I Know it When I Experience It


So, the UK government is working through the necessary legal contortions to achieve marriage equality (yay!), and of course opponents are falling all over themselves trying to come up with ways to prevent, delay, or weaken this.  One particular issue that’s been raised struck me as faintly absurd at first blush: British marriage law currently requires that a marriage be physically consummated before it is considered valid.  (Consummation is, of course, defined as penis-in-vagina intercourse with ejaculation.  I suppose the lady getting off too would be considered a bonus?)  This is basically an archaic escape clause for Catholics, whose church forbids divorce but will allow annulment on the basis of non-consummation, although it is noted that such cases are diminishingly rare.

Since the lawmakers have for the most part committed to equality, this is not a serious concern for LGBTQ activist groups – not to mention the fact that the ‘quadruple legal lock’ that’s been introduced to keep churches from having to do anything icky pretty much guarantees that no queer couple who gets married in the UK is going to be seeking such an annulment.  However, lawmakers have been attempting to define same-sex consummation.  It’s looking more and more like they’re going to throw their collective hands up and leave it to the judges to decide if it were ever to become a tangible issue, because hey… queer sex is mysterious.

I’m sure most or all of you have heard, at some or many points in your life, that face-palm-inducing species of question:  “So… [two dicks/no dicks]… how does that even work?”  (As if penis-in-vagina intercourse is the only way to be intimate and/or get off.  In these enlightened, post-2003 days, when ‘sodomy’ and oral sex are no longer illegal anywhere in the US and even heterosexuals can and do joyously indulge in them, you would think this wouldn’t be such a difficult concept!)

This UK consummation kerfluffle really highlights the ubiquity (and earnestness) of assumptions about sex that posit a very narrow definition.  The queer community isn’t immune to it, either – it isn’t difficult to substitute one (un?)holy grail sexual act for another, after all.  And while we might well have a favorite form for sex to take, or something it feels incomplete without, it doesn’t follow that everyone else has the same standards, nor should it.

In my fantasy world, there is mandatory comprehensive sex ed starting at puberty that covers a broad spectrum of aspects of sexuality and leaves a very clear door open for more to exist, but alas.  We’d be doing well simply to decouple sex from reproduction and acknowledge the existence of non-heterosexuality.

What I think is realistic, however, is movement toward an experience-consensus model for describing personal or interpersonal identities and relations.  With respect to sex specifically, we each have a different range of physical acts we are willing/able/enjoy to do, but the unifying factor is that we know we are having sex.  I think this really is a case where “I know it when I experience it” is a logically valid definition – if you are willingly, knowingly engaged in behavior you consider sexual, you’re having sex, because sex isn’t a checklist of actions; it’s as much a mental state as a physical one.  A closely-related point of comparison would be gender identity: no one can tell you what yours is, because it is yours to define, a mental reality rather than a mechanical one.

Being able to talk about identity and behavior in this subjective way had major implications, not just for one’s understanding of gender and sexuality, but I would argue for social discourse in general.  It’s common right now to hear lip service paid to the concept of mental diversity – “You’re entitled to your opinion” – but that’s a dead-end statement when it comes to discussing subjective reality.  Gender is not an opinion.  Sexuality is not an opinion.  Person P’s emotional reaction to Event Q is not an opinion.  The first two of those are becoming a more and more widespread part of cultural discourse, and we have a real opportunity to help that spread, and through emphasizing the validity of subjective experience, open many more doors to communication about issues that deal with privilege and differential experience.

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Hi everyone!  As you may or may not recall from Will’s recent introductions, I’m one of the new writers, and I’m quite excited about joining the Queereka team.  

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  1. I just don’t think there should be consummation laws under any definition of consummation. I don’t see what is wrong with a married couple that doesn’t have sex (or has sex with other people, as the case may be). I’m happy that the Guardian article says there have been no instances where the law was used in recent memory.

  2. I totally don’t understand why a LEGAL annulment is necessary for Catholics. Shouldn’t a religious annulment be enough? I was raised Catholic in the states, and was taught that annulment comes from the Church, so it’s weird to me that the UK government even defines this.

    • I have noooo idea, on a practical level, why legal annulment would be linked to religious annulment in the current era. What I’ve gotten from the various article trawling I’ve done other than the one I linked is that it’s basically just a fossil from the days when ecclesiastical law and civil law had a much blurrier border, and anti-equality activists are latching onto it as a way to impede the proceedings.

  3. Hey, don’t you go taking my get-out-of-hell-free card away from me, now.

    When the christians get all antsy at me about homosexuality being bad, I drill in to the bit where god says you can’t lie with man as with woman, then I say “I have never, ever, put my penis in another man’s vagina”.

    Which can be entertaining, for the reasons you describe above. But it also fulfils the letter of the law…

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