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Sodomy for the Masses | The Nation

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Sodomy for the Masses

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Social conservatives seem obsessed with images of youths molested or tricked by crafty sodomites into lives of buggery. On a literal level, the child-defiler trope is absurd. On a symbolic one, it makes perfect sense. After all, children in Western culture are the ultimate innocents; and gays, the ultimate evil.

About the Author

Debbie Nathan
Debbie Nathan, a New York City-based writer, is the author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays From the U.S.-Mexican...

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Their demonization dates to the story of Lot in Genesis. God hears rumors that Sodom is unredeemably sinful and sends two male angels to earth to investigate. No sooner do they arrive at Lot's house than the men of Sodom rush over to demand sex from the seraphim. Lot offers them his daughters instead; they demur, and the orgy never happens. But Sodom is destroyed anyway by a divine rain of burning sulfur (and Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt). Among Bible fundamentalists, homosexuals have been the favorite scapegoat on which to blame Yahweh's wrath.

The Bible-thumpers also cite Leviticus, which warns that "if a man lie also with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death." Anthropologists read the man-man taboo as a primitive society's way of averting nonprocreative sex and resulting depopulation. But natalism only partly explains Western animus toward homosexuality. As Arthur Gilbert, a University of Denver historian of sexuality, points out, Christianity bifurcates the spirit--typically defined as the "higher" form of being--and the body, which modern biblical translations often deem the "lower" form. Paul's Epistle to the Romans hammers at this split, advising that "those who live on the level of our lower nature have their outlook formed by it, and that spells death."

If the body means death, it follows that the excretory passageway, the lowest of the lower parts, is a toxic ditch of existential doom. For Christians striving to come nearer to God by denying the flesh, even the strictest self-flagellation and anorexia could never eliminate the production of shit--"that stinking bit of fecal matter that proved one was, after all, brother to the sheep, the dog...a dung-producing animal," as Gilbert puts it. Thus, anal sex traditionally has been seen as the gravest of sins, a pact with the devil, a terrible insult to humanity's attempts at salvation.

Indeed, Thomas Aquinas condemned male-male anal sex as worse than other seed-spilling acts such as masturbation and fellatio. Buggery was more contemptible than incest and rape. Nor did Aquinas think much of lesbian sex. Still, penis-in-the-anus was the very worst transgression. When males were so accused (with other men and with women as well, including their wives), they were always punished far more severely than were people convicted of oral-genital contact. Trial, sentencing and punishment were traditionally carried out by the Church and its inquisitions--as in Spain, where several dozen male sodomites were burned following autos-da-fé.

During the Reformation, the Church gradually yielded its antisodomy duties to the state. Governments were secularizing their definitions of crime, yet the Bible persisted as the sole rationale for antisodomy laws. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Geneva, Switzerland, put to death twenty-eight men convicted of homosexual acts. Holland executed sixty in 1730-31. The British hanged 105 between 1703 and 1829. In the American colonies at least two men, and possibly five, were killed in accordance with laws that quoted directly from Leviticus. After the Revolution, fines and imprisonment replaced the gallows as punishment for these practices. Laws against oral sex followed in the Comstockian late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the next several generations, all fifty states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia forbade anal sex as well as fellatio and cunnilingus.

As late as the sixties, a homosexual--particularly a man--risked arrest not just for having sex with another consenting homosexual but for dancing with or propositioning one. A sodomy conviction (and sometimes a mere accusation) typically led to psychiatric examination, even incarceration in a mental hospital. Several states required convicts to register as sex offenders. Men arrested for loitering or soliciting had their names published in the local papers.

Much of this repression started to lift on the heels of such momentous decisions as that in the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions on the use of contraceptives violated the privacy of "sacred" marriage. Glorifying marriage was of little help to homosexuals, but eight years later gay activists could apply the privacy-rights logic of Roe v. Wade to antisodomy statutes; by 1983 twenty-four states had rescinded their laws in the legislature or in court.

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