In many traditions and statutes of civil or religious law, the consummation of a marriage, often called simply consummation, is the first (or first officially credited) act of sexual intercourse between two people, either following their marriage to each other or after a prolonged romantic attraction. The definition of consummation usually refers to penile-vaginal sexual penetration, but some religious doctrines hold that there is an additional requirement that there must not be any contraception used.
The religious, cultural, or legal significance of consummation may arise from theories of marriage as having the purpose of producing legally recognized descendants of the partners, or of providing sanction to their sexual acts together, or both, and its absence may amount to treating a marriage ceremony as falling short of completing the state of being married, or as creating a marriage which may later be repudiated. Thus in some legal systems a marriage may be annulled if it has not been consummated. Consummation is also relevant in the case of a common law marriage. The importance of consummation has led to the development of various bedding rituals.
In addition to these formal and literal usages, the term also exists in informal and less precise usage to refer to a sexual landmark in relationships of varying intensity and duration.
The relevance of consummation in a civil marriage varies by jurisdiction. For example, under section 12 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, a refusal or inability to consummate a marriage is a ground of annulment in England and Wales, but this only applies to heterosexual marriage, because Paragraph 4 of schedule 4 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 specifically excludes non-consummation as a ground for the annulment of a same-sex marriage. Other common law jurisdictions, such as Australia, have abolished the legal concept of consummation.
Common law marriage
In the case of common law marriage, consummation may be a required component in the creation of the marriage itself.
A religious marriage without civil registration may or may not be legally binding. However, in some (mostly Muslim-majority) countries such as Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Mauritania and Indonesia, religious marriage is the only legally binding marriage.
Consummation is in particular relevant in a Catholic marriage. Within the Catholic Church, if a matrimonial celebration takes place (ratification) but the spouses have not yet engaged in intercourse (consummation), then the marriage is said to be a marriage ratum sed non consummatum. Such a marriage, regardless of the reason for non-consummation, can be dissolved by the pope. Additionally, an inability or an intentional refusal to consummate the marriage is probable grounds for an annulment. Catholic canon law defines a marriage as consummated when the "spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh." Thus some theologians, such as Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., state that intercourse with contraception does not consummate a marriage.
Traditionally, in many cultures, for example in Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures (where Islam and Hinduism is followed and sex before marriage is not allowed), consummation was an important act because it was the act which proved the bride's virginity; the presence of blood was erroneously taken as definitive confirmation that the woman was indeed a virgin.
In the family law defining civil marriage in some jurisdictions, particularly those where the civil marriage laws remain influenced by religion (albeit they are officially secular) non-consummation of a marriage may be a ground for annulment (an annulment is different from a divorce because it usually acts retrospectively). This stipulation has been in recent years heavily criticized on a wide variety of grounds, ranging from the mixing of religious doctrine into secular law, to being degrading to women given its negative historical connotations of ownership of the wife. It has been argued that the purpose of this ground is not clear: it is neither procreation (the act need not end in pregnancy, and neither is there a need of the possibility of it, given the fact the consummation is legally valid even if one or both parties is sterile), neither is it the expectation of sexual satisfaction in marriage (one single act of sexual intercourse is sufficient, even if the spouse following the consummation says he/she will never again engage in intercourse). Andrew Bainham argues that this law (in England and Wales) is outdated and must be abolished "in a modern society committed to equality and human rights in personal relationships".
In a 2001 report, the Law Society’s Law Reform Committee of Ireland advocated abolishing the concept of a voidable marriage altogether (since divorce had been introduced in 1996) and criticized the consummation ground, writing the following:
- The rationale behind this ground is not immediately apparent. It is not concerned with the capacity of either or both parties to procreate, still less with the ability of the parties to satisfy each other sexually during the marriage. [...] It remains a rather curious anomaly in the law, a relic perhaps of medieval times, when the first act of intercourse was thought to 'mark' a new bride as the 'property' of her husband. Whatever its origins, it is not entirely clear what modern purpose this ground serves and it is suggested that it should be dispensed with.
Another concern is sexual violence, especially since in most countries the criminalization of marital rape is recent, having occurred from the 1970s onwards; the maintaining in law of the concept of consummation is argued to foster cultural and societal attitudes and understandings of marriage that make it more difficult to acknowledge these violations; and to be a remainder of an oppressive tradition. Commenting on the case of R v R, which criminalised marital rape in England and Wales, Harris-Short and Miles write:
- [A] historical view again throws useful light on the matter: until 1991, husbands were permitted to have sexual intercourse with their wives regardless of whether they were then actually consenting, the original act of consummation and the resultant marital status entitling the husband to sexual relations thereafter.
- Hardon, S.J., John. "Consummated Marriage". Pocket Catholic Dictionary. Image Books. p. 91. ISBN 0-385-23238-1.
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