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Sodoma - Elluin

François Elluin, Sodomites provoking the wrath of God, from "Le pot pourri de Loth" (1781).

Look up sodomy in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Sodomy (IPA: [ˡsɒdəmi]) is a term of biblical origin used to characterize sexual acts that have been attributed to citizens of ancient Sodom. In the Middle Ages, "sodomy" and "buggery" were defined as homosexual practices. It may also include sexual acts except for coital sex between a male and female. Therefore the range includes everything from anal penetration to oral sex to masturbation to paraphilia. It is sometimes used to describe human-animal sexual intercourse (also known as bestiality or zoophilia); this is the primary meaning of the cognate German language word Sodomie. Sodomy laws forbidding certain types of sex acts have been instituted in many cultures.

The English term buggery is very closely related to sodomy, in concept, and often interchangeably used in law and popular speech. In the various criminal codes of United States of America, the term "sodomy" has generally been replaced by "deviant sexual intercourse", which is precisely defined by statute. The remaining criminal interest is largely confined to acts where the victim did not or could not legally consent.

Understandings of “The Sins of Sodom”[]

For a more detailed discussion on this topic, see the article on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Though the etymology of the word sodomy is clear, there is a dispute about what the nature the sin of Sodom actually was. Within Christendom there are basically two schools of thought. (1) The traditional interpretation, where the primary sin of Sodom is seen as homoerotic sexual acts.[How to reference and link to summary or text] (2) Some recent scholars, starting with Derrick Sherwin Bailey, claim that the sins of Sodom were related more to violation of hospitality laws than sexual sins.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The traditional interpretation claims there is a connection between Sodom and 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.

The more recent re-interpretation claims that the explanation primarily is with a text in the book of Ezekiel:

“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.” (16:49-50, King James Version of the Bible.

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 not was the only reason Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned, it was a significant part of the picture. Others, such as the mentioned D.S. Bailey, claim that this passage contradicts the traditional interpretation altogether.

There is an ongoing exegetic and hermeneutic debate on this issue, including many other nuances in the text, and the scholarly world is far from consensus.

Within Judaism, based on the quote from Ezekiel, the thirteenth-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].” [1] On the other hand "sodomy" is among the 613 commandments as listed by Maimonides [2].

The Qur'an makes a more explicit scriptural connection between homosexual aggression and Sodom. The city name ‘Sodom’ does not appear there, but the Sodomites are referred to as “the people of Lut (Lot).” Lot is the nephew of the Hebrew/Arabic patriarch Abraham and, in the Judaic Sodom stories, is head of the only family allowed by God to survive Sodom's destruction. In the Qur'an, he is also the divinely appointed national prophet to his people. Since their national name was unrecorded and “people of Lot” was the only available designation, the Islamic equivalent of ‘sodomy’ has become ‘liwat,’ which could be roughly translated as “lottishness” (see Homosexuality and Islam).

First century Christian and Jewish opinions[]

The Epistle of Jude in the New Testament echoes the Genesis narrative and recalls mainly 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 “unnatural desire” is literally translated “strange flesh”, but it is not entirely clear what it refers to. The ESV translators supply one plausible paraphrase in making the phrase refer to the illicit sexual activity of the Genesis account (cf. the language of the epistle to the Romans 1:21-32), but another theory is that it is just a reference to the “strange flesh” of the intended rape victims, who were angels, not men. Again there is a counterargument that focus on the fact that the men of Sodom did not know that the strangers were angels.

The Jewish historian Josephus used the term “Sodomites” 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” (Antiquities 1.11.1 [3] — circa A.D. 96). The final element of his assessment goes beyond the Biblical data, even in the New Testament. Nonetheless, this meaning is the primary one used today.

Dante sodom

Dante and Virgil interview the sodomites, from Guido da Pisa's commentary on the Commedia, c. 1345

Sodomy in Europe[]

Examination of trials for rape and sodomy during the eighteenth century at the Old Bailey in London show the treatment of rape to have been lenient, while the treatment of sodomy to have been generally severe. From the 1780s the number of cases grew. Blackmail for sodomy also increased and was made a capital crime.

In France in the eighteenth 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 (for instance, one man, Pascal, had supposedly murdered a man who resisted his advances). 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 morals 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 homosexuals 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.

Between 1730 and 1733, Holland experienced a sodomy scare, in which 276 men were executed.

In the Middle Ages, the terms "sodomite" and "buggery" were defined as homosexual practices, and the arguably gay Richard I of England was ordered by a priest to keep in mind "the sin of Sodom".

Sodomy laws in the United States[]

Main article: Sodomy laws in the United States

From the earliest times in the United States, sodomy (variously defined) was prohibited in the United States, although some historians suggest that early sodomy laws were mainly used to address issues of non-consensual behavior, or public behavior. The earliest known United States law journal article dealing with sodomy was in 1905 in West Virginia. Attorney E.D. Leach argued that "perverted sexual natures" were related to crime. "Sodomy, rape, lust-murder, bodily injury, theft, robbery, torture of animals, injury to property and many other crimes may be committed under these conditions." 18th and 19th century judges often editorialized about the act of sodomy as they handed down their rulings. "That most detestable sin", the "horrid act", "the horrible crime", "that which is unfit to be named among Christians" characterized some of the colorful language used by British and American jurists when punishing sodomites. Indeed, emphasis is usually on the notion that the act of anal penetration is so abominable and offensive "to God almighty" that the term Sodomy (literally, that which occurred in Sodom) is the only appropriate way of designating the activity. In other words, it was understood that when reference was made to "an unspeakable act" having occurred, it was clear that the act in question was none other than anal penetration. Some say, however, that the "Sin of Sodom" accurately referred not to anal penetration but rather to the agglomeration of ALL the unholy activities said to have occurred in Sodom and that it is thus inaccurate to imply a one-to-one relationship.

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. That year the United States Supreme Court reversed its 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick ruling and in Lawrence v. Texas, invalidated these laws as being an unconstitutional violation of privacy, with Sandra Day O'Connor's concurring opinion arguing that they violated equal protection. See Sodomy law.

However, Lawrence v. Texas has not changed the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 125 that bans all servicemen and women from engaging in “sodomy”. The United States Armed Forces Code defines the offense thus:

Any person subject to this chapter who engages in unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex or with an animal is guilty of sodomy. Penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete the offense.

Evolution of the term in other languages[]

In modern German, the word “Sodomie” has no connotation of anal or oral sex, and refers specifically to zoophilia. (See Paragraph 175 StGB, version of June 28, 1935.) The same goes for the Norwegian word “sodomi” and the Polish "sodomia". “Sodomy”, therefore, can be considered being a 'false friend'.

See also[]


  • Robert Purks Maccubbin (Ed.), 'Tis Nature's Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality During the Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
  • Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
  • Richard B. Hays (2004) The Moral Vision of the New Testament (London: Continuum). pg. 381

External links[]

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