Who's Having Wedding Night Sex and Why
Weddings elicit endless expectations and unsolicited advice. No topic is off-limits, including sex and wow—people really care about wedding-night sex.
My husband and I got married in 2009. I was 29, he was 38, and we had lived together for three years. I felt we were taking a modern approach to planning our wedding, but we did observe some traditions. We got married in a church. We followed the fashion rules. And, during the year leading up to our wedding, I ended up in numerous dated, intrusive conversations with other women about whether or not my husband and I would be having sex on our wedding night.
People gave various versions of the same advice:
“No matter what, no matter how tired you are, do it.”
“Not doing it is a bad way to start a marriage.”
“It’s so romantic, and it’s bad luck not to!”
“You’re starting your life together! You have to do it!”
Well, I will share with you all that our wedding day started at 5 a.m. and ended around 1 a.m. the next day after my new husband headed down the street to the all-night deli to buy five copies of the New York Times (which featured our wedding announcement) and a turkey sandwich for me. That was our way of ending a beautiful day. For years, I wondered if our wedding night story was typical, or if we had somehow cursed our marriage by choosing rest, laughs and Boar’s Head meats over sex.
Old social standards
It makes sense that a large part of the wedding night sex discussion revolves around standards and traditions that have since changed or disappeared. These standards are often imparted to us through family, friends, organized religion and media. While some of those sources evolve and expand, others don’t.
A large portion of my career was spent in social work, mostly with the aging population. At one point, I facilitated a women’s group. We often touched on the topic of sex. I recall one of the members sharing her memories of her wedding night. She has since passed away but was about 75 at the time of our discussion when she described her attempt to ask her mother what to expect. Her mother’s advice: "Just close your eyes. It’ll be over fast."
I had a hard time reacting to the story without judgment, as my heart broke for the young, scared woman she had been. I’ve never been in a position (as an adult) where I didn’t understand what was being done to my body. I, unfortunately, can’t say things haven’t been done to me that I ultimately didn’t want, but at least I knew what was happening.
It was the first time I considered my sexual education to be a form of privilege. In addition to formal sex ed at school (which often came with an unwanted side of a teacher’s values), my mother was a nurse, and I had an older sister, along with a lot of inquisitive friends. I can’t say everybody’s information was solid: Apparently, you can't get pregnant from touching a tampon, but thanks for that misinformation in 1991, Hannah from down the street. But still, I knew what sex was.
Of course, there is more to understanding sex than the how and the where. The "when" is an essential facet of consent. As a sexual assault survivor, it has always been essential for me that a partner be very clear that no situational expectations, even a wedding night, affect my boundaries and decisions.
We bring more than our bodies to a marriage. We also carry lessons and values learned through observation of other relationships.
So, what we knew from childhood and before our relationships will inform what we do on that auspicious night. Makes sense. But what else goes into whether or not we consummate?
Jay, 41, hit on a key source of ideas about sexual expectations.
“Everything I have ever been taught about sex on a person’s wedding night came from popular culture,” he said. “There was never a formal talk with a mentor or a parent about what to expect. The only thing I ever saw in the media was a man and a woman having an epic moment of romance. In my mind, I think I saw it as something unique and magical but also unrealistic. I never expected my own personal experience to ever be quite as fairytale-like.”
D. John, 41, who married his husband in 2014, disagrees with the whole thing on principle.
“The concept [of wedding-night sex] is silly and a bedding ritual only favored by the man,” he said. “Deflowering your bride always seemed very distasteful to me and archaic. The only group of people who really mentioned or held any major views on this topic were from the church members of our family parish and the youth group I attended when I was young. Those ideas were more about the sanctity of marriage and virginity being sacred, and only able to be broken if married and on your wedding night. I never cared for that.”
Sex before marriage is not even remotely taboo anymore, and we’ve made enough progress that the phrase "marriage" is no longer automatically equated with a man and a woman. But has a more progressive approach to relationships changed the pressure surrounding the idea of sex on the wedding night as essential?
Greg, 41, spoke about his 2013 wedding night with his husband, Pedro, 42.
“No one actually put any pressure on us. But likely, since it’s a gay relationship, the expectations are already different. By definition, we don’t need to live up to 1950s traditions.”
D. John made similar points about the LGBTQIA+ experience.
"We ate, drank, danced, drank, laughed a lot and both went to bed and fell asleep holding one another. No sex. Just us,” he said. “The concept of wedding night sex was never even a thought, as we had been together for more than a decade before the ceremony. Sex was already there, so there was no hype or anxiety to perform differently that evening. For us, it was more about the vows and finally being legally married as a same-sex couple."
Greg spoke further on the concept of the power of outside influences versus the actual reality of relationships.
"I did mention it to Pedro after the fact," he said. "He didn’t care even a little, given that it was all about the party, which we loved. He was like, 'Um, it’s not like we haven’t done it 1,000 times already. Who cares?' But it’s also better that it's not part of the expected ritual. It’s one of the most tiring days ever—even if for a good reason. I remember talking about it with others after the fact, and everyone said the same as me: No sex that night since it was [already] a fun, exhausting night. It was the last thing on my mind. And the memories of the day have literally nothing to do with sex or lack thereof.”
Jay’s wife AP, however, feels sex was an essential and beautiful aspect of her wedding night.
“I felt so much joy being united with him as husband and wife," she said. "For the first time, I understood the connection and intimacy I had been taught. It was a plus my husband knew my body well. I felt my body be honored, worshipped and loved all at once. He was tender and thoughtful. Might I add that it’s a plus I still get to feel this way 12 years into our marriage!"
For some people, a turkey sandwich is the new rose petals on the marriage bed. For others, simply having the right to marry the person they love is enough. Jay’s parting thoughts beautifully summarize his hopes for all couples: "I encourage others to not allow the ideas of society to pollute the vision of what their wedding night can be. Hopefully, your wedding night will not only be everything you want it to be but everything you need it to be, without any stereotypical expectations. This is the beginning of your journey as a couple. Craft this moment into a beautiful experience unique to yourselves."