Sean Kosofsky

Why "sodomize" and not "rape"?

Filed By Sean Kosofsky | July 05, 2007 8:36 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Rape vs. Sodomize

I have been waxing confused lately about the use of the term "sodomized" when referring to men who have been raped. It is on my mind because of the recent news that David Ritcheson, a young Mexican-American who was violently raped in 2006, jumped to his death on July 1st from the deck of a cruise ship. Ritcheson was raped with a plastic pole. He required two dozen surgeries to correct the damage done to his body from the violent episode.

Without minimizing the gravity of the loss of this young man, I constantly worry about the use of the term "sodomize" instead of "rape" when men are the victim of sexual assault.

Rape is a horrible thing. Of course it is not about sex, it is about power and control and exerting dominance over someone. It is also about humiliation. The universal way for men to humiliate other men is to call them a queer or treat them like one. Rape is a tool of choice for men in many settings, including prison, to solidify their masculinity and dominance in the pecking order of any social group.

What would possess someone, or a group of people, to rape someone with a pole? It boggles the mind. The violence and savagery in rape is very, very different from sodomy. Sodomy has many definitions but most people understand it to be anal sex. Anal sex is not rape. By two men making love and engaging in anal sex, they are not raping or hurting each other. That is my problem with the double standard for the term "sodomize."

Every time the media or law enforcement uses the term "sodomize" they are really talking about rape. The more we allow that term to be used and seen as a violent act of aggression the more we allow society to define consensual anal sex as some kind of horrible thing that happens to you. Here is my point. Being sodomized can be consensual. Being raped cannot.

Rape can occur orally, anally, vaginally and in many other ways. I think the ambivalence about the use of the term "sodomize" comes from the fact that most people actually believe that being on the receiving end of sodomy must be an unpleasant thing, so folks have acquiesced to the term and they just don't want to talk about it anymore.

I propose that when we talk about sexual assault, we talk about what really happened, and why that behavior is bad. I am not an expert in sexual assault or rape, but I have dealt with enough clients over the years at Triangle Foundation to have some competency on this issue. Rape is a term people understand. Rape has a definition. Rape survivors have a network of therapists, shelters and non-profit agencies to rely on. There is more data, research, evidence and resources for survivors of rape. But my hunch is there is very little in the field of "sodomized."

I also believe there is a double standard based on sex. I believe that when a woman is raped, it is universally classified as rape -- even if she was anally raped. But if a man was anally raped, he was sodomized. What if these survivors and their families don't see being "sodomized" the same as they see rape? If they don't see themselves as the victims of rape, because we are not calling it rape, won't it interfere with the healing process and the effective delivery of competent counseling services? Are we averse to admitting that men get raped, leading us to use a completely different term for what it really is?

In my mind there is little difference between being raped with an object or by a person -- in terms of what word we use. But I do fear that the sole use of the term "sodomize" when referring to anal rape is misleading, harmful and further marginalizes consensual anal sex and gay people as a whole.

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"I also believe there is a double standard based on sex. I believe that when a woman is raped, it is universally classified as rape -- even if she was anally raped."

This is an irresponsible thing to say. When a woman is raped it is rarely considered, classified, or acknowledged as rape at all. Your comment and use of the word "universally" unintentionally do an injustice to the lived experiences of many female rape survivors.

By and large, I agree with you - my one point of hesitation is with your definition of sodomy, or rather, you acceptance of that term as appropriate for consensual sexual acts. The term sodomy is derived from the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which a crowd of men wanted to rape two strangers (angels) who had come to town. The purpose of this rape was, as always, to humiliate and degrade the foreigners. In this sense, sodomy is appropriately understood to mean rape and rape alone. The fact that the word has been twisted and expanded to apply to any form of non-procreative sex is unfortunate, and I think it is important to clarify it, if for nothing else so as to detach the moral disgust attached to the Sodom story from people's views of innocent homosexual acts.

I disagree, Nick. I don't think it is irresponsible at all to say that when women are anally raped it's considered "rape" and when it happens to men it's "sodomy." I think you're picking at something that doesn't need to be...

I think it's patently clear that when a woman is raped it's called rape. Your own sentence acknowledges that it's called rape:

When a woman is raped it is rarely considered, classified, or acknowledged as rape at all.

Now, the point that female rape is under-reported and not taken nearly seriously enough IS a valid point. But that's not the point that Sean was making, I believe... I think his point was more to the dichotomy of language between male and female rape victims...

This reminds me of something that I posted about a while ago. Oh, well.

I think that the real association between the two concepts (consensual male anal sex and non-consensual sex in general) stems from the fact that a man who's willing to be penetrated has re-defined his role in the greater context of the heteropatriarchy, which is what started, IMHO, the association amongst heterosexual men of penetration and death.

And considering that the right-wing (and mainstream society, often) consider it to be "turning against nature" to have sex with the same sex, a pretty transparent attempt to render queer consent meaningless, slippage is expected, and pretty trivializing of the experiences of rape victims, if one starts by examining that slippage from the idea that sodomy means consensual anal sex.

A. J. Lopp | July 5, 2007 2:21 PM

Earlier this year, after an intern editor wrote an editorial against SJR-7, the Corydon Democrat printed a letter from an anti-gay minister in which he insisted on referring to gay men ... and lesbians(!) ... as "sodomites". I wrote a response which was the most ironclad historical trouncing that I could fit into 800 words.

[Read them all here. That paper's website hides its links, but the first anti-SJR-7 editorial appeared April 4, the pastor's letter on April 11, and my response, "Search goes on for the dreaded 'Sodomite'" appeared April 25.]

In that article I showed that the term "sodomite" was invented in early medieval Europe, about the same time that the Christian world developed its rabid prejudice against same-sex relationships.

Biblically, despite its appearance in the King James Version, today's word "sodomite" has little or nothing to do with the town of Sodom in the Bible, nor does the Bible support in any way the notion that the transgressions of the residents of Sodom involved consensual homosexuality.

Genesis 19 does strongly imply that the men of the city of Sodom wanted to rape Lot's "angel" visitors. So, an argument might be made that "sodomy" refers to male-male anal rape only.

But in modern usage, "sodomy" has been expanded to cover any form of sexual coupling other than penis-vagina copulation, whether consensual or not. (It is the "unnaturalness" of the coupling, not the violence, that makes it "sodomy" --- note, interestingly, that male-female penis-vagina rape is not called "sodomy".)

It is my argument that the word "sodomy" has been so confused and misused that it is now one of those words that it would be advisable to banish from usage entirely. Never throughout its entire history has this word been used in a both logically and historically consistent fashion.

Let's quit using this darn word, and all its forms! Sodomy, sodomite, sodomize ... they all invite confusion!

Modern English has all the alternate terms we need for total precision in what we are talking about in this realm. If it's anal rape, call it anal rape. If it is "rape with a foreign object" then call it such. Gay men are not sodomites, and when we engage in anal loving with each other, we are not "sodomizing" each other!

Sodom was an ancient Middle Eastern city near the coast of the Dead Sea that no longer exists. Today, Mount Sodom is still there on the spot. Those are the only two valid uses of the term "Sodom".

In my mind, "sodomy" is in the same category as the n-word for African-Americans: Its only modern proper usage is by historians, literature scholars and similar academicians.

P.S. For those gay men who insist on using the words "sodomy" and "sodomize" I have an interesting question: Is rimming a form of "sodomy" and "sodomizing"?

Sean, you are totally on point here. In our society, wimmin are raped and men do the raping. Period. At least that's how the law sees it and the culture understands it.

On a similar note, domestic violence is also difficult to talk about in terms of male survivors, because wimmin are seen as victims and men as perpetrators.

Rape is rape and no means no. It doesn't matter who the perpetrator is. Thanks for your post.

Stuffed Animal | July 5, 2007 3:27 PM

If you read the story of Sodom in the Bible (book of Genesis), which is where the term "sodomy" derives from, it's clearly about an attempted gang rape. That's what sodomization means: Gang rape. There's another Bible story (in the book of Judges) that describes the sodomization of a woman. This crime shouldn't have anything to do with body parts, the gender of the victim, or the gender of the perpetrators. Let's be clear: It's used the way it's used in order to stigmatize sex acts between men. The focus is erroneously placed on homosexuality rather than on violence. You don't have to be homosexual to commit sodomy, and I daresay most men who commit it aren't!

Jen Jorczak | July 5, 2007 3:57 PM

I'm with Serena: "Rape is rape and no means no." The conversation we should be having--not just here but in America and around the world--is why some people have equated sex and violence, and how to separate the two--and end the latter.


You don't think saying "when a woman is raped, it is UNIVERSALLY classified as rape" is irresponsible? What universe do you and Sean live in that every time a woman is raped the mainstream media portrays it as such?! The fact is that when women are raped it often ISN'T considered rape. Either she is labeled a lying whore, or it is considered just sex with a boyfriend/partner, or it couldn't have happened because she is a sex worker, etc.

"In our society, wimmin are raped and men do the raping. Period. At least that's how the law sees it and the culture understands it." -- That depends on which women you are talking about. If you're talking about white women being raped by black men, then sure our society "understands" that. But if you're talking about sex workers being raped, or women of color being raped, or women being raped by their partners - well I would have to disagree that our society, culture, and laws view this as rape.

Sean here responding to the seemingly angry comments on my blog. When I wrote that when women are raped it is universally considered rape, I was not intending to gloss over the millions of times that women are ignored, not believed or brushed aside. I was not talking at all about the rapes that were not classified as sexual assault at all.

I WAS referring to the fact that when a woman is raped and it gets classified as rape it is nearly universally considered "rape." But for men it is usually called "sodomized." I am under no illusion that women are always believed or that rape is not seriously under reported. But that was not my point.

This is also not intended to imply that men have it worse or that men are being discriminated against or anything of the sort. This is a debate about linguistics and whether the language of our society breeds more intolerance.

This is about shining a light on silent realities happening every day, like our langauge. And I will be the first one to stand in line to shine the same light on the way female victims of sexual assault are mistreated and re-victimized by the criminal justice system and social service agencies.

Nice, #2 you said
"This is an irresponsible thing to say. When a woman is raped it is rarely considered, classified, or acknowledged as rape at all. Your comment and use of the word "universally" unintentionally do an injustice to the lived experiences of many female rape survivors. "

Try to take off your PC blnders for one second please. Considering that Male rape is reported on a percentage basis at MUCH lower rates than female rape you contention is ridiculous. What the author was trying to say (And what you would have understood if you'd read the article and not just been searching for something to be offended by) Was that when a woman is anally raped, it is still called "rape" when a man is analy raped it is called "Sodomized" Clear enough for you?

Hi Sean -- sorry to sound angry, that's just the lack of voice inflection and facial cues--

I understand the point you were making in terms of rape vs. sodomy and the way these words are used differently based on the gender of the survivor. And I agree with your overall assessment that we should not be referring to rape as sodomy.

I still believe that your original statement regarding a 'double standard' was irresponsible. The phrase 'double standard' to me usually implies that one party has it better than the other, or that one person is being treated fairly while the second is not. Obviously I don't believe that women are treated fairly in our society when it comes to reporting on and writing about rape (and it sounds like you don't either), so the use of the phrase 'double standard' comes off as poorly chosen at best and silencing at worst.

Scott- Thanks for your input. Sean clarified his statements already, so I'm aware of his original intent.

Sodomy packs more emotional impact than rape. Rape is rape. Sodomy is rape that exponentially increases the humiliation and pain factor.

It's not about male and female, or who rapes and who is raped.

Ellison Wonderland | July 6, 2007 12:58 PM

Nick wrote:

"I still believe that your original statement regarding a 'double standard' was irresponsible. The phrase 'double standard' to me usually implies that one party has it better than the other, or that one person is being treated fairly while the second is not."

Not necessarily. All it means is that standards are not being applied consistently. Usually the result is that certain people have it better in some situations and others have it better in others. For example, the idea that women should not be exposed to danger might mean that a woman's life gets saved--unfairly--because she was not expected to fight off some attacker, but it also means people will not trust her to take risks. In this case, the idea that men are strong and dominant works against men, because in times when they do not fit the stereotype, their needs are ignored and they don't receive the support they should get. In a lot of ways men have it harder than women, and in a lot of ways women have it harder than men. Ultimately, stereotypes and expected roles hurt everyone, because all people are individuals, and no one can fully fit a stereotype, nor should they try. Nobody is the same way all the time, but gender roles ask all of us to pretend we are not human beings.

Here is what I wrote on another board to answer the question, Why does male rape = "sodomy"?

Because rape implies dominance on the part of the perpetrator and helplessness on the part of the victim. Have you heard gamers use the word casually, to refer to some character in a game badly beating another? A society obsessed with male dominance (which does not mean males always are dominant, but we are certainly obsessed with the idea) will pretend that the crime was not, in fact, the lack of consent--as apparently a man should never "allow" anyone to do something to him he doesn't want--but the fact that it is anal sex.

I was actually surprised to learn that in the state of Michigan, that sexually based offenses are not classified as rape..only criminal sexual conduct. I think we all know here that any act that forces , or coerces a person into a sexaul act is rape , but I don't understand why the state does not classify and call these acts of violence what they are.

I do agree that the word sodomy has been somewhat "dirtied" by the media and society.If the media is reporting a rape, or a "sexual assault", I don't think it should matter in which way it was done should be a way for the media to make a story more salacious for it's audience, and there by demonize those who CHOOSE to practice certain acts consensually.

By legal definition a man CANNOT be raped. Rape by federal definition is forcible or against the will of a person by Carnal Knowledge. Carnal knowledge legally is the insertion of a peinis of a male and the Vagina of a woman. Therefore legally a man cannot be raped unless he has female genitalia. So a man that is sexually assulted it is considred "Aggrvated Sodomy, same as it is for a woman or any other mamal .If u are a lawyer u know this. You are making a political statement not a legal one. In Georgia where I live consensual sodomy which is illegal. I believe it should be de-criminalized. Thats what your arguement should be. To say a man who is sexually assulted,it should be called rape. They cannot do this because it is physically and legally impossible to rape a man. Even in my backward state, consensual sodomy is a misdeameanor. Focible aggravated sodomy carries a sentence of no less than 10 years up to the death penalty. By the way according to the FBI UCR index 96% of "aggravatd sodomy" cases occur in women @ children. If you want to de-criminalize consensual sodomy I am with you; because theres nothing better than getting or recieving of consensual oral sex.

Mike, In Lawrence v Texas, the Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 2003. Sodomy has been legal since. Enjoy your blowjobs in peace.

I think you have it all wrong... Sodomy is rape and so is vaginal rape....

I just heard a police report that a woman was both raped and sodomized.... I think they just want the record to be specific when they report on what exactly happened. So they made Raped = Vaginal and Sodomized = Anal (for both genders)

I realize the dates of the posts are outdated but I just wanted to get that out somewhere.