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Fifty Shades of Law

In some states you can watch the movie, but don’t try to act it out.

Unless you are living under a rock, you already know that women across America are packing into movie theaters this Valentine’s Day weekend to watch “Fifty Shades of Gray” on the big screen. Racy scenes depict the heroine’s transformation from a shy college student into a consenting submissive. The movie has sparked an improbable national conversation — or at least a social media frisson — about sexual taboos.

Here at The Marshall Project the movie sparked a different conversation, about the state of state laws on sex that is consensual but unconventional. A sample follows. We have our doubts about how strictly these statutes are enforced.

A bondage collar with lock.

Sex toys

Dildos or any object used for “the stimulation of human genital organs” cannot be made or sold in Alabama. The Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act says that anyone caught with such tools could face a fine up to $20,000, a one-year jail sentence or 12-months doing hard labor.

Contemplating bondage? Be warned that it is against New York state law to possess a pair of handcuffs unless you are a law-enforcement officer, private investigator or a security guard. The penalty for illegal possession of handcuffs: a fine of up to $200 and/or 10 days in jail. And in Florida, it is a felony to carry a concealed handcuff key.

BDSM

BDSM (abundant in “Fifty Shades”) is an acronym with interchangeable meanings — bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism. Even if sexual partners both agree to engage in such edgy behavior, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom warns that consent is not enough to avoid possible assault charges if your partner has second thoughts.

“Consent is not a defense,” said Susan Wright, executive director of the organization, which promotes — well, pretty obvious. Wright says that the enjoyment of flogging, whipping or dripping hot wax can be short-lived.

“Injuries can happen and then 911 is called,” Wright said.

Hooking up out of wedlock

Florida bans “lewd and lascivious behavior,” which is defined as a situation where “any man and woman, not being married to each other, lewdly and lasciviously associate and cohabit together.” The misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $500. In Mississippi, an unmarried couple caught living together “whether in adultery or fornication” can face up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine.

Sodomy

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed a Texas state law that banned the practice of anal and oral sex between same-sex couples as unconstitutional. Despite the ruling, a sizable list of states, including Texas, still have anti-sodomy laws on the books.

Louisiana’s “crime against nature” statute prohibits the “the unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex or with an animal.” The state legislature in April failed to pass a bill that would have repealed the law except for human-on-animal relations.

Other states that have some form of anti-sodomy laws include Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Virginia repealed its ban in March.