Sodomy Then & Now: “Unnatural” Sexual Practices

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 6.40.49 PMBy Kali E.

What was sodomy in Early Modern England, and how does it relate to homosexuality today? In order to understand the laws and social policies regarding sodomy in in the past, we must first understand the difference between definitions of sodomy then and sodomy now. Sodomy today, as critic Bruce Smith describes it, is “a precise bio-legal term that denotes one particular sexual act” (3). However, in Early Modern England, the term sodomy meant much more than just same-sex sexual acts. According to critic Katherine Crawford, it included “masturbation, several forms of same-sex sexual behavior, bestiality, non-procreative sex (oral or anal most commonly) between a man and a woman, or any form of sex in which conception was impossible” (4). It was more broadly used as a religious offence, a category covering a wide range of transgressive acts including any activity that challenged the “nature” of the church-state authority. Sodomy came under secular state control through the Buggery Act of 1533. This act sentenced anyone found guilty of sodomy—particularly men—to death. The laws against sodomy and other forms of sexual deviance during this time emphasized that those who acted outside the “prescribed” social standards were less human and more animal-like than those who obeyed. For example, in his book, Smith details a journal entry from a man, Henry Hawkes, who traveled to Mexico in the sixteenth century. The journal entry relates some of the sexual practices of the Mexican natives, with Hawkes reporting that the natives “‘are soone drunke, and given to much beastlines, and void of all goodness. In their drunkenness, they use and commit sodomie'” (3). Hawkes believed that what he saw the nativeswas a crime, referring to it as “beastlines” and equating sodomy with the actions of animals.
 
According to Smith, “For us, sexual activity is a psychological and sociological phenomenon. […] the Renaissance was a period of transition, a time when sex as a moral preoccupation was changing into sex as a subject for self-reflection and intellectual analysis” (10). We have to understand that sexuality for them was much different than it is for us. No one in that time would refer to himself as a “homosexual,” “gay,” or “straight.” Those identities of sexuality simply did not exist. Critic Alan Bray notes that “To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading. The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted under the common lot, be it ever so abhorred” (16-17).
 
Essentially, people during the Early Modern era were fearful of what they didn’t understand. They thought any kind of sexual act outside of the social “norm” to be unnatural and bestial; any kind of sex that wasn’t specifically for procreation, did not fall within that social “norm.” Critic William Naphy states that “in practice even procreative sex could be considered unnatural if it was any position other than the missionary (face-to-face, man on top, woman on her back)” (103-104).
 
Bruce Smith also brings up the argument that “we need to investigate not just what was prohibited but what was actively homoeroticized” (13). He argues that there is a “disparity” between the punishments of law and the apparent “tolerance” displayed in the visual arts and literature. The picture displayed is an engraving from 1506 by Marcantonio Raimondi. Smith comments on the piece in his book. “What are we to make of a culture that could consume popular prints of Apollo Embracing Hayacinth and yet could order hanging for men who acted on the very feelings that inspired that embrace?” (13-14).
 
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Kali is a Senior Creative Writing major at Ball State University. Her specific interest is creative nonfiction writing. She also served two years as the Secretary of Spectrum, Ball State’s LGBTQSA.
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Image: Raimondi, Marcantonio. Apollo and Hyacinth. 1506. Engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Legion of Honor. Web. 29 April 2014. <http://art.famsf.org/marcantonio-raimondi/apollo-and-hyacinth-19633036327&gt;.
 
Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982. Print.
Crawford, Katherine. The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Naphy, William. Sex Crimes: from Renaissance to Enlightenment. Tempus Publishing, 2004. Print.
Smith, Bruce. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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