[CW mention of a count of historical sexual violence – nothing graphic, but it is there. Be safe!]
My friends, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but sodomy is not just butt stuff. It is also – and this is crucial – not just gay stuff either. (OK. I love to tell you this.)
Now, I am aware that my loyal readers are hyper aware of this because I bring it up roughly at least once per post. (Unfortunately, my average has been brought down by my insistence on talking about, like, Jan Hus and the Holy Roman Empire, alas.) However, for some reason my repeated attempts to drive this point home are not having an impact on culture at large (???) so I guess this week we have to talk about sodomy.
My excitement to discuss sodomy with you puts me in opposition to the fifteenth-century medical writer Jacques Despars who wrote that:
It would be possible … to relate several types of sodomite coitus, which men and women abusively indulge in … but I judge it better to keep silence, so that human nature, inclined towards evil and towards the exercise of new lusts, may not attempt, on hearing them, to put them into practice, and thus prejudice one’s honour and one’s soul.
Unlike this coward, I don’t really care what you do with your free time as long as it’s consensual so ha, we’re going in anyway. I didn’t just include this quote so that I could dunk on a dead guy, though. (Not gonna lie, that is one huge perk. Take that Jacques, with your dead-ass self.) What this boring dude here seems to grasp that a lot of you basic do not is that sodomy is for everyone.
This is because sodomy is, in fact, any sort of sex that you can have that will not result in pregnancy. That is it. This means that any kind of hand sex, oral sex, interfemoral sex (if you get down with that), and of course butt stuff are all types of sodomy. This also means that odds are you, dear reader, have likely done sodomy at some point in your life if not earlier today.
For those of you who missed Bible History class, the term “sodomy” gets its name from the town of Sodom, as opposed to Gomorrah, which as the Professor Brothers have taught us all was named after even weirder moves. These towns show up in Genesis 19, one of the wilder books of the bible. The TL/DR is that God decided to do a routine check on whether or not these towns were sinning, and sent some angels down disguised as sexy dudes to do it. The townspeople saw said sexy dudes, and decided that they wanted to bang them, but the angels were horrified by this because they are not that type of girl. A gatekeeper named Lot saves the angels from being sexed at. God burns Sodom and Gomorrah to the ground, and then Lot gets a new tribe of people started by banging his daughters while he is drunk, which apparently God loves. I don’t know, OK? Mysterious ways and all that.
Now, it may seem weird to you that a bunch of horny people who demand sex with the uninterested gave their name to a whole range of sexual practices that you know and love. But here is the thing, you need to understand that the Church fathers and medieval thinkers who spent a lot of time thinking about sex in a totally chill and normal way were generally of the opinion that sex was, to use a technical term, very bad.
As a general rule then, people should really only be having sex when they absolutely had to. When did you absolutely have to have sex? As all these dudes who did not have sex agreed, obviously only when the fate of the human race was on the line. If you were going to do something as reprehensible as getting it on, you had better at least have the decency to procreate, and it had best be within a marriage because God should have signed off on it.
This means that in order to be not-sodomy you had better be shoving Ps in Vs and making damn sure that ejaculate gets, in the words of esteemed sex-educator Justin Hancock, “right up in there. Just all the way up.” This is the birth of the concept of Penis in Vagina as default sex, as I have told you all before. We think of PIV as default because it’s the only acceptable form of sex within the Christian world view.
So if only one kind of sex is acceptable, then every other kind becomes the reason that God burnt a couple of towns down and turned a dude’s wife into a pillar of salt. (Again, I don’t know, OK?)
Now obviously, the proper definition of sodomy is a very good historical point that you are excited to learn. You may, however, be wondering why this piece of information matters, as opposed to being just some run of the mill pedantry. The answer is this – because we use the idea of sodomy to oppress people now, and we back up our own prejudices by invoking bad history about it.
Now I am not sure if you have heard this, but the queers have a hell of a time. I know. I have blown your mind. Unfortunately, a big way that our society demonises queer people is that we say that the sex that they have is “perverted” or “unnatural”. As a part of this, the term sodomy specifically gets thrown at them a lot to prove that God hates them in particular because of the sex they have. Bigots will also often make appeals that our society should to go back to an imaginary simpler time when queer people didn’t exist, largely because they were punished if they were found.
This idea requires you to only think about sodomy as something specifically gay, and ideally to do with butts. If sodomy is something that cis straight people have, then bigots lose the theoretical moral high. I mean even if sodomy was just anal sex, obviously that is something that straight people do anyway (and which a disturbing number of American Christian teens seem to think doesn’t “count” as sex?) but that doesn’t matter, because if you are defining sodomy as gay stuff then straight people can’t do it even if their actions amount to the same thing. That is why we have to be absolutely particular about naming sodomy for what it is – most sex.
It’s also important because when bigots wax rhapsodic about the good old days when sodomites were punished, they are glossing over the fact that this means that all sodomites could be and were punished. Fifteenth-century Florence, for example, had laws on the books stating that Officials of Curfew (think, like, proto-cops) should
investigate diligently and … discover … who commits the vice of sodomy, whether actively or passively …. and those whom they find to have committed that crime … shall be declared to have erred and to have committed that vice.
Could two men having sex be punished for sodomy if found by the fun police? Yes, they absolutely could. As Dr Gillian Jack points out they existed pretty much to police dudes from getting down. And they produced results, as these law books show. Plenty of guys get in trouble for sodomy and we have the records to show it.
But, if you don’t understand the real meaning of sodomy it can also give a mistaken impression of how punishments against sodomites were meted out. For example, in Florence we have records of a man called Piero di Jacapo was burnt at the stake for the crime of sodomy. However, closer inspection of this case shows that he wasn’t just a gay guy who got found on a date.
[Extra CW for those who need it, skip the italics!]
Nope, this guy had “with force and violence committed the act of sodomy” with a ten year old boy.
Here the good people of Florence absolutely did make a distinction between this and garden-variety sodomy. Ordinarily, you see, anyone found doing sodomy was:
to be declared a debtor of the commune of Florence for 100 gold florins … whoever thus designated …. Again commits … the crime of sodomy … is to be fined 200 florin and in addition, the officials shall declare him to be ineligible for all offices of the Commune for two years…”.
The fines for getting caught doing sodomy go up until someone was caught a fourth time when corporal punishment finally kicked in, and even then officials required two witnesses to the sodomy in order to get someone in trouble.
So medieval people, although they classed all non PIV sex together as sodomy, also had a hierarchy of badness for it. Simply reading that someone committed sodomy and was burnt at the stake for it doesn’t mean there was a time when all gay people were killed on sight. That is just some gross bigot fever dream.
Lest you read this and say to me, most basically, “Yes, Eleanor, but if there is a hierarchy for sodomy, surely gay stuff is higher up than straight stuff” I would encourage you to slow your entire roll. Plenty of medieval sources are happy to equate what we now see as queer sex with straight sodomy or even solo sex. Articles 12 and 13 of the Penitential of Theodore for example, (shout out to penitentials and the dildos therein) tells priests to assign penances to sinners thusly:
- If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years.
- If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.
That’s right, as far as your man Theodore was concerned there was no difference between a woman having sex with herself and having sex with another woman. That business was sodomy, end of. Three years of no feasting on the holidays for you.
If you take one thing away from this post I hope it will be that you are a sodomite. (Unless you are one of our Ace pals, in which case shout out! You are valid!) This is an important point to hammer home because we need to take way the ability of bigots to reach into their weird imaginary Middles Ages and find an excuse to punish queer people now as a result.
Further, we need to realise that if we accept sodomy as “unnatural” and something to be suppressed, then we are saying that we accept the medieval Church’s idea that sex is reserved solely for married cis straight people and means absolutely nothing other than PIV. If you have done literally anything other than that ever, then you had better start critiquing the idea of sodomy quick smart.
Basically, you’ve got two options here: admit that you are down with sodomy and STFU about what other people are doing, or condemn yourself to a life of literally only one type of sex which you might not even like that much.
It’s up to you.
 Quoted in Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 3rd Edition (Routledge, 2017), p. 190.
 Justin Hancock, in a conversation with me, in a pub. Probably the Wenlock Arms. 2019.
 Florentine measures against Sodomy, in, G. Brucker, The Society of Renaissance Florence. A Documentary Study (New York, 1971), p. 203.
 Ibid, pp. 205-206.
 Ibid, pp. 203-204.
 Medieval Handbooks of Pennance. A translation of the principal libri poenitentialis and selections from related documents, trans. John T. McNeill and Helena M Gamer, (New York, 1990), pp 185-186
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For more on medieval sex, see:
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
Doing it Right – A Short Introduction to Medieval Sex for Nerd Nite
Talking sex in the medieval times on Holly Randall Unfiltered
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
On the plague, sex, and rebellion
No beastiality was never OK, you absolute rabid weirdo
On courtly love and pickup artists
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
The Medieval Podcast – Medieval Sexuality with Eleanor Janega
On the Objectification of Sex
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Dildos and Penance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture