From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: Coupling, Questions of ‘Nature’, and the State, 1786-2015

Country: United Kingdom

City: Birkbeck

Abstr. due: 12.09.2014

Dates: 24.09.15 — 25.09.15

Area Of Sciences: Philosophy; Law; Sociology;

Organizing comittee e-mail:

Organizers: Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London


The idea that certain sexual acts were ‘unnatural’ goes back to Antiquity and by the Middle Ages had been formalised in the European world through Christian doctrine and canon law. It was absorbed into the laws of a number of modern European states, and exported legislatively to much of the world through colonial expansion. Looking back from 2014, the shift from severe punitive measures for sex ‘against nature’ to the recent introduction of same-sex marriage laws in close to twenty nations across five continents must rank as one of the fullest revolutions of official attitudes in modern history. It is a revolution that begs many broad questions. This conference seeks to develop fresh, historically-informed, international perspectives on coupling – broadly understood – as a phenomenon poised between ‘nature’ and state regulation, from the late eighteenth century to the present.

Questions of ‘nature’, or what is unnatural, have held a consistent place in debates on sex, coupling, and marriage, even as authority in such matters has shifted from religious doctrine to medicine to social science and the law of human rights. Yet, as the same-sex marriage legislations underline, matrimony is an entirely social construct, an expression of historical vicissitudes. Does legislation on same-sex marriage indicate a revolution in the sexual categories considered ‘natural’? Are official views on what is ‘natural’ now finally being set aside by fundamental alterations to the concept of marriage, leaving more space for individuals to decide their own coupling destinies? Or, as neoliberal policies prioritise the individual over social bonds, is same-sex marriage a counter-measure, seeking to attract wayward couplers back into broadened structures of normativity? Finally, does western legal emphasis on coupling, irrespective of the partners’ sex, now cast multi-partner relationships as the new ‘unnatural’?

The conference’s chronological span opens with the earliest removal of sodomy from a European criminal code, by Leopold of Tuscany, in 1786. This was closely followed by analogous changes during the French Revolution, which were confirmed in Napoleonic legislation of the early 1800s. The route from such innovations (which may not always have had a liberalising intent) to same-sex marriage laws, however, remains relatively uncharted, though we know it was anything but linear. The convenors invite paper proposals from scholars, most likely in the disciplines of history, sociology, critical theory, and law, whose research is relevant to our theme. We are particularly interested in research that focuses on the way recent admissions of same-sex couples to the institution of marriage in various parts of the world relate to, develop out of, or change our view of, notions of what could constitute or who could establish a legitimate sexual partnership in the past.

Conference Web-Site: