Homosexuality as a Sin

Tuesday 14 March 2017.

Homosexuality as a Sin

Same-sex sexual acts have a history; today they are called homosexuality. Before homosexuality they were called sodomy. In England during the reign of King Henry VIII sodomy became a civil offense with the passage of the buggery Act of 1533. Many authors have claimed that the model of sodomy as a sinful act was replaced by a model of the sodomite as a sexual identity in the eighteen-century. In Germany in the late 1860s the transition from a religious model to a medical model for same-sex sexual acts begin. It was at this time the term homosexual itself was coined.

Citing a few biblical references, theologians censured sodomy as one of the most heinous sins, whether committed by men or women. . . . In theological discourse this offense was closely tied to religious heterodoxy. One of the most common slang words for sodomite, bougre (bugger), was derived, in fact, from the twelfth-century Bulgarians, who were viewed as both heretics and deviants. The association between heresy and sodomy proved long lasting. (Merrick & Ragan, Homosexuality in Modern France, p. 8-9)

Initially, sodomy was a theological construct, serving only intermittently to refer to a clear variety of sexual activity or to bring into focus the behaviour of a particular kind of person. (Mills, Male-Male Love and Sex in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500, p. 14 in A Gay History of Britain Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages editor Matt Cook)

Furthermore, the prevalence of homosexual conduct is attested by the fact that sodomy was regarded from early times as an ecclesiastical offence, although it did not become a felony and thus subject to ordinary criminal jurisdiction until the reign of Henry VIII. (Hyde, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, p. 349)

In general usage, sodomy was not an exact term and did not merely refer to a specific sexual act. Rather, it described the whole range of homosexual behavior, sexual or otherwise, which belonged, as one Regency pamphlet put it, to the ancient lechers of Sodom and Gomorrah. This Biblical idiom was as commonplace in the nineteenth century as it had been in the previous ones. It implied that sodomites shared both the practices and the fate of the inhabitants of that mythical city and that sodomy represented all that was terrible, nameless and immoral about them. (Cocks, Secrets, Crimes, and Diseases, 1800-1914, p. 111 in A Gay History of Britain Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages, editor Matt Cook.)

Sodomy was the name, taken from the Bible, for an unmentionable sin that was defined as any lustful act which could not result in procreation within marriage. From the thirteen-century, it was not only a sin, but also a capital crime. Sodomy included extramarital heterosexuality, non-vaginal sexual acts, all forms of same-sex behaviour, bestiality, masturbation and so forth. The best-known examples of persecution of sodomy were directed against males having anal sex with other males. (Hekma, Same-sex relations among men in Europe, 1700-1990, p.79 in Sexual Cultures in Europe Themes in Sexuality editors Franz X. Eder, Lesley A. Hall, and Gert Hekma)

Before the eighteen-century, then, it was conceivable that any man or woman might engage in the unnatural act of sodomy, as part of a more generalized bisexual behavior. Sodomites were not fundamentally different from anyone else. They were simply sinners who engaged in a particular vice, like gamblers, drunks, adulterers, and the like. (Merrick & Ragan, Homosexuality in Modern France, p. 12)

The early Church punished sodomy much like other sins, with long penances. But what they understood as sodomy did not map into our present day division between heterosexual and homosexual. The definition of sodomy rested on the distinction between natural and unnatural acts. For clerics, the distinction was between sex for procreation within marriage, an unfortunate necessity, and sex that was not for procreation, which could include oral or anal sex between a man and a woman, or a man and a man. (Clark, A History of European Sexuality, p. 73-74)

Sexual acts not geared toward procreation were commonly referred to as sodomy. In addition to homosexual intercourse, this term might cover anal contact between man and woman, coritus interruptus, bestiality, and even sexual intercourse between Christians and non-Christians (Greenberg 1988, 274-275; Gilbert 1985). (Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature Kraft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identities, p. 21)

Sodomy was an act, defined either as any sexual act outside of marriage, which did not lead to procreation or as anal penetration, with males, females, or beasts. It had nothing to do with sexual identities. (Eder, Hall, and Hekma, Sexual Cultures in Europe Natural Histories, p.11)

The attitudinal shift described by Proust neatly illustrates the nineteenth-century replacement of predominantly Christian taxonomies of sexual sin with biological and psychological based primarily on congenital, psychiatric and legal conceptions of the modern subject. (Schaffner, Modernism and Perversion Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature 1850-1930, p. 2)

Homosexuality, and by implication homosexuals, have been placed outside prevailing social structures as defined by most theological, legal, and medical models. In Western culture, homosexual activity was first categorized as a sin. With the rise of materialism and the decline of religion, it became a transgression against the social, not the moral order: a crime. (Bronski, Culture Clash The Making of Gay Sensibility, p. 8-9).


Bronski, Michael. Culture Clash The Making of Gay Sensibility. South End Press. Boston, 1984.

Clark, Anna. Desire A History of European Sexuality. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. New York and London, 2008.

Cook, Matt editor. A Gay History of Britain Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages. Greenwood World Publishing. Oxford/Westport Connecticut, 2007.

Eder, Franz X., Lesley A. Hall, and Gert Hekma editors. Sexual Cultures in Europe Themes in sexuality. Manchester University Press. Manchester and New York, 1999.

Eder, Franz X., Lesley A. Hall, and Gert Hekma editors. Sexual Cultures in Europe Natural histories. Manchester University Press. Manchester and New York, 1999.

Merrick, Jeffrey and Bryant T. Ragan, JR. editors. Homosexuality in Modern France. Oxford University Press. Oxford & New York, 1996.

Oosterhuis, Harry. Stepchildren of Nature: Kraft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity. Univernisty of Chicago Press. Chicago, 2000.

Schaffner, Anna Katharina. Modernism and Perversion Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature 1850-1930. Palgrave Macmillan. Great Britain, 2012.

Signatures: 0


Date Name Message