New England Puritans & Pilgrims
Summary & Analysis
Sexual Offenses in Colonial New England
Despite their modern-day reputation as religiously zealous prudes, the Puritans acknowledged—perhaps more openly than many religious figures and organizations today—the extent and variety of the carnal temptations around them. The First General Assembly of Providence Colony (Rhode Island) in 1647 stated that sodomy (anal sex) was forbidden throughout the entire colony, as well as in England. They described it as "a vile affection, whereby men given up thereto leave the natural use of woman and burn in their lusts one toward another, and so men with men work that which is unseemly." These characterizations rested upon the colonists' understanding of the Bible. The penalty for sodomy was "death without remedy." The laws made no mention of sexual activity between men and women or women and women.
The capital laws of Plymouth Colony from 1636 onward outlawed homosexual intercourse, as did a Connecticut statute of 1650, calling it an "abomination." Yet historian Robert F. Oakes has found that Puritan leaders refused to apply these harsh penalties, "especially for homosexual activity." Over the course of the seventeenth century, Oakes finds that "the reluctance to punish illicit sexual activity of all types grew stronger," not weaker. This may have been because the colonists sought a more enlightened approach to sin, or because they were experiencing a labor shortage, or even a reluctance to enforce capital punishment on a fairly common "crime" (or one that people feared might be quite common). Incidences of homosexuality began almost as soon as settlement did: the first recorded case was in Massachusetts in 1629, and Plymouth's first trial for homosexuality was in 1636.13
Bestiality was considered to be a crime much more serious than homosexuality or adultery, and therefore subject to more stringent enforcement. The Providence Colony Assembly explicitly forbade "buggery," known today as bestiality, or sex with an animal. They described it as "a most filthy lying with a beast as with a woman, and is abomination and confusion," also punishable by death. (Note on terminology: Puritan colonies usually meant bestiality when they said "buggery," but this was a slippery term; sometimes when people used it they meant sodomy. The confusion obviously persists today, as the term has since come to be considered synonymous with sodomy.) The same penalty applied in Connecticut, which required that the animal involved in such cases would be "slayne and buried." New Haven colony used almost identical language in its 1656 statute against "buggery," but added the provision that the animal involved would be killed, buried, and "not eaten." No this was not simply evidence of paranoia on the part of lawmakers; these things really happened in seventeenth-century New England. In the early 1640s Plymouth Governor William Bradford lamented the great number of sex crimes—including "sodomy and buggery (things fearful to name)"—which had "broke forth in this land oftener than once." He thought that perhaps this was because the sex crime legislation was so strict; the effect became, in his words, "as it is with waters when their streams are stopped or dammed up. When they get passage they flow with more violence."14 Today, the numbers might seem small: one historian examined the Plymouth colony records and found three "definite" homosexual offences and two cases of buggery. There were fifteen more unspecified cases; another 129 were heterosexual offences, from fornication to kissing a married woman to adultery, prostitution, and rape.15
Rape was also described as an offense. Though the law described it as when a man forced a woman to have intercourse against her will, the Rhode Island government also indicated that a man who had sex with a woman under the age of ten, "though it be with her consent," was also guilty of rape. Those found guilty would be put to death, as would a married woman who committed adultery. Plymouth Colony passed a law with the same provisions in 1671.