards Equal Protection for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity." In Reclaiming Sodom, ed. Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Routledge.

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

                                            Brian D. Holcomb