fornication | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

Historically, in the realm of criminal law, fornication refers to sexual relations between two individuals who aren’t married to each other.

To understand fornication, we need to go back in time. We’ll see that laws surrounding this term have roots in antiquity. Most Western societies deemed sexual activity outside of marriage a moral crime. Fornication was viewed as a violation of traditional values. This perception resulted in societies instituting rules to regulate such behavior. The purpose was not merely to punish the act but also to maintain social control.

It’s important to note that these laws often targeted unmarried individuals. Stricter control was placed on women compared to men. These societies believed that regulating women’s sexual behavior was crucial in maintaining moral order.

For example, in some societies, an unmarried woman engaging in sexual activity could face severe consequences. These might include public shaming, legal punishment, or even banishment. As such, the specter of fornication was often a tool to control and suppress women’s sexuality.

Change of Laws in Modern Times

As time passed and societies evolved, views toward fornication started to change. What seemed like a clear-cut issue in the past started becoming a subject of debate. This shift happened largely during the modern era.

Modern societies began questioning whether laws should regulate personal, private actions such as sexual relations between consenting adults. They wondered whether these laws infringed on the individual’s privacy and personal autonomy. This shift in thinking was driven by the growing acceptance of personal freedoms, privacy rights, and sexual autonomy.

As a result of these changing attitudes, many countries and jurisdictions decided to abandon their fornication laws. They no longer considered sexual activity between unmarried individuals as a criminal offense. This decision to repeal laws came from a modern viewpoint that respects individual rights and autonomy.

Is Fornication Considered a Crime Today?

Although many societies have abandoned laws regarding fornication, it’s important to note that some places still uphold them. In these societies, fornication is considered a criminal act that can lead to legal consequences.

However, in a vast majority of modern societies, fornication is no longer criminalized. Instead, the focus has shifted towards promoting safe and consensual sexual behavior, regardless of marital status.

Sexual activity between unmarried individuals is now considered a personal matter outside the jurisdiction of the law. However, this doesn’t mean that all sexual activity is legal. Crimes such as sexual assault, non-consensual sex, and exploitation are still serious offenses with severe penalties.


In essence, fornication is a historical term describing sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other. Traditionally seen as a crime and a violation of societal values, it was heavily regulated by laws. However, modern societies have generally moved away from this concept, arguing that such laws infringe upon individual rights. While the term “fornication” has largely become obsolete, the conversation around it helps us understand how societies’ views of morality, personal freedom, and law have evolved over time.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/20/2023

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