If you’re keen on LGBT history, you’ll probably have run across Naomi Wolf and her terribly embarrassing blunder last week. While being interviewed about her new book, which deals with the history of sodomy being punished by capital punishment, she learned on air that her central thesis was entirely wrong. It turns out that the phrase “death recorded” actually refers to a commutation of the death sentence rather than it being enforced. Rather than a rash of executions for sodomy taking place across the nineteenth century the last one was carried out in 1835.
While Wolf’s mistake is somewhat understandable (after all it’s pretty counterintuitive for “death recorded” to mean that no death occurred) it also turns out that there’s a considerable misunderstanding as to what sodomy actually means.
So, what is sodomy? We’re used to thinking of it as referring specifically to anal sex, or perhaps even anal sex between men, but it’s a much broader term than that. The creation of sodomy as a single category goes back to the early Catholic church and its desperate desire to make sure that nobody had any fun.
Sex, according to Catholic theology, should always have reproductive potential. This is why contraceptive use even within marriage is still classed as a mortal sin (for us heathens that’s the most serious kind). So while marital sex was just about an acceptable source of orgasms for people who really couldn’t bring themselves to abstain (though it was also a sin to deny your partner if they were up for it), that sex had better end with a penis ejaculating into a vagina or a solid attempt at it being made. Anything else was sodomy, one of the most terrible crimes a Christian could commit, even if you were married to each other…in fact, even if you were merely using oral sex as a warm up to the main, theologically satisfactory event. Any sort of penetration that couldn’t potentially make a baby was very definitely sodomy, and the jury was out on external fingering and masturbation though they were certainly also very bad indeed.
The primary targets of laws punishing sodomy, which ranged from exile to branding or death, were of course gay men. Even though anyone of any orientation could commit sodomy it’s always been sex between men that homophobic society and the men who uphold it have found most threatening to the social order. While executions for sodomy may have died out in England by the early eighteenth century, punishment was frequent and vicious in other times and places. Late medieval and early Renaissance Florence actually had a special committee and anonymous accusation box, with up to a third of the city’s menfolk being accused of practising it. Strangely, or rather not, it was only sodomy outside of marriage that led to prosecution there, with hate preacher Savonarola actually advocating Florentine women submit to sodomy from their husbands to lure them away from the beds of other men. Apparently, God minds sodomy less if it takes place in the marriage bed.
You might think that lesbians and female pleasure in general would slide by unnoticed. If a seemingly unfathomable number of modern straight men still can’t find the clitoris surely the ancient church wouldn’t have thought of it. Sadly, albeit hilariously, you would be wrong. For whatever reason, and I’m sure you can come to your own conclusion as to why, the early Catholic priests spent a lot of time thinking about what sort of naughty things women might do together. There are endless confessionals – manuals produced by priests for priests so they knew what to ask people during confession – detailing the very specific ways women might sodomise each other or even themselves. It turns out that using a strap-on on your girlfriend was a far worse thing to do in the eyes of the Lord than putting an entire fish in your vagina to bewitch your husband (perhaps it doesn’t count as sodomy if you’re not directly trying to orgasm), which given the general negative attitude toward sorcery is truly something else!
There’s a degree of debate over how much dildo-based shenanigans were actually going on but people have been making dildos for as long as we’ve had tools. While the earliest ones have that awkward “potential ritual use” label attached, the standard description from archaeologists who aren’t sure what’s going on, we know that the ancient Greeks at least intended them for wives who might otherwise go out seeking real phalluses that weren’t attached to their husbands.
While they were probably less prevalent in a Christian system that frowned upon these things a makeshift dildo isn’t actually hard to put together – and we do have recorded cases of women being in trouble for using them. In the case of poor Katerina Hertzeldorfer, whose gender and sexual identity aren’t entirely clear, the device in question was a red leather strap on so realistic they ended up being charged with sorcery as well as sodomy and were drowned as a result.
Women, or people perceived as women, generally only got into trouble for sodomy if they were also doing something seen as usurping masculinity. Katerina wasn’t just having sex with women, they were penetrating women and passing as a man to do so (or at least their partners successfully convinced the judges that they’d thought the leather penis was a flesh and blood one). Benedetta Carlini, abbess, visionary and cult leader, wasn’t actually engaging in sodomy but the priests investigating her were desperate to prove otherwise because her religious and social power was a threat to the male dominated church hierarchy. If you were subtle and outwardly obedient you’d almost certainly get away with it.
While the church was busily probing into everyone’s sex lives, the actual law of the land in England was considerably laxer. Prior to the Buggery Act of 1533 it was up to the church to catch and prosecute sodomites, but after that the civil courts had to enforce the punishment and while the church was quite extreme about it – suggestions include burying people alive – the courts don’t seem to have followed through. The act itself had nothing to say about women and dildos and, though there was some confusion and debate about it at the time, it was decided that it didn’t apply to oral sex either. It was only anal sex, regardless of the gender of the recipient, that was prosecutable under this law and, up until 1828 proof of ejaculation was required for prosecution. 1861 removed the possibility of the death penalty with the Offences Against the Person Act, but sadly the list of prosecutable sodomitic activities was expanded in 1885 to cover any sexual activity between two men. While queer women couldn’t be prosecuted, they could, and likely would, end up in an institution if they were caught.
For many, sodomy is what makes sex fun even if you’re straight and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone having sex who isn’t a sodomite, no matter how ardently heterosexual they may be.