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Sodomy law

A sodomy law is a law which makes certain sexual acts into sex crimes, most commonly anal intercourse. Sometimes the definition of sodomy has been broader and included oral sex and bestiality as well. Following Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England [1], the crime of sodomy has often been defined in the past only as the abominable and detestable crime against nature, or some variation of the phrase. This language led to widely varying rulings about what specific acts were encompassed by its prohibition.

While many other parts of the world have, or had, laws against homosexuality or other sexual practices, the term sodomy law has mainly used when discussing the law of the United States.

Even though many of these laws target both heterosexual and homosexual acts, they are sometimes selectively enforced only against homosexuals; in some states of the US, this practice was codified and the laws prohibited only homosexual acts, not heterosexual ones. In the United States, most sodomy laws were broad enough to apply to female homosexuality, but were more commonly enforced against male homosexuality. It is a common misunderstanding that sodomy laws are laws against homosexuality, when many of them prohibit some heterosexual acts as well.

Overview of homosexuality and the law

Primarily due to religious edicts against homosexuality, homosexuality (and specifically anal sex) have been considered a crime in many cultures, in spite of its status as a consensual act (see consensual crime). In England, Henry VIII introduced the first legislation against homosexuals with the Buggery Act of 1533, making buggery punishable by hanging, a penalty not finally lifted until 1861. Heterosexuals have not historically been prosecuted for anal sex as much as homosexuals and some sodomy laws included all homosexuality or all non-coital sex. see oral sex, Frottage (sexology), masturbation, vanilla sex, sexual intercourse

The Wolfenden report in the UK was a turning point in the legalization of homosexuality in Western countries. Many Western cultures have now legalized or decriminalised homosexuality and homosexual acts, including the USA, whose Supreme Court ruled in June 2003 in the case of Lawrence v. Texas that US state laws criminalizing private, non-commercial sexual activity (including homosexual activity) between consenting adults are unconstitutional. A number of states in Europe (for example, the Netherlands and Belgium), and, tentatively, the provinces of Québec, Ontario and British Columbia in Canada have changed the law to allow same-sex marriages. Other jurisdictions (for example. Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, France, and the US states of Vermont and California) recognize in law long-term gay relationships as "domestic partnerships" or the like. A number of jurisdictions now allow gay couples to adopt children.

An increasing number of politicians have openly admitted either to being homosexual, bisexual or to having had past homosexual experiences. These include a former British Defence Secretary under John Major, Michael Portillo. An openly gay politician, David Norris, sits in the Irish Senate, while the current and previous Presidents of Ireland, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson were founders for the Irish Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which led to decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Republic of Ireland. In France, the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, had already publicly admitted he was gay when he was elected. Four Canadian MPs are openly gay (two New Democrats, a Bloquiste, and a Tory.) There have been various US politicians who have served as openly gay, including Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

This trend among western nations has not been followed in all other regions of the world, where sodomy often remains a serious crime. At the extreme, homosexuality remains punishable by death in Afghanistan, Mauritania, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Lesser penalties of life in prison are found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Guyana, India, Maldives, Nepal, Singapore, and Uganda.

Along with alleged communists, homosexuals were investigated by the notorious senator Joseph McCarthy in the USA, who produced a report entitled "Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government".

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has historically had similar laws, but the offence was usually called there buggery, not sodomy, and was usually intepreted as referring to anal intercourse between two males or a male and a female. Buggery was made a felony by statute in 1533, during the reign of Henry VIII. (See Buggery Act.) In 1885, Parliament enacted the so-called Labouchere Amendment [1], which prohibited "gross indecency" between males, a broad term that was understood to encompass most or all male homosexual acts. It was under this law that Oscar Wilde suffered his well-known conviction and imprisonment. Sexual acts between two adult males, with no other people present, were made legal in England in 1967, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland somewhat later.


Canadian law now permits anal sex by consenting parties above the age of 18, provided no more than two people are present. Its sodomy laws were repealed in the 1960s by Pierre Trudeau who famously stated that "the government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation."


Sodomy laws have been abolished since the early 1990s in the People's Republic of China. Yet, there is no clear statute towards consenting parties above the age of 18. If person under 18 is involved, a criminal action suit will be applied. In a notable case in 2002, a person who had anal sex with a teenager was sentenced 3 and a half years in prison.

United States

Sodomy laws in the United States, laws primarily intended to outlaw gay sex, are historically pervasive, but have been invalidated by the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas.

See also: homophobia, gay rights, societal attitudes towards homosexuality, persecution of homosexuals

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