Sexual psychopath statutes, under which courts committed individuals charged with or convicted of certain crimes, typically sex offenses, to psychiatric institutions, proliferated in the United States between the late 1930s and early 1960s. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia enacted versions of these statutes in response to a sex-crime panic that swept the nation after a wave of publicity about violent sex crimes committed against children. While the statutes varied widely in terms of the crimes that triggered the laws’ application and in their definitions of sexual psychopathy, they were almost always applied to men convicted of consensual sodomy and were used to commit homosexual men to institutions. However, in 1955 -- only four years after the rush to enact sexual psychopath laws ended -- the American Law Institute (ALI) voted to exclude consensual sodomy from its Model Penal Code (MPC), indicating that consensual sodomy was not a criminal matter. Therefore, in a very short period, a group of influential legal thinkers had moved consensual homosexual activity from a sign of possible pathology to a legally benign, albeit still immoral, practice. The MPC, a model criminal statute aimed at stimulating penal law reform throughout the United States, became highly influential in legislative efforts to revise state criminal codes, leading twenty-two states to repeal their sodomy statutes by 1978.
This article explains how American law evolved from the widespread implementation of sexual psychopath statutes to the decriminalization of sodomy, arguing that this shift emerged out of debates around sexual psychopath laws and Alfred Kinsey’s reports on male and female sexual behavior, which questioned many of the assumptions underlying both sexual psychopath statutes and criminal code provisions on consensual sodomy. State commissions evaluating sexual psychopath laws relied on Kinsey’s data to argue that the statutory schemes were not based on scientific evidence and therefore needed to be amended or repealed. The majority of their reports commented on the inappropriateness of including consensual sodomy under the umbrella of psychopathy, thereby separating homosexuality not just from pedophilia but also from violence. Several commissions also questioned whether consensual sodomy should be criminalized at all. The sexual psychopath commission reports influenced the ALI’s decision to decriminalize sodomy, presaging and contributing to a significant change in American criminal law, as members of the MPC committee drew upon the commission debates in their arguments for the decriminalization of consensual sodomy. The state commission reports, by providing a forum for politicians and lawyers to develop and express a reformist viewpoint, created a discourse in favor of changing criminal laws on consensual sodomy. This thus article identifies the missing link between a legal regime that characterized homosexuality as psychopathy and one that adjudicated consensual homosexual sodomy as noncriminal conduct.