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Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 Hardcover – May 1, 2008

4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Today's battle for same-sex marriage rights is only the latest step in the long struggle by lesbians and gay men to overturn a complex web of state laws banning nonreproductive sexual activity, often by heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. Laws against sodomy—or crimes against nature, as they were called by colonial lawmakers—were based on English common law emanating from Christian interpretations of a few biblical passages. The Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 2003. n this fascinating and engaging survey, Yale law professor Eskridge (Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse?) charts not just the destructive history of those laws, but also the long, complex and often deeply contradictory history of how Americans thought about sex and the right to privacy. While clearly explaining the laws' origins and impact from colonial America through the 19th century, most of the book examines how, from the 1930s onward, sodomy laws increasingly became the legal tool by which homosexuals were denied jobs and even the right to public assembly. Interweaving legal discussion with personal stories and social history, Eskridge gives an incisive, panoramic view of America's (slowly) changing attitudes toward homosexuality, sexual tolerance and personal freedom. B&w photos. (May 5)
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About the Author

William N. Eskridge, Jr., is John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. His research and writings provided a foundation for the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which invalidated consensual sodomy laws. He is the coauthor (with Darren Spedale) of Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse? and author of Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (May 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670018627
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670018628
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.7 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,646,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
To some Americans, it seems obvious that consenting adults should be able to have sex with whomever they want; to others, it seems obvious that such things should happen only in marriage. Not only should homosexuals not be sleeping together, say some in this latter group, but also if our laws don't restrict such activities, the homosexuals are going to be recruiting our children and who knows what else will happen. Theological and legal restrictions and punishments for sodomy go back for millennia, but American laws about sodomy came into their own in the nineteenth century, and have persisted, although they have recently lost much of their power to proscribe behavior. In _Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America 1861- 2003_ (Viking), William N. Eskridge Jr. has given a big and exhaustive history of such laws. A law professor himself, he filed an amicus brief for the judgement in _Lawrence vs. Texas_ whose 2003 date indicates it is the climax of his book. Eskridge documents a change in national legal philosophy whereby adult sexual activity was acknowledged to be best regulated by the conscience of those involved, and for many reasons is best left alone by the government.

Blackstone referred to "the infamous crime against nature" and this particular wording is well known. The nature of this particular crime, however, has always been vague, allowing the definition to be expanded as those in power wished. Eskridge shows how legislatures had to specifically incorporate fellatio or cunnilingus (and sometimes even masturbation) into sodomy laws if they wanted to prosecute such acts. Sometimes there was no allowance for being married, so that married couples who enjoyed oral or anal sex were breaking the law, although no state went after these particular miscreants.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an important, but disturbing book. To be sure, it contains a great deal of useful information, distilled from the author's earlier studies. It is safe to say that no other author could do this with such authority and precision.

In his earlier published books Eskridge had seemed to ally himself with the radical gay faction. Now, it seems, he has morphed into something like a social conservative.

Eskridge believes that, even after our remarkable legal progress, gays are being held back by formidable reserves of disgust and fear of social pollution. These stark terms, for which he offers little documentation, seem to me to go too far. Still a mass of reservations, all the more persistent for not being (often) avowed, linger among the general public. As Eskridge puts it, many have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that homosexuality is a b e n i g n variation. We can have all the legal advances anyone could possibly require without achieving this.

In a pivotal sentence (p. 382) Eskridge makes the following point. "Lawrence [the 2003 Supreme Court decision] should . . . be understood as a challenge for gay people. Recalling an old-fashioned conception of citizenship as entailing obligations as well as freedoms, Lawrence should stir LGBT people to commit themselves to families, communities, and institutions (including religious ones) from which they have been alienated because of sodomy laws, social stigma, and other disabilities."

I readily confess that I am one of those who has been so alienated. I don't see why I should now have to commit myself to a family or a religious institution in order to secure my full civil rights. Still, I would agree that it would help if substantial numbers of gay and lesbian people did so.
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Format: Hardcover
Of the great legal and social struggles in American history; gay rights is probably the last to come to fruition. In fact, over the course of the 20th century, as communities around the US were granting rights to women, racial minorities and even handicapped people, laws were being put in place that solidified discrimination against gays and lesbians. This book traces the evolution of social and legal norms regarding the treatment of homosexuals in America over the past 200 years. Interspersing legal cases with public policies enacted via referendum and legislation, the book is an engaging analysis of American mores, and how the majority's empathy for a minority within its midst ebbs back and forth over time, responding to the actions of private individuals and public figures. The author devotes a lot of text explaining the logic behind many of the legal cases, and how the parties in these cases arrived at these points in history. Sometimes long winded, the book does miss out on some key topics. For example, the author minimizes the impact of celebrities in promoting the acceptance of homosexuality. Whether it be Elton John, Liberace, or Ellen coming out on national TV, the author sees the struggle for gay rights as fought primarily in court-rooms, legislative offices and judges' chambers. This is unfortunate as the gay rights struggle is similar to the civil rights struggle in that both relied heavily on celebrities within the entertainment world to advance the cause. But overall, still a good book.
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