Sodomy Laws

Sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2003. Still, rogue arrests occasionally occur.

Ten years ago, the United States Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional. Historically, sodomy (usually defined as oral and anal sex) was a crime in many states, even when the acts were performed in private, between two consenting adults. Practically, however, prosecutions for acts performed in private were rare, but the existence of sodomy laws was used to justify discrimination against homosexuals.

What is Sodomy?

Acts that fall within the definition of sodomy can vary quite a bit. The narrow definition of sodomy might include  onlyanal sex between two men. Sodomy can also be more broadly defined to include any sexual penetration aside from vaginal intercourse, including oral and anal sex, whether between two men or two women or a man and a woman. Laws differ on whether sodomy includes digital penetration and cunnilingus. Sometimes, sodomy laws also prohibit bestiality (sex with animals).

Today, laws against sex crimes prohibit all kinds of forcible acts, as well as sexual behavior against people who do not or cannot consent (such as children and people who lack the mental capacity to give meaningful consent). However, historically, there were basically two kinds of sex crimes: rape and sodomy. Rape laws criminalized vaginal intercourse with a woman who was not your wife. For more information on the history of rape laws, see  The History of Marital Rape Laws.

Sodomy laws prohibited non-procreative behavior with anyone. Sodomy laws  were a way to prosecute any sex act other than vaginal intercourse, whether consensual or not. For information on other sex crimes, see  Sex Crimes.

Lawrence v. Texas

Over a decade ago,in  Lawrence v. Texas,  539 U.S. 558 (2003), the United States Supreme Court struck down Texas’s sodomy law as it applied to consensual sex acts, on the grounds that it violated the right to liberty and privacy guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Texas law criminalized  onlysexual acts between people of the same sex, but the court’s decision invalidated any sodomy law that prohibits consensual acts between adults.

The History of Sodomy Laws

Sodomy laws have existed for hundreds of years, and originated in religious prohibitions against non-procreative sexual acts. As the Supreme Court noted in  Lawrence v. Texas, historically, sodomy prosecutions were not usually used against consenting adults acting in private, but were often a way (indeed, the only way) to prosecute a sexual predator who committed any act other than vaginal intercourse against a non-consenting victim. In the 19th century, there were sodomy prosecutions against consenting adults, but these appear to have been for conduct that occurred in public.

In the 1960s, many states began decriminalizing all consensual, private sex acts between adults  (including sodomy), and  included those engaging in homosexual sex. Around the same time, some states enacted laws prohibiting sodomy between people of the same sex (such as the Texas law struck down by the Supreme Court), while other states retained laws that criminalized sodomy between any two people, no matter their gender. In 1986, the US Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, which criminalized oral and anal sex between people of the same or different sex, on the basis that homosexuals had no constitutional right to engage in sodomy. (Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986).)

What’s the Harm?

As noted, in modern times, even before the laws were invalidated, sodomy laws were rarely used in criminal prosecutions. However, sodomy laws legitimized discrimination and harassment against homosexuals by branding all homosexuals as criminals. For example, an attorney in Georgia was denied employment with the state attorney general’s office because she was a lesbian. The court found no discrimination, in part, because she was a supposed criminal under the state’s sodomy law. (Shahar v. Bowers, 114 F.3d 1097 (11th Cir. 1997).) As recently as fifteen years ago, the Alabama Supreme Court spoke approvingly of limiting a gay parent’s visitation rights because exposing children to an “illegal” lifestyle “could greatly traumatize them.” (Ex parte D.W.W., 717 So.2d 793 (Ala. 1998).) Sodomy laws were used to justify employment discrimination, family law decisions that refused to award custody to gay parents, and adverse immigration decisions.

Sodomy Penalties Today

Despite the invalidation of sodomy laws, sodomy prosecutions continue. For example, in the military, sodomy remains technically illegal.  For more information, see  Sodomy Prosecutions in the Military.

Outside of the military, some police departments still target homosexuals for arrest and some lawmakers have sought to re-ban sodomy. In mid-2013, police officers in  Baton Rouge, Louisiana  were arresting men for agreeing to engage in non-commercial, consensual homosexual sex with undercover officers in sting operations. (The officers appeared to be relying on the fact that Louisiana's law, which targets not only sodomy but also bestiality, is still "on the books," despite its unconstitutionality  per  Lawrence,  as far as sodomy is concerned.)  Kansas  has maintained its sodomy laws on the books; and the attorney general (and gubernatorial candidate) of  Virginia  had attempted to reinstate the state’s sodomy law under the banner of protecting children from sexual predators.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are arrested or harassed on the basis of your sexual orientation or a state’s sodomy law, you should talk to a local criminal defense or civil rights attorney. An attorney can help you protect your rights and successfully navigate the justice system.

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