Sodomy is generally anal or oral sex between people or sexual activity between a person and a non-human animal (bestiality), but may also mean any non-procreative sexual activity. Originally the term sodomy, which is derived from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapters 18 and 19 of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, was commonly restricted to anal sex. Sodomy laws in many countries criminalized these behaviors, and other disfavored sexual activities as well. In the Western world, many of these laws have been overturned or are not routinely enforced.
Same-sex sexual acts have a history; today they are called “homosexuality”. Before ‘homosexuality” they were called “sodomy”. In England during the reign of King Henry VIII “sodomy” became a civil offense with the passage of the buggery Act of 1533. In Germany in the late 1860s the transition from a religious model to a medical model for same-sex sexual acts begin. It was at this time the term “homosexual” came about.
“Specific sexual behaviours, to be sure, were named, categorized, and judged. This was nothing new. They had been for more than a thousand years. The most famous example of this is the term “sodomy”.”(Blank, Straight The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, p. 2)
“What sodomy and buggery represented – and homosexuality was only part of these – was rather the disorder of sexual relations that, in principle at least could break out anywhere.” (Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, p. 25)
“Sodomy entailed improper usage (because a non-sexual organ was used for sex) or aim (non-procreative sex).” (Crawford, p. 156, European Sexualities, 1400-1800)
“Sodomy was a religious issue and a criminal problem.” (Crawford, European Sexualities, 1400-1800, p. 200)
“There is a tendency for discussions of male homosexuality to merge with discussions of the crime of sodomy and for both to focus on male-to-male anal sex. But this is highly misleading. ’Sodomy’ as defined by religion and law included a range of condemned practices, ’a way to encompass a multitude of sins with a minimum of signs’, as one critic has cleverly expressed it.” (Phillips and Reay, Sex Before Sexuality A Premodern History, p. p. 60-61)
“ ‘Sodomy’ as defined by religion and law included a range of condemned practices, ‘a way to encompass a multiple of sins with a minimum of signs’ as one critic has cleverly expressed it.” (Phillips and Reay. Sex Before Sexuality A Pre-modern History, p. 61)
“In ancient and early medieval writings, ’Sodomites’ (from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19) were comprehended as enemies of God and the Christian religion. Sodomy was a theological category, alongside and analogous to ’blasphemy’.” (Phillips and Reay, Sex Before Sexuality A Pre-modern History, p. p. 61)
“Well into the late medieval and early modern periods sodomy was often unhelpfully described as ’that unspeakable sin’ or ’that unmentionable vice’.” (Phillips and Reay, Sex Before Sexuality A Pre-modern History, p. p. 61)
“Despite the term’s enduring flexibility, from the twelfth century ‘sodomy’ was increasingly associated with sex acts between men.” (Phillips and Reay. Sex Before Sexuality A Premodern History, p. 62)
“Ever since the twelfth century sodomy — anal intercourse either between males or between men and women, as well as intercourse with animals – had been a crime mixti fori, that is, a crime punishable by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities.” (Meer, ‘Sodomy and the Pursuit of a Third sex in the Early Modern Period’, p.139 in Third Sex Third Gender Beyond Sexual Dimorphism, Culture and History edited by Gilbert Herdt)
“Before the eighteen century, then, it was conceivable that any man or woman might engage in the unnatural act of sodomy, as part of a more generalized “bisexual” behaviour. Sodomites were not fundamentally different from anyone else. They were simply sinners who engaged in a particular vice, like gamblers, drunks, adulterers, and the like.” (Merrick & Ragan, Homosexuality in Modern France, p. 12)
“Although in the eighteenth century the word homosexual was not yet invented, certain behaviors between the same sexes were similar to those we recognize now, despite being viewed somewhat differently by their own respective societies. The term sodomy was used to describe buggery between two men, but it also included anal sex between a man and a woman, and between a person and an animal. These three categories of sodomy, seen as “crimes against nature” and against God, were deemed sinful and illegal.” (Peakman, p. 10 in A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment edited by Julie Peakman.
“In the older sense, sodomy surpassed all other crimes; in its sinfulness it also included all of them: from blasphemy, sedition, and witchcraft, to the demonic. It was, as many extracts declare, the crime without a name; language was incapable of sufficiently expressing the horror of it. The category was a repository for many items, yet in the eighteenth century a highly specific portrait of an individual, and of a group, was increasingly displacing an undiscriminating, demonic generalization.”(McCormick editor, Secret Sexualities A Source-book of 17th and 18th Century Writing, p. 118)
“Sodomy surpassed all other crimes. In its sinfulness it also included all of them, blasphemy, sedition, witchcraft, the demonic: it is yet without a Name: What shall it then be called? There are not Words in our Language to expressive enough of the Horror of it.’ The foregoing suggests, however, a degree of insecurity about the range of the activity, and what it ought to be called. It was terrible in its sublimity, but unnamed in its sublimation. What was changing was that a specific kind of portrait of an individual was taking over from a theological category of generalized evil.” (McCormick, editor Sexual Outcasts 1750-1850 Volume II Sodomy, p. 5)
“For several hundreds of years, the institutions of the majority considered homosexuality something a person did and called it sodomy, buggery, or a crime against nature. During the nineteenth century, a conceptual shift occurred, and a few individuals began to talk about homosexuality as something a person was. A new vocabulary was invented for these persons. Urning, invert-homosexual.” (Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, p. 248)
“Homosexuality, and by implication homosexuals, have been placed outside prevailing social structures as defined by most theological, legal, and medical models. In Western culture, homosexual activity was first categorized as a sin. With the rise of materialism and the decline of religion, it became a transgression against the social, not the moral order: a crime.” (Bronski, Culture Clash The Making of Gay Sensibility, p. 8-9).
“There is, however, a crucial distinction between traditional concepts of sodomy and modern concepts of homosexuality. The former was seen as a potentiality in all sinful nature, unless severely execrated and judicially punished (it is striking, for example, that death penalties for many crimes were abolished in the 1820s, but not for sodomy). Contemporary social sciences have treated homosexuality as the characteristic of a particular type of person, a type whose specific characteristics (such as inability to whistle, penchant for the color green, adoration of mother or father, age of sexual maturation, “promiscuity”) are exhaustively detailed in many twentieth-century textbooks.” (Weeks, “Movements of Affirmation: Sexual Meanings and Homosexual Identities”, p. 71 in Passion and Power Sexuality in History editors Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons with Robert A. Padgug)
“It was during the 19th century that the sodomite – a ‘criminal before God’, quilty of an infamous act that deserved the supreme penalty – gave way to the ‘homosexual’, who did wrong against society, but was also ‘sick’, ‘perverse’, ‘degenerate’, and as much a case for medical treatment as for the law courts.” (Tamagne, “The Homosexual Age, 1870-1940”, p. 167 in Gay Life and Culture: A World History editor Robert Aldrich.)
Before Homosexuality: Sodomy
Sodomy/sodomite were the words used to define and describe same-sex sexual acts or behavior before the concept of homosexuality/homosexual. Sodomy was at first a generally specific act, a sexual one, which became more broadly used as an ecclesiastical offence, a category covering a wide range of transgressive acts that was any activity that challenged the ‘Nature’ of the church-state authority.
Many authors have claimed that the model of sodomy as a sinful act was replaced by a model of the sodomite as a sexual identity in the eighteen century. Traditional male sodomy was the anal penetration of a young boy by an adult man; the new sodomites were men of equal age. The traditional sodomite seduced both women and boys, and was considered to be masculine. The new sodomites had an exclusive interest in their own sex, and were considered to be effeminate.
The English monarchy in a struggle with the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church created their own state religion, the Church of England and also started taking legal, secular jurisdiction of individuals and their behavior. Sodomy came under secular state control in 1533 through the Buggery Act of 1533.
“Sodomy was a religious issue and a criminal problem.” (Crawford, European Sexualities, 1400-1800, p. 200)
“The dual definition of sodomy led to endless confusion in the public mind, as well as in law courts throughout Europe when civil law later replaced church control of sexual misconduct cases.” (Gilbert, “Conceptions of Homosexuality and Sodomy”, p.62 in Western History in Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality editors Salvatore J. Licata PhD and Robert P. Peterson.)
“Clearly when we come across a writer using the words ‘sodomy’ or ‘buggery’ in relation to homosexuality we do the words less than justice if we simply disregard their other meanings. The one word was used because the one concept was intended, and this was a broader concept than simply homosexuality. The notion underlying these passages was not homosexuality but a more general notion: debauchery; and debauchery was a temptation to which all, in principle at least were subject.” (Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, p. 16
“Because of the historical silence surrounding the subject of homosexuality, it is not all that easy to determine what was being punished in the past. One thing is clear, however: The words “sodomy” and “sodomite” had dual meanings. On one hand sodomy referred to unspecified sexual relations between males, and on the other hand it meant a particular mode of sexuality, usually anal sex. Understanding the dual nature of sodomy is an important antidote to the false assumption made by so many scholars that there was only one meaning, a relational one.” (Gilbert, “Conceptions of Homosexuality and Sodomy in Western History”, p. 61-62 in Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality edited by Salvatore J. Licata, PhD and Robert P.Petersen.)
“On the one hand, historians confirmed sodomy’s capaciousness: it means masturbation, several of forms of same-sex sexual behaviour, bestiality, non-procreative sex (oral or anal most commonly) between a and a woman, or any form of sex in which conception was impossible.” (Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance, p. 4)
“There was also a more narrow use of the term sodomy. This was its application almost wholly to sex between males. Even here there were possibilities for confusion and national variations. In some countries, all genital contact between males might be considered sodomitical. In other places, it was necessary to prove anal penetration and ejaculation for a successful prosecution. Again through, practice differed from legal definitions. The reality was sodomy (or buggery) was most often used to refer to any genital contact between individuals of the same sex (though lesbianism was extremely rare and only seems to have been included as an after-thought). Most of the other crimes technically under the rubric of sodomy had more specific terms (e.g. bestiality, masturbation) which were used more frequently.” (Naphy, Sex Crimes From Renaissance to Enlightenment, p. 104)
“Sodomy, defined as anal penetration or any sexual act that did not intend procreation, was until the eighteenth century a sin for which the death penalty could be imposed. The ’philosophes’ of the Enlightenment criticized the severe penalties for sodomy and indeed this ’infamous crime’ disappeared from many law-books after the criminal code reform in France: France itself in 1791 the Netherlands in 1811, Bavaria in 1813.” (Hekma, “A History of Sexology: Social and Historical Aspects of Sexuality”, p. 175–176 in From Sappho to De Sade edited by Jan Bremmer.)
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