New bill could make it legal for unmarried people to have sex in Virginia

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Couple hugging. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/GettyImages)

Virginia is for lovers — the married kind. According to state code, it’s illegal for unmarried people to have consensual sex.

Sure, it’s not widely enforced — but Virginia Democrats say it’s time to scratch the relic of a law for good.

After potentially hundreds of years on the books, the Virginia House of Delegates repealed the “crime of fornication” last week.

In the Virginia Code, fornication — consensual sex with an unmarried person — isn’t legal. Guilty parties could pay a $250 fine.

Delegate Mark Levine, who introduced the legislation to repeal it, said that the law fuels Virginians’ confusion and distrust in the law: If unmarried sex is illegal, then what else is?

“We should not have laws that make most of the population into criminals,” he said. “Times are very different now than they were in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

The Virginia Senate must pass the bill for it to proceed.

The law was deemed unconstitutional 15 years ago. It’s still on the books

It’s been a twisted journey through bureaucracy to get the bill this far. The Virginia Supreme Court struck down the law in 2005, declaring it an “unconstitutional government intrusion” into Virginians’ personal lives.

But it remained in the Code of Virginia.

Del. Mark Sickles attempted to strike “fornication” from the Code of Virginia in 2014, but it died in committee.

Levine tried to repeal it twice: First in 2018, again in 2020. This is the closest it’s come to being struck.

Levine said fornication was still being charged as a crime as recently as five years ago, when prosecutors wanted to “pile on” the charges to people accused of sex crimes. It’s also been used as a plea, he said, though it’s fairly uncommon.

“It also leads to contempt for the law when so many Virginians have already committed this ‘crime,'” he said.

Fornication is still illegal in other states

Virginia’s not alone.

“Fornication” is still considered a crime in Idaho. Any unmarried person found guilty of having sex with another unmarried person can be fined up to $300, imprisoned for up to six months or both.

North Carolina’s statute on fornication is a bit more vague: An unmarried man and woman “lewdly and lasciviously” sharing a bed or cohabiting could be sentenced to six days in jail and pay a $1,000 fine.

It’s on the books in Mississippi, too: If a man and woman are found guilty of fornication, they could pay up to $500 each and spend up to six months in county jail.

Some states abolished fornication laws quite recently: In 2018, Massachusetts repealed its fornication crime statute, and Utah did the same the following year.

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