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Banishing a Medieval Ghost

Ancient definition of 'sodomite' fits most of us, straight or gay. The court was right to reject it.

June 27, 2003|Andrew Sullivan | Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at the New Republic.

Have you committed sodomy lately?

You may be surprised to know that, in all likelihood, you have. Sodomy, after all, is not theoretically restricted to homosexuals. It's an act that can be engaged in by two people of the same or opposite sex.

And as a legal matter, it has by no means been restricted to anal sex between two men (its most popular meaning). Sodomy statutes -- not unlike the one just struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Texas -- have long included a whole variety of sexual behaviors, specifically fellatio and cunnilingus, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

Theologically, the definition is broader still. The natural-law tradition, which invented sodomy as a concept in the Middle Ages, defines it as any sexual activity outside reproductive heterosexual intercourse -- that is, masturbation, coitus interruptus, using contraceptives and even, in some texts, incorrect sexual positions. In fact, it's relatively hard to have anything we might call sex today -- including foreplay -- that doesn't have some sodomitic aspect to it.

But then a modern understanding of sex in general has less and less relationship to the theories of celibate monks in the early Middle Ages. Given their narrow knowledge of sexual desire, experience and expression, this is hardly a surprise.

Why was sodomy of such concern to the medieval theologians? Partly, it seems, because sodomy was widespread among the officially celibate clergy (some things never change), but mainly because in the early Middle Ages it was widely believed that sperm contained everything necessary to make a human being. The woman was a mere incubator of a new human being and added nothing to the process. So "wasting" semen was tantamount to killing off human life itself.

Thomas Aquinas, the magisterial thinker who largely created the anti-sodomitic theological tradition, was particularly strict on this point. "After the sin of homicide whereby a human nature already in existence is destroyed," Aquinas wrote, "this type of sin appears to take next place, for by it the generation of human nature is precluded."

Next to murder! One medieval church manual, uncovered by Emory University historian Mark Jordan, gave instructions on how to judge and absolve every sin known to man -- from pride to sloth to envy and gluttony. But the subcategory of sodomy amounted to 40% of the entire text. It took up more space than anger, sloth, envy, pride and gluttony combined.

No wonder that when civil authorities adopted many ecclesiastical codes as law in the Renaissance and afterward, the death penalty was often prescribed for the sin of Sodom. No surprise either that early Americans -- often even stricter than their European peers -- swiftly made sodomy a capital offense in this land as well.

The funny thing, of course, is that science often changes more swiftly than culture. Thanks to our knowledge of biology, no one today would equate masturbation with homicide, and yet, until Thursday, we retained laws in several states that were rooted in exactly such an ancient assumption.

More interestingly, we have come to associate sodomy with a group of people in society who are homosexual. What was once decried as a behavior has subsequently mutated into aversion to a group.

The Texas law that was struck down was a perfect example of that evolution. It began life as a general proscription against sodomy and then, in the early 1970s, when sodomy -- nonprocreative sex -- was basically universal among heterosexuals, the law was changed to make it apply solely to gays. (In a lovely statement of Texas' cultural values at the time, the Legislature that made sodomy an exclusively homosexual act simultaneously legalized bestiality. Hey, you've got to draw the line somewhere. Goats, yes. Gays, no.)

What the Supreme Court did Thursday was effectively remove these centuries of myth and bad science and inconsistency and remind us of a simple fact: We are all sodomites now.

Sex in our culture -- gay and straight and everything between -- is no longer restricted to procreation. OK, there are some exceptions: Pennsylvania's GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, for example, who has six kids, apparently follows strict Catholic doctrine and abhors every nonprocreative sexual act.

Sex today for most of us, however, is about love and commitment and pleasure. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted Thursday, that applies both to straights and to gays.

In fact, I see a humane advance wherein men and women can express their sexuality unconstrained by the illogic and fear and misunderstanding that have bedeviled us in the past. In that respect, the ruling was a belated recognition of an established social change. It was as much about heterosexual freedom as about gay equality.

Every sodomite is a little freer today. And that, almost certainly, includes you.

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