In the 1600s and into the 1700s, the term "sodomite" applied to a practicioner of any form of non-reproductive sex, whether between members of the same sex or not. Despite the threat of the death penalty, sexual acts between adult males and adolescent males and females were commonplace and--during the 1600s--generally socially accepted. About 1700, gender lines and cultural expectations regarding sexual preferences became more rigid.
In the 1880s "the social purity movement"--a looseknit coalition of early feminists and social conservatives--set as its goal the containing of male lust in all its many forms, from adultery to prostitution to pornography. In 1885, the social purity movement succeeded in pushing through a major revision of England's laws regulating sexual behavior. The main focus of the legislation was not on same-sex relationships, but on protecting adolescent girls. Prior to 1885, indecent assaults on persons over the age of thirteen were not punishable. Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 revised the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen. Henry Labouchere, M. P., sought to make any indecent assault punishable by proposing an amendment that would make "gross indecencies"--regardless of the age of the victim--punishable as a misdemeanor. The vague words chosen by Labouchere were later interpreted more broadly than his intended purpose to apply to consensual same-sex acts between adults. In 1895, a London jury found Oscar Wilde guilty of violating Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. For his crime, Wilde spent two years in prison.
Private consensual acts between adults, including same-sex sodomy, were decriminalized in England in 1967.
Homosexuality and the Law in the United States
Wilde Trials Homepage