Sodom is a mythical city that was destroyed for its wickedness. It is also the root word for sodomy, a word used to describe any number of sins but eventually came to mean only anal sex in Anglo-American law, and sodomite, one who commits sodomy and is therefore assigned a mythical identity of citizenship and stigma as a person from Sodom.
Biblical and Qur’anic Stories of Sodom
Sodom was considered part of the geographical region called Pentapolis (Greek: “Five Cities”) along with Gomorrah, Admah, Bela, and Zeboim. These towns were also known as the Cities of the Plain located around the Jordan River.
According to the Biblical legend that appears in Bereshit/Genesis 19, Sodom (as well as Gomorrah) was destroyed because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. Two angels had been sent to Sodom to see for themselves how evil the citizens had become. Lot, a relative of Abraham who had taken up residence in Sodom, brought the angels to his house. The men and boys of the city gathered at Lot’s door and demanded that he hand over his guests so that they could be raped. Lot refused to do so, and offered the mob his two virgin daughters instead. Lot’s offer was rejected, and he was threatened with even worse punishment. The angels blinded the mob so they could not find Lot’s door.
The next day, the angels dragged Lot and his family out of the city, which was then incinerated by a rain of brimstone and fire. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, so he impregnated his daughters after they got him drunk to ensure continuation of the family line.
The Qur’an contains a story about the people of Lut (Lot), a relative of Ibrahim (Abraham), who drove Lut out of their city when he refused to let the men of the city rape his visiting angelic friends. Lut accused the people of sinning in a way that had never been done before. As in Bereshit/Genesis, Allah destroyed the people who were formerly Lut’s neighbors.
Gang-Rape in the Book of Shoftim/Judges
The story of Sodom is not the only example in Torah/the Bible of mobs of men who want to rape the strangers in their midst. A similar account is in the Book of Shoftim/Judges in which a Levite man traveling with his concubine visited Gibeah, a Benjaminite town (both the Benjaminites and Levites were Hebrew tribes of Israel). The travelers were taken in by a local man, and then threatened by a mob of Benjaminite men who want to rape the male guest. In this story, the Levite threw his girlfriend out to the mob. She was gang-raped all night, returned to the doorstep where her man was staying, and died. The Levite cut her body into pieces, and sent a portion to each tribe of Israel as a testament as to how he had been wronged by the Benjaminites. The Benjaminite city was then destroyed, but not by fire and brimstone: the other tribes raised an army and killed all of the Benjaminites except for a few hundred men who fled the battle.
Sodomites and the People of Lut
In Christian and Jewish traditions, Sodom has been identified with abominable sin, decadence, and destruction caused by God’s wrath. In Christian theology, people who commit non-procreative sexual sins commit sodomy and are identified as sodomites. In Muslim theology and law, homosexual people are considered to be the spiritual descendants of the people of Lut (Lot).
For many Jews, the myth of Sodom focuses primarily on the bad treatment and lack of hospitality for the stranger rather than homosexual desires (some Christians interpret the story that way as well). In Ezekiel 16:49-50, Sodom is condemned for a number of sins, the worst being lack of charity in a time of plenty: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” The interpretation that the sins of Sodom were those of overall cruelty rather than simply man-on-man lust is supported by the similar story of gang-rape in Shoftim/Judges.
From a Place to a Sexual Act
The interpretation of the Sodom story that remained in Christian folk’s imagination since the last centuries of the Roman Empire, however, is the one in which the city of Sodom was destroyed due to the same-sex lust of its male citizens. Since Medieval times, the word “sodomy” was used to describe “abominable sins” or sins that could not be named. The sin that was especially unnatural and abominable was one in which men engaged in sexual intercourse with other men.
In the Middle Ages, sodomy was regarded as 1) one of the worst sins of lust, regardless of gender, 2) a sin against nature in its more general form, 3) the designation of anal penetration with a penis among men (also known as perfect sodomy), 4) sex with animals (this act was most commonly known as bestiality), and 5) anal sexual intercourse with a penis involving a man and a woman, which was also referred to as imperfect sodomy (Latin: “extra vas naturale”). In his Summa Theologica, Thomas of Aquinas argues that sodomy is “copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female, as the Apostle states (Rom.1.27): and this is called the vice of sodomy.” Of its various connotations, the one that prevailed was perfect sodomy, what Aquinas also calls the “vice of sodomy.” During the Renaissance, the most popular was also perfect sodomy, which was the meaning of sodomy that remained in European folk speech, theology, and legal discourse up to the nineteenth century. Consequently, the Latin term peccatum sodomiticum was typically understood as man-on-man anal sex.
Sodomite as Identity
Strictly speaking, sodomy was not regarded as a term defining a way of life or a sexual identity. It referred to a sinful sexual act. On the other hand, sodomite implied identity, stigmatized mythical citizenship as a member of a damned community.
Michel Foucault argues that sodomy was a category of prohibited sexual actions. A person accused of engaging in sodomy “was nothing more than a judicial subject of them.” Foucault adds that sodomy was a “temporary aberration” and a “crime against nature,” while homosexual identity came later. The problem with Foucault’s definition of sodomy is that it overlooks the intentions and feelings of males with same-sex orientation and the communities they created, such as molly houses and other communities. It also overlooks the fact that the term is mytho-geographical, that it refers to a place and a people. Foucault fails to acknowledge the implication that the sodomite is assigned citizenship and identity, negative though they be.
Homophobia, Disaster, and Gay Rights
The myth of Sodom and the way in which the term “sodomy” has been used have contributed to the stigmatization of Gay people through the centuries. This myth has been used in sermons, plays, novels, and pamphlets to tell people that homosexual people as well as homosexual practices are wrong. In the last decades, many religious fundamentalists and politicians have used this myth as a way to create fear in the population concerning gender variant and same-sex oriented people who refuse to hide. AIDS, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks have been labeled divine punishment against homosexuals and those who support them, just as Sodom was punished with fire and brimstone. In December 2012, that same logic inspired homophobic Christian extremists in the USA to claim that tolerance for homosexuality and marriage equality were to blame for a massacre of school children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
Laws against those who practice sodomy, which in many countries remain current in the twenty-first century, have been a big obstacle for those who fight for LGBTQ rights vis-à-vis an understanding and respect of the LGBTQ folk.
Aquinas, St. Thomas of. The Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part QQ. CXLI-CLXX. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominica Province. London: Burnes Oates & Wasbourne, 1921.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning to the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago, 1980.
Carrasco, Rafael. Inquisición y represión sexual en Valencia. Barcelona: Laertes, 1985.
De los Reyes-Heredia, J. Guillermo. 2004. Sodomy and Society: Sexuality, Gender, Race, and Social Class in Colonial Mexico. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. New York: Vintage, March 1990.
Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.