What is sodomy?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 10 2002 5:56 PM

What Is Sodomy?

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Lawrence v. Texas, a challenge to the Texas law that criminalizes sodomy. What exactly is sodomy?

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The exact definition varies from state to state, but sodomy has been broadly defined as a sexual "crime against nature"—a phrase echoed by then Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1986, when the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick. In the United States, that language dates back to a 1697 Massachusetts law that forbade "the detestable and abominable sin of buggery [anal sex] with mankind or beast, which is contrary to the very light of nature." Buggery, incidentally, was generally accepted to mean a homosexual act; in cases of bestiality, the gender mix of the participants was immaterial.

In later years, several states formally expanded the definition of sodomy to include both oral and anal sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The Georgia law in the Bowers case, for example, defined the crime as "any sexual act involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another." (This law was overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1998.)The state law being questioned in Lawrence v. Texas contains a similar definition, although it covers only same-sex contact—Texas being one of four states where the sodomy ban applies exclusively to homosexuals. (Click here to see a state-by-state breakdown of anti-sodomy laws.)

Broadly written anti-sodomy statutes have also been used, on rare occasion, to prosecute men or women deemed "sexual deviates." Mutual masturbation, for example, was known to land the occasional couple in legal hot water, at least before the majority of states began jettisoning their sodomy laws in the 1970s. It is highly unlikely that any state would pursue consenting adults for such behavior today.

Bonus Explainer: The word "sodomy" itself is something of a misnomer, since the Bible contains no mention of homosexual conduct among the residents of Sodom. That corrupt city was not destroyed because of acts of buggery but rather because its citizens were inhospitable to God's angelic messengers. Sodom was not linguistically linked with anal sex until the Middle Ages.

Explainer thanks George Painter of SodomyLaws.org.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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