What is a Crime Against Nature?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “crime against nature” began to be used in statutes in the United States in the 1800s to refer to sexual practices which were deemed “against nature.” The practice of prosecuting certain sexual practices pre-dates the use of the term “crime against nature” and occurred in many nations around the world prior to the 1800s, persisting in some areas today. In the United States, where the phrase was used in criminal law, the concept of a crime against nature was ruled unconstitutional in a 2003 case, although laws using this phrase are still on the books in several states.

Many laws that dealt with "crimes against nature" targeted homosexual couples, especially men.
Many laws that dealt with "crimes against nature" targeted homosexual couples, especially men.

A number of different practices were included under the umbrella of this term. Bestiality was deemed a crime against nature, as were oral sex and homosexual activity. In some areas, masturbation was also considered to be a crime against nature. Many of these laws were structured and applied in a way which targeted homosexual couples, especially gay men.

In the past, oral sex was viewed as a crime against nature.
In the past, oral sex was viewed as a crime against nature.

Arguments in defense of retaining such laws pointed out that they could furnish additional charges for certain types of criminal cases. For example, someone being charged with molestation of a child could also be charged with committing a crime against nature. Likewise, people being charged with rape could be charged under crimes against nature statutes as well as statutes pertaining to rape. These laws were also applied in solicitation cases to increase the severity of solicitation charges.

However, some advocates pointed out that these laws were often applied unevenly. For example, if a heterosexual couple were found engaging in sexual activity in public, they would likely be charged with indecent exposure, while a homosexual couple might be charged with crimes against nature in addition to indecent exposure. There were also concerns that such laws could be used to police activities between consenting adults which occur in private, something which many Americans felt uneasy about.

The concept of an act which goes “against nature” has also been challenged by biologists. Study of numerous animal species has shown that all of the activities discussed in the second paragraph do in fact occur in nature, and are quite widespread among some species.

As a consequence of the challenge to the constitutionality of such laws, states with crimes against nature laws on their books do not enforce them. Other areas of the penal code may cover specific issues for which these laws were once used, to ensure that people who commit crimes such as rape and child molestation can be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Yes, those "crime against nature" laws were flawed and archaic, but at least they put some really bad sex offenders behind bars. I don't know if those laws got enforced as long as no one saw it happen in public. A lot of those men were busted because they hired prostitutes to perform the act and weren't very discreet about where they did it. I feel sorry for them, but it's not like they didn't know it was illegal.


Personally, I think all of these "crime against nature" laws hurt the homosexual community as bad as the Jim Crow laws hurt the African-American community. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have arrested people who were obviously committing heinous sexual acts, like child molestation or rape. I'm just saying that an entire generation of people were brought up to believe some common sexual acts were somehow perverted and wrong.

I remember hearing stories about men being locked up in prison for years because they received oral sex from a female. The law changed while they were still serving their sentences, but they weren't released after the fact. What they did was considered sodomy, and sodomy was clearly illegal back in the day.

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