Trigger Warnings: Sexual violence, rape, slavery, homophobia, transphobia
NOTE: I’m using the word “sodomy” throughout, aware of some of the inherent homophobia and sexism of that word. With that said, it’s hard to talk about sodomy without using the word “sodomy.” For ease of reading, “sodomy” is most often presented without quotes, but just imagine that each instance has scare quotes.
Many groups have passed and enforced laws restricting certain sexual acts over the years. Some of these acts have been labeled sodomy, after the biblical city Sodom. In different times and places, sodomy has referred specifically to anal sex, oral sex, and sexual contact with animals. In some contemporary religious circles, it refers broadly to any non-procreative sexual activity. In part because sodomy as a category has been used to oppress sexual and gender minorities, sodomy cannot be separated from homophobia, patriarchy, and gender binary. Laws against sodomy were (and are) a form of coercive social control used to reinforce the heteronormative oppositional gender binary.
Over time, different groups have enforced a variety of sodomy laws. The traditional text of the Hebrew Torah forbids sexual contact with animals, or between men (c. 1400 BCE if we take the text at face value. Interestingly, sexual contact between women is not forbidden). These prohibitions are labeled as sodomy later in the Hebrew Bible (Ezekiel 16:49, Jeremiah 23:14) and in the foundational writings of the scholar Maimonides. Sodomy is expanded further by the oral law and the rabbinical law to include masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, and all non-procreative sex in some circles. Contemporary Judaism has a diverse range of views on sodomy and on LGBTQ+ issues more broadly; Orthodox communities tend to stick with the traditional definitions and expect celibacy/gender conformity from adherents, while Conservative and Reform Judaism have concluded generally that God would not give his LGBTQ+ children binding commandments which are so unfair. While Conservative Judaism is broadly accepting of sexual and gender minorities and ordains LGBTQ+ rabbis, some congregations do not perform same-gender marriages. Reconstructionist Judaism has endorsed same-gender marriage since 2004, and elected the openly lesbian Rabbi Toba Spitzer as the president of its rabbinical association in 2007.
Views on sodomy in Christianity have shifted substantially over time, and vary depending on the congregation. Early Christianity co-opts the traditional Jewish references to sodomy and same-gender sexual contact, while Paul makes several other references in his epistles, partially in response to Roman sexual practices. The most influential Christian theologians came up with a variety of frameworks for understanding sexual sin—Thomas Aquinas famously labels homosexuality as “unnatural,” while Martin Luther compares it to the Devil putting out a good fire (presumably heterosexual desire) and lighting an evil one (presumably same-gender attraction).
As church power became more synonymous with political power, convictions and punishments for sodomy became relatively common. For example, according to historian James Sweet:
Because of the Portuguese aversion to male sodomy, the documentary evidence of male rape is actually richer than that for female rape. Females were almost certainly sexually assaulted more frequently than males, but the cultural legitimacy of female rape insured that the perpetrators would not be prosecuted in the same way that male rapists were.
Cases of male rape were frequently prosecuted by the Portuguese inquisition, including expensive extraditions from the American colonies. Horrifically, the victims of male rape were typically punished more harshly than their abusers. Such cases often included one or more enslaved people, who were subjected to the abuse of their “owners.”
Contemporary American Christianity has diverse responses to sodomy and LGBTQ+ issues. According to orthoprax Catholics, all non-procreative sex is sinful (this view is somewhat more nuanced, but I can’t do it justice here), while Eastern Orthodoxy and most Protestant branches do not hold this view. Many denominations such as Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Baptists, conservative Lutherans (Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod), and Mormons hold that all same-gender sexual conduct is sinful, though these views are in a degree of flux following substantial legal and social change. Many other denominations such as Episcopalians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Community of Christ approve of same-gender marriages. Though the accepting Episcopal church is part of the worldwide Anglican communion, English and African Anglicans tend to disapprove of same-gender marriages. Although the English Anglican Church allows same-sex civil partnerships, substantial organizational tension over the issue exists.
Sodomy was illegal at the inception of the British North American colonies due to the “Buggery Act” of 1533, which made anal sex an act punishable by death. Following the American Revolution, sodomy laws were mostly made on the state level, with punishments ranging from small fines to years in prison. In 1962 following an American Legal Institute recommendation, Illinois began a national movement of sodomy law reform and repeal. Several states removed their sodomy laws entirely, while others reduced criminal penalties or legalized heterosexual sodomy. This movement culminated in the 2003 landmark Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled Texas’ sodomy law unconstitutional. Although state sodomy laws are broadly no longer recognized as constitutional, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah still have sodomy laws on the books. Legal battles in US military courts continue, though there is precedent for overturning convictions of consensual sodomy based on the Lawrence precedent.
Sweet, James Hoke. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003.