Sodomy, Bestiality, and Crimes Against Nature

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Sodomy, Bestiality, and Crimes Against Nature are considered serious offenses in many jurisdictions. These terms refer to sexual acts that are non-procreative and often involve animals or are conducted in a manner deemed unnatural. Historically, laws against these acts were rooted in religious or moral beliefs and aimed at preserving the traditional understanding of sexual relationships.

The Legislative Intent

The primary intention behind laws against Sodomy, Bestiality, and Crimes Against Nature is to prevent harm. These harms can be both physical and moral in nature. Physically, sexual acts with animals can lead to injuries and spread of diseases. Morally, these laws reflect societal norms and the collective moral compass which sees these acts as degrading or perverse.

Legislators also aim to protect vulnerable populations, like children or animals, who cannot consent, from sexual exploitation. The enforcement of these laws represents a societal effort to maintain a moral and safe environment.

Classification Under Most Codes

Most legal codes classify Sodomy, Bestiality, and Crimes Against Nature as sexual offenses, given their nature. They often fall under felony categories due to the severity of the act and the potential harm it can cause. The penalties for these crimes can be severe, reflecting the historical societal disdain for such behavior.


Sodomy typically refers to certain types of non-procreative sexual acts between humans. Historically, the term has been used to describe anal or oral intercourse, and in many jurisdictions, these acts were criminalized, particularly between same-sex partners. The reasons for such criminalization often stemmed from religious or moral beliefs that considered these acts sinful or against the natural order. Over time, many jurisdictions have decriminalized consensual sodomy among adults, recognizing it as a private matter. However, there are still places where it remains a criminal offense, especially if it involves minors or lacks mutual consent.


Bestiality, also known as zoophilia, involves sexual acts between a human and an animal. Across many jurisdictions, this act is criminalized due to a variety of concerns, including animal welfare, public morality, and potential health risks. The main rationale behind the criminalization of bestiality is the belief that animals cannot give consent, making the act inherently abusive and exploitative. Moreover, the act is seen by many societies as a deviation from natural human behavior and is, therefore, morally reprehensible. Penalties for those found guilty of bestiality can vary, but they often include imprisonment, fines, and sometimes mandatory psychological counseling.

Crimes Against Nature

The term “Crimes Against Nature” is a broad and somewhat ambiguous category that historically encompassed a range of non-procreative sexual acts deemed unnatural or immoral. This category might include acts like sodomy and bestiality, but it can also refer to other behaviors that a particular society or legal system found objectionable. For instance, in some jurisdictions, certain types of fetishistic behavior or unconventional sexual practices might have fallen under this category. The criminalization of these acts was often based on preserving a traditional understanding of sexual relationships, which was influenced by religious teachings, societal norms, or historical context. Over time, as societal attitudes have evolved and human rights perspectives have gained prominence, many jurisdictions have reconsidered and often decriminalized or clarified what constitutes a “crime against nature.”

While sodomy, bestiality, and crimes against nature have been heavily stigmatized and criminalized in the past, modern societies and legal systems are continually reassessing their stance on these issues, often moving towards a more tolerant and inclusive approach that respects individual rights and freedoms.

Broader Categorization of These Crimes

These crimes are typically categorized under sexual offenses, distinguishing them from other crimes against persons or property. They reflect a violation of societal norms surrounding consent and natural sexual relations. Unlike many other sexual crimes, they may not always have a direct victim but are seen as harmful to the moral fabric of society.

Tracing the Historical Roots

The historical disdain for sodomy, bestiality, and crimes against nature dates back to ancient times, with references found in religious texts and early legal codes. For instance, the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to be destroyed due to the prevalence of such acts.

In ancient civilizations like Rome and Greece, attitudes towards these acts varied widely. However, with the rise of Christianity, disapproval became more widespread, and laws were enacted to punish these behaviors.

In England, the common law tradition, heavily influenced by legal scholars like Sir William Blackstone, regarded sodomy as a crime against nature. Blackstone, in his seminal work, “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” discussed the moral and social repugnance associated with these acts.

Over centuries, these laws were transported to various British colonies, becoming entrenched in the legal systems of many countries. While attitudes and laws have evolved over time, with some jurisdictions decriminalizing sodomy, others still maintain stringent penalties against sodomy, bestiality, and crimes against nature.

The history of these offenses reflects a long-standing tension between personal liberties and societal moral standards, a dynamic that continues to shape legal and social attitudes toward these crimes.

Modern Penal Code Definition: Sodomy

Sodomy, as defined under the Modern Penal Code (MPC) §213.2, specifically refers to certain types of non-procreative sexual conduct between individuals. Under the MPC, sodomy involves engaging in anal or oral sexual conduct, especially if done without mutual consent or involving a minor. This clear delineation is a departure from broader historical definitions, which included a range of non-procreative acts. Over time, as societal attitudes have shifted, the MPC has refined its definitions to ensure clarity and fairness in prosecution.

Decriminalization Trends and Sodomy

Many jurisdictions adopting the MPC have decriminalized consensual sodomy among adults, recognizing the inherent right to privacy and individual freedoms. However, under MPC §213.2(2)(a), acts that lack mutual consent or involve minors remain punishable offenses.

Sodomy Laws and Homosexual Activity: A Historical Perspective

Historically in the U.S., sodomy laws were utilized to target homosexual activity, often criminalizing consensual acts between same-sex adults. While these laws were not always actively enforced, their mere existence subjected the LGBTQ+ community to potential legal action and broader societal discrimination.

Lawrence v. Texas: A Catalyst for Change

The 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, marked a significant shift in this landscape. Responding to the arrest of John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were charged under Texas’s sodomy law for a consensual act in the privacy of Lawrence’s home, the Court, in a landmark decision, ruled such laws as unconstitutional. The judgment emphasized that adults have a right to engage in private, consensual conduct without government intrusion.

Modern Penal Code (MPC) and Sodomy in the Post-Lawrence Era

Post-Lawrence, many jurisdictions have revised their stance on sodomy. When adopting or referencing the Modern Penal Code (MPC), these jurisdictions often decriminalize consensual sodomy between adults, upholding the principles of privacy and individual freedoms. Notably, the MPC’s §213.2(2)(a) still categorizes acts without mutual consent or those involving minors as punishable offenses, ensuring protection against potential exploitation.

Defenses to Sodomy Charges under the MPC

The MPC provides for certain defenses in the case of sodomy charges. Most defenses pivot around the principle of consent and age.

Consensual Act Between Adults

According to MPC §213.2(1)(b), if the act was consensual and involved parties who were adults, this can serve as a valid defense. This reflects the changing societal perspective, which views consensual acts between adults as a private matter, outside the purview of criminal law.

Age of Consent and Mistake of Age

Under MPC §213.2(3)(c), if an accused believed the other participant was of the age of consent, and this belief was reasonable under the circumstances, it might serve as a defense. However, the reasonableness of this belief would be scrutinized by the court.

Elements of the Crime of Sodomy

  1. Mens Rea: The defendant must have the intent or knowledge of engaging in non-procreative sexual conduct.
  2. Actus Reus: The physical act of engaging in anal or oral sexual conduct.
  3. Concurrence: The intent (Mens Rea) and the act (Actus Reus) must coincide.
  4. Causation: Not typically applicable in sodomy cases unless there’s a consequential charge, e.g., transmission of an STD.
  5. Harm: The non-consensual violation of another’s right to bodily autonomy.
  6. Attendant Circumstances: Factors that might elevate the crime, such as the involvement of a minor or lack of consent.

Laws Prohibiting “Sex Toys”

Sex toys, also referred to as personal pleasure devices or marital aids, have been sources of both enjoyment and contention throughout history. While many see them as a means of enhancing personal and mutual pleasure, certain jurisdictions have sought to regulate or ban them altogether, often citing moral or public decency concerns.

Historical Bans and Rationale

Historically, some places in the U.S. and around the world have criminalized the sale or possession of sex toys. The reasons often stemmed from:

  1. Moral objections: Based on religious or conservative values, some believe that the use of such devices can lead to “immorality” or “unnatural acts.”
  2. Public Decency: The public sale or advertisement of sex toys was seen by some as obscene or inappropriate.

Notable Cases and Modern Perspective

  • Alabama: The state’s “Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act” made it illegal to sell devices primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs. While there have been challenges, the ban stands.
  • Texas: Texas once had a similar ban, making it illegal to sell or promote “obscene devices.” However, this was struck down in 2008 in the case of Reliable Consultants Inc. v. Earle, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled the ban as a violation of the right to privacy.

The Changing Landscape

With evolving perspectives on personal rights and freedoms, many jurisdictions are reconsidering or have already repealed their bans on sex toys, recognizing the importance of individual privacy and autonomy. However, debates continue in certain areas, demonstrating the ongoing tension between personal liberties and perceived societal values.


Sodomy, Bestiality, and Crimes Against Nature represent a set of offenses that have historically been considered grave misdeeds across numerous jurisdictions, primarily due to their non-procreative nature or association with acts deemed unnatural. Rooted deeply in religious and moral convictions, laws against these offenses originally sought to uphold a traditional perspective of sexual relations.

At the core of these laws lies the intent to prevent harm, both physical, like injuries or diseases from bestiality, and moral, stemming from acts seen as degrading. These laws also stand as protective barriers against the exploitation of those unable to give informed consent, particularly minors and animals.

While most legal codes classify these offenses under sexual crimes, they often earn a felony designation due to the profound societal implications and potential harm involved. Despite their historical denouncement, the shifting dynamics of modern societies, underscored by a rising respect for personal rights and freedoms, have led to a reevaluation of such laws. This evolving perspective, particularly in the realm of sodomy, has been notably influenced by landmark decisions like the U.S. Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, which upheld the right to privacy and consensual adult relationships.

Moreover, while many jurisdictions are moving towards more progressive laws, especially concerning consensual sodomy between adults, offenses involving non-consenting parties or minors remain stringently punishable. This careful balance aims to ensure that while individual rights are upheld, potential exploitation and harm are staunchly prevented.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/28/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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