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Sex and Civil Liberties

A Short Timeline History


As Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonists began to settle North America during the 17th century, they brought with them a catalog of highly specific laws proscribing various sexual acts. The purpose of all of these laws was to enforce monogamous, same-race, heterosexual marriage as a mandatory institution, and to punish any and all sexual activity outside of that institution. Ever since then, laws restricting the civil liberties of sex have followed more or less the same old trajectory.


A Spanish colonist known only as Guillermo is executed by authorities for having sex with an American Indian man, the first recorded victim of a sodomy law in North America.

Laws banning sex between men would remain in effect until 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned them in Lawrence v. Texas.


Jamestown colonist Hugh Davis is flogged "for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro," the first North American victim of anti-miscegenation laws.

Laws banning sex between whites and people of color would remain in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court's majority ruling in McLaughlin v. Florida (1964).


Professor James Britton and 18-year-old Mary Latham are both executed for adultery in colonial Massachusetts. They remain the only known victims of capital anti-adultery laws in North America.

Adultery laws remain on the books in many states, but are most likely unenforceable given current Supreme Court precedent.


Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia suggests that victimless sex crimes should not be punishable by death.


The most draconian sexual censorship law ever passed, the federal Comstock law, comes into effect. The law, which imposed criminal penalties for the mailing of any material deemed "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious," was primarily used to prevent distribution of information on birth control and abortion.


The second volume of Alfred Kinsey's two-volume study of human sexual behavior is published. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) radically challenged existing assumptions about human sexuality by suggesting that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, was far more common than most people had suspected.


In Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that birth control falls within the implicit zone of privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. This Supreme Court ruling, arguably the most pivotal in the history of reproductive rights, established the implicit right to privacy as a constitutional principle.


The state government of Nevada officially legalizes prostitution, allowing counties to permit the establishment of brothels. Nevada remains the only U.S. state in which prostitution is legal.


In United States v. Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court establishes a clear set of guidelines by which obscenity may be defined and, subsequently, banned. The Miller standard has remained in effect ever since, though laws against obscenity are now seldom enforced.


The Moral Majority is founded, creating the institutional Religious Right. A year later, four million new evangelical voters will help deliver the presidency to Ronald Reagan.


Congress passes the Communications Decency Act, banning indecency on the Internet. The Supreme Court will later strike down the law in ACLU v. Reno (1997).


The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws are unconstitutional, citing the implicit constitutional right to privacy. A major victory for the American lesbian and gay rights movement, this ruling also implicitly challenges the constitutionality of all laws banning consensual sex between adults.
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