A History of Sodomy in America

Sodomy is still a dirty word and even a crime in some parts of the United States even as its definition remains less clearly delineated. To you and me, perhaps, sodomy simply means insertion of the penis into the anus, but most state statutes at one time or another have outlawed sodomy so that it includes the almost Patriot Act-like umbrella of “crime against nature.” Well, let’s face it, any woman willing to have sex with Dick Cheney has committed a crime against nature, but should she go to jail for her lapse in judgment? Probably not. Men and women, though mostly men, have gone to jail on charges of sodomy despite getting nowhere near the rectum, but simply because they engaged in oral sex.

Back in the olden days before everybody was taping themselves having anal sex and posting it on the internet, it was wrongly assumed, wrongly, that only homosexuals engaged in sodomy. Therefore, it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to suppose that sodomy laws were enacted not so much out of concern about the specific laws of nature being corrupted, but rather the sexual orientation of those being corrupted. That oral sex was included in this umbrella of unfair legislation is also less than surprising considering that when the laws were first put on the books few people would have believed that at least half the houses in America were the locations of oral sexuality at least once in any given year. It was widely believed then, and certainly much less so now, that only sluts and prostitutes engaged in oral sex. Well, sluts, prostitutes and queers. And so the sodomy law was really a kind of Jim Crow law against homosexuals and prostitutes. Even more so than Jim Crow laws this felony behavior was supported by the masses because gays were viewed with even more disgust and concern than blacks. As for prostitutes or cheap women, well, even gays could beat up on them.

But what caused sodomy, whether anal or oral in character, to be considered a crime against nature? The Bible, of course. After all, the term sodomy derives from the widely misunderstood story of Sodom and Gomorrah. All that most churchgoers get from that story is that gay sex equals god’s wrath. The point of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has to do with what takes place after God’s wrath, much like the story of Jonah has almost nothing to do with the whale. Anal sex had, of course, been tolerated in Greece, as well as other ancient civilizations. As a result, sodomy laws were on the books in most of the western world following the rise of the Catholic Church. The main difference is that it was punishable by death. Sodomy laws in the United States remained effectively unchallenged until the early 1960s when many state legislators began to take a fresh look at the constitutionality of the laws that pertained to what is, after all, the ultimate act of privacy. (Well, besides going to the bathroom.) Illinois was the first state to knock on the door of constitutional protection for what two consenting adults did in the privacy of their own homes. Eventually, nearly half the states in the union repealed laws against anal and oral sex. Interestingly, these repeals coincided with the release of famous sex reports like Kinsey’s that shouted out loud what had been the best kept secret in America: even good girls did it. The recognition that anal and oral sex were being performed on a regular basis by heterosexual men and women in glorious suburbia forced a wholesale re-evaluation of the purpose of sodomy laws. If it wasn’t just the creepy queers and slutty women who doing such filthy things, and if it was becoming well known that literally tens of millions of female anuses and mouths were going to be the repository of penises on any given night, the potential existed for jailing just as many upright citizens as godless homos. (I do hope you realize I’m being satirical in the use of these epithets.) By the dawn of the 21st century only eight states still had laws on their books that made sodomy between any two individuals a crime. Amazingly, three states had laws that legalized sodomy only between homosexuals!

Probably the most famous sodomy case to ever appear before the Supreme Court in the United States was Bowers v. Hardwick. It all sprang from one night when a police officer in Georgia appeared to deliver a warrant for Hardwick’s arrest and found him performing oral sex on another male. The act was consensual and the other male was of legal age. The weird thing about this case is that Hardwick was never actually tried for his crime because the prosecutor had decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Nonetheless, Hardwick himself filed suit to get the George law declared unconstitutional. All of this took place during the Reagan administration, however, so it should come as no surprise that those brave men and woman on the court upheld George’s law that intruded upon privacy. Justice Byron White in particular needs to be singled out, writing in his opinion that privacy laws did not extend to acts of homosexuality. Sexual privacy, in the opinion of five members of the Supreme Court extended only to heterosexual sex. Fine for me, but what about all those gay people who also enjoy the mind-blowing pleasures afforded by the repeal of any manner of sodomy laws? Well, too bad for them, because the Court’s opinion essentially was a refutation of the idea that homosexuals have a constitutional right to engage in sexual activity since, by definition, the insertion of the penis into any body part other than a vagina is considered sodomy. That brilliant judicial mind of Byron White foresaw the legal loophole that that homosexual sex should be protected by the right of the expectation of privacy. Get this, and if you still that a Supreme Court Justice is worthy of respect simply by virtue of being on the Court then you need to renounce your citizenship right now and head to Iran. White argued that homosexuals have no right to expect privacy because, “otherwise illegal conduct is not always immunized whenever it occurs in the home.” In other words, just because you murder someone in your home you shouldn’t expect to be protected and just because you are a man penetrating another man’s mouth or anus with your penis you shouldn’t expect the right to privacy. Equating an activity defined by illegal for everyone with an activity defined as illegal for just one minority is certainly not the dumbest decision the Supreme Court ever came to (Dred Scott and the 2000 election decision spring immediately to mind), but it certainly must rank in the top five.

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