Sodomy (//) is generally anal or oral sex between people or sexual activity between a person and a non-human animal (bestiality), but it may also mean any non-procreative sexual activity. Originally, the term sodomy, which is derived from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis, was commonly restricted to anal sex. Sodomy laws in many countries criminalized the behavior. In the Western world, many of these laws have been overturned or are not routinely enforced.
The term is derived from the Ecclesiastical Latin peccatum Sodomiticum or "sin of Sodom", which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek word Σόδομα (Sódoma). Genesis (chapters 18–20) tells how God wished to destroy the "sinful" cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Two angels are invited by Lot to take refuge with his family for the night. The men of Sodom surround Lot's house and demand that he bring the messengers out so that they may "know" them (the expression includes sexual connotations). Lot protests that the "messengers" are his guests and offers the Sodomites his virgin daughters instead, but then they threaten to "do worse" with Lot than they would with his guests. Then the angels strike the Sodomites blind, "so that they wearied themselves to find the door." (Genesis 19:4-11, KJV)
In current usage, the term is particularly used in law. Laws prohibiting sodomy were seen frequently in past Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations, but the term has little modern usage outside Africa, Asia, and the United States. These laws in the United States have been challenged and have sometimes been found unconstitutional or been replaced with different legislation.
Many cognates in other languages, such as French sodomie (verb sodomiser), Spanish sodomía (verb sodomizar), and Portuguese sodomia (verb sodomizar), are used exclusively for penetrative anal sex, at least since the early nineteenth century. In those languages, the term is also often current vernacular (not just legal, unlike in other cultures) and a formal way of referring to any practice of anal penetration; the word sex is commonly associated with consent and pleasure with regard to all involved parties and often avoids directly mentioning two common aspects of social taboo—human sexuality and the anus—without a shunning or archaic connotation to its use.
In modern German, the word Sodomie has no connotation of anal or oral sex and specifically refers to bestiality. The same goes for the Polish sodomia. The Norwegian word sodomi carries both senses. In Danish, sodomi is rendered as "unnatural carnal knowledge with someone of the same sex or (now) with animals".
In Arabic and Persian, the word for sodomy, لواط (Arabic pronunciation: liwāṭ; Persian pronunciation lavât), is derived from the same source as in Western culture, with much the same connotations as English (referring to most sexual acts prohibited by the Qur'an). Its direct reference is to Lot (لوط Lūṭ in Arabic) and a more literal interpretation of the word is "the practice of Lot", but more accurately it means "the practice of Lot's people" (the Sodomites) rather than Lot himself.
The word sod, a noun or verb (to "sod off") used as an insult, is derived from sodomite. It is a general-purpose insult term for anyone the speaker dislikes without specific reference to their sexual behaviour. Sod is used as slang in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth and is considered mildly offensive. However, in New Zealand and Australia it is not considered offensive at all, but only 'coarse', because it is locally assumed, even if incorrectly, that it refers to 'sod' as in a wet clump of dirt.
While religion and the law have had a fundamental role in the historical definition and punishment of sodomy, sodomitical texts present considerable opportunities for ambiguity and interpretation. Sodomy is both a real occurrence and an imagined category. In the course of the eighteenth century, what is identifiable as sodomy often becomes identified with effeminacy, for example, or in opposition to a discourse of manliness. In this regard, Ian McCormick has argued that "an adequate and imaginative reading involves a series of intertextual interventions in which histories become stories, fabrications and reconstructions in lively debate with, and around, 'dominant' heterosexualities ... Deconstructing what we think we see may well involve reconstructing ourselves in surprising and unanticipated ways."
In the Hebrew Bible, Sodom was a city destroyed by God because of the evil of its inhabitants. No specific sin is given as the reason for God's great wrath. The story of Sodom's destruction — and of Abraham's failed attempt to intercede with God and prevent that destruction — appears in Genesis 18-19. The connection between Sodom and homosexuality is derived from the described attempt by a mob of the city's people to rape Lot's male guests. Some suggest the sinfulness for which Sodom was destroyed might have consisted mainly in the violation of obligations of hospitality, which were important for the original writers of the Biblical account. In Judges 19-21, there is an account, similar in many ways, where Gibeah, a city of the Benjamin tribe, is destroyed by the other tribes of Israel in revenge for a mob of its inhabitants raping and killing a woman. Neither view about why Sodom was destroyed takes into account the fact that its destruction was planned before the guests arrived in the city, Genesis 18:17.
Many times in the Pentateuch and Prophets, writers use God's destruction of Sodom to demonstrate His awesome power. This happens in Deuteronomy 29; Isaiah 1, 3, and 13; Jeremiah 49 and 50; Lamentations 4; Amos 4.11; and Zephaniah 2.9. Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 23.14, and Lamentations 4 reference the sinfulness of Sodom but do not specify any particular sin.
In Ezekiel 16, a long comparison is made between Sodom and the kingdom of Judah. "Yet you have not merely walked in their ways or done according to their abominations; but, as if that were too little, you acted more corruptly in all your conduct than they." (v. 47, NASB) "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. (vss. 49–50, NASB) (Note that the Hebrew for the word "thus" is the conjunction "ו" which is usually translated "and", thus KJV, NIV, and CEV omit the word entirely.)
There is no explicit mention of any sexual sin in Ezekiel's summation and "abomination" is used to describe many sins.
The Authorized King James Version translates Deuteronomy 23:17 as "There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel," but the word corresponding to "sodomite" in the Hebrew original, Qadesh (Hebrew:קדש), does not refer to Sodom and has been translated in the New International Version as "shrine prostitute"; male shrine prostitutes may have served barren women in fertility rites rather than engaging in homosexual acts; this also applies to other instances of the word sodomite in the King James Version.
Roman Empire period
The New Testament, like the Old Testament, references Sodom as a place of God's anger against sin, but the Epistle of Jude provides a certain class of sin as causative of its destruction, the meaning of which is disputed.
Jude 1:5 I will therefore put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this, how that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not.
6 And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.
7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
The Greek word in the New Testament from which the phrase is translated "giving themselves over to fornication", is "ekporneuō" ("ek" and "porneuō"). As one word it is not used elsewhere in the New Testament, but occurs in the Septuagint to denote whoredom (Genesis 38:24 and Exodus 34:15). Some modern translations as the NIV render it as "sexual immorality".
The Greek words for "strange flesh" are "heteros", which almost always basically denotes "another/other", and "sarx", a common word for "flesh", and usually refers to the physical body or the nature of man or of an ordinance.
In the Christian expansion of the prophets, they further linked Sodom to the sins of impenitence (Matthew 11:23), careless living (Luke 17:28), fornication (Jude 1:7 KJV), and an overall "filthy" lifestyle (2 Peter 2:7), which word ("aselgeiais") elsewhere is rendered in the KJV as lasciviousness (Mark 7:22; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Ephesians 4:19; 1 Peter 4:3; Jude 1:4) or wantonness (Romans 13:13; 2 Peter 2:18).
Epistle of Jude
The Epistle of Jude in the New Testament echoes the Genesis narrative and potentially adds the sexually immoral aspects of Sodom's sins: "just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire". (v. 7, English Standard Version). The phrase rendered "sexual immorality and unnatural desire" is translated "strange flesh" or "false flesh", but it is not entirely clear what it refers to.
One theory is that it is just a reference to the "strange flesh" of the intended rape victims, who were angels, not men. Countering this is traditional interpretation, which notes that the angels were sent to investigate an ongoing regional problem(Gn. 18) of fornication, and extraordinarily so, that of a homosexual nature, "out of the order of nature." "Strange" is understood to mean "outside the moral law", (Romans 7:3; Galatians 1:6) while it is doubted that either Lot or the men of Sodom understood that the strangers were angels at the time.
"As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after other women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; and so by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they also made their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of men, as far as depended on them" (133-35; ET Jonge 422-23).
The Jewish historian Josephus used the term "Sodomites" in summarizing the Genesis narrative: "About this time the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God, in so much that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers, and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices" "Now when the Sodomites saw the young men to be of beautiful countenances, and this to an extraordinary degree, and that they took up their lodgings with Lot, they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence; and when Lot exhorted them to sobriety, and not to offer any thing immodest to the strangers, but to have regard to their lodging in his house; and promised that if their inclinations could not be governed, he would expose his daughters to their lust, instead of these strangers; neither thus were they made ashamed." (Antiquities 1.11.1,3 — circa AD 96). His assessment goes beyond the Biblical data, though it is seen by conservatives as defining what manner of fornication (Jude 1:7) Sodom was given to.
The primarily sexual meaning of the word sodomia for Christians did not evolve before the 6th century AD. Roman Emperor Justinian I, in his novels no. 77 (dating 538) and no. 141 (dating 559) amended to his Corpus iuris civilis, and declared that Sodom's sin had been specifically same-sex activities and desire for them. He also linked "famines, earthquakes, and pestilences" upon cities as being due to "such crimes", during a time of recent earthquakes and other disasters (see Extreme weather events of 535–536). He may have also used the anti-homosexual laws he enacted upon personal and political opponents, in case he could not prove them guilty of anything else.
While adhering to the death penalty by beheading as punishment for homosexuality or adultery, Justinian's legal novels heralded a change in Roman legal paradigm in that he introduced a concept of not only secular but also divine punishment for homosexual behavior. Individuals might ignore and escape secular laws, but they could not do the same with divine laws, if Justinian declared his novels to be such.
Christians earlier than Justinian are also seen to denounce same-sex relations. St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century regarded such as worse than murder in his fourth homily on Romans 1:26-27 , while Paul the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans referred to same sex relations as "shameful lust" and which acts were contrary to nature, with men suffering a "due penalty" in their bodies. Just like the Jews, early Christians prior to Justinian I are not known to have used the word sodomia for the carnal sin they abhorred, though Philo of Alexandria (20 BC - 50 AD) and Methodius of Olympus (AD 260-312) attributed homosexual relations to Sodom, as may have Josephus, (AD 37 – c. 100) Augustine of Hippo, (AD 354-430) and certain pseudepigraphacal texts.
Justinian's interpretation of the story of Sodom may have been forgotten today (as some hold it had been, along with his law novellizations regarding homosexual behavior immediately after his death) had it not been made use of in fake Charlemagnian capitularies, fabricated by a Frankish monk using the pseudonym Benedictus Levita ("Benedict the Levite") around 850 AD, as part of the Pseudo-Isidore. Benedict's three capitularies particularly dealing with Justinian's interpretation of the story of Sodom were:
- XXI. De diversis malorum flagitiis. ("No. 21: On manifold disgraceful wrongs")
- CXLIII. De sceleribus nefandis ob quae regna percussa sunt, ut penitus caveantur. ("No. 143: On sinful vices due to which empires have crumbled, so that we shall do our best to beware of them")
- CLX. De patratoribus diversorum malorum. ("No. 160: On the perpetrators of manifold evil deeds")
It was in these fake capitularies where Benedictus utilized Justinian's interpretation as a justification for ecclesiastical supremacy over mundane institutions, thereby demanding burning at the stake for carnal sins in the name of Charlemagne himself. Burning had been part of the standard penalty for homosexual behavior particularly common in Germanic protohistory (as according to Germanic folklore, sexual deviance and especially same-sex desire were caused by a form of malevolence or spiritual evil called nith, rendering those people characterized by it as non-human fiends, as nithings), and Benedictus most probably was of the Germanic tribe of the Franks.
Benedict broadened the meaning for sodomy to all sexual acts not related to procreation that were therefore deemed counter nature (so for instance, even solitary masturbation and anal intercourse between a male and a female were covered), while among these he still emphasized all interpersonal acts not taking place between human men and women, especially homosexuality.
Benedict's rationale was that the punishment of such acts was in order to protect all Christianity from divine punishments such as natural disasters for carnal sins committed by individuals, but also for heresy, superstition and heathenry. According to Benedictus, this was why all mundane institutions had to be subjected to ecclesiastical power in order to prevent moral as well as religious laxity causing divine wrath.
For delaying reasons described in the article Pseudo-Isidore, but also because his crucial demands for capital punishment had been so unheard of in ecclesiastical history priorly based upon the humane Christian concept of forgiveness and mercy, it took several centuries before Benedict's demands for legal reform began to take tangible shape within larger ecclesiastical initiatives.
This came about with the Medieval Inquisition in 1184. The sects of Cathars and Waldensians were a common target, and these heretics were not only persecuted for alleged satanism but were increasingly accused of fornication and sodomy. In 1307, accusations of sodomy and homosexuality were major charges levelled during the Trial of the Knights Templar. Some of these charges were specifically directed at the Grand Master of the order, Jacques de Molay. It is this event which led into the medieval and early-modern witch hunts that were also largely connoted with sodomy.
The association of sodomy with hereticism, satanism, and witchcraft was supported by the Inquisition trials. The resulting infamy of sodomy motivated a continuing discrimination and persecution of homosexuals and sexual deviants in general long after the Medieval period had ended.
The Book of Wisdom, which is included in the Biblical canon by Orthodox and Roman Catholics, but excluded by modern Jews, Protestants, and other Christian denominations, makes reference to the story of Sodom, further emphasizing that their sin had been failing to practice hospitality:
- "And punishments came upon the sinners not without former signs by the force of thunders: for they suffered justly according to their own wickedness, insomuch as they used a more hard and hateful behavior toward strangers."
- "For the Sodomites did not receive those, whom they knew not when they came: but these brought friends into bondage, that had well deserved of them." (KJV, Wisdom 19:13-14)
Sodomy laws in 18th-century Europe
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An examination of trials for rape and sodomy during the 18th century at the Old Bailey in London shows that the treatment of rape was often lenient, while the treatment of sodomy was often severe. However, the difficulty of proving that penetration and ejaculation had occurred meant that men were often convicted of the lesser charge of 'assault with sodomitical intent', which was not a capital offence.
In France in the 18th century, sodomy was still theoretically a capital crime, and there are a handful of cases where sodomites were executed. However, in several of these, other crimes were involved as well. Records from the Bastille and the police lieutenant d'Argenson, as well as other sources, show that many who were arrested were exiled, sent to a regiment, or imprisoned in places (generally the Hospital) associated with moral crimes such as prostitution. Of these, a number were involved in prostitution or had approached children, or otherwise gone beyond merely having homosexual relations. Ravaisson (a 19th-century writer who edited the Bastille records) suggested that the authorities preferred to handle these cases discreetly, lest public punishments in effect publicize "this vice".
Periodicals of the time sometimes casually named known sodomites, and at one point even suggested that sodomy was increasingly popular. This does not imply that sodomites necessarily lived in security - specific police agents, for instance, watched the Tuileries, even then a known cruising area. But, as with much sexual behaviour under the Old Regime, discretion was a key concern on all sides (especially since members of prominent families were sometimes implicated) - the law seemed most concerned with those who were the least discreet.
In 1730, there was a wave of sodomy trials in the Netherlands; some 250 men were summoned before the authorities; 91 faced decrees of exile for not appearing. At least 60 men were sentenced to death.
The last two Englishmen that were hanged for sodomy were executed in 1835. James Pratt and John Smith died in front of Newgate Prison in London on 27 November 1835 or 8 April 1835. They had been prosecuted under the Offences against the Person Act 1828, which had replaced the 1533 Buggery Act.
Modern sodomy laws
In the 1950s, all states had some form of law criminalizing sodomy, and in 1986 the United States Supreme Court ruled that nothing in the United States Constitution bars a state from prohibiting sodomy. However, state legislators and state courts had started to repeal or overturn their sodomy laws, beginning with Illinois in 1961, and thus in 2003, only 10 states had laws prohibiting all sodomy, with penalties ranging from 1 to 15 years imprisonment. Additionally, four other states had laws that specifically prohibited same-sex sodomy.
On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6–3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the Texas same-sex sodomy law, ruling that this private sexual conduct is protected by the liberty rights implicit in the due process clause of the United States Constitution, with Sandra Day O'Connor's concurring opinion arguing that they violated equal protection. (See Sodomy law.) This decision invalidated all state sodomy laws insofar as they applied to noncommercial conduct in private between consenting civilians and overruled its 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick which upheld Georgia's sodomy law.
In the U.S. military, the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that the Lawrence v. Texas decision applies to Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the statute banning sodomy. In United States v. Stirewalt:
CRAWFORD, Chief Judge (concurring in part and in the result): I agree with the result in this case but I "would reserve for another day the questions of whether and how Lawrence [v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)] applies to the military. "1 Like United States v. Marcum, "the factual differences between Lawrence and Appellant's case are striking" for the reasons mentioned by the majority as well as the circumstances surrounding the charges themselves.
Stirewalt's conviction of sodomy stood due to the circumstances surrounding the crime. The court went on to say that despite Lawrence's application to the military, Article 125 can still be upheld in cases where there are "factors unique to the military environment" which would place the conduct "outside any protected liberty interest recognized in Lawrence." Examples of such factors could be fraternization, public sexual behavior, or any other factors that would adversely affect good order and discipline. United States v. Meno and United States v. Bullock are two known cases in which consensual sodomy convictions have been overturned in military courts under the Lawrence precedent.
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.
Classical Jewish texts are seen by many as not stressing the homosexual aspect of the attitude of the inhabitants of Sodom as much as their cruelty and lack of hospitality to the "stranger". The 13th-century Jewish scholar Nachmanides wrote, "According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy." His contemporary Rabbenu Yonah expresses the same view: "Scripture attributes their annihilation to their failure to practice tzedakah [charity or justice]." Prohibitions on same-sex activities among men (#157) and bestiality (#155–156) are among the 613 commandments as listed by Maimonides in the 12th century; however, their source in Leviticus 18 does not contain the word sodomy. The idea that homosexual intercourse was involved as at least a part of the evil of Sodom arises from the story in Genesis 19 (NIV):
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." (Gen.19:4–7 compare)
The Hebrew verb used is to know, which can have a sexual meaning in the Bible, but doesn't always, and might have a sexual meaning here, judging from Lot's shocked reaction: "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing ..."
The traditional interpretation sees the primary sin of Sodom as being homoerotic sexual acts, connecting the Sodom narrative with Leviticus 18, which lists various sexual crimes, which, according to verses 27 and 28, would result in the land being "defiled":
for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled; otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
Some scholars, such as Per-Axel Sverker, align this passage with the traditional interpretation, claiming that the word abomination refers to sexual misconduct, and that while homoerotic acts were not the only reason Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned, it was a significant part of the picture.
Others, the earliest of whom was Derrick Sherwin Bailey, claim that this passage contradicts the traditional interpretation altogether. In their view the sins of Sodom were related more to violation of hospitality laws than sexual sins. This also coincides with traditional Jewish interpretations of these texts as well.
The primary word in contention is the Hebrew word yâda‛ used for know in the Old Testament. Biblical scholars disagree on what "know" in this instance refers to, but most of conservative Christianity interprets it to mean "sexual intercourse", while the opposing position interprets it to mean "interrogate." Lot's offering of his two virgins has been interpreted to mean that Lot is offering a compromise to assure the crowd that the two men have no untoward intentions in town, or that he is offering his virgins as a substitute for the men to "know" by sexual intercourse.
Those who oppose the interpretation of sexual intent toward Lot's guests point out that there are over 930 occurrences of the Hebrew word (yâda‛) for "know" in the Old Testament, and its use to denote sexual intercourse only occurs about a dozen times, and in the Septuagint it is not rendered sexually. Countering this is the argument that most of the uses of yâda‛ denoting sex is in Genesis, (including once for premarital sex: Genesis 38:26), and in verse 8 sex the obvious meaning. Its use in the parallel story in Judges 19 is also invoked in support of this meaning, with it otherwise providing the only instance of "knowing" someone by violence.
While the Quran clearly disapproves of the sexual practices of the "people of Lot" ("What, of all creatures do ye come unto the males, and leave the wives your Lord created for you?"), only one passage has sometimes been interpreted as taking a particular legal position towards such activities:
"And as for those who are guilty of an indecency from among your women, call to witnesses against them four (witnesses) from among you; then if they bear witness confine them to the houses until death takes them away or Allah opens some way for them (15). And as for the two who are guilty of indecency from among you, give them both a punishment; then if they repent and amend, turn aside from them; surely Allah is oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful. (16)"[4:15–16 (Translated by Shakir)]
Most exegetes hold that these verses refer to illicit heterosexual relationships, although a minority view attributed to the Mu'tazilite scholar Abu Muslim al-Isfahani interpreted them as referring to homosexual relations. This view was widely rejected by medieval scholars, but has found some acceptance in modern times.
Hadith (reports of Muhammad's sayings and deeds from those close to him in his lifetime) on the subject are inconsistent, with different writers interpreting the Prophet in different ways. Shariah (Islamic law) defines sodomy outside marriage as adultery or fornication or both, and it thus attracts the same penalties as those crimes (flogging or death), although the exact punishment varies with schools and scholars. In practice, few modern Muslim countries have legal systems based fully on Shariah, and an increasing number of Muslims do not look to shariah but to the Quran itself for moral guidance. For sodomy within marriage, the majority of Shiite interpreters hold that (1) anal intercourse, while strongly disliked, is not haram (forbidden) provided the wife agrees; and (2), if the wife does not agree, then it is preferable to refrain.
Despite the formal disapproval of religious authority, gender segregation in Muslim societies and the strong emphasis on virility leads adolescents and unmarried young men to seek alternative sexual outlets to women, especially with males younger than themselves. Not all sodomy is homosexual, but for many young men heterosexual sodomy is considered better than vaginal penetration, and female prostitutes report the demand for anal penetration from their male clients.
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