Fawlty Deflowerings: UK Lawmakers Trying To Define Gay Sex

Consummation is traditionally defined as the first sexual intercourse between a man and a woman following their marriage. It has roots in the basic heterosexist idea that the purpose of marriage is to have reproductive sex, which is why in some places (Britain, for example), if a marriage has not been consummated with intercourse, it’s not valid. So what does legal consummation mean in terms of queer nuptials?

For the civil servants in Britain who have been charged with writing the proposals for gay marriage, this is becoming quite the conundrum. As reported by the Sunday Times, the British government will be publishing its proposals for gay marriage in a few weeks, and ministers have decided “to make gay marriage an exact replica of heterosexual marriage, except for the right to marry in a church.” Since that means that same-sex marriages will have to be consummated in order to be “valid,” the definition of gay sex is suddenly in the hands of civil servants, who are essentially stumped. For months they have been “considering the intricacies of gay sex . . . and have taken evidence from sex experts and gay rights organizations in an attempt to define consummation between two women and between two men.”

“the intricacies of gay sex”

The main reason that a definition of sex is important to marriage in the UK is that a union can be annulled if it wasn’t consummated properly. The UK government recognizes annulments as as alternatives to divorce if a divorce isn’t wanted for religious reasons, as the established Church Of England prevents a wall of separation between church and state. A proper British consummation, according to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973, involves “‘ordinary and complete’ intercourse, rather than ‘partial and imperfect” intercourse.'” If gay marriage is to be legally equivalent to straight marriage, the same rules of annulment should technically apply. But since a definition of “ordinary and complete” queer sex is so hard to pin down, it seems unlikely that the laws could be totally congruent, no matter how you spin it.

Some gay rights groups in Britain believe that as a solution, consummation could be left out of the draft of the law entirely, and some lawmakers have even proposed removing consummation from Great Britain’s Marriage Act. However, this solution was shot down by people like Edward Leigh, a Roman Catholic member of Britain’s conservative Tory Party, who according to Gay Star News, “claimed it would reduce marriage to the level of a civil partnership.” This view was shared by many other Catholics for whom annulment would become complicated if consummation was no longer a legal requirement for a marriage, and members of the Church of England for whom the sanctity of marriage rests solely in heterosexual unions. As religion plays a large and concrete role in political decisions in the UK, consummation as a religious act has enough political weight to uphold it, which is exactly what happened when the decision was made in June of this year.

Leigh’s argument that removing consummation from marriage law would downgrade the importance of a straight marriage doesn’t sound so bad to me, so long as all marriage was understood as civil partnerships. Though this is indeed one of the major fears of people who are anti-gay marriage—that legalized same-sex marriage would redefine straight marriage. Would that really be so bad, though? Having one strict definition of consummation is harmful to straight people, too: it leaves out everyone for whom standard “penis in vagina” sex isn’t the main course on the menu, such as those who are differently-abled, or those who don’t want to reproduce.

If you take reproduction out of the equation (as many couples, both straight and queer, have done), sex for straight people is as amorphous as sex for queers. I bet a copy of Autostraddle’s “Is It Sex?” Flowchart would really help.

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Gabrielle writes facts and feelings from an old brick house in an outer borough of New York City. When she's not writing about lesbians, she's editing/writing/producing things at her day job in the beauty department of a well-known online style magazine. In her spare time, she helps organize the New York City Dyke March and makes up songs about her dog.

Gabrielle has written 96 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    I’ve just realised how little I know about my islands marriage laws. I do like that Flowchart, I’ve often used such an example to argue what is considered losing ones virginity – for me an outdated concept anyway, but most most useful, taking marriage out of the equation that I’m not a virgin, even If I’ve not particpated in the so called traditional act. And there I suppose lies the problem. I does make one wonder how often consumation or lack of has been used in law in modern times.

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      During the Residence Orientation week my first year at university, there was a presentation on sex, including consent, stamina techniques, how sexism and homophobia are linked, and many other great things (also the presenter’s name was “J-Spot”). Anyway, J-Spot was discussing how the phrase ‘losing your virginity’ is more often applied to women than men (who instead get to ‘score’, etc.) and has a lot of negative connotations (when was the last time ‘losing’ anything was good?). So he suggested that everyone use the phrase ‘making your sexual debut’ instead, which I love and have used ever since. It’s also great because you can have a lot of sexual debuts (see the chart above), and this phrasing doesn’t impose upon them a hierarchy of significance or importance. As a bisexual queer lady, I’ve determined that I have around 10 different sexual debuts I could make, if I so choose – how exciting!

  2. Thumb up 25

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    I’m enjoying the image of starchy old Tory men harumphing their way through explaining how they think queer sex happens. Or really, how they think ANY sex happens. I mean, with two ladies, which one just lays back and thinks of England? DO THEY BOTH DO THAT?! Then what?

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    Shouldn’t the relevant question the lawmakers are trying to answer be, ‘what bar does the community of people to whom this new law applies (and to whom the previously-existing laws did not) want to set for marriage annulment?’ rather than ‘what is gay sex?’

    (although I recognize that “should” and “is” are vastly divergent concepts)

  4. Thumb up 1

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    My understanding of the world has just been destroyed. WHY THE HECK DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE SEX FOR A MARRIAGE TO BE VALID!?!? That is one of THE most stupid things I have ever heard in all my life! DARN IT! Canada use to be a British colony!!! I use to think Canada was ahead of most of the other countries in terms of civil rights and basic logic, but it turns out marriages can be annulled if sex doesn’t occur! I feel like curling up in my room and never coming out.

  5. Thumb up 3

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    Honestly i’m just glad that the proposal is still going ahead, thought the tories were having another take-and-no-give-back with the lib dems…

    Christ i hate the political situation of this country at the moment, by which i mean more the electorate than the actual government, which could definitely be better but could also be much much worse, like conservative majority worse. Also i don’t believe the lib dems deserve all their scapegoating from the student population who actually are acting like entitled fucks over the tuition fees thing… grah…

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    Although the civil partnership law is applicable in the whole of the UK (but even that has different provisions for different countries), there are no UK-wide marriage laws, the ones you and the article are referring to are only applicable in England and Wales – this is why the Scottish Parliament voted for same-sex marriage before the UK / English one. To my knowledge, this consummation nonsense doesn’t exist in Scotland any more and, unfortunately, Northern Irish marriage laws probably won’t be changed to allow same-sex marriage any time soon.

    I’m sorry if this is very pedantic, but it’s annoying when people think UK = England.

  7. Thumb up 4

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    The creation of civil partnerships wasn’t only to bypass the homophobia of fossilised specimens dug up from the House of Lords, steeped in sexism and antipathy to all but the most self-loathing types of homosexual expression (the type of men misty eyed for matron and the muddy, melancholy homoeroticism of a minor public school in the 1950s), but to avoid this sort of stupid nonsense.

    Marriage in England and Wales has a long and often complex legal and cultural history, full of customs and obligations the origins of which lie in a society that was changing even while the laws were being made.

    Civil Partnerships were an opportunity to offer same-sex couples the same legal protections as married opposite-sex couples, without having to inherit the all the cultural, social and legal idiosyncrasies of marriage.

    And marriage in this country was never an institution designed to formalise the relationship between two equal partners, in the way that civil partnership does.

    Thanks to years of feminist agitation and legal reform dating back to the 19th century marriage now does (mostly) work in this way, but its foundations lay in a society that functioned very differently to the society it serves today.

    I understand the important to people of faith to be able to marry in their own religious places (which civil partnership does not allow for).

    And I suppose I understand the rhetorical value of ‘marriage equality’ in this country. I certainly do appreciate that to many people it’s extremely important, for whatever reason. I’m not going to be Brian Sewell about this.

    But unlike in some other counties civil partnership as it’s understood in the UK is legally equivalent to marriage already. It’s not a cop out or an inferior option.

    To me civil partnership should be celebrated as a progressive institution, through which we can perhaps question aspects of marriage law as it currently stands.

    But somehow I can’t see the Tories sharing the debate.

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      “I understand the important to people of faith to be able to marry in their own religious places (which civil partnership does not allow for).”

      The new marriage laws won’t include provision for this, couples will only have the right to civil ceremonies, not religious ones. Whether religious spaces allow same sex ceremonies on their premises is up to each individual establishment, just as some host civil partnership ceremonies now. So chances are, legalising gay marriage won’t change the amount of unions happening in religious contexts, at least not immediately.

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        Yes, but as the law currently stands in England and Wales while a religious establishment is free to offer whatever ceremony it likes, a civil partnership only becomes valid in law through the signing of documents in the presence of two witnesses and the registrar.

        Civil marriages (including civil partnerships) are not allowed to incorporate any religious texts, themes or references within the civil ceremony itself.

        But this obviously doesn’t prevent a couple going to the Registry office and then going elsewhere to perform religious rites according to their beliefs, but any additional religious ceremony carries no legal significance.

        The only meaningful change that this new law could bring, is that it would in theory allow religious institutions, if they so chose, to solemnise same-sex relationships without the need for an additional civil ceremony.

        However, many opposite-sex partners choosing to marry in religious ceremonies still also have to register a civil marriage in front of a registrar as many mosques, non-conformist churches and other places of worship are not registered for the solemnisation of marriages.

        Personally, I would favour a system of civil marriage/ partnership for all marrying couples, which could then be followed by a non-legally binding religious ceremony if so chosen (like they have in France).

        The elephant in the room on this one isn’t so much gay marriage, as it is the fact that we still have an Established Church of England, through which a religious sacrament becomes a legal contract.

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        Nobody said anything about overnight. People complicate ideas when they use words like traditional. If they can keep everyone happy, then awesome, but if not, I don’t see how equality should suffer before tradition. That is all.

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      I think because the Church of England is full of women vicars in thick jumpers and mole-eyed Bishops who aren’t categorically certain how to tie their own shoelaces and village fetes and bunting and the now Reverend Richard Coles (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl-xf22r5j4), people forget that it’s the state religion.

      But we have an Established Church in England. Twenty-six bishops are automatically granted seats in the House of Lords and Parliament have to approve (although they can’t amend) the measures of the Church’s General Synod. So although it’s a very gentle form of state religion, it’s still a state religion.
      And the head of the Church of England is the actual Queen.
      And we actually have an actual Queen.
      (Who in addition to being a colour-coordinated woman in a succession of hats is Head of State)

      Everyone’s just agreed not to mention that State and Church are holding hands.

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    I wonder if the UK’s legal definition of “complete intercourse” includes female orgasm – otherwise there’s a buckload of straight women who will never be properly married.

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