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Sodomy Laws and Sodomy Law Reform  
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Criminal statutes that prescribe a penalty for the performance of anal or oral sex are frequently referred to as " laws," a reference to the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), in which it is reported that God destroyed these two "cities of the plain" because of the sinful conduct of their inhabitants.

Although the exact nature of the sinful conduct is much disputed by Biblical scholars, it appears at least to have involved forcible sex, with men of the city threatening angels who had taken the appearance of men, and most likely intended to be performed in public, but the sodomy laws of concern in the struggle for glbtq rights are those that apply to private consensual sex between adults.

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Other Biblical Precedents

The other Old Testament passage most often cited as condemning homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22, which literally translated appears to say that a man who engages in anal sex with another man is ritually impure, but which is generalized by some to mean that all homosexual intercourse, whether anal or oral, is a grave sin.

Various New Testament passages are also invoked against homosexual behavior, mostly in the context of inveighing against promiscuity, with which homosexual conduct was equated since it occurs outside of marriage (Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians; 1 Timothy). The strictest view of sex in Jewish and Christian traditions is that all non-marital and extra-marital sex is sinful, and that the only appropriate use of the sexual organs is for procreation (or for bonding of husband and wife through sexual pleasure).

The English Precedents of Sodomy Laws

These Biblical citations were the original sources of the legal prohibition on anal sex in the earliest "sodomy law" passed by the English Parliament in 1533, during the period of the early English Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, the laws of England did not purport to regulate private sexual conduct, as matters of moral law were left to the Church for instruction and enforcement. When King Henry VIII determined to replace the Roman Church with his own English (Anglican) Church as the established church of England, he directed Parliament to devise civil laws to replace the church laws. The result was a statute that made a capital offense of "," the "crime against nature," between people or a person and an animal.

The statute spoke in euphemisms, but the general understanding was that any sex act in which a man's penis penetrated the anus of a man or woman or animal, no matter how slightly, was a violation of the statute, which could subject the perpetrator to the death penalty. Neither consent nor whether the act was committed in private was deemed relevant. Under most interpretations, only men could be guilty of the offense, although a female participant might be prosecuted under some other common law concept, such as lewd and lascivious behavior. Blackstone, the great commentator on the laws of England, described the offense of sodomy as "more heinous than rape."

American Sodomy Laws

When the United States declared its independence from England in July 1776, the English sodomy law was considered part of the "common law" of the states. Criminal law in matters of sex has remained predominantly state law in the United States, although the federal government adopted its own "sodomy laws" applicable to federal property, the District of Columbia, and military personnel.

During the nineteenth century, many states replaced their common law crimes with penal statutes, but "sodomy" remained a common law offense in others. Most of the statutes spoke in euphemisms, referring to the "abominable and detestable crime against nature" or "unnatural acts" without spelling out the prohibited conduct.

Courts differed as to which acts were covered, with many finding that because of their historical origins, the sodomy laws did not prohibit oral sex, although other statutes or common law principles, such as "lewdness" or "wanton and lascivious behavior," could be used to prosecute those apprehended engaging in oral sex. In some jurisdictions, the prohibition applied only to an active male participant, while in others the passive party could also be prosecuted.

Some jurisdictions retained the death penalty, treating the offense as a serious felony, but others lessened the penalty to jail terms--often lengthy--or fines. Some courts extended the prohibition to sex between two women, although the "purists" maintained that at least one penis was required for sodomy to be committed.

Almost all of the actual prosecutions found in court records involved non-consensual or public sex acts, or prostitution, but neither the statutes nor the common law took account of whether the acts were consensual or where they took place. All sodomy was forbidden. There was no state that did not forbid anal sex, either by statute or common law tradition, and oral sex was also considered illegal virtually everywhere. The laws had no specific focus on homosexuality, as such.

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A medieval depiction of St. Paul (ca 1185), the author of several New Testament passages which condemn sodomy.
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