Last edited: December 20, 2004

Legislature drafts bill to repeal oral-sex law

Sen. John Roney calls the 102-year-old law the most ignored since the 55-mph speed limit and Rep. Edith Ajello considers it an economic development issue.

The Providence Journal-Bulletin, February 24, 1998
75 Fountain St.
Providence, RI 02902
Fax 401-277-7346

By Katherine Gregg
Journal-Bulletin State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE -- The annual push is on to repeal a 102-year-old Rhode Island law that makes it illegal for consenting adults -- including husbands and wives -- to engage in anal and oral sex.

The 1896 law, entitled "abominable and detestable crime against nature," calls for a prison sentence of at least 7 years -- and, potentially, up to 20 years -- for those found guilty of engaging in fellatio, cunnilingus or anal sex.

"This is probably the most ignored law since the 55-mph speed limit. It makes the majority of adults in Rhode Island felons," says Sen. John Roney, a cosponsor of one of the repeal bills introduced again this year in the House and Senate. But, it is also one of the most dangerous criminal laws on the books, he contends, because it can be -- and has been -- used selectively "against unpopular groups."

"Anachronistic laws are dangerous. Like buried bombs, they await only the right circumstances to do harm," said Roney, D-Providence, in a joint statement with his ally in the repeal effort, Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence.

Though Roney is not convinced the repeal effort stands any better chance this year than it has in years past, Ajello is more optimistic.

Ajello said yesterday she has introduced the same bill six years in a row, but never before sought a vote on it because she didn't see the value in forcing colleagues to vote on a bill with no chance of passing.

This year, however, Ajello said she is requesting a vote because she has commitments from 10 of the 17 members of the House Judiciary Committee to vote for repeal. The vote has not yet been scheduled.

But in a joint statement late last week, Roney and Ajello spelled out some of the arguments they will bring to the legislative debate on a law that was invoked as recently as last year. In September, North Smithfield police tried to make a case against two men who allegedly had consensual sex in the woods near Route 146.

The incident came to light when one of the two men went to the police to complain that his wallet was stolen during the sexual encounter, and the police charged both men -- the alleged thief and his alleged victim -- with "abominable and detestable crime(s) against nature." Atty. Gen. Jeffrey B. Pine declined to prosecute.

"Surveys show that the vast majority of couples, gay or straight, married or not, practice either oral or anal sex, or both," said Roney.

"Many disabled persons cannot engage in intercourse. For them, oral sex may be the only form of sexual expression," said Ajello.

"Repeal of this law can actually be termed an economic development issue," added Ajello, citing the case of a church-led group that is considering canceling its booking at the Rhode Island Convention Center because "they will not patronize a state which continues to hold this outmoded law on its books." (Details of the case she cited could not be confirmed yesterday.)

Added Roney: "While the attorney general has publicly criticized the use of this law against consenting adults, we have a government of laws, not of persons, and whether or not Rhode Islanders are prosecuted for what is obviously a common sexual practice should not depend on the whim of a prosecutor."

Pine agreed yesterday, but only up to a point. He reiterated his view that the law should not be applied to "consenting adults in a private situation." But, he said he would not favor outright repeal because the law is a useful tool in cases where "there is clearly a victim," but proving beyond a reasonable doubt that there was coercion to "get [someone] to do something that they did not want to do . . . is sometimes a tough case to prove."

If the legislature decides to confront the century-old law this year, Pine said he would prefer a clearly stated exclusion for consenting adults in a private setting.

The approach isn't new. In 1984, Rep. John Harwood, the Pawtucket Democrat who is now House speaker, introduced legislation that would have modified the law to allow "private, consensual sexual acts between adults." Lawyer Harwood's bill passed the House, then died in the Senate.

But Roney, who is also a defense lawyer, is concerned about compromises. "This law has been used against unpopular groups," and since consent is not a defense, it "is sometimes used by prosecutors as an added charge to bolster a weak criminal prosecution. Neither use is acceptable," he said.

Rhode Island is one of 21 states, including Massachusetts, that treat this kind of sexual activity -- or some variation on it -- as a crime, though Rhode Island's penalties are among the harshest in the nation. The laws in 6 of those 21 states are aimed at same-sex acts only -- Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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