AskDefine | Define sodomy

Dictionary Definition

sodomy n : anal intercourse committed by a man with a man or woman [syn: buggery, anal sex, anal intercourse]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Sodom, where the Bible, in Genesis chapters 18 and 19 and elsewhere, suggests such a practice took place.




  1. immorality in general
  2. any of various forms of sexual intercourse held to be unnatural, particularly bestiality.
  3. anal sex



sex held to be unnatural
anal sex

Extensive Definition

Sodomy () is a term used today predominantly in law (derived from traditional Christian usage) to describe an act of "unnatural" sexual intercourse normally interpreted in religion as referring to both oral sex and anal intercourse, as well as bestiality. When used in a religious context, it has a negative connotation.


The term comes from the Ecclesiastical Latin: peccatum Sodomiticum, or "sin of Sodom."
The association of the ancient city of Sodom with sexual depravity is of biblical origin. In the book of Genesis (chapters 18-20), the Lord perceives Sodom and Gomorrah as places of grave sinfulness and seeks to discover whether this perception is really true before He destroys the inhabitants. Two angels (who have the appearance of humans) are sent to find out the reality of life in Sodom. After arriving in the city in the evening, the angels are invited - then urged strongly - by Lot (an upright man) to take refuge with his family for the night.
4 But before they [the angels] ''lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: 5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. 6 And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, 7 And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. 8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. 9 And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door. 10 But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door. 11 And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door.''
(Genesis 19:4-11, KJV)
To summarise the above account:The men of the city of Sodom desired that Lot give them the two men so that they may "know them," which has been interpreted either to mean "interrogate" or "to engage in sexual intercourse." Lot refuses to hand them over, and offers his two virgin daughters instead which has been interpreted to mean either a compromise to assure the crowd that the two men have no untoward intentions in town or for sexual intercourse. In any event the offer is refused. It is only after the two angels draw Lot back into the house, and then caused blindness to come upon the men of the city, that those within the house are safe. Even in their blinded state, the men outside still try to gain entry to the house and continue until they become wearied. We see here the extent of either their inhospitality or depravity, depending upon how one interprets the verses.
Sodom is subsequently destroyed by a rain of sulfur and fire. From this biblical narrative the word 'Sodomy' is derived and has henceforth come to be synonymous with anal intercourse (particularly between two males) and sometimes also to describe human-animal sexual intercourse (also known as bestiality or zoophilia); Sodomy laws prohibiting such sexual activity have been a standard feature of codes of sexual morality in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilisation as well as many other cultures. 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. These laws have been under challenge and have in places been found unconstitutional or have been replaced with different acts. Some countries, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia retain "sodomy laws" against homosexual acts. Elsewhere, the legal use of the term "sodomy" is restricted to rape cases where an act such as anal penetration has taken place. The English term "buggery" is very closely related to sodomy in concept, and often interchangeably used in law and popular speech.In some legal systems the term "buggery" is used rather than "sodomy"; examples include that of Santa Lucia, which despite calls for reform retains a penalty of 25 years in prison for anal intercourse between consenting adults.


In the Hebrew Bible, Sodom was a city destroyed by God because of the evil of its inhabitants. Except one mention in Ezekiel, the Bible does not clearly state what sin or sins Sodom was destroyed for.

Hebrew references

Many times in the Torah and Prophets, writers use God's destruction of Sodom to demonstrate God's 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 references the sinfulness of Sodom but does not specify any sin.
In Ezekiel 16, a long comparison is made between Sodom and the Kingdom of Israel. "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." (Ezekiel 16.47 New American Standard Bible)
There is no mention of any sexual sin. While "abomination" is used to describe same-sex sexual activity in Leviticus, it is also use to describe many other sins as well.

New Testament

The New Testament, like the Old Testament, references Sodom as a place of God's anger against sin without specifying the sin. The only other reference to Sodom is a mention in the Epistle of Jude:
Jude calls the sin of Sodom simply "gross imorality" and going after "strange flesh." "Strange flesh" is the literal translation whereas some modern translations like the NIV insert the interpretation "sexual immorality." "Flesh" in the New Testament occasionally refers to sexuality but more often it does not.

Views prior to the Medieval period

Jewish views

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 this. (16:49-50, KJV).
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].” The Book of Wisdom, which is included 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. (19:13-14, KJV)
Prohibitions on same-sex activities (# 157-159) and bestiality (#155-156) 613_commandments#Maimonides.27_list 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
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."
That is the NIV translation. The Hebrew verb used is to know, which can have a sexual meaning in the Bible, and probably does here, judging from Lot's shocked reaction:
No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing...

First century Christian and Jewish opinions

Modern English translation 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 literally translated strange flesh or false flesh, but it is not entirely clear what it refers to.
  • The ESV translators situated in the year 2001 supply one plausible paraphrase for "false flesh", arguably influenced by more recent Christian views, in making the phrase refer to alleged illicit sexual activity of the Genesis account (cf. the language of the epistle to the Romans 1:21-32 not specifically referring to Sodom).
  • Another theory is that it is just a reference to the “strange flesh” of the intended rape victims, who were angels, not men. There is a counter-argument which focuses on the fact that the men of Sodom did not know that the strangers were angels.
  • A third opinion takes "false flesh" to refer to cannibalism, as such a meaning is used elsewhere in the Mosaic laws, referring to practices of those who lived in Canaan.


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 — circa A.D. 96). The final element of his assessment goes beyond the Biblical data, even in the New Testament.

Islamic views

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).
According to Islamic view, homosexuality is not a natural activity and it was initiated under the influence of Satan among the people who dwelled in Sodom and Gomorrah. In order that they should abandon this immorality, Allah had sent to them Lut as a Prophet. The Qur'an relates,
'We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: "Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds".' - Holy Quran 7:80-81
It is evident from this verse that the sin of the Sodomites was indeed homosexuality (specifically, amongst men) in the Islamic context.
In Islam sodomy (Anal sex) is forbidden whether done with a man or a woman.

Medieval Christianity on sodomy

Justinian I and Byzantine power politics of late antiquity

The primarily sexual meaning of the word sodomia for Christians did not evolve before the 500s AD. Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, in his novels no. 77 (dating 538) and no. 141 (dating 559) amended to his Corpus iuris civilis, was the first to declare that Sodom's sin had been specifically same-sex activities and desire for them, in order to create homosexual scapegoats for recent earthquakes and other disasters of his time (see Extreme weather events of 535-536), but most of all to enact anti-homosexual laws that he then used upon personal as well as political opponents in case he could not prove them guilty of anything else.
Justinian's were not the first Roman laws prohibiting homosexual behavior. Earlier such measures had been included in the Lex Scantinia dating from 149 BC and the Lex Julia dating from 17 BC, both constituting the death penalty for homosexual behavior. Allegations exist that even before Lex Scantinia such laws existed, but direct evidence of these laws has been lost. While sticking to the death penalty by beheading as punishment for homosexuality, Justinian's legal novels heralded a change in Roman legal paradigm in that he introduced a concept of not only mundane but also divine punishment for homosexual behavior. Individuals might ignore and escape mundane laws, but they could not do the same with divine laws, if Justinian declared his novels to be such.
This is, of course, not to say that early Christians did not denounce same-sex behavior, which for instance St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century regarded as worse than murder in his fourth homily on Romans, while Paul the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans referred to "pederasty" as "shameful lust" accounted for by "due penalty". Just like the Jews, early Christians prior to Justinian I simply did not use the word sodomia for the carnal sin they abhorred, as Justinian's connection of the Genesis account with sexual behavior was still equally unknown to them.

Benedictus Levita and the ''Pseudo-Isidore

Justinian's interpretation of the story of Sodom would be forgotten today (as 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.

Medieval Inquisition, hereticism, and witchcraft

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. It was then that a convenient target was found in the sects of Cathars and Waldensians, and these heretics were not only persecuted for alleged satanism but hence increasingly accused of fornication and sodomy. When these two sects had been stamped out and new victims were needed, the Inquisition turned to the witch hunts that were also largely connoted with sodomy.
Persecution of Cathars and the Bogomiles sect in Bulgaria led to the use of a term closely related to sodomy: buggery derives from French bougge­rie, meaning "of Bulgaria".
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 arguably gay Richard I of England was ordered by a priest to keep in mind "the sin of Sodom".

Sodomy in Europe since the Age of Reason

From the Age of Reason onwards, Justinian's claim that sexual sins, if not persecuted yielded epidemics, natural disasters, and downfall of the state found a fruitful reception in pseudo-scientific ideologies of alleged pathology (such as in the popular concept of moral insanity) and mental as well as social and political consequences of sexual deviance.
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 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 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, the Netherlands experienced a sodomy hysteria, in which 276 men were executed.

Modern Christian views

Though the etymology of the word sodomy is clear, there is a dispute about what the nature of 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.
  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.
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 the quote from Ezekiel.
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, such as the aforementioned 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.

Sodomy laws in the United States

From the earliest times in the United States, sodomy (variously defined) was prohibited, 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 language used by British and American jurists when punishing sodomites. Emphasis is usually on the notion that the act of anal penetration is so 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.
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 both United States v. Stirewalt and United States v. Marcum, the court ruled that the "conduct falls within the liberty interest identified by the Supreme Court." However, the court went on to say that despite Lawrences 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.

Evolution of the term in other languages

In modern French, the word “sodomie” (and in modern Spanish, the word “sodomía”) is used exclusively for penetrative anal sex (where the penetration is performed with a penis or a substitute of similar shape such as a dildo, possibly a strap-on dildo, thus any gender can be on the giving or receiving end). The matching French verb is "sodomiser" (Spanish "sodomizar"). 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 a 'false friend,' a word that English speakers will think they know the meaning of, but which actually holds a different, though in this case related, meaning. Responsible for this was the broadening of the term sodomia by Benedictus Levita (see above).

Popular use

  • The word "sod", a noun used as an insult, derives from sodomite. It is a general-purpose insult term for anyone the speaker dislikes or despises, without specific reference to their sexual behaviour. Sod is used often in everyday language in the UK and Commonwealth and is only mildly offensive.

See also


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

sodomy in Bulgarian: Содомия
sodomy in Catalan: Sodomia
sodomy in German: Sodomie
sodomy in Spanish: Sodomía
sodomy in French: Sodomie
sodomy in Italian: Sodomia
sodomy in Hebrew: מעשה סדום
sodomy in Hungarian: Szodómia
sodomy in Malay (macrolanguage): Liwat
sodomy in Dutch: Sodomie
sodomy in Norwegian: Sodomi
sodomy in Polish: Sodomia
sodomy in Portuguese: Sodomia
sodomy in Romanian: Sodomie
sodomy in Russian: Содомия
sodomy in Serbian: Sodomija
sodomy in Finnish: Sodomia
sodomy in Swedish: Sodomi
sodomy in Chinese: 鸡奸
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