Ratum et Consummatum: Refiguring Non-Penetrative Sexual Activity Theologically, in Light of Intersex Conditions

I have an article in the new issue of Theology and Sexuality, 16.1. This essay, entitled Ratum et Consummatum: Refiguring Non-Penetrative Sexual Activity Theologically, in Light of Intersex Conditions”, is a version of a paper I gave to the Divinity Research Seminar at the University of Glasgow in November 2009, and I’m grateful to everyone who contributed questions and comments on that occasion, as well as to Julie Clague and Vicky Gunn for making it possible for me to travel to Glasgow in the first place.

This article is an offshoot from my book on intersex, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology, which was published last month. In the new paper, I draw on theologies surrounding intersex to begin a consideration of their implication for broader theological understandings of virginity and consummation (an area I’d like to explore in a lot more detail in the future).

In the paper, I argue that the existence of people whose genital anatomies don’t allow them to engage in what’s often called “traditional” or “normal” sexual activity (that is, penetration of a vagina by a penis, probably followed by male ejaculation) necessitates a re-thinking of this whole area, since it puts paid to the notion that only this kind of sex is cosmically-significant “real” or “full” sex. This is important in two respects: first, because it helps to break down the notion that penetrative heterosexual sex is more authentic or legitimate than other kinds of sex, including homosexual sex; and second, because intersex has been grossly neglected in theological thought, and this undermines the full personhood and goodness of bodies with atypical genital anatomies (or unusual genital-chromosomal configurations) and the relational sexual activity in which they might engage.

In the paper, I argue that Roman Catholic Canon Law in particular repeats unhelpful associations between penetrative heterosexual intercourse, and fullness of relationship via consummation. In Canon Law, in order for a relationship to have been consummated, at least one-third of the length of the male partner’s erect penis must have penetrated the female partner’s vagina, and male ejaculation of semen must have taken place inside the vagina. (An event of penetration by between one-third and one-half of the length of the penis is known as copula dimidiata, and is deemed to constitute only an imperfect instance of consummation.) Logically, however, this means that an identical act performed between two different couples might be valid in one case and not the other because of variations in the male partner’s penile length. Oddly enough, if semen is ejaculated just outside the entrance to the vagina (an event known in Canon Law as copula appositiva) and a child is conceived and born as a result, this is not enough to constitute having consummated the relationship. I show that this kind of thought makes little to no sense in light of intersex, but also that theologians have not been alone in privileging only certain kinds of genital anatomy and certain kinds of sexual activity. The obsession with exact lengths, depths and measurements is eerily echoed in the scale cited by Sharon Preves and other scholars of intersex, whereby a clitoris must be smaller than 0.9cm and a penis larger than 2.4cm to be considered acceptably-sized at birth. Importantly, some women with intersex may have very short vaginas which do not allow penetration by as much as even one-third of the shaft of an erect penis – but, I suggest, this does not mean that the sexual relationships in which they might engage are any less legitimate, unitive or cosmically-significant than more theologically-sanctioned forms.

Indeed, I argue:
What this presents is surely an opportunity for fulfilment in relationship to be understood more broadly. As [Michael G.] Lawler notes, consummation might be understood as coming about only gradually, as a couple’s love deepens and becomes more perfect, and that sex will occur within this perfecting. Although, as he notes, it is far harder to know the exact time at which this has taken place than to know when penetrative sex has first taken place (Lawler 2002: 82), it seems to me that this broader understanding is far more helpful as a means of gauging the goodness of sexual relationships. In this account, love expressed in sexual intimacy might not be limited solely to marriage relationships, and nor will penetrative vaginal sex with male ejaculation inside the vagina be considered a radical disjunction from what has gone before. Some people may still want to argue that marriage enhances this love-bond, but it cannot be said to constitute it.
Heteronormative theologies which sanction only heterosexual eroticism, then, exclude not just homosexual eroticism but also eroticism which is other, which falls outside signification. Anti-hegemonic theologies must seriously question this, and must query the right of those in positions of privilege to delimit what kinds of sexual expression (in practice, normally those which coincide with married procreation) are acceptable and worth celebrating. [Adrian] Thatcher and others have convincingly shown that “consummation” of a relationship might be said to occur gradually as couples “grow towards one another” (Thatcher 2002: 235), rather than at a first act of penetration … However, as we have established, the very language of consummation may be deemed problematic. It is essential that heteronormative theologies face up to the part they have had in reinforcing a culture where only certain kinds of genitalia and only certain kinds of sexual acts are considered legitimate or “real.” Otherwise the experience of intersexed people will continue to be diminished and devalued, and theology will fail adequately to query and oppose the unnecessary genital cosmetic surgery which still takes place …
For sex to be covenantal does not necessarily mean that it can only take place in a marriage, that it can only take place between people of different sexes, that it must involve penetration of a vagina by a penis followed by male ejaculation, or even that it must only take place with one partner. The fact that both the Catholic and Anglican Churches have recognized a distinction between consummation and procreation is positive, but this must be taken further. A once-and-for-all association between penetration, ejaculation and consummation is a too legalistic and too masculinist basis for understanding sex. An over-emphasis on penetrative vaginal sex as real, binding and sacramental devalues the sexual intimacy and experience of those who cannot or will not have sex in this way. Acknowledgement of this fact is crucial particularly in light of intersex … Such a shift in focus will … necessitate Church authorities being willing to give up some of the power they have lately clung on to, their power to delineate which bodies and bodily activities are and are not legitimate, and which kinds of bodies/activities should or should not be endorsed in Church teaching. This includes the power to decree which forms of sexual activity do or do not have particular kinds of cosmic significance, and which do or do not demarcate the moment at which a given stage of relationship has been reached. I have said elsewhere, after Iain Morland, that kenosis requires non-intersexed people to cede their binary identities and concomitant privilege, rather than “saving” those considered marginal in their sexed or gendered identi- ties by assimilating them into expected, “decent” categories (Cornwall 2008: 189). I now suggest that Church authorities must similarly empty themselves of the power to exclude particular bodies and acts from cosmic-sexual signification, in order to come to a mutually fragile but more honest place of God-seeking.