What is a Sodomy Law?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A sodomy law is a common term for a law that forbids certain kinds of sexual activities. In some cases, the law prohibits certain behavior between both heterosexual and homosexual individuals, while other laws specifically target homosexual activity only. Sodomy laws are common in some parts of the world, including some African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. Since the late 20th century, the number of countries retaining sodomy laws has significantly decreased.

Sodomy laws were drafted to essentially make homosexuality illegal.
Sodomy laws were drafted to essentially make homosexuality illegal.

The history of sodomy law is closely wrapped up with religious concepts. The term sodomy comes from a Biblical story in which the inhabitants of a town called Sodom were destroyed by God for committing sexually immoral acts, including homosexual behavior. Throughout most of history, laws prohibiting some sex acts were commonplace in most of the world, resulting in jail or even death for the convicted.

In 2003, the Supreme Court voted to overturn all sodomy laws.
In 2003, the Supreme Court voted to overturn all sodomy laws.

Sodomy laws often are based on the idea that the state has the right to enforce some level of moral conduct. According to the tenets of certain religious and moral systems, sex acts that can't result in procreation or are done purely for pleasure are considered immoral. In addition, some proponents of sodomy laws suggest that sexual activity other than heterosexual intercourse can result in increased risk for disease transmission, and should be guarded against as a matter of public health.

Opponents of sodomy law take issue with the idea that the government has the right to regulate private sexual activities between consenting adults. Moreover, in countries like the United States where the Constitution effectively guarantees the right to privacy, opponents suggest that laws banning certain sex acts violate these rights. In the landmark Lawrence Vs. Texas court case of 2003, the US Supreme Court voted to overturn all sodomy laws in the the United States, overruling a 1986 judgment on the same issue. The reasoning given in the ruling suggested that a sodomy law that forbids private activities between adults violates the 14th amendment of the US Constitution by not following due process of the law.

In many cases, sodomy laws apply exclusively to homosexual conduct. Citing the right to impose moral standards on citizens, governments that enforce or allow sodomy laws typically punish violators with heavy fines or jail time. In 2009, Uganda became a central focus of gay rights controversy when a bill brought before Parliament included a death penalty clause for certain violations of sodomy laws. Although the provision was removed after intense worldwide pressure, much of Africa remains the hottest battleground for sodomy law debates.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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