In the law, the term sodomy refers to anal or oral sex, whether between a man and woman, two women, or two men, and was historically considered to be a criminal act. As recently as the 1960s, all 50 states had laws that made even consensual sodomy illegal, viewing such acts as “crimes against nature,” or deviant sexual acts. By the end of the 20th century, 36 states had done away with their sodomy laws, and another 10 states had repealed laws considered to be “anti-homosexual” in nature. The specific laws concerning sodomy vary greatly by jurisdiction. To explore this concept, consider the following sodomy definition.

Definition of Sodomy


  1. Sexual activity that involves oral or anal copulation, whether with the same or opposite sex
  2. Copulation with an animal: bestiality


Approx. 2000 B.C.        The term originates with the biblical account of the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah

What is Sodomy

Historically, laws of the individual states within the United States defined sodomy as anal sex, oral sex, or, in some cases, any non-procreative sexual activity, whether between two people, or between a person and an animal. While these laws applied to sexual participants, even in their own homes, prosecution for sodomy in such a private setting was rare. Although sodomy laws applied to both hetero- and homosexual activities, enforcement was often specifically targeted toward homosexuals.

Sodomy Law

On a societal level, sodomy has been viewed as deviant sexual activity for thousands of years. Biblical accounts have two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, being destroyed for freely engaging in such activities. Civil law then followed religious prohibitions against non-procreative sexual activities.

Since the inception of the U.S. legal system, sodomy law has varied by state, and has rarely been used to convict consenting adults of opposite sex. Sodomy laws were sometimes used to enhance penalties in cases of rape and child sexual abuse. Today, nearly every state has decriminalized consensual, private sexual acts, including sodomy, between adults. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling striking down Texas’ sodomy law as unconstitutional, states have revised their statutes to do away with prohibitions against sexual acts between members of the same sex.

What is Sodomy First Degree

Each state has specific statues that deal with, and classify, acts of sodomy. Many states classify sodomy acts by degrees, or by other categories that specify the seriousness of the offense. In a system that classifies by degree, sodomy 1st degree is the most serious, and carries the most severe penalties.

For example, in some jurisdictions, felony charges of sodomy first-degree apply if:

  1. A person engages in sexual intercourse with another by force;
  2. A person engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is unable to consent due to physical helplessness or mental incapacity; or
  3. A person, who is 16 years or older, engages in deviate sexual acts with a person who is under the age of 12 years.

Modern law, which has done away with specific sodomy law, classifies these acts under the statutes of rape and sexual assault.

Lawrence v. Texas

On September 17, 1998, two men, 55-year old John Lawrence and 40-year old Robert Eubanks, had been in a homosexual romantic relationship for 8 years. The two planned on spending the night together and invited another man, 31-year old Tyrone Garner, over to Lawrence’s apartment. Eubanks began drinking and, after becoming intoxicated, became angry at the flirting going on between Lawrence and Garner.

Eubanks left to purchase a soda from nearby store and, while he was gone, called the police and reported a man going crazy with a gun at Lawrence’s address. Police responded to the call, and stormed the unlocked apartment. One officer claimed he had walked in on Garner and Lawrence having anal sex in the bedroom. Another officer stated that the two men were engaged in oral sex. The two remaining officers claim they did not see any sexual activities occurring.

In spite of Lawrence’s immediate objection to the officers entering his home, Lawrence and Garner were arrested and placed in jail. The pair, at the urging of gay rights advocates, pled no contest, waived trial, and were each given a $100 fine. The low fine, however, was below the minimum amount required to allow them to appeal the case. At the parties’ request, the judge increased their fines to $125, enabling them to file an appeal.

After several actions at the state trial and appeals court levels, Lawrence and Garner appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the state’s law was unconstitutional, as it prohibited sodomy between same-sex individuals, but not between heterosexual individuals. The pair also claimed to have a right to privacy. On June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-3 split decision, that Texas’ Homosexual Conduct law was unconstitutional in that it violated individuals’ rights of due process, as well as equal protection guarantees provided by the U.S. Constitution. In its decision, the Court affirmed, “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Law – The body of law dealing with private matters between individuals and corporations and other entities.
  • Consensual – Agreed to by the people involved.
  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolving conflicts.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.