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The Sexual Violence in the History of Weddings

One thing to know up front: I got engaged at the end of this past summer.  Therefore my life is currently dominated with conversations and thoughts about guest lists, decorations, wardrobe, budget, and so many other things that I can’t possibly list them out.  As anyone close to me can tell you, I didn’t believe in marriage for the longest time.  Some reasons include:  I didn’t (and still don’t) think that the validity of someone’s relationship should be determined by their marital status.  I don’t like living in a country where many of my friends, among countless others, can’t get married in many states and aren’t federally recognized even if they do happen to live in a state that recognizes same-sex relationships.  I don’t like what the wedding industry has become and how much prices are increased if you simply mention the word ‘wedding’.  I don’t like how the history of marriages and weddings are steeped in patriarchy and heteronormativism.  Truly this list can go on for pages, but I’ll stop here.

I can’t explain exactly when nor how the mindshift happened.  However, when I decided with my current partner to get married, I knew that I would have to examine the social, cultural, and gender constructs that went into everything.  Therefore on top of discussions about the color of dresses for the bridal party, we are also discussing alternative options for my friends who aren’t comfortable wearing dresses.  I’m not changing my name.  I hold my mother’s name and extremely proud of that because she has been a role model for my entire life.  When hiring people (such as the DJ or photographer) we are finding either women-owned or outwardly LGBT-friendly businesses.

As demonstrated, I am trying to make every decision conscientiously.  In order to do this for larger things than dresses and names it is critical to learn the history and reasoning behind many of the wedding traditions.  Luckily, I have an awesome partner who is willing to change any and all aspects of the wedding to match both our beliefs.

I expected to find many things about my wedding ceremony and reception to change based on a patriarchal history.  However, I did not expect to change things because of how they were based in a history of sexual violence.  I knew that historically it was legal to rape your wife because of how the marriage and vows were seen as a ‘consent-for-life’ type of deal and also because of the views of women as property.  While it is currently illegal in all 50 states to rape your partner, there were some states where it was legal up until 1993.  That’s within my lifetime and the lifetime of the majority of people that I know.  In many countries it is still legal to rape your wife and in others it is difficult to prosecute even if it is illegal because of cultural views.  Perhaps if I lived in one of these environments I would not have changed my mind about getting married; although I doubt I would have had much of a say either.

I did not know about how other traditions were related to sexual violence in one form or another until I started my wedding research.  One of the traditions that I explored was the garter/bouquet toss.  What sparked my research was how the tradition is both gendered and heteronormative: women jump for the bouquet and men jump for the garter.  Seriously?  The history behind the garter toss is even creepier than watching it at someone’s wedding.  In medieval times, it was critical for women to be virgins until marriage but it was also important for the newlyweds to prove that they consummated the marriage.  One form this took was for the bridesmaids or family members of the bride to sneak into the room (or stay and watch) and steal an undergarment of the bride, typically the garter.  This was then shown to other friends and family as proof.  The lack of consent and power present in this scenario is present on variety of different levels: the sex in general, having people in the room, stealing of undergarments.

Eventually people (read: males) decided that it was completely inappropriate for others to barge in during sex.  The husband started throwing the garter out of the room in order to avoid this interruption.  Since it was lucky to have a piece of the bride’s ensemble, (which btw is why so many older dresses are in poor condition), people would collect outside the room and fight over the garter.  After more time passed, the husband started to remove the garter (privately) during the reception and throw it during the party.  The competition for the garter at today’s weddings grew out of this history.  People have been known to try to steal the garter off the bride’s leg during the wedding and reception.  There have even been some accounts of the bride being tipped upside down to get the garter off faster.  In the entire history of removal and possession of the garter, considerations of the physical safety, power, and sexual decisions of the woman involved has been nonexistent and deliberately ignored.

Needless to say that there will not be a garter toss at my wedding.

Another tradition whose meaning has been lost or overlooked is why the groom stands to the right and the bride to the left.   In historical times, the majority of fighting men were right handed and standing on the right side of the aisle put them at the optimal position to attack anyone who came to steal the bride.  Historically, it was customary for the brides to have their dowry (jewels, coins, etc) sewn into their dresses.  Therefore it was not uncommon for brides to be kidnapped on the way to or during the wedding.  The kidnappers would then force the bride into marriage and rape her as a way to validate the kidnapping and theft.  After this happened, there was very little the bride could do to leave as the marriage had been ‘consummated’. 

Fortunately, there is little danger of women being kidnapped en route to their wedding in this country and many others.  However, it is important for me to know and recognize the lack of power that women had in previous times over their own safety, bodies, and lives. 
Since I plan to enter this social construct of marriage, I plan to learn as much as possible about the traditions, history, and meaning behind the actions that I am doing.  I respect that the decisions and choices I make may be very different from others.  I only hope that others put thought into why they are doing specific actions or traditions and make conscientious decisions rather than blindly following status quo.



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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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