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Why the Brits are Confused About Sex

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While the marriage equality movement in the US is making progress step by step and state by state, the United Kingdom is on the verge of making a giant leap. Next month, UK Parliament will vote on a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage across all of England and Wales, and despite fervent negative campaigning from the always petulant Catholic Church and other religious groups, it has a good chance of passing. But as the Government legal experts created the contents of the bill, which will be debated in the coming weeks and months by Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, a few eyebrow-raising caveats have emerged in the proposed document that bring up even bigger questions.

In the proposed gay marriage bill, the definition of “adultery” will remain identical to its current legal meaning: penetrative sex between a man and a woman who are not married to each other. This means that while gay marriages will be legally recognized, gay affairs will not (in layman’s terms, unless a dude’s D enters a girl’s V, it’s all fair game). Equally puzzling is the measure that abolishes annulments on grounds of non-consummation for same-sex couples. Both of these amendments are tied to the same issue: re-defining the traditional, hetero-normative definition of sex.

These terms were created after Government legal experts supposedly failed to agree upon what constitutes “sex” for same-sex couples. It’s actually quite comical to imagine—a bunch of old, white men sitting around a table prudishly debating anal sex, strap-ons, and penetration in posh British accents. But their lack of consensus on the subject have created these awkward measures that assume that “equality” means treating gay marriages exactly like straight ones, despite obvious differences, in order to uphold the traditional definition of the word. 

Their debate brings up interesting questions: What is sex, and what does it mean, both personally and in the eyes of the law? We all know the traditional definition, but should our laws really be contingent on upholding such a narrow meaning?

These questions remind me of a recent Dan Savage column, in which he hilariously reminds us that sex can’t be solely defined by vaginal intercourse. When a woman writes in and claims she is a virgin because she never had vaginal intercourse (though she's had plenty of oral and anal sex), Savage writes:

 “If technically you’re still a virgin, then technically my husband is still a virgin, too. Yeah… no. My husband isn’t a virgin, technically or otherwise, and neither are you.” 

Marriage, sexuality, and relationships have evolved drastically since the days when “virginity” held such cultural value that family members would check the bed sheets on a couples’ wedding night for proof of consummation. Back in those days, the publicly accepted attitude on sex was that it existed more for function than for fun, and its significance in marriage was as black-and-white as a signature on a legal document. Since then, our public and private attitudes on sex have largely evolved, but the laws haven’t. It’s weird to think that our sexual experiences could ever be classified with legal definitions, stipulations, and conditions, but they are. And they don’t make sense.

Even for straight people, legal definitions fail to capture any sort of straightforward, quantifiable meaning for the experience. Some of the most significant sexual experiences can occur outside the traditional definition of sex, and some of the most meaningless ones can fit within it.  So why should so much weight be put on a specific act that can be so arbitrary? And as for adultery, is it really possible to legally define unfaithfulness, either for gay or straight people? My law student friends tell me that allowing blurry lines within the law is a horrible idea… but I think drawing lines where they don’t exist is an even worse one.    

Modern relationships have clearly outgrown binding, narrow definitions of sex, which begs the question of whether modern marriage laws can ditch these kind of now-meaningless and outdated traditions that are so engrained in its institution. Why should the laws normalize sex for some, discredit it for others, and legislate it as if it were a measurable commodity?

At the end of the day, legalizing same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom would be a huge win for equality. But with gay marriage comes gay sex, which is no more or less valuable than traditional sex.

What would be even more amazing is if the UK were willing to challenge the problematic legal and traditional standards about sex and marriage that reflect an institution that has fallen out of touch with those who enter into it. Allowing same-sex marriage won’t dramatically “re-define marriage,” as many opponents claim. But maybe a little re-defining wouldn’t be such a bad idea.